Blazin' Saddles

Cycling review of the year 2013: Part Two

Blazin' Saddles


As 2013 draws to a close, our cycling blogger takes a look back at all the main stories from the past six months. In part two of his year review, Blazin' Saddles looks at July through to December.

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July: The month started with Belgian Jan Bakelants in yellow before passing the reins over to South African Daryl Impey, who became the first African rider in history to lead the Tour de France. Within a week the fabled maillot jaune was covering the spindly shoulders of the African we all expected to take Impey's accolade, Kenya's Chris Froome, who secured the overall victory with a series of swashbuckling in-the-saddle surges that were so convincing he even had to feign a bonk on Alpe d'Huez to keep the critics at bay.

Mark Cavendish's return of just two solitary stages would have been described by the man himself as p*** poor, which is apt, for the Manxman himself was doused in urine during the time trial to Mont Saint Michel, 24 hours after clashing with Dutchman Tom Veelers in a heated conclusion to stage 10. German powerhouse Marcel Kittel proved the outstanding fastman of the race, winning four stages including the usual Cav love-in on the Champs Elysees.

Despite his best efforts to win every minor category climb in a bid to stay decked out, head to toe, in polka dots, Frenchman Pierre Rolland failed to ride into Paris as king of the mountains after Colombia's Nairo Quintana took double points on the penultimate day's summit finish at Mont Semnoz.

French blushes were saved by Christophe Riblon, who did a Rolland and won on Alpe d'Huez to give the host nation something, finally, to shout about (previous highlights for France included Jonathan Hivert's last place - by around 20 minutes - on Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day).

The unluckiest rider of the 2013 Tour was a toss-up between Ted King and Lieuwe Westra - the former being kicked off his maiden Tour despite riding the whole of the team time trial alone, the latter calling it a day with illness just 39km from the finish in Paris.

In news as surprising as a Wiggo four-lettered-word tirade, Turkey's Mustafa Sayar retired from the sport at the age of 24 after it emerged that he tested positive for EPO earlier in the season, before his emphatic Presidential Tour of Turkey win.

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August: Speaking to an audience in Australia as he continued his Secret Race world book signing tour, doping whistleblower extraordinaire Tyler Hamilton claimed that cycling "needs more people like Stuart O'Grady to come forward" if the sport wants to emerge from its murky past.

Hamilton's words come after the Australian veteran hastily retired from the sport just days after the conclusion of his record-equalling 17th Tour de France, following the release of a French Senate report naming O'Grady as one of numerous positive EPO tests prior to the 1998 race.

The 40-year-old went down the Bill Clinton route and admitted to smoking just the once - but not liking the flavour, of coughing when inhaling, and of never trying it again.

Which means he gave up taking performance-enhancing drugs before he went on to win a stage of the '98 Tour and wear the yellow jersey for three days.

His avowal also meant there was no smoking at all during his time at Bjarne Riis' CSC when red-hot O'Grady, a sprinter by trade, was frequently seen at the front of the peloton setting a fiery pace up fierce climbs for his team leaders; or when he rode to a bullish Paris-Roubaix victory in 2007.

Back in the real world unmarked by drugs, Chris Horner became the oldest rider in history (61 years and 307 days) to win a stage and wear the leader's jersey in a Grand Tour. Although Vuelta favourite Vincenzo Nibali took back the race lead from Horner after one day, it was Irishman Nico Roche - liberated at Saxo and finally a Grand Tour stage winner - who wore the red jersey leaving August.

But the performance of the first week of the race came from Tony Martin, who recorded the most memorable seventh-place anyone had ever seen after what was effectively a four-hour time trial that pitted him against the rest of the field. Martin's 175km solo break came to an end just 20 metres from the line - but because Das Panzerwagen was not in his fifth decade on this planet, no eyebrows were raised at one man singlehandedly holding off a peloton of riders for a whole afternoon.

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September: Out-of-contract American Chris Horner defied logistics - and his critics - to win the Vuelta in Madrid after a series of out-of-the-saddle attacks in the mountains, which were enough to see away the challenge of Nibali, a man in the prime of his career and some 15 years Horner's junior. "Horner has another gear that all of us," admitted Nibali, with a similar smile to the one that animated the face of his rival during most of his surging attacks.

The world championships in Florence were a complete wash-out - and that extended to the post-race performances on the podium, in which runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez almost drowned the new rainbow jersey Rui Costa in tears after somehow hashing things up alongside his Spanish team-mate Alejandro Valverde.

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October: Purito made amends for missing out on the world title by taking a successive Giro di Lombardia title in similarly sodden conditions. A week after being outmanoeuvred by Portugal's Costa, Rodriguez had no doubt had time to reflect on the tricky realities facing a rider for a Russian team wearing a rainbow jersey, and so probably saw the benefit of being beaten on the bike rather than being beaten physically, persecuted and ostracised.

Debonair Englishman Brian Cookson won an even bigger one-way battle than the 2013 Tour by ousting the much maligned Pat McQuaid from his Swiss manor at Aigle. The new UCI president didn't know it at the time, but he'd soon have a sticky situation to deal with when Mick Rogers picked up the Japan Cup after a week's racing in Beijing.

The 2014 Tour de France route was revealed and it's bad news for Chris Froome, who will have to negotiate a tricky stage of cobbles in northern France en route to defending his yellow jersey. "It's okay - by next year, Bradley will be Sky's man for the cobbles so he can lead me through the dangers," Froome didn't say.

Canada's David Veilleux announced his retirement at the age of 25, the Europcar rider preferring to resume his studies in engineering rather than continue in the pro ranks. German veteran Andreas Kloden followed suit, bidding adieu to the sport amid reported plans of returning to the University of Freiberg to complete a sports medicine degree that he started via the Open University scheme back in 2006.

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November: The winter months started with Ryder Hesjedal being praised for his honesty and integrity. Shame that this honesty and integrity involved a previous dalliance with EPO that he kept quiet for the best part of a decade.

After extracts of Michael Rasmussen's tell-all autobiography were published in the Danish press, Hesjedal was forced to act. Within hours of Rasmussen telling the world how he had taught Hesjedal to take EPO back in 2003 when the Canadian was a promising mountain biker, the Garmin rider released a statement that went down the O'Grady path of measured confession, admitting that the "mistakes" for which he "will always be sorry" were "short-lived".

Hesjedal's confession asked for the cycling community to believe that his victory in the Giro almost a decade after putting his "mistakes" behind him was evidence that modern-day riders can quit doping in order to win a Grand Tour clean. (Horner harrumphed at this, claiming that his win in the Vuelta was evidence that riders who had never even doped in the first place could beat everyone else despite being double their age.)

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December: As Lance Armstrong continued making amends with everyone who wasn't Betsy Andreu, Danilo Di Luca came forward and, like the Texan, played the victim card, claiming he, after the third doping bust of his illustrious career, had been made an example of and that his punishment - a life ban from cycling - was too severe.

David Walsh's new book on Team Sky lifted the lid on the on-going dispute between the previous two Tour de France winners, with a claim that Bradley Wiggins had yet to pay Chris Froome a slice of his winnings following his 2012 triumph. No sooner than this bust-up was revealed, it appeared that the two riders had made up, with Froome coming out to say all debts had been paid and that he would be happy to ride alongside Bradley during the defence of his Tour title in 2014 - especially on those cobbles.

With fellow 42-year-old American Chris Horner still looking for a place to ply his trade, Tyler Hamilton tweeted the word 'Karma' just moments after it was revealed that his former rival Michael Rogers had tested positive for clenbuterol after his victory in the Japan Cup in October. Karma indeed, from a rider who has dodged more bullets in his career than Neo from The Matrix.

As Walsh would say in his column for The Sunday Times: eating meat in China is about as professionally stupid as going to Doctor Michele Ferrari for training advice. Claiming he had done both of the above, Rogers looked incredibly stupid at best.

Adding more mirth to an otherwise sad tale, Rogers' positive test came less than a fortnight after his team owner, the Russian tycoon Oleg Tinkov, claimed that there had been "zero doping cases" on any of his cycling teams in the past five years.

With Tinkov's frenzied assurance that "never, ever have my riders been involved in doping, as an owner or a sponsor" still fresh in the mind, birthday boy Rogers (not that he had much to celebrate) was forced into making a statement that he had "never knowingly or deliberately ingested clenbuterol". The Australian former Team Sky rider then thanked fans for showing compassion about "this unfortunate situation … that I have been placed in".

So ended 2013 just as it had begun - with an unfortunate doping situation that us fans had been placed in. Here's to an eventful 2014...

Next week, Blazin' Saddles rolls out his predictions for the forthcoming season. Until then - stay safe, and stay away from Chinese beef.

Felix Lowe (Twitter @saddleblaze)

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