October 21, 2010

The 2010 road season ended in Como last weekend, exactly nine months after it began in Adelaide with the Tour Down Under. The season ending coincided so perfectly with the announcement of the 2011 Tour de France route that will act as a conduit to the next season while we wait for the fun and games to begin again. Has it been a great season? I think so; 2010 has been a season of diversity with no one champion winning everything, but instead a lot of top riders producing their very best on given days. The races have been as exciting as ever, partly because no one cyclist has had the chance to impose himself day in, day out. Of course, we've had to deal with unsavoury things like Valverde's suspension and maybe an impending one for Contador – but, heck, cycling wouldn't be cycling without these setbacks, now would it?!

The highlights of my 2010 are quite clear and easily recalled in word and image. First off comes the Tour of Oman, a new race in February on the Arabian peninsula that became an instant hit because of its stunning scenery and welcoming hosts.

It's not officially on the 2011 calendar because of some administrative error, but it will take place for sure, and be sure I'll be going back there again; what a shame it can't be a mid-season event and have a bigger peloton too! Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was probably the greatest one-day race of the season, coming as it did on the last weekend of February and run off in the most difficult conditions: rain, crashes, gales and cold combined to make this a major test for one and all, I won't forget that day for a long time to come! Paris-Nice was as brutal in terms of weather, but resulted in a well-earned win for Contador after some mighty battles against fellow Spaniards Valverde and Luis Sanchez. 

Fabian Cancellara nailed a great Classics double by soloing to victory in both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. If there was one man who dominated 2010 it was the Swiss rider, who later imposed himself at the Tour, Vuelta and Worlds. The Classics' wins of Cancellara incited scrutiny by the UCI for alleged use of a motorized bicycle and made for some funny post-race checks with an airport x-ray machine until the UCI realized they'd been a victim of their own paranoia! The machines disappeared after the Tour de France, especially after Cancelllara had won the penultimate day TT at over 50-kms-per hour, without a motorised toy. World Champion Cadel Evans won Fleche Wallonne on a new, tougher, course and his gutsy victory was imitated a few days later when Alexandre Vinokourov won Liege after a long breakaway with fellow toughie, Alexandre Kolobnev. The Tour de Romandie introduced the world to Australia's Richie Porte, who won the race's main TT and attracted a protest by rival team managers who just could not believe Porte had ridden that fast for so long! Romandie went to that unwanted pest Valverde, after a last-stage battle with Michael Rogers, who would go on to win the Tour of California in May. 

The Giro d'Italia was not just the best stage-race of the season – I rate it as the best stage-race of my entire career! From day one in The Netherlands to the last-day TT into Verona, the Giro was a roller-coaster of a ride for anyone racing in it or simply following it.

Winds, atrocious weather, courageous racing and so-scary a mountainous route conspired to set this Giro as the benchmark for all other three-week races to refer to. Ivan Basso won after a mighty battle with Evans on the Zoncolan, but the sport of cycling won even more, thanks to the audacity of the Giro organisers. We're just a week away from hearing of the 2011 Giro route – can it get any better, I ask? I'll never forget the stage to Montalcino, on those famous white roads, when Evans and Vinokourov went head-to-head, when Basso and Nibali lost two minutes, and when Sky's Bradley Wiggins pedalled headlong into a proverbial wall of fatigue, pain and desolation. Many people point at the Tour de France of Wiggins as his nightmare ride. But the writing was on the wall in Tuscany, for Team Sky would never be the same again in 2010.

Jani Brajkovic won the Dauphiné-Libéré for Radio Shack, to put a new face on the list of the season's winners. The Slovenian smoothie beat none other than Contador, who even then was displaying signs that he was not in the same form as 2009. The Dauphine established a new star in Tejay VanGarderen - the young American took 3rd-overall in his first major stage race in Europe! The Dauphiné was under new ownership at ASO, and couldn't have wanted for a better race, route, and outcome, one month short of the Tour starting. The Tour de Suisse was a week of atrocity in conditions equal to anything the Giro had – and maybe even worse, given that it was held in the middle of June! Lance Armstrong had his final Tour warm-up in Switzerland, and contributed both his athleticism and stardom to an otherwise mediocre event on a course once again designed for Cancellara. But the overall winner was Frank Schleck, who produced an amazing last-day TT to hold off an Armstrong on the brink of a morale-boosting win after crashing out of the Tour of California a month earlier.

The 2010 Tour de France will be remembered for the contentious way in which Contador took the yellow jersey after apparently attacking Andy Schleck who'd unshipped his chain in the Pyrenees. This Tour will not be remembered for much else, certainly not the lack of animosity that emerged after such a delicate moment, and certainly not for the way in which Contador won. It was as if Schleck and Contador had made a quiet peace after that stage into Luchon, that Schleck could win the queen stage to the Tourmalet while Contador would take the final honours. We'll never know if Schleck could have won the Tour, for he never really tried on the Tourmalet, perhaps believing his woeful time trialling would hand the race to Contador anyway. In fact Schleck scared Contador on that Pauillac TT, and his losing margin overall was exactly his loss on the mountain above Luchon – 49-seconds! What might have been had Schleck attacked? I prefer to remember this Tour for the sprinting comeback of Mark Cavendish, for whom all seemed lost after the five opening stages – the Manxman's five stage-wins ignited the Tour between mountain stages – and for the brutal racing on stages two and three that ruined Armstrong's chances of winning an eighth Tour.

Given the quietness of the months of August and September, it is just as well the Vuelta a Espana was the blockbuster of a race it became – the season needed it after such an unsatisfactory Tour. Like the Giro many months earlier, the Vuelta rarely had a dull day, not even in the heat-seared stages of the south when you could have cooked fried eggs on the roads the race used. This was a Vuelta missing Valverde, Contador and Sammy Sanchez – Spain's most popular cyclists – and missing Andy Schlck and Robert Gesink as well. But any thoughts of mediocrity in the racing went out of the window right away. A series of nasty uphill finishes stirred the G.C from day three onwards, while sprinters like Farrar, Cavendish, Petacchi, Hushovd and Hutarovich entertained us on the days between climbing skirmishes. I cannot remember a Vuelta that was so pretty, that found new routes in familiar regions, and that maintained its beauty and drama right to the end. Like the Giro, its Spanish sister used audacious choices to keep everyone on their toes until the very end, or at least until the risky use of the sheer ascent of the Bola del Mundo, above the ski-resort of Nevaccerada. As it should be, the strongest cyclist won – Vincenzo Nibali – but Spain took a victory in the performances of Joachin Rodriguez who, unlike Nibali, actually won stages!

The rest of 2010 we know already. A stupendous World Championships in Geelong led to a so-so Paris-Tours and a wet, cold, and highly challenging Giro di Lombardia, won in spectacular fashion by Philippe Gilbert. What more can we want from such a long season? 2010 had just about everything for the cycling fan. Only the Tour disappoints, a situation not helped by the dilemma facing Contador, until now such a squeaky-clean rider. His situation compounds what has been a highly complicated transfer market since July, with the Schleck brothers and many of their mates leaving Saxo Bank, and Contador joining that team in their place. One wonders what Bjarne Riis will do without Contador, if the worse case scenario emerges. Well, the crafty Dane is a survivor and will find alternative talent if Contador gets banned. Whatever, 2011 will arrive sooner than we realise, and with quite a number of visual changes. No Milram, no BBox, but a brace of new teams or sponsors coming in, with all the excitement and speculation it creates. Things evolve all the time in cycling, but I think we are on the verge of an exciting new era. The 'old guard' as we know it is changing, both in terms of riders and team managers. Roll on 2011 – it's just a few months away already! 

- Graham Watson

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