December 2004

Great Expectations: a Look Back at 2004 (Part 1)

It is often written that the last great “complete rider” was Bernard Hinault. A prodigious winner who devoured ten Grand Tours, five victories in cycling’s ‘monuments’, a World Championship RR and numerous other significant victories to amass 250 professional wins. Second only to Eddy Merckx, Hinault retired while at the peak of his game in 1986. Since then cycling fans expectations have been increasingly lowered as the concept of specialization has taken hold. These days when we look back at the end of a season we see spectacular performances by riders who base their entire season on one or two key targets. The annual cycling calendar is “complete” in that it presents the opportunity for a great champion to emulate campionissimo like Hinault, Merckx and Coppi. But will we see their like again?

Commercial pressures linked with training techniques that have greatly elevated the abilities of the peloton at large and drive modern cycle racing. Consequently common wisdom dictates that today’s champions need to be highly selective in their goals. Maybe this is so, but scattered throughout the bunch are a few “complete riders” who are competitive from the beginning to the end of season riding single day races as well as the Grand Tours. Paolo Bettini, Erik Zabel and Oscar Friere immediately spring to mind. Even though their tally of 2004 wins may not be high, each was found to be aggressively racing as soon as the season opened and until the final curtain call at the Tour of Lombardy. For example the very first race of the European season was the Trofeo Mallorca (Challenge Illes Balears) on February 1 with Friere 2nd, Zabel 3rd and Bettini 5th. Bettini crowned his year, and perhaps career, with a fine win in Athens, Greece to claim the Olympic RR Gold Medal. Zabel, the consummate sprinter, won his third Points Jersey at the Vuelta a Espana and came second to Oscar Friere in the World Championship RR.

While the Olympics held many expectations for the cycling world it has to be said that, as is normal these days, the Tour de France was the focal point of the season for hoards of fans all over the world. In particular the build up to Lance Armstrong’s attempt for a sixth straight win reached an incredible crescendo. The high note was clearly orchestrated as soon as the Tour route was announced in October of 2003. The mythical Alpe d’Huez was placed center stage with its famous 21 ‘virages’ (hair pin bends) being used as the route for an individual time trial. On the big day millions of fans crammed the entire climb to see another of Armstrong’s dominant winning performances. The day before the event, Le Dauphine newspaper ran a headline that stated “La guillotine dans l’Alpe d’Huez?” Not only on the Alpe, but also throughout the Tour, Lance and his incredible USPS team were the masters of Madame Guillotine.

While USPS completely dominated the Tour from a GC point of view, Richard Virenque set about to place himself in the record books as the all time record holder for the climber’s award. The darling of France (especially with the women) claimed his seventh climbers ‘Maillot Pois’. While numerically he has surpassed legendary climbers like Federico Bahamontes (the Eagle of Toledo) and Charly Gaul (the Angel of the Mountains), even Virenque was humble enough to admit that he is not of their stature.

As has become custom in recent years the TdF ‘Maillot Vert’ was a scrap right down to the final sprint in Paris. For the second time in his career, Australia’s Robbie McEwen claimed this much-coveted prize. Interestingly, the last lunge to the finish line in Paris was won by Belgium’s young Tom Boonen. This was Boonen’s second stage win of this year’s Tour having also claimed Stage 6 into Angers. At 23 years old Boonen is a representative of the new wave of talent coming into cycling at the elite level. His tally of 19 victories made him one of the most successful pros of the year.

With the retirement this past spring of Johann Museeuw, Belgium is laying great stock in the fact that Boonen could become the next ‘Lion of Flanders.’ Time will tell, as it will with the other great young revelation of the year, Italy’s Damiano Cunego. This somewhat unassuming youngster started this year’s Giro d’Italia as a teammate and presumably domestique to team captain Gilberto Simoni. Superb climbing skills linked with a gift to deliver a killer sprint, eventually put Cunego in the driver’s seat with a visibly disgruntled Simoni being forced to play second fiddle. In Milan Cunego took the GC laurels while Simoni fumed at being unable to retain his Giro crown. As the season progressed Cunego continued on his winning ways and eventually sealed top spot on the UCI rider rankings with a win at the Japan Cup in October. At 23 years old he is ranked as the best elite pro rider in the world and apparently he still lives at home with his parents!

For cycle racing enthusiasts the interminable Northern Hemisphere winter gives way to the great early season classics with elevated expectations for the tremendous spectacles that they are. As always the ‘Primavera’, as Italy’s Milan-San Remo is called, opens the serious business of the year (March 20th this year). More often than not, and in spite of tremendous attacks up the famed Cipressa and Poggio climbs, the race usually ends with a dramatic bunch sprint along San Remo’s Via Roma. On the Poggio (the final climb) Paolo Bettini launched a powerful attack in exactly the same place that witnessed his winning move of last year. This time the bunch controlled him and about 70 riders blasted in to San Remo. The old warhorse Erik Zabel made an unforgivable error, as he was about to hit the line. He sat up and threw his arms up in victory while Oscar Friere nipped under his arms and just squeezed past him right on the line. Third was Stuart O’Grady and fourth, Allessandro Petacchi. All four riders eventually had banner seasons with O’Grady claiming an Olympic Gold and Friere the World RR Championship.

In part 2 we continue the look back at the racing season of 2004 with the spring classics and the retirement of a new legend.


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