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THIS YEAR’S TOUR OPENED A NEW ERA IN PRO CYCLING

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In some years, the Tour de France takes place, the winner is hailed…and everyone moves on. That’s how it has been for quite a while. And there’s a risk of that happening again with the 2014 Tour because our memories are short.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

Do you still remember exactly what happened in those fabulous three weeks of July? Probably not if you’re one of those fans who diligently follows pro bike racing. That’s because since the Tour ended on July 27 the headlines have been taken by non-stop stream of late-summer racing all over Europe and the Americas (*see below for a list of just those major races)—with the focus now shifted to this week’s USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, followed by the season’s final grand tour, the Vuelta a España, which kicks off at the weekend.

So let’s take a few minutes to reflect on our sport, especially Le Tour, because when we look back in a few decades, or even a few years from now, I believe the 101st Tour de France will be seen not only as a race that had historic undertones but also one that truly kicked off a new era in cycling. How come? Well, with the EPO and blood-doping eras of the 1990s and 2000s behind us, today’s professional cyclists finally have a chance to reestablish the Tour at the pinnacle of our sport. And that process went into full gear in July….

First, it’s worth reflecting on the 2014 Tour’s historic undertones, which involved the three men who finished on the Paris podium. Vincenzo Nibali’s was the Tour’s first Italian winner in 16 years—though Marco Pantani’s 1998 victory was one of those wins that has been discredited due to that era’s widespread use of EPO and the doping revelations that almost saw that “Festina affair” Tour scrapped before the finish. So, should an asterisk be placed against Pantani ’98, then we have to go back to 1965 (49 years ago!) to find the previous Italian winner: Felice Gimondi.

As for Nibali’s two runners-up, French riders Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot, they gave themselves and their country a huge boost in morale for future Tours. The French are still awaiting a successor to Bernard Hinault, who took the last of his five Tour titles in 1985 (29 years ago), but the nation that invented bike racing (and the Tour) came closer to that goal this year than at any Tour since Laurent Fignon lost the 1989 race by eight seconds to Greg LeMond. And though Péraud and Pinot finished more than seven minutes behind the untouchable Nibali, these two Frenchmen proved that they and their current counterparts have what it takes to be true contenders.

TdF-van-Garderen

It’s been said that the outcome of last month’s Tour would have been very different had so many contenders not quit because of crashes, cracked bones and health crises. That’s a familiar story every year, but the caliber of the men who were forced to abandon this year’s Tour—headed by former winners Chris Froome and Alberto Contador—had a clear yet indeterminate affect on the results. Froome, Contador and Andrew Talansky, another prerace contender, were all out of the Tour before the race entered the most difficult stages of the final week. And the fact is, Péraud and Pinot were already podium contenders at that point—and no one can take away the experience they gained in racing to their limit and withstanding the intense pressure of expectation from the French media and public. Coming through that big test while holding off challenges from Alejandro Valverde and Tejay van Garderen gave the two Frenchmen a massive boost in morale.

Their successes and Nibali’s triumph point to a rebirth for France and Italy at the grand tours, ready to match the currently ascendant nations of Britain (Froome), Colombia (Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán) and the United States (Chris Horner, Talansky and van Garderen) and replace the aging Spanish triumvirate of Contador, Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez.

But how does this changing of the guard also represent a new beginning for the sport itself? That question can be answered by putting this year’s Tour in the context of its recent past. Pantani ’98 was followed by the seven-year Lance Armstrong reign that has since been wiped from the record. Then, in 2006, the Tour was battered by shock waves from Spain’s Operación Puerto blood-doping scandal and the ultimate defrocking of its champion, Floyd Landis. That was followed by the equally ignominious ’07 Tour that was decimated by Alexander Vinokourov’s blood-doping disgrace and race leader Michael Rasmussen’s drug-related exit.

TdF-Talansky

The Tour was still reeling from those forgettable editions when Contador belatedly lost his 2010 title to his infamous clenbuterol positive—which compounded the October 2012 U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “reasoned decision” on Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service/Discovery Channel squad’s “massive team doping scheme.” As a result, when Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky utterly dominated the 2013 Tour, the Englishman was battered by persistent doping accusations, to which he responded with profanity-laced anger and derision. Wiggins’ Sky teammate Froome faced an equally skeptical pressroom last year, especially after he consolidated his yellow jersey by speeding away from Contador, Quintana and company on the rugged slopes of Mont Ventoux. But, unlike Wiggins, he dealt with the daily onslaught from reporters with polite aplomb even if he were seething inside.

There were none of those hate-filled, interrogation-like news conferences at this year’s Tour. Sky team boss Sir Dave Brailsford even asked the press one day: Why has there been less questioning around Nibali than Froome? In fact, after Froome left the race on stage 5 followed by Contador five days later, race leader Nibali maintained a serene, supreme presence in the maillot jaune. A few journalists tried to drag up the past, citing since-discredited claims of Nibali’s connection with Italian cycling’s former culture of doping, but most of the skeptics’ questioning centered around his connections with the officials on his Astana team: general manager Vinokourov and head sports director Giuseppe Martinelli (who was Pantani’s team boss in the 1990s).

That line of questioning had little impact because Nibali’s most important confidant is his coach Paolo Slongo, with whom he has worked since he took a bronze medal at the 2002 world junior time trial championship. Slongo has helped his client make gradual improvements throughout his career, with all of Nibali’s major wins (2010 Vuelta, 2012 and 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico, 2013 Giro and 2014 Tour) happening during the UCI’s now seven-year-long biological passport program.

So, with Nibali’s success following the Tour victories of Froome, Wiggins and Cadel Evans—all of whom have voiced their disdain for doping cheats and praised the sport’s anti-doping programs—it seems safe to say that the 101st Tour de France has finally kicked off a new era in professional cycling. And it should be a future where the likes of Nibali, Pinot, Quintana and van Garderen excel in a once-more legitimized Tour de France.

* The major races (and their winners) held since the end of the 2014 Tour de France: Clásica San Sebastián (won by Alejandro Valverde), Tour of Portugal (Gustavo Cesar), Tour of Poland (Rafal Majka), Tour of Utah (Tom Danielson), Tour of Colombia (Oscar Sevilla), Tour of Denmark (Michael Valgren), RideLondon Classic (Adam Blythe), Tour de l’Ain (Bert-Jan Lindeman), Eneco Tour of Benelux (Tim Wellens), Tour of Burgos (Nairo Quintana) and Arctic Race of Norway (Steven Kruiswijk).

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson