Friday, 11 January 2013

More of The Same, Please.

We’re eleven days away from the start of the 2013 season, and soon there will be a whole new bunch of cycling memories taking up residence in my mind.  One last chance then, to dust off the best memories of 2012.

This isn’t a "Greatest Moments of 2012", as such. If it were, there would be a lot more of Hoy, Trott, Storey and Armitstead.  Boonen would get more than one mention, and Cav’s Tour stages would get a lengthy write up. This is a more subjective list; the things that come unbidden to my mind when I relax and think of cycling in 2012, the moments from the season that effortlessly imprinted themselves on my brain.

I’ve tried hard to keep it to those first few moments, and to cut it off at the point where I feel I’m actively remembering things rather than just have memories wash over me. Sadly, that means I’ve excluded Nibali on Green Mountain (that point where I thought he was going to have great season-not my finest prediction ever). There’s also only room for Millar’s stage win at the Tour to be an honourable mention, which is a terrible shame, as it was as fine an example of why “winningest” should be a real word as you’ll ever see. Not the youngest, not the fastest, and not the best climber in his breakaway group, Millar marked the right moves and timed his own attack perfectly. That’s not even just down to experience: there are plenty of savvy, grizzled veterans in the bunch who couldn’t have pulled it off, but Millar won because not because he knows more about racing, but because he knows more about winning. He also gave a brave and timely victory speech.

Mirador de Ezaro

When the 2012 Vuelta’s vertiginous route was announced last January, most people gave the Mirador de Ezaro a passing glance, said “That’s got Rodriguez written all over it”  and then went into raptures about Cuitu Negru and Bola del Mundo. At 2Km, Mirador de Ezaro didn’t seem long enough to be decisive in the race, and couldn’t help but be overshadowed by the many, many mountains on the rest of the route. But for some reason it sank its hooks into me. I blogged about it, I put it in my race preview, I posted links to ascent videos on forums and maintained it would be a key battleground in the race. I was going to look a right plonker if they sailed over it effortlessly.

As it turned out, the key battleground of the race turned out to be a tarmacked pimple a few kilometres into a stage that barely qualified as a medium mountains day. Having failed to dislodge each other on any of the real climbs, the battle between Purito and Pistolero was settled by a crafty Contador attack when Rodriguez wasn't looking, so early in a nothing stage that the TV coverage hadn’t even started. The Vuelta organisers are attempting to rectify this for the next edition by apparently having not so much as a single flat kilometre in the race.

So, all the hills and all the mountains turned out to be entertaining rather than decisive battlegrounds, true, but my little Mirador de Ezaro was one of them. Anyone who thought stage 12 would be a short, uncontested dash to the finish by Joaquim Rodriguez was way off, as the Ezaro’s mix of steep ramps, hairpins and false flats packed into just two or three Km of road was host to one of the Vuelta’s many agonising battles, as Rodriguez and Contador distanced the field and caught the escapees on the 24% sections of the climb, chugged painfully over the middle sections of the hill, before Rodriguez nipped out of Contador’s wheel to attack of the last fifty yards or so and take the victory. I suppose it did have his name all over it, but it wasn’t the sort of mad, unopposed dash we saw in his Giro stage win at Assisi, it was a fight.

Cavendish after La Manie

Not one of the happier memories of the year, but certainly one of the most telling. Everyone knows that Milan-San Remo doesn’t get going until the Cipressa and the Poggio, right? The chancers dash away hoping to exploit the old saw that seven seconds of advantage at the top of the Poggio will be enough to get you to the finish, while sprinters who fancy their chances on the broad finishing boulevard will do their tenacious best to control the climb and set things up for a gallop.

It was a shock to turn on the Eurosport coverage and see the Liquigas team in their fetching jersey (I know, I know, I am the only person in all of Europe who liked their kit) hooning it over La Manie in the middle of the race. Even in a 300Km leg sapper like M-SR its not uncommon to see a little bit of exploratory leg stretching, but this wasn’t a probe or feint, this was one of the best-drilled squads in the bunch pushing hard at the font loooooong before you’d expect anything decisive to happen. And there was Cav, in his World Championship bands, dropping out of the back of the bunch.

With hindsight, his particular brand of Kryptonite was every bit as obvious as a glowing green rock. Isolate him early, as it’s in no other team's interest to pitch in to the effort to bring him back to the front. All of a sudden, you could see the seeds of the negative riding that the Germans and Australians would adopt in the Olympic road race.

Boonen’s Roubaix

When Boonen had his usual early season successes in the Middle-East, it seemed like business as usual. Three or four wins at the start of the season, followed by a gradual slide away from the sharp end of the races and another disappointing season for Tornado Tom. Except, at the time, I said I thought there might be something different going on this time-at one point, Boonen reeled back in a full-blooded attack by Fabian Cancellara, which not many people can claim to have done. There seemed to be a physical strength and a hunger that had been absent for a several years. By early February, I was starting to wonder if we were about to see a Tornado season as good as we got in '05 and '06.

Turns out, it would be better than that. Second in Het Nieuwsblad, followed by wins at E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders were impressive enough, but Boonen wasn’t going to settle for one monument when he could have two. A 50Km solo effort over the cobbles, with Sky's best efforts unable to bring him back, and Boonen had clinched Paris-Roubaix in a fashion that stands alongside the legends of the event. I had to watch a recording of it in the early hours of the morning, which added a strange extra frisson of excitement, like staying up to watch boxing from Vegas, only better.

A Tale of Two Time Trials
I’m cheating a bit by putting these two together, but I’ve got good reason. I saw Wiggo on his way to TT victory in the Tour De France from the foot of a hill near Abbans Dessous, barely a kilometre from the first time check at the not-at-all-confusingly-named Abbans Dessus. I saw him on his way to victory in the Olympic Time Trial in Bushy Park, 200 metres from the finish line, and in both cases there was a beautiful certainty in seeing him pass.

At Abbans Dessous, the time check was atop a hill, shortly before a left hander into a short, twisting descent. The hedgerow at the top of the hill was broken, and you could see riders flashing between the gaps in the privet a minute or so before they’d pass us on the descent. Cadel Evans passing through was exciting enough, but almost as soon as he’d passed the foot of the hill, there was a flash of yellow blurring through the hedges at the top, less than a minute behind. There was no need for timing chips, transponders or tenths of seconds, the difference was visible: having started two minutes apart, Wiggo had closed up over a minute on the defending champion  in the first third of the time trial. I’d still spend the next two weeks trying not to jinx it, but at that moment, a little bit of me started to believe.

In Bushy Park, it was an equally perfect moment - we already knew that defending champion Fabian Cancellara was well off the pace, a season’s worth of injuries and a crash in the road race having scuppered his preparations. Wiggo may have been the second to last man to pass us, but for all intents and purposes, he was already on his victory lap, and had been since he started to pull into the lead over Tony Martin at the second time check, and then extend that lead at the third. By the time he came in to Bushy Park, we knew he’d won-there was no delayed gratification, the celebrations started as soon as we caught a glimpse of him. Sport would be rubbish if it always lacked tension, but every once in a while it’s nice to have a Hollywood victory.

Pozzovivo on Punta Veleno
Before the Giro del Trentino I think I’d seen Domenico Pozzovivo’s name in print a few times, but I couldn’t have told you much about him. The same goes for Punta Veleno, the “poisonous sting”. One afternoon in April changed that, as Pozzovivo took the lead in the Giro del Trentino with climb of this small but feisty mountain. The road twists and turns, blending long steep drags with shorter, steeper ramps, and each tree shielded  corner has the potential to reveal  another unexpected and heartbreakingly cruel pitch.

Pozzovivo led a slow motion dash up this brute, with  Astana’s Roman Kreuziger, Liquigas’ Sylvester Szmyd and Lampre’s Damiano Cunego notable among the pursuers. For most of the bizarre chase, Pozzovivo was unable to drag the gap out to much more than four or five bike lengths, but equally, the chasers were unable to close it. For long, long minutes it looked impossible that an attack which had so little effect could succeed, yet equally impossible that it could be reeled back in. The riders maintained their respective paces through the worst of the climb until finally, painfully, the elastic snapped and Pozzovivo surged ahead onto the muddy plateau atop Punta Veleno, fog filling the steep drop into the valley beside the road, and stayed away to take the lead in the race, despite his supposedly timorous descending.

It’s strange, given that this was the year of Wiggo’s Tour and Olympic wins, but when I think of cycling in 2012, Pozzovivo grinding up Punta Veleno with his rivals only a few uncloseable feet behind him is what I picture.

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