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ARE CURRENT ANGLOS AS STRONG AS ’80s HARD MEN?

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A small news item that hit the Internet this week caught my attention. It read: “No British riders to start the Giro for the first time since 1999.” Then I began thinking: Would the Giro d’Italia, or any other grand tour, take place without a Belgian, French, Italian or Spanish rider on the start line? No, certainly not.

by John Wilcockson

So why are the Brits missing from next week’s 198-man Giro roster? Isn’t pro-level cycling outside of Europe just as strong as it has always been in the sport’s heartland? Or is the current wave of riders from the British Isles, North America and Australia less strong then we thought? Maybe this generation is even weaker than that of their predecessors of 30 years ago…

That’s a possibility. After all, the initial surge of Anglo-Saxons into Europe in the 1980s saw them winning or placing at all of the sport’s most important pro races: the three grand tours, the five one-day monuments and the world road championship. The results of today’s “invaders” don’t seem as strong—and they certainly won’t be if they don’t start the top races! On the other hand, one of the big favorites to win the 2015 Giro, starting next week, is an Australian, Richie Porte—and an Aussie has never won Italy’s grand tour. So, to see whether the current wave is as strong as the one in the 1980s, I studied the results of the Anglos over the most recent decade and compared them with those from that earlier decade, which began 35 years ago.

I’ve chosen to begin that earlier decade in 1981, the year that Jonathan Boyer became the first American to start the Tour de France. It was through that decade that Americans Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, Australian Phil Anderson, Canadian Steve Bauer, Brit Robert Millar and Irishmen Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche all reached the apogee of their careers. Here are the results of this magnificent seven in the world’s top nine races:

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One thing that stands out from these results is that the only race not won by an Anglo was the Tour of Flanders classic—though five second places were taken in that monument by Kelly and Anderson. Remarkably, Flanders is also the only race not won in the most recent decade, with just a single third place (by George Hincapie in 2006)—so the only Anglo to have Flanders remains British pioneer Tom Simpson, back in 1961. Also, the only major victory scored in the 1980s by a rider on a non-European team was Hampsten’s 1988 Giro when he was with the U.S.-based 7-Eleven squad. One of the big changes since that earlier time is the growing strength of pro cycling outside the Continent.

In the most recent decade (see below), and excluding world championships contested by national teams, 10 of the 11 Anglo wins came from riders on non-European teams: Team Garmin (Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin), BMC Racing (Cadel Evans), Team Sky (Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome), RadioShack (Chris Horner), HTC-Highroad (Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss) and Orica-GreenEdge (Simon Gerrans). The only one missing was Stuart O’Grady’s 2007 Paris-Roubaix victory when he raced for the Danish-based CSC squad—though title sponsor CSC is an American company.

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So what can we discern from comparing these two sets of results from two distinct decades? What’s most clear is that rather than individual talent winning races, teamwork has become far more important. From the ’80s, examples of that individuality included Roche’s 1987 Giro victory (when the Irishman’s only ally on the Italian team Carrera was Belgian Eddy Schepers); the first of LeMond’s three Tour wins in 1986 (when his La Vie Claire team leader Bernard Hinault actively raced against the American); and both of LeMond’s rainbow jerseys (in 1993, LeMond’s biggest helper was his Aussie friend Anderson; and, in 1989, Hampsten was the only other rider on the 12-man U.S. team to finish the worlds).

By sharp contrast, Evans won the 2009 world title after his Australian national team worked tirelessly to control the breakaways and enable Evans to get in the winning breakaway; and at the 2011 worlds, it was the Great Britain team that brought back all the breaks and set an incredible pace through the finale to let Cavendish contest and win the bunch sprint for the gold medal. Teamwork was equally important (over three weeks) to set up Hesjedal, Evans, Wiggins, Froome and Horner for each of their grand tour successes.

So why are there no Brits in next week’s Giro. One reason is the greatly increased globalization of cycling. When Hampsten won the 1988 Giro, his nine-man 7-Eleven team was made up of six Americans, a Mexican, a Norwegian and a Dane. On the British-based Team Sky at this year’s Giro, supporting Australian leader Porte’s bid for victory, are riders from Belarus, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain. The end result is that, though the Anglo-Saxon hard men of the 1980s scored 50-percent more podiums than Americans, Aussies, Brits, Canadians and Irish in the most recent decade, the current generation of non-Europeans racers (and teams!) has never been as strong.

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You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson