2013: Tornados and missiles

Lovers of cycling won’t forget 2012 in a hurry – the year USADA threw a hand grenade into the heart of our sport. But despite the deceit and the cheats, we can still look forward to 2013.

fireworksThe final months of last year weren’t much to write home about. As a few-dozen tired, forgotten cyclists pounded the roads of Beijing, the UCI’s final accredited race of the season, USADA pounded the keyboards in order to deliver the biggest bombshell cycling has ever seen on 10 October.

Little else would be spoken about for weeks. Even the most ardent of cycling fans might have missed that Omega Pharma Quick-Step’s Tony Martin won the Tour of Beijing just two days later or that Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen finished third.

Cycling was no longer about winning or losing, about acts of heroism, lung-busting sprints or road rash; it was about lies, cynicism, suspicion, confusion and finger pointing. It was about mistrust and paranoia. And there was no racing to take our mind off it; no Olympics, blasting into our lives like a breath of fresh, pure air. Just story after story about cycling’s dark past.

During times like this, it’s natural to look for sanctuary, to seek leadership from those in power and assurance that all will be well. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that from the UCI’s Pat McQuaid, who immediately lashed out; calling whistleblowers Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis “scumbags” like some sort of deranged, trapped animal.

Instead, we were forced to look elsewhere and, for some at least, Sir Dave Brailsford, Sky’s general manager, would provide the direction and the leadership that was needed. Unruffled, confident in his riders and ruthless in his zero-tolerance approach. Others would be firmly in the Travis Tygart camp, the chief of USADA and a man so committed to getting to the truth that he was allegedly on the wrong end of death threats and intimidation during the long, drawn out process.

But it’s with Sky that we begin our journey into 2013.

The Viking

edvald-by-Roxanne-KingIn two weeks, the UCI’s first point-scoring event of the season, the Tour Down Under, gets underway with the People’s Choice Classic closed-circuit road race before the real business gets underway a couple of days later. Not only is it the first opportunity for our sport to move on and put it’s sordid past behind it, but it also offers an opportunity for one of cycling’s favourite sons to shine.

Edvald Boasson Hagen (left, on his way to a top-20 finish in last year’s Tour of Flanders) is one of those riders who shies the limelight. But with nine wins under his belt he finished 2012 ranked 11th in the UCI World Tour.

While nine wins and 11th in the world is not to be sniffed at, many believe that Boasson Hagen is still under achieving, that he possesses the raw power and pain-suffering capability to become a multiple classics winner or, even, Grand Tour contender. And at 25, time is certainly on his side.

This year’s TDU, however, is an opportunity for Boasson Hagen to take the first step on the rest of his career. He is Sky’s leader for the six-stage race, and will have a strong team working for him which includes the powerhouse Bernie Eisel and Britain’s Olympic gold medalist Geraint Thomas. At the very least, an improvement on last year’s seventh will be expected, with a potential podium or overall win within reach if he can cope with the speed of Lotto Belisol’s Andre Greipel.

2013 might just be EBH’s year and we’d love to see him pick up another Classics win to add to his 2009 victory at Gent-Wevelgem.

A noble centenary and a Tornado

Boonen by by kei-aiIt’s fitting that the picture of Boasson-Hagen is of the Tour of Flanders, because 2013 marks its 100th anniversary. Despite only 96 races having been held due to a four-year gap during the First World War, 1913 saw Paul Deman, a Belgian carpet maker, cycle into history as the race’s first ever winner. To gain victory, Deman beat a field of 36 other riders over a 330km course finishing in Ghent.

But during the First World War Deman put his cycling prowess to an even more impressive use, joining the Belgian espionage service to smuggle coded messages by bike into neighbouring Holland, a neutral territory. He was reportedly captured by the Germans on his 15th mission and would have been shot if the Armistice hadn’t been declared on the day his execution was due. Instead, he was spared and went on to win Paris-Roubaix in 1920.

In 2013, however, an altogether different Belgian hero will be riding Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Tom Boonen (above), a rider who Boasson-Hagen can only hope to one day emulate, will be aiming for his fourth Flanders and fifth Paris-Roubaix victories. Either would put him in the record books as the rider with the most wins. Last year he won both.

If it wasn’t for Sir Bradley, Boonen could well have had a claim for rider of the year in 2012; and in 2013, assuming he maintains fitness, we could be in for more success. Granted, his Classics rival Fabian Cancellara will be back (last year he fell in Flanders – a crash which ruled him out of the rest of the Classics season). But on a good day, there’s few who can handle Boonen – especially on the cobbles of Northern Europe.

2013 might be the year that Tornado Tom Boonen becomes the most successful rider ever in one of his precious Northern Classics. We wish him luck.

From Tornados to Missiles

Cav-by-EEPaulLast season at Sky was all about Sir Bradley, a justifiable choice given what happened. But there’s no more evocative a scene than watching Mark Cavendish carrying musettes and water bottles between support cars and his team – using precious calories to support his teammates during the 2012 Tour de France.

Of course, he still walked away with three stage wins, but he conceded the green jersey to the new upstart of the Pro Peleton Peter Sagan, and, anyway, three stage wins is well below the expectations of Cavendish who believes he can win every sprint stage going, or at least the majority of them.

Last year saw him win just a third of the contestable sprint stages and, perhaps more importantly, his team’s priority was unashamedly yellow. By leaving for Omega Pharma – Quick-Step (OPQS), Cavendish will be hoping to win back what he feels rightfully belongs to him: the Tour de France green jersey.

It will be interesting to watch. Sagan has the sheer power and speed to make life incredibly difficult for Cavendish, even if Cavendish is the quickest man in the world. Sagan can take stage victories that Cavendish can’t – where the road kicks up in the final kilometres, for example, and he can also take points on intermediate sprints during the hillier stages.

But seeing Cavendish in the same team as Tom Boonen and leadout man Gert Steegmans will be fascinating to watch. Boonen is a huge star with an ego to match; Cavendish is a huge star with an ego to match. And while Boonen’s priorities have switched firmly from the Grand Tours to the Spring Classics, leaving Cavendish to concentrate on his green jersey aspirations, we can’t wait to watch the story to unfold.

2013 might be the year that Cavendish rises from fourth to third in the overall list of Tour de France stage winners – two wins will put him in joint third, three on his own. And if he equals his 2010 and 2011 hauls of five stage wins, he’ll join the legend Bernard Hinault on 28. Neither will be bet against him picking up his fifth win in Paris. But green jersey? No.

From riders to leaders

Zdenek-Bakala2Cavendish’s decision to leave the riches and professionalism of Sky would not have been taken lightly. But in joining OPQS, he has left the untold riches of Rupert Murdoch for the untold riches of Zdenek Bakala (left).

Bakala is a Czech-born businessman who left for the US at a young age to make his fortune, successfully filling his bank account with a few billion dollars along the way.

While this is all very good news for Cavendish, as Bakala seems committed to investing in the team, it could also be good news for cycling, because he also wants to revolutionise professional cycling by getting behind a new league-style approach to cycling, in a similar vein to football’s Champion’s League.

In short, the changes will see the racing calendar built around 10 four-stage races a year – each one including a mountain stage, a sprint stage, a time trial and a rolling stage, the three Grand Tours and the major one-day Classics. All of this will become known as the World Series of Cycling. Velonews has a good roundup on the situation from December, and the wind certainly seems to be favouring the Bakala camp.

However, anyone that follows football will be aware of the dangers of allowing commercialism and logic to be promoted above passion and tradition. While the new format might well be good news for the financial stability of smaller teams and less-famous riders, it could also lead to the death of some famous old races. Just as importantly, it could threaten the intangible allure of cycling – 10 races, each providing the same number of stages, with the same style of stages could quickly become sterile. Check out Inrng’s article for an interesting take on the developments.

2013 certainly see a switch to this radical new format, but with consultation taking place in the first quarter, there will be plenty of debate.

Another centenary

tdfWe’ll leave this brief journey into 2013 with the biggest race of all: the Tour de France. This year will see the 100th edition of the race, and a fierce battle for yellow between Alberto Contador and whoever Sky decides to back.

The route seems to favour pure climbers and, therefore, Chris Froome. But who would deny Sir Bradley the opportunity to defend his jersey? There’ll be plenty of gossip between now and then over who will start as team leader.

But there will also be fascinating battles elsewhere – most notably the green jersey battle between Cavendish, Sagan and Greipel – and the starting stages in Corsica will provide extra glamour.

Professional cycling has been through the wars over the last year – but the races of 2013 will provide the much needed roads to recovery.

David Rae

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