The final important races of the 2013 race season take place this Sunday, with some of the world’s best time trialists (men and women) taking part in the Chrono des Nations in Les Herbiers, France, and several of the leading pro men starting the Japan Cup in Utsonomiya, Japan. It’s gratifying to see that both of the recently crowned world time trial champions, Tony Martin and Ellen Van Dijk, are honoring their titles and the race organizers in France; and similar respect also goes to men such as Peter Sagan, Michael Rogers, Richie Porte and Dan Martin, who’ll be lining up on the tough circuit that hosted the UCI world road championships in 1990.
It’s been a long season for all of them, starting in January or February, and to remain competitive nine months later is testament to their love of the sport and dedication to training. Few other sports put so many demands on their athletes and though cycling is not a man-to-man contact sport such as football, rugby or soccer, crashes can happen at any time and wreck a rider’s season or even his career.
Two unlucky victims this past month were Vincenzo Nibali and Rigoberto Uran, whose crashes in the Florence worlds and Il Lombardia deprived both of them of potential victories; and Tom Boonen had the worst season in 12 years as a professional because of a knee injury, sustained at Ghent-Wevelgem in March, which wouldn’t heal and, after several aborted returns to racing, eventually required surgery.
But, fortunately, this hasn’t been a season when contenders for major tours and classics were badly hurt by crashes. Andy Schleck is still recovering (psychologically as much as anything) from the bad fall in last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné that stopped him racing for four months, forcing him to miss both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. And there was no spate of pileups at the Tour de France like those that destroyed the chances of Brad Wiggins in 2011 and Cadel Evans in 2010.
Admittedly, there were plenty of crashes in this season’s weather-compromised Giro d’Italia, effectively ending the race for pre-race favorite Wiggins—but the 2012 Tour champ has admitted that he didn’t truly have his heart in racing the Giro, let alone winning it. In high contrast, the Giro’s eventual podium—Nibali, Uran, Evans—all thrive when having to combat adverse conditions, whether it’s rain, wind, snow or ice (all of which tested them at the Giro).
That Giro was so difficult that Evans failed completely a month later in his challenge to win a second Tour de France—which has enjoyed almost uninterrupted sunshine for the past two years. That good weather certainly helped the winners of those two Tours, Team Sky’s Wiggins and Chris Froome, who both perform better when the sun is out. Perhaps those fans who like gambling on the Grand Tours should consult Old Moore’s Almanac before placing their bets!
This year’s Vuelta also has abundant sunshine—except for one significant day. That, of course, was the Pyrenean stage in Andorra featuring the event’s tallest climb and a severe summit finish. Eventual winner Chris Horner could easily have lost the race that day to Nibali, who was totally motivated after taking the leader’s red jersey in the one individual time trial and always races well in bad weather.
It was snowing on the Port de Envalira, and the icy rain and sleet experienced on its long, long descent and subsequent difficulties saw 14 riders abandon that September day, including two-time Giro winner Ivan Basso. Nibali is seemingly immune to cold weather. But the rail-thin Horner, especially at 41 years of age, could have been expected to crack on that savage stage. Instead, despite a little ribbing from his colleagues, Horner was one of the very few to wear tights from the start of the stage.
No one can say that Horner at the Vuelta, Froome at the Tour or Nibali at the Giro didn’t deserve to win their titles. They were the strongest most consistent riders over the three weeks of each race—and that’s what this sport and its millions of fans deserve to witness every year.
The same can be said for Joaquim Rodriguez, who again topped the UCI WorldTour Rankings (he was also world No. 1 in 2010 and 2012), thanks to his all-around ability that this year saw him place third at the Tour, fourth at the Vuelta, repeat his one-day classics victory at Il Lombardia, and place second at the worlds and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Rodriguez often misses out at the hilly classics because of his lack of a true sprint. That’s why he lost to Rui Costa at the worlds, and why it contributed to his losing to Dan Martin at Liège—he made his attack on the final uphill because (partly) he was afraid of losing to Martin in the sprint. And in the Grand Tours, the Spanish rider’s generally poor time trialing ability (unless it’s a TT filled with climbing) is often the difference between his finishing on the podium but not on the top step.
In that respect there is great similarity between Rodriguez and Ireland’s Martin; and they also have an old-fashioned approach to training and racing. They don’t embrace all the modern gadgetry that sets the tone at a Team Sky; they don’t focus on altitude camps; and they enjoy riding a mix of classics and stage races all season long. Those are also aspects of their performances that are much appreciated by the fans.
So when Dan Martin lines up in Japan this weekend alongside Aussie teammate Nathan Haas (they have both won the Japan Cup before), expect to see the Irishman taking his fifth win of the season. And I can’t see anyone deposing that other Martin, Germany’s Tony, from winning his seventh individual TT of the year.
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