Back in 1981, a little-known rider from a non-traditional cycling nation raced through stormy weather in a breakaway on the third stage of Paris-Nice to take the race leader’s white jersey. His name was Stephen Roche, who went on to win that edition of the Race to the Sun, and six years later won the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and world road championship all within the space of four months.
This week, another little-known bike rider from a non-traditional cycling nation raced through stormy weather in a breakaway on the third stage of Paris-Nice to take the race leader’s jersey—that’s now yellow, not white. His name is Andrew Talansky, and he too has ambitions to win Grand Tours and, perhaps one day, a rainbow jersey.
There are similarities between the young Irishman who led the early wave of English-speaking cyclists against the continental establishment three decades ago and the young American who’s part of the most recent generation of ambitious interlopers. Roche was a small, robust athlete, talented at both climbing and time-trialing, who excelled in bad weather conditions. You could describe Talansky in the same way. He’s also 5-foot-9 and around 140 pounds, and acquired his moniker of Pit Bull from his Garmin-Sharp team manger Jonathan Vaughters because of his tenacity.
Roche opened the floodgates to the earlier Anglo invaders with his 1981 Paris-Nice victory, which was followed by his compatriot Sean Kelly taking the next seven editions of that race (along with a slew of one-day classics, starting with the 1983 Tour of Lombardy), American Greg LeMond winning worlds the same year prior to his three Tour de France successes, Australian Phil Anderson winning both classics and stage races, and Canadian Steve Bauer and Brits Robert Millar and Sean Yates all wearing leader’s jerseys in Grand Tours.
That generation was of course followed in the 1990s by a second wave of English-speaking talent whose subsequent buy-in to the European doping culture has left the sport flailing, and thirsting for a future filled with racers who don’t need to cheat. Now comes the third wave, led by Talansky and Garmin teammate Peter Stetina, along with their fellow Americans Tejay Van Garderen and Taylor Phinney at BMC Racing, Australians Richie Porte at Team Sky and Matt Goss at Orica-GreenEdge, and Brits Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at Sky.
Talansky in particular has been highly critical of those who doped to get ahead, and his presence in the Paris-Nice yellow jersey is full of symbolism, especially as Porte and Van Garderen are likely to be among those in the podium picture when the race climaxes with the uphill time trial to the Col d’Èze on Sunday. Two years ago, as Talansky set out on his first season in the world’s elite peloton, he wrote a significant blog that encapsulates this young man’s attitude toward pro cycling and to racing clean.
“We compete in one of the most pure sports in the world,” Talansky said. “While football players can take a cortisone injection at half time and be welcomed back onto the field as a hero pushing through their pain, we would be called cheaters. We go to all lengths in order to prove that what we do on a bike is not impossible, not some chemically enhanced feat, but instead the result of a life spent in pursuit of perfection, paying attention to every detail, training ourselves to exhaustion, pushing our limits in ways most people cannot begin to imagine.”
He then wrote about his frustration with those who say no one can compete at the highest level of cycling without doping. “I welcome anything that shows that our results are those of hard work and our love and dedication to this sport,” he said. “People say you cannot prove a negative but we do, every single day. With our performances and our openness, we as riders prove that we are clean. I love my sport and I will do anything to share that love with all the real fans out there, to give journalists something real to write about. So here is my challenge to all of you: Believe in me, believe in my team, believe in my competitors, believe in this sport. I do.”
Since writing those words, Talansky has used his belief in this sport by showing steady progress, with no sudden peaks in performance. He won no races in his first year with Garmin, but took a couple of top-fives in important time trials, took fourth in his first mountaintop stage finish, and put a first Grand Tour under his belt with 79th place at the Vuelta a España. Last year, his upward curve included second place (behind Brad Wiggins) at the Tour de Romandie, a first victory at the second-tier Tour de L’Ain, and a highly significant seventh place at a ridiculously mountainous Vuelta.
And this week, at 24, Talansky has stepped up another level. To win his first UCI WorldTour stage victory on Wednesday, he displayed eminent tactical ability by following a two-pronged attack from Team Sky over a typically abrupt climb in the Massif Central of France, used his still-evolving technical skills to master a narrow, rain-soaked descent (that scared stars such as Sylvain Chavanel), and then strongly out-kicked his six breakaway companions for the win.
On Thursday, Talansky coolly defended his yellow jersey when he was the only Garmin rider left in the 37-man front group over the last two climbs but did what his veteran teammates told him to do: “Stay calm!” After almost 800 kilometers of racing over five days, there were still 20 riders within 20 seconds of the American on overall time. Among that group were notables such as Chavanel, Porte and Van Garderen, along with on-form riders Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud, Irishman Nicolas Roche (son of Stephen) and Swede Thomas Lövkvist.
Most of those men challenged Talansky on Friday’s 5,250-foot-high mountaintop finish at La Montagne de Lure, a 14-kilometer climb that averages almost 7 percent and was well suited to his strong solo-riding talents. The last time it was included in the race, four years ago, stage winner Alberto Contador put a whole minute into runners-up Fränk Schleck and Luis León Sanchez.
“I’m never going to be an Alberto Contador, a pure climber, someone who can attack like that,” Talansky told me last year. “I’m using my time-trial strength to climb. And I just think with every year, with every one-week race like Paris-Nice, or every grand tour that I do, that it’ll just bring it up a little bit more.”
Not heeding his own verdict, Talansky made three separate surges on La Montagne de Lure and couldn’t respond to a late attack by the more experienced Porte, who won the stage and took the yellow jersey. With half a minute between them, Porte and Talansky will fight for the overall victory Sunday in Nice, where the race finishes (just as it did in 1981) with an uphill time trial to the Col d’Èze. There, an airy 1,644 feet above the blue Mediterranean, Roche won that final time trial 32 years ago; now it’s the turn of Talansky or Porte, leaders in this third wave of Anglo invaders.
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