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Mixed Year Ahead for the Cycling World

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Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

With the international racing season getting underway this month in Africa (Tropicale Amissa Bongo), Argentina (Tour de San Luis) and Australia (Tour Down Under), it’s a good time to look ahead and envision what could happen in the sport of cycling over the next 12 months. It may not be an Olympic year, but there’s some great racing in prospect in events both old and new. There’s a new administration at the UCI, with a Brit at the helm instead of an Irishman, along with, apparently, a more relaxed interaction between the sport’s various factions. And after the successful running of the world cyclo-cross championships in the U.S. last year, Americans can begin looking ahead to the big daddy of championships, the road worlds, coming to Richmond, Virginia, in less than 20 months from now.

But let’s first look at 2014.

We tend to view races in January as simple warm-ups for big events later in the year, but times are changing. Among the starters lining up next Monday in Gabon’s Tropicale race is 23-year-old Natnael Berhane from Eritrea whose stage win there two years ago caught the eye of Team Europcar boss Jean-René Bernaudeau. Berhane joined the French team last year and rewarded them with victory in the Presidential Tour of Turkey—the first-ever black African to win a major European stage race. Perhaps another such rider will emerge this time.

The following week, the San Luis event is again a season’s stepping-off point for Grand Tour contenders such as Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez and Jurgen Van den Broeck. While they find what their climbing legs are like this year, a slew of top sprinters, including Tyler Farrar, Thor Hushovd, Sacha Modolo and Peter Sagan, will get a first look at Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s scary-looking triumvirate: Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish and Alessandro Petacchi.

Let’s hope that Boonen will have a healthier season than he did last year, and that by April he will be in the form that will allow him to contest Fabian Cancellara (and Sagan) in the top cobbled classics, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. Off-season team changes will see former Omega-Quick Step stalwart Sylvain Chavanel leading the fast-strengthening Swiss squad, IAM Cycling, which might harm Boonen’s chances in the spring classics; while the sponsor switch for Cancellara from RadioShack to Trek Factory Racing shouldn’t weaken his spring campaign because he keeps all his principal back-up riders.

Running concurrently with the San Luis race is the year’s first UCI WorldTour event, the Tour Down Under, which has now become a race favoring climbers rather than sprinters. It will be interesting to see how BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans fares on his return to home soil—especially in view of his goal to be on top form for the Giro d’Italia in May. But race insiders will also be looking at some of the international peloton’s new faces competing in South Australia: BMC’s 20-year-old neo-pro Rick Zabel could make an early impression on the sprint finishes against his fellow Germans André Greipel and Marcel Kittel as he begins his quest to emulate the illustrious career of his dad, Erik Zabel; and this could be the start of a decade-long rivalry with the 19-year-old Aussie rookie sensation, Caleb Ewan.

Farther along the road, February will see the Dubai Tour (where Cancellara starts his year) become the newest addition to a three-race roster of events around the Gulf of Arabia, followed by the flat, familiar Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman—the hilliest of this desert trio. It was in Oman last year that Chris Froome kicked off his five months of brilliant results, concluding with his outstanding Tour de France victory. The Team Sky man needed to get wins under his belt in 2013 before tackling the Tour; that’s not the case this year, and he plans a lower-key early season (not starting in Oman) to reach top form to defend his Tour title.

In France, Froome will likely get the support of teammate and 2012 champ Brad Wiggins—and the Kenyan-born Brit will need all the support he can get in a Tour that Team Astana’s Nibali has put at the top of his list of ambitions. It’s too early to start speculating about July’s Tour, or even May’s Giro, so let’s take a look at some of the other things coming up in 2014.

For women professionals, the biggest addition to their still-meager calendar is The Women’s Tour, being held as a stand-alone event May 7-11, and run by the Tour of Britain organizers, SweetSpot. With cycling so hugely popular in the UK right now, the inaugural race should attract excellent crowds—as will the two men’s Grand Tours starting in the British Isles. The Giro opens in Belfast, Northern Ireland (part of the UK) on Friday, May 9, and the Tour de France starts in Leeds, Yorkshire, on July 5.

These events make a perfect scenario for the new UCI president Brian Cookson, whose successful 2013 election campaign was based on the policies he helped develop in the 16 years he was British Cycling president (an unpaid, part-time position), taking it from insolvency to becoming one of his country’s most successful sports federations. Clearly, running the UCI full-time is a far more challenging role, but the feisty, 62-year-old Lancastrian can also call on his four years with the UCI’s management committee—including tenures as president of both the cyclocross and road commissions.

Cookson is enjoying a quiet honeymoon period, but he knows that things will get far more challenging in the months ahead—especially with the formation of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC), which this week named the three men who will investigate “the problems cycling has faced in recent years,” and specifically “allegations which have done so much to hurt the credibility of the UCI and our sport.”

At the top of the commission’s agenda is looking at the UCI’s role in the fight against doping and the succession of scandals that have rocked cycling over the past 15 years. Cookson says the commission (which will operate independently, though it’s funded by the UCI) will likely take about a year to do its work before presenting a report. Hopefully, any results emerging from the CIRC will help the sport get back on a path of success and growth.

Meanwhile, 2014 is here, and it promises to be another memorable year—full of all the things, good and bad, that make cycling such a fascinating sport to follow.

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson