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I’ll Make You Rich Part IV – LBL

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Thanks to Mark at www.zeitgeistimages.co.uk for allowing me to use the above image.  His cycling/art-deco inspired work is tremendous – click here to buy his Liege-Bastogne-Liege piece.  Follow Mark on Twitter @MrMarkFairhurst

When my 2 picks for Paris-Roubaix arrived in the velodrome in the leading group of 5, you could have forgiven me for whooping and a hollering.  I was imagining spending my winnings on not one but three new Castelli Gabba jackets.

So imagine the deafening silence in my head when they finished 3rd and 5th (Stannard and Bousson Hagen respectively).  I still made a profit but it’ll probably only cover a couple of brake blocks and it takes a lot to stop a big unit like me, so they won’t last long.

Onwards. More

Top 10 Cycling Moments of 2015

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It’s the time of the year when I both look forward to the coming season and look back on the season that was.  2015 was another massive year for cycling and so I bring you my personal top 10 moments:

10 Northern Ireland’s Giro Legacy

In 2014 Northern Ireland hosted the Grande Partenza (Big Start) of the Giro D’Italia and this year saw the first major legacy event, the Giro Gran Fondo which was a closed road sportive.  Almost 3,000 riders took part in the two routes which were joined by Stephen Roche (1987 Giro winner), Richie Porte (Team Sky) and myself (Ayr Roads Cycling Club).  Once again, the folks of Northern Ireland took to the streets, pinked up and provided endless support and encouragement for the riders, embracing the cycling festival once again.

9 Froome Does It Again

In July, Chris Froome (Sky) won his second Tour De France and Team Sky’s third in five years.  We should always remember that this so-called dominance is a new phenomenon, as prior to 2012 the UK had no winners in over 100 years of trying.  Furthermore, it will undoubtedly be short-lived with Sky leaving cycling in the near future making it harder for a UK-centric team to deliver at the top level.  So enjoy it while it lasts.

8 Nibali Has No Shame

Now we all know about Dave Brailsford’s concept of marginal gains but Vincenzo Nibali took it to the extremes in Stage 2 of this year’s Vuelta a Espana.  Having been caught up in a crash with about 30km to go, Nibali and his Astana team fought like dogs to catch up with the favourites.  They got to the front of a chasing group and as the Astana team car came alongside Nibali, helicopter footage clearly showed the Italian hold on to the vehicle and being catapulted away not for a few metres but for a few hundred metres.  He caught up with the peloton although ended up about 90 seconds down on the winner (the same deficit as he had before he took the free ride).  Result?  Disqualification.  Some have said that this punishment was harsh as all riders have taken a pull or a sticky bottle to get back up to the peloton after a crash. But using the car to get away from your peers is just a no no.

7 John Degenkolb Monument Double

In 2015, John Degenkolb (Giant Alpecin) achieved something which is very rare, a Monument double.  For the uninitiated, think winning two of the four golf majors, or two of the four tennis grand slam events.

First of all, he claimed the Milan-San Remo in typical fashion by sprinting to victory.  But as any rider will tell you, sprinting at the Milan-San Remo is like no other sprint as you cannot really gauge what you have left in the tank due to the fact that you have already raced almost 300km.  Secondly and probably more impressive was his victory at Paris-Roubaix where he chased down Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quickstep) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in the last few kilometres before winning the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome.  He became the first German to win Paris-Roubaix since Josef Fischer won the inaugural event in 1896 and the first winner of both events since Ireland’s Sean Kelly in 1986.

6 Cometh the Hour

I remember travelling down to the Leicester velodrome with my dad in 1984 to watch Francesco Moser ride around the track on his aerodynamic bike which he had used the previous month to capture Eddy Merckx’s 1972 World Hour Record.  Over 10 years on I remember Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman duelling with Boardman achieving the furthest distance ever in 60 minutes (56.375km).  Then the UCI outlawed the superman position and aero bikes so the Hour record seemed destined for obscurity as it was recognised that no-one could beat 56km on a standard bike.

Roll forward to the end of the 2014 season and the UCI updated their rules and created the “unified record”.  I won’t bore you with details but in essence the World Hour record is very firmly back, with 6 attempts being made on it in 2015 alone, 3 of which succeeded.

The UK did well, Alex Dowsett (Movistar) 52.937km broke the record in May and Bradley Wiggins in June with 54.526km which is the current benchmark.

5 Stannard’s Omloop Fun

Whilst Team Sky have excelled at the Grand Tours, particularly the Tour De France, their achievements in one day races and the Classics are somewhat shoddy with a couple of exceptions.  Geraint Thomas won the 2015 E3 Harelbeke and in my opinion more impressively, Ian Stannard retained the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad title.

Stannard spent the last 40km in a break with three Etixx Quickstep riders, Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh.  Now, anyone could tell you that Stannard simply should not be able to have won the race.  But win he did, much to the confusion, embarrassment and downright incredulity of Etixx.  To be fair, there were many factors at play, a fast approaching group only 20 seconds behind, no race radios etc. although the  Etixx riders did make a few questionable decisions in the last 5km.

Anyway, Stannard, was there for the sprint finish and cruised his way past Terpsrta to take the win for Team Sky and hand defeat from the jaws of victory to Etixx.

4 Tom Comes of Age in Spain

The Vuelta a Espana has had a bit of a renaissance over recent years, capitalising on the popularity of the sport but also from what has happened or not in the other two grand tours.

2015 did not disappoint and a strong field including Froome, Valverde, Nibali and Quintana took to the start but with Froome and Nibali exiting the event opened up slightly.  Esteban Chaves (Orica Greenedge) and Tom Dumoulin (Giant Alpecin) battled for the leader’s red jersey over the early stages but surprisingly Dumoulin, kept his form throughout the three week race.  He had no support from his Giant Alpecin team at all and only succumbed to Fabio Aru (Astana) on the penultimate stage.

Whilst Aru deserves many plaudits for his maiden grand tour victory, it is a huge chapeau to Dumoulin who surely has to go on to bigger things over the coming years.

And so to my top 3. Each of these moments had me screaming at the TV, jumping up and down for joy like a big kid and smiling for hours afterwards.

3 Mandela Day Magic

On stage 14 of this year’s Tour De France, as the French duo of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (AG2R) crested the final climb of the day, contemplating how to beat each other, Britain’s Steve Cummings whizzed by them unexpectedly and time trialled the final kilometre to a sensational win.  It was Cummings’ first Tour De France win, his South African MTN-Quebeka team’s first Tour stage and it all took place fittingly on Mandela Day.  Watch the reaction in his team bus here http://youtu.be/KO0d6GTvUs4

2 King Peter

Peter Sagan is undoubtedly one of the most consistent riders at the top level of professional cycling.  He boasts an enviable palmares but many, including himself, know that it could be even more impressive as he is also known for his ability to accumulate a ridiculous number of 2nd and 3rd place finishes.  But at the World Road Race Championships in Richmond, Virginia this year, Sagan attacked the peloton on the final cobbled climb of the day and managed to stay away to claim the coveted rainbow jersey.  Having crossed the finish line, he left his bike and proceeded to walk back up the finishing straight high fiving his fellow competitors who to a man seemed as happy for his victory as he was for himself.  Those images are captured here http://youtu.be/ScuAqTMhEKk

1 Queen Lizzie

My best moment of 2015 was watching Yorkshire’s Lizzie Armitstead becoming the Women’s World Road Race Champion.  Her effort in the final 20km to catch a dangerous break at the foot of the final incline meant that she had to lead out the sprint and it all worked beautifully.  It capped a great season for Armitstead who has also won the World Cup and the British National titles.  Her reaction was so different from Peter Sagan’s but no less enthralling.  Another worthy rainbow jersey wearer for 2016.

So that was 2015 in 10 short bursts.  2016 promises so much with two exciting world champions, a possible changing of the guard with Dumoulin and Aru coming of age, maybe a final chance to see Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen duel at the Ronde and we have the Rio Olympics where good old Wiggo may sign off in style.

Happy New Year

The Giant

Justifying Your Heroes & Villains

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Over the past few years people have asked me how I can hold up Tom Simpson and Marco Pantani as my heroes of cycling and yet also have such little regard for Lance Armstrong. I think the answer is fairly straightforward albeit probably very disappointing and its not about doping. Well, not exactly. Let me explain.
Hero # 1 – Tom Simpson

My original hero in the cycling world was and still is Tom Simpson. He died well before I was born, there’s very little, if any film footage of him in action and a similar dearth of photographic images. I don’t know what resonated with me about him or how his story was introduced to me. But he did and it was.

In 1962, Simpson became the first British rider to wear the Tour De France Yellow Jersey. In 1965, Simpson became Great Britain’s first ever World Road Race Champion, a feat which has only been achieved once since (Mark Cavendish 2011). That year he was also the first cyclist to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He wrecked his knee skiing in the Winter so his year in the rainbow jersey was relatively unsuccessful and he failed to maximise his earnings potential. He was the catalyst for the term “the curse of the rainbow jersey”. He knew he was at his peak and in order to secure his financial future he knew he had to deliver big results.  

On 13th July 1967, he started Stage 13 of the Tour De France which finished on Mont Ventoux. He shouldn’t have. He was ill with stomach cramps. I won’t go into details of his final moments on the bike but the combination of his illness, amphetamines, alcohol, the searing heat (54 degrees) and his obsession with chasing a high finishing place, proved too much.

It was Simpson’s death on Mont Ventoux that inspired me – some would say fooled me – to dream about climbing that mountain on the bike. Doffing my hat as I passed his monument less than a mile from the summit is a memory that remains with me with more clarity than any other I hold.

By all accounts he was a nice guy, liked by his peers in the peloton, adored by the fans at the roadside and was respectful of the sporting media of the time. He was fiercely competitive but a gentleman and I have found very few, if any, examples of unbecoming personal behavioural traits.

Hero # 2 – Marco Pantani

Marco Pantani, in my opinion was the finest cyclist of my generation. His climbing abilities and aggressive descending enabled him to offset his lack of time trialling prowess thereby making him a great Grand Tour contender. From 1993 to 2003, he podiumed five times in the Tour De France and Giro D’Italia, winning both in 1998 (the last rider to have done so. When he was on form, he could destroy the competition. He appeared to almost sprint up the mountains, mainly as a combination of his style (he climbed on the drops of the bars) and a significant use of performance enhancing additives.

He was adored by the tifosi, cycling fans generally and commentators loved him.

But he was a fragile human being, a deep thinker, a rider who was troubled in his mind probably because he had a conscience, possibly thinking of what cycling had forced him to do and what he therefore was doing to cycling.

When he was kicked out of the Giro D’Italia in 1999 after winning the previous stage on Madonna di Campiglio his career was effectively over in his head. He never won another Giro stage. He still raced and competed until 2003 but was troubled by ongoing legal battles, drug addiction and the feelings of being treated poorly by the sport of cycling.

On 14th February 2004, Pantani died alone in a hotel room in Rimini, as a result of cocaine abuse. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral.

And the Villain – Lance Armstrong

So that takes us to my villain, Mr Lance Armstrong. He’s the one that is known to us all, either as a supreme specimen who won the Tour De France seven times after surviving cancer, or as the biggest perpetrator of sporting fraud. Here’s a bit of controversy for you. I accept him as one of the finest cyclists of the modern era. Yes, he was a doper extraordinaire, his dominance could also be deemed as boring, but his prolific attacks and race tactics kept me on the edge of my seat for a good few years. His duel with Pantani on Mont Ventoux during the 2000 Tour De France is a YouTube favourite.

But his attitude always frustrated me. To me, he came across as a man who lacked a certain quality, namely respect for cycling history, his fellow professionals and those supporting the sport.

Some examples?

1999 Tour De France Stage 10 Sestrieres to Alpe D’Huez

The French professional Christophe Bassons had been writing a daily column in Le Parisien newspaper providing a rider’s eye view of life in the race. The peloton had decided to go easy for the first 100km but hadn’t told Bassons as he was being ostracised for his anti-doping opinions. In an act of defiance, Bassons decided to attack the peloton immediately. He knew he wouldn’t be allowed to get away and sure enough the entire peloton worked together to catch him. He recalled the moment he was caught in a Radio 5 interview in October 2012.

“…and then Lance Armstrong reached me. He grabbed me by the shoulder, because he knew everyone would be watching and he knew that at that moment he could show everyone that he was the boss. He stopped me and said what I was saying wasn’t true, what I was saying was bad for cycling, that I mustn’t say it, that I had no right to be a professional cyclist, that I should quit cycling, that I should quit the Tour. I was depressed for 6 months. I was crying all,of the time. I was in a really bad way.”

2004 Tour De France Stage 18 Annemasse to Lons le Saunier

Early into the stage Fillipo Simeoni was in what ended up being the winning break. But to everyone’s surprise and horror Armstrong also joined the group. None of the other riders were Tour contenders but as Armstrong was wearing the yellow jersey he most certainly was. With Armstrong in their company, the break had no chance of staying away. When Garcia Acosta asked Armstrong what he was doing, he replied that he’d go back to the peloton but only if Simeoni did the same. Simeoni reluctantly obliged and the break was allowed to succeed. Why? Simeoni was a witness for the prosecution case against Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferrari.

2009 Tour of California Pre Race Press Conference

Paul Kimmage, a journalist and former professional cyclist asked Armstrong a question about doping in cycling and specifically stated that “the cancer has returned” a reference to Armstrong’s comeback. What followed was an aggressive attack on Kimmage in an attempt to humiliate him. Armstrong intimated that he didn’t know who Kimmage was, or that he was an ex-pro however it was clear that his response had been carefully prepared and practiced. I can’t do it justice so watch it on YouTube here http://youtu.be/nZgns7CXeUI

There are others who suffered at the hands of Armstrong’s character flaw, Emma O’Reilly, David Walsh and Betsy Andreu to name but a few. Google them if you’re not already aware and see what you think.

In Conclusion

So after that brief and personal take on this trio of heroes and villains, what have I explained?  

Well all three were dopers – that’s not great and all three had significant moments on Mont Ventoux – none more so than Simpson. All three took cycling to a new level and all three ended their cycling careers in varied but tragic circumstances.

Well, as compelling as Armstrong is with his articulate responses to any questions put to him, the fact that he always has a reasoned argument for all his actions, his undeniable cycling talent and the good he has done through fundraising, I’m just not convinced that he’s a nice guy and believe it or not, I think that’s quite important.

But who am I anyway?

The Giant

The Big Start (Giro D’Italia 2014)

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So in four days the 2014 Giro D’Italia will be underway in my adopted country, Northern Ireland. It’s hard to put into words how tremendous it is to have written that sentence.
This is my tenth year here and in that time I have seen Northern Ireland evolve from its dark past into a hub for culture, sports, tourism and more recently, global events. Sure, the politicians (all of them) still try to hold us back but despite them, the people have taken this place by the scruff of its neck, shaken it up like a snowstorm paperweight and gotten on with living their lives to the full.
We’ve had the Irish Open at Portrush, Derry/Londonderry as the UK City of Culture, the MTV Europe Awards and now we have the Giro D’Italia.
And it’s going to be massive.
We do flags and symbols very well over here and it’s great to see these skills being used to paint the place pink.
Here’s some examples:

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Everything else you need to know about the experience is here Giro Start 2014
So to those who made it happen – thank you.
To those who are coming to Northern Ireland – you’ll be made more welcome than anywhere else in the world, enjoy yourselves.
And to Northern Ireland – well done, you deserve this.
ForzaNI
The Giant