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2013 Season A to Z Part 2: Nibali to Zoidl

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(Photo: Yuzuru Sunada)

Last week, I wrote the first half of my year-end A to Z of cycling highlighting the stories, riders and races that made 2013 a particularly memorable year for the sport. This second half focuses on many of the surprises, successes and shocks that gave rise to a year of breakthroughs and renewal.

N for Nibali: As Italy slowly recovers from the EPO era, the country has turned to Vincenzo Nibali as the one man who can give the tifosi hope for the future. He more than lived up to their expectations this year—except in one respect: he didn’t become the world champion on home soil. His rainbow bid was derailed by a crash on the penultimate lap of the rain-battered Florence course, and though he came back and instigated the winning break, his fourth-place finish was not what he or his fans wanted. Despite that, Nibali made the most of his move to the powerful Team Astana. He dominated Italy’s major stage races, each time taking down riders from Team Sky: He beat Chris Froome at Tirreno-Adriatico, Brad Wiggins at the Giro del Trentin, and Rigoberto Urán at the Giro d’Italia. As befits a national hero, Nibali was gracious in defeat, notably at the Vuelta a España—where his epic duel with final winner Chris Horner was highlighted by the Italian’s countless attacks on the Alto de L’Angliru, confirming how cycling can be edge-of-the-seat exciting.

O for Omega and Orica: Never before have two cycling teams fought such close battles in their showcase events. In the Nice team time trial stage at the Tour de France, Belgian squad Omega Pharma-Quick Step (led by world time trial champ Tony Martin, Sylvain Chavanel and Michal Kwiatkowski) looked like the clear winner until Australia’s Orica-GreenEdge (led by Simon Gerrans, Daryl Impey and Svein Tuft) put in a superb performance to take the win by 75-hundredths of a second. Some 12 weeks later, at the world championships, Orica (again guided by Tuft and Impey) was in the hot seat until defending champs Omega raced into Florence to put Orica in second place by 81-hundredths! You can’t get much closer than that.

P for Porte: If Chris Froome hadn’t been his leader at Team Sky, Richie Porte might have enjoyed an even better year than he did—including a shot at becoming the second Australian to win the Tour de France. As it was, Porte won Paris-Nice (when Froome was racing in Italy); he finished second to Froome at the Critérium International; second (to Nairo Quintana) at the Tour of the Basque Country; second to Froome at the Critérium du Dauphiné; and after the first mountain stage of the Tour he was lying second to Froome before his super-domestique duties sidelined his personal ambitions. They’re friends and roommates, and Porte will probably again help Froome aim at a second Tour victory in 2014.

Q for Quintana: This 23-year-old Colombian came into the year ready to confirm the climbing skills he’d shown in 2013, his first season with Movistar (notably winning a mountain stage at the Dauphiné ahead of the Team Sky armada). Nairo Quintana not only proved that he’s one of the best climbers but he also transcended anything his team could have hoped for. Perhaps his most remarkable performances came at Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country in April when, in the race-closing 24-kilometer time trial, he beat Sky’s TT specialist Richie Porte by 23 seconds to win the overall by the same margin. And then after a nine-week break from racing, training at his hometown in the Andes, he shook off his team leader Alejandro Valverde’s big loss on the windswept 13th stage of the Tour de France to climb up through the standings, first on Mont Ventoux, then through the Alps, before his stage win on Semnoz Mountain to place second overall and take both the best young rider’s white jersey and the best climber’s polka-dot jersey in Paris.

R for Records: Though he won “only” two stages of this year’s Tour de France, they took Mark Cavendish to a career total of 25 Tour stage wins, all in mass sprints. This makes him the all-time record holder for road stage wins at the Tour, moving him ahead of those with 24 career road stages: Eddy Merckx (who also won 10 time trials at the Tour) and André Leducq (who had one TT victory in his Tour career).

On the velodrome, a remarkable seven world records were broken in a three-day period earlier this month at the UCI Track World Cup meet in Aguascalientes, Mexico. This fast indoor track is situated at 6,167 feet elevation, giving short-distance racers a big advantage in the thin air compared with racing at sea level. French sprinter François Pervis took the most prestigious world track records. He won the standing-start 1 kilometer TT in 56.303 seconds (to beat the 58.875-second mark set in 2001 by his compatriot Arnaud Tournant in La Paz, Bolivia, at an elevation of 11,811 feet). Pervis also shattered the flying-start 200 meters record with a time of 9.347 seconds (a considerable improvement on the 9.572 set by compatriot Kévin Sireau in Moscow, Russia). On the women’s side Australia’s Anna Meares recorded 32.836 seconds for the standing-start 500-meter TT, and German sprinter Kristina Vogel did a 10.384 for the flying-start 200 meters. The other world records set in Aguascalientes were team events. Germans took both the men’s and women’s team sprint records: the men did 41.871 seconds for the three-man, three-lap (750 meters) event, and the women recorded 32.153 seconds for the two-woman, two-lap (500 meters) event. And Great Britain recorded 4:16.552 for the four-woman, 4000-meter team pursuit.

S for Sagan and Spartacus: One of the year’s most memorable moments was the duel at the Ronde van Vlaanderen between Peter Sagan and Fabian “Spartacus” Cancellara, with the Swiss superstar spectacularly riding away from the young Slovakian on the cobbled Paterberg climb to take a solo victory. Cancellara went on to win Paris-Roubaix (having already taken the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen), while Sagan took two UCI WorldTour classics—Ghent-Wevelgem and the GP de Montréal—besides taking a second green jersey at the Tour de France and winning 10 of his year-best 22 victories in North American races.

T for Tejay and Talansky: Following a year in which a generation of North America’s top pro cyclists re-acknowledged or revealed they were all caught up in doping at some point in their European careers (an A to Z that includes Andreu, Armstrong, Barry, Danielson, Hamilton, Hesjedal, Hincapie, Julich, Landis, Leipheimer, Livingston, Vande Velde, Vaughters and Zabriskie), it was reassuring to see a new generation headed by Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky coming to the fore.

BMC Racing’s van Garderen scored his best successes at home, winning both the Amgen Tour of California and Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, but he also picked up podium finishes at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis and the Critérium International, while placing fourth at Paris-Nice and seventh at the Tour de Suisse. And though he disappointed at the Tour de France, van Garderen almost saved his race at L’Alpe d’Huez, where he placed second after an exciting duel with Frenchman Christophe Riblon. The Tour was a highlight for Talansky, his 10th-place finish giving him motivation for the future, while earlier in the year he won a stage and placed second overall to Richie Porte at Paris-Nice.

U for UCI: Coming into this year there’d been only two presidents of the Union Cycliste Internationale since it became a modern, professionally run organization in the early-1990s. The first was Dutchman Hein Verbruggen, who served 14 years; the second was Irishman Pat McQuaid, whose second four-year term was ending in 2013. It looked like he’d continue into a third term, but then the USADA reasoned decision and Lance Armstrong’s lifetime ban from sports sent shockwaves through cycling, with the UCI and its president at the epicenter. In the past, the election process was a relative formality. Instead, for the first time, social media was a major factor in what became a non-holds-barred political campaign—with Englishman Brian Cookson emerging as the new president after a sometimes-farcical voting session at the UCI congress in Florence, Italy.

V for Vos: After an amazing 2012 in which she won the Olympic women’s road race gold medal and the world’s rainbow jersey, her fans were wondering what Marianne Vos could do for an encore. Well, the Dutch phenom, now 26, kept on winning. She started her year with yet another world cyclocross title, ended it with a second consecutive world road race championship, and in between she won no less than five UCI World Cup classics (and the overall title!) along with another 22 road wins! Maybe we should call her Marianne V for Victory.

W for Weather: Call it climate change or whatever you like, but anyone who followed competitive cycling in 2013 knows that adverse weather was one of the racers’ toughest obstacles—right up there with cobblestones and summit finishes. It began when flooding on the Ohio River forced the UCI and the American race organizers to hold all four world cyclocross championships on the same day, February 2, in St. Louis, Kentucky. The year continued with freezing temperatures affecting most of Europe’s springtime races: icy winds blasted the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on February 23; heavy rains battered Tirreno-Adriatico in early March, with 51 riders dropping out on the storm-battered stage 6; and at Milan-San Remo a few days later, the race was halted because of snow on the road, with many riders crying on their bikes before they were ferried in their team buses to a second start the other side of the Turchino Pass. In May, the Giro d’Italia was hit with cold, wet weather; one stage couldn’t be held because of heavy snow; and the key stage to the Tre Cime de Lavaredo was drastically shortened before the riders climbed through blowing snow to the mountaintop finish. A sting in the season’s tail came at the Vuelta a España on the toughest stage, in the Pyrénées, when wet snow and freezing winds forced 13 riders out of the race.

X for X-rays: Hospital staff worked overtime after high-speed crashes splintered the peloton near the end of the opening stage of the 2013 Tour de France. Germany’s world time trial champ Tony Martin, who fainted in the team bus, appeared to worst off, but continued in the Tour with a badly bruised back and deep cuts to his arm. X-rays showed that American Ted King didn’t break his collarbone, but his separated shoulder greatly handicapped in the team time trial three days later and he missed the time cut. The X-rays, however, showed that Welshman Geraint Thomas cracked his pelvis, but he survived the TTT and went on to help Sky teammate Chris Froome win the Tour.

Y for Yates: Britain’s 21-year-old twin brothers Adam and Simon Yates had an amazing final season in the amateur ranks. Adam placed second overall at the Tour de l’Avenir (the U23’s Tour de France) after podium finishes on three mountain stages; and Simon won two Avenir stages before going on to win the key stage of the Tour of Britain, by out-kicking a breakaway group that included overall race winner Brad Wiggins and Tour de France sensation Nairo Quintana on the Haytor summit finish.

Z for Zoidl: At age 25, Austrian rider Riccardo Zoidl, from the third-tier Gourmetfein-Simplon team, made a true breakthrough. He began his year by winning the two-day Circuit des Ardennes in April, continued by taking the weeklong Tour de Bretagne, and crowned his season by winning his nation’s two biggest stage races, the Oberösterrichrundfahrt and the Tour of Austria—finishing ahead of a long list of elite pros from the Astana, Katusha, Omega Pharma, RadioShack and Cofidis teams. His successes won Zoidl the UCI Europe Tour and a contract with the Trek Factory Racing, which says it will give this talented climber a shot at the Giro d’Italia in 2014.

You can follow John on @johnwilcockson