Lee’s Lowdown: The 2014 Look Back!
PEZ’s resident pundit Lee Rodgers picks his 5 stand-out moments from the 2014 pro peloton. Vino, Spartacus, Nibali, the Stelvio and an unexpected World champion all get the nod. The highs, the lows, the ups and the downs, this is the 2014 Lee’s Lowdown Look Back.
As Alexandre Vinokourov didn’t say to a packed out press conference recently but probably should have, ‘#%&@ me, what a year.” It would be churlish to not include the Tour de France win of Vincenzo Nibali from our beloved Astana in the list of highlights of the year, even if the race itself didn’t quite match up.
From the media dedicated to it, to its downtrodden fans, the world of professional road racing is undeniably obsessed with the Tour de France and its participants and their feats will always rank high in the memory of those who witnessed them either live or on television.
Except maybe for this one. Now, don’t get me wrong, I did write back in July that those criticizing this year’s edition as boring were missing the nub of it all, which was that it was great to see a new champion and that this is the kind of Tour you get when people are doping less than they used to.
Yet there is little doubt that it wasn’t memorable in the way that other Tours in recent years have been, for example, er, the one Andy Schleck won? Or the one Cadel Evans won maybe? Wait, what about the one Froome won?
Hang on… aha! The 2012 Tour featuring the Wiggo-Froome ding dong! Come on, it was a little bit interesting.
Truth be told, the Tour hasn’t had a proper close and intriguing edition at the very top of the order for some time now. This year could have been different had Contador and Froome not crashed out, but having said all that, you can’t take it away from Nibali.
His day on the Roubaix cobbles was, from a bike handling point of view if nothing else (and yet it was so much more), a masterclass. The sheer oooomf of the lad that day, the composure and the guts to charge it as he did in such bad weather was a mesmerizing mix.
Stage of the Tour for me. So, a new start, a new era. Well, not quite. Providing evidence of just how messed up our beloved sport is and providing us with the second (negative-positive) highlight of 2014, we have our current Tour de France champion riding for an organization that has had five positives in the last three months. A champion who stands there to tell us that there is not a serious doping problem in the outfit because three of those positives were from the Continental Astana team, whilst the two from the World Tour team were provided by brothers.
A career as a political spin-doctor awaits, Vincenzo.
Now I’m not saying he’s a doper, I hope to the heavens he ain’t, but come on compadre, I’m too full to swallow that. We all are, aren’t we? Let us not forget Vino’s doping history himself, Roman Kreuziger (currently waiting for a CAS judgement on ‘abnormalities’ in his biological passport, discovered whilst he was riding for Astana), and add to that the fact that Vino is charged with buying the win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2010 and you have a weird blue and yellow ship over there that smells like they just caught a huge old load of fish.
The UCI recently handed Astana their World Tour license for 2015, a bit of a shocking move, citing that they really had no rules set in place to allow them to throw them out. Great rule book there guys. How about a clause about ‘bringing the sport into disrepute’?
Might that not fly?
And finally, whilst I’m on it, poor old Europcar. Dropped to the B League for being short of a few thousand euro, despite racing so well at the Tour and having a real crack at the team prize. That’s some messed up messy stuff right there, I can tell ya.
The next highlight for me probably won’t make it on many ‘best of 2014’ lists but it’s on mine because a racer, I was in awe of the effort not just of the man who won the World Championship Road Race but of his entire team’s effort.
That team of course is the Polish national team and that man is Michal Kwiatkowski.
During the race, as a small group of leaders built a lead of almost 15 minutes, the Polish team hit the front. As they did so, the commentator on Eurosport was openly derisive of their perceived lack of firepower, but what they were doing was playing to the game plan.
Aware that the big nations such as Italy and Spain would be watching each other, Kwiatkowski had his men sit on the front riding tempo from way out, allowing him to stay controlled and relaxed near the front.
When his chance came he took it clinically, leaving a nervy peloton with 7km to go, bridging to the weary leaders. With 6km to go the leaders’ gap was down to a mere 4 seconds or so. The chasing pack had them in their sights, waiting to pounce but happy to have them dangling off the front for a while longer to dissuade renegade attacks from any chancers who might try to steal the show from the sprinters.
Yet they made two mistakes. The first was to not factor in that Kwiatkowski had done little until he broke free but sit behind his teammates’ wheels all day, thus saving not only physical but also nervous energy, and also they underestimated his talent.
And that was that. With 5km to go he attacked the leaders and he never looked back. Poland had its first World Champion. A brilliant ride from the 24 year old and his team.
Watch Greipel’s reaction at the line and you can see how sure the sprinters were that this would be their day
Another technical masterclass in how to finish out a race came from Fabian Cancellara at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The arch-soloist found himself with Sep Vanmarcke on his wheel and a gap up to Vandenbergh and Van Avermaet with 14km to go. The Belgian was understandably not keen on doing any work and let Spartacus do the chasing.
Vanmarcke actually attacked Cancellara on the Paterberg but the big Swiss dug in and got back on, then caught Vandenbergh by the summit. Once at the top it was the Trek man who set the pace to bring back Van Avermaet and surely he was doing too much work.
Was this the Spartacus of old? It didn’t look like it, but was he already playing the mind games? With 6km to go he stuck a gel in his mouth but seemed to take very little of it, perhaps trying to look tired out to get an edge on his rivals.
With 2km to go and after having sustained a few attacks, he set off as though about to go himself then sat back down immediately, which looked a real bluff. It had the required effect though, as no one tried after that until the last 800m.
Vandenbergh went, the other two Belgians followed and Fabian sat on, playing the waiting game. With 200m to go it was the Trek rider who took with impeccable timing and with a true sense of his own limitations.
“One of the greatest wins of his career!” screamed the commentator, and he was not wrong. Genius on two wheels.
And my fifth and final highlight of 2014 comes courtesy of the controversy that was StelvioGate, the ‘neutralized descent’ that led to mayhem and a change in the leader as a result of bad weather on the famous Italian Mountain.
With the weather closing in and freezing conditions hitting the riders, the race organizers sent out a call to the team cars that the descent was to be neutralized, meaning that no rider was to ride aggressively, or for an advantage, on the way down.
But, as the man who took the lead that day and ultimately win the Giro, Nairo Quitana, said after the day’s racing, “What exactly is a neutral descent?” Ryder Hesjedal, another in the race who went down with Quintana whilst then-race leader Rigoberto Uran Uran dilly-dallied at the back and missed the boat, said it more bluntly: “If you’re serious about the race and especially if you’re in the pink jersey,” commented the Canadian, “you should have been at the head of affairs. End of story. Everyone rode down the descent and that was it.”
Uran, for his part, wasn’t too fussed. “Whoever was going to win was going to win with or without those climbs,” he said, admirably. “I thought it was going to end up the way it did. Nothing more to say.”
And there you have it.
Great to see another new winner too. Quintana, perhaps more so than Nibali, has the talent to win many more, so long as there aren’t 100km of time trials in the race. Next year’s Tour should be ideal for him and will set up a real battle with Alberto Contador.
Other notable mentions that would make my top ten any day include:
Jack Bauer and Martin Elminger (yes English-speaking press, there were two guys in that break) gutsy but ultimately doomed 200km break at the Tour.
Greg Lemond’s continued rehabilitation as the only American to have won the Tour and congrats to him on finally being returned to the position as a true great of this sport, where he rightly belongs.
The women’s peloton rocking the Champs Élysées this year, long may that continue and let’s hope we see the women’s Tour resurrected soon too.
Finally we have the Tour de France in Yorkshire, an amazing success it has to be said. That was how to hold a bike race!
And there you have it, my lowdown of 2014.
Now, where’s my Belgian beer gone? Time for those Classics soon, must get training!
Lee Rodgers leads a double life as a pro racer on the UCI race circuit with the Lapierre Asia Cycling Team, competing in the UCI Asia Tour as well as some European events and the likes of the Tour of Qatar and Oman, rubbing shoulders with the best the WorldTour has to offer, whilst keeping up a day job as a cycling journalist. The highlight of his cycling career so far was winning the Singapore National Champs – road race and ITT – as well as claiming the Green Jersey at the 2.1 Tour de Taiwan in 2012, and naturally, writing for PEZ. His writing appears in several magazines and websites and you can catch up with him regularly on his blog, https://crankpunk.com/