Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 Road Season Recap - Good Riddance

As far as I am concerned, 2009 was a truly lame year on almost every level. It may seem myopic to cast such judgment on the last 365 or so days of history but for me and almost everyone I ever speak with or listen to, this is a fairly common sentiment. For nearly everyone except Mark Cavendish and people who like vampires, the past year pretty much sucked and there seems to be a general sense of relief that the first decade of the 21st century (don't get started on the semantics of this statement, you know what I mean) is coming to a close. Besides, according to the Mayans, Nostradamus and the History Channel, we only have a few more years before it’s all over anyway so hopefully 2010 will make up for the last year of lameness. After all, it would be nice to enjoy the final years of human existence.

On that positive note, let’s look back on 2009 in a semi-chronological, semi-freestyle manner, since excessive research is certain to be excessively depressing. Here we go:

January: The most historic event of the year (sorry Lance) takes place as Barack Obama is inaugurated President of the United States of America. Unfortunately, he inherits a rat’s nest of domestic and international problems that even exceeds Pat McQuaid taking over the UCI from Hein Verbruggen. Perhaps Barack and Pat should have a pint sometime and discuss how impossible their respective jobs are. Who would want those positions? I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

February: The fourth edition of the Tour of California takes place, marking the return of Lance Armstrong to the U.S. peloton after a few years of running around with Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. Alright, alright, alright. Despite having his bike stolen and hitting the deck a few times, LA proves that he is serious (duh) and helps Levi Leipheimer take his third consecutive victory in the Amgen ToC. Perhaps the most intriguing result is captured by Tom Peterson, the young American hopeful who hangs with LL and takes the stage win into Santa Cruz ahead of some big names.

March: The European season begins in earnest with Paris-Nice and the beginning of the Armstrong-Contador rivalry on Twitter. Contador bonks and loses to Luis Leon-Spinks Sanchez which prompts LA to publicly heckle his own teammate and show the first sign of his true resentment toward the Spaniard. Go Team!

Tirreno-Adriatico provides some early season sprints, climbs and TT’s as well as a podium of sketchiness in Scarponi, Garzelli and Kloden. Tyler Farrar manages to surprise a distracted Mark Cavendish and beats the Manxman to the line, thereby allowing the American media to fool itself into thinking he might do it again. Understandably, Cavendish holds a grudge and goes on to frustrate the American for the rest of the year.

Milan-Sanremo is perhaps my favorite race, and the 2009 edition of the event confirms its reputation as a Classic. The biggest question is always who can get over the final climbs in good position for the finish although it seems that the sprinters have little difficulty handling them these days. This is again evidenced by Mark Cavendish having enough energy to burst from the pack in the closing meters to nip a courageous Heinrich Haussler in a photo finish after nearly 300 kilometers. If you listen closely, you can hear all of the other sprinters emitting a collective groan as they realize MC is only 23 years old.

April: The Tour of Flanders is an amazingly complex and difficult race, which makes it somewhat odd that the 2009 edition plays out almost exactly the same as the prior year. Similar to 2008, everyone follows Tom Boonen and ends up watching Stijn Devolder ride away with the race. Good for Belgium, not so good for Filippo Pozzato, who confirms his status as Boonen’s Spring shadow.

Norwegians are cool and Ghent-Wevelgem gives a glimpse at the future of Nordic bike racing goodness. Despite the truly bothersome phonetics of his name, Edvald Boasson Hagen is going to be a good one for the Classics and the sprints in years to come. He’s like a younger, Scandinavian Tom Boonen. The only thing that is unfortunate is his apparent ignorance of cycling history. And his haircut.

Later, in Paris-Roubaix Pozzato again plays the role of greasy-haired follower as Boonen rides steadily away from a bunch of people who can’t manage to stay on their bikes. Thor Hushovd is in a great position to get into the Roubaix velodrome with Boonen but decks it into the crowd as the Belgian rides away for his third win.

In the hilly classics, a Russian guy with the most Russian name ever (Sergei Ivanov) wins Amstel Gold for a Russian team, an apparent cheater nicknamed after a cartoon character (Tin-Tin) wins Fleche-Wallone, and Andy Schleck rights the wrongs of the 2008 Liege-Bastogne-Liege with an impressive win in La Doyenne.

May: The Giro d’Italia becomes a farce as Danilo DiLuca defies all rational thought and actually contends for the overall victory. Despite the semi-obvious ridiculousness of DiLuca and his drug-ridden performance, Denis Menchov proves too strong and too robotic to beat, securing his third Grand Tour victory ahead of names like Basso, Armstrong and Sastre. As usual, Menchov crashes in the final time trial, perhaps just to remind us that he is not a cyborg. One would think that robots would be better bike handlers.

June: The Dauphine-Libere again proves to be a strange event as Alejandro Valverde wins for the second year in a row. Perhaps Valv.Piti is more motivated than his competitors since he is not allowed to race in Italy and is prohibited from competing in the upcoming Tour de France. Interestingly, Alberto Contador seems more than willing to let his compatriot take the victory, perhaps hinting that he will rely on Spanish support during the Tour.

In Switzerland, Fabian Cancellara wins a Tour de Suisse that could not be more suited to his capabilities. Nevertheless, after a mediocre Spring campaign Fab-Can shows that he will be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season.

July: For anyone really paying attention, the Tour de France is a formality as Alberto Contador proves, yet again, that he is on another level. Despite media efforts to create competitive tension, the race is essentially over the moment Contador finishes the prologue in Monaco. Nobody is going to beat Cancellara for the first yellow jersey but the Spaniard is faster than Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and a full 22 seconds in front of Armstrong after only 15 kilometers. No one can drop him (or even stay with him) in the mountains, and Contador goes on to win the final time trial as well, raising eyebrows and crushing dreams along the route around Lake Annecy.

Understanding that Contador is going to win unless Lance is willing to stick a pump in his spokes, the remainder of the Tour is an open audition for the future 2nd and 3rd place finishers over the next few years of Spanish spider monkey-style dominance. Andy Schleck seems to be a contender in the mountains but will have to get a lot better in the TT’s while Wiggins holds his own on the climbs but will have to prove that he is truly deserving of recognition as a future contender to Contador’s throne. If anything, the 2009 Tour de France proves that AC is not quick to back down and may have as much inner fury as his pseudo-teammate from Texas. This is scary.

Also scary is the fact that Mark Cavendish is virtually unbeatable in bunch sprints. Never before in my experience has someone dominated finishes the way that Columbia and Cavendish did in 2009. As such, the final stage on the Champs Elysees is the most impressive victory of the entire Tour, as George Hincapie crushes the run-in on a broken collarbone (almost single-handedly destroying the Garmin train) and sets up Mark Renshaw and Cavendish for the easiest and most convincing sprint finish I have ever seen. On the biggest stage possible.

August: Despite many near-misses throughout the year, Tyler Farrar finally catches a bit of momentum with an impressive win at Vattenfalls and a near-sweep of the Eneco Tour. Unfortunately, very few people have ever heard of these races.

Back in the States, Big George Hincapie uses his post-Tour, post-broken collarbone fitness to ride away with a third USPRO Championship in his hometown. After getting jobbed by Garmin-Slipstream during the Tour, Melanie’s husband gets a popular win in the Road Race as Dave Zabriskie saves face for the Argyle Armada and takes home yet another Captain America skinsuit in the Time Trial.

September: Despite Pat McQuaid’s prayers and ongoing battles regarding Operacion Puerto, Alejandro Valverde actually rides an intelligent race and wins the Vuelta Espana. Cadel Evans suffers extremely bad luck and Tom Danielson continues to subject the world to flashes of brilliance followed by painful disappointment. As screwed up as it seems, very few people are surprised by any of this. On the positive side, Tyler Farrar, Ryder Hesjedal and David Millar all win stages for Garmin-Slipstream, continuing a solid late-season rush that they all wish would have happened a couple months earlier.

In the Show Me State, Dave Zabriskie time trials his way to victory in the Tour of Missouri. Interestingly, the win is the first for DZ in a stage race and he is put under intense pressure for the final days of the event, despite the generally false assumption that Missouri is flat.

The World Championships are held in Switzerland and Fabian Cancellara comes very close to pulling off a truly amazing TT/RR double-gold performance. After destroying everyone in the TT, Fab-Can seems to be the strongest in the Road Race but falls victim to a late attack by Cadel Evans who goes on to a solo victory. No one argues that Evans is not worthy of the win but I have to wonder if we will ever witness someone come that close to wearing both professional rainbow jerseys.

October: Philippe Gilbert corners the market on late-season form and goes on a tear, winning four post-Worlds races in a row. The biggest win comes in the Giro di Lombardia as the Belgian shows his all-around skill by hanging with Sammy Sanchez on the final climb and descent before handling the Olympic champion in the final sprint. It remains to be seen whether Gilbert can keep his momentum through the offseason and challenge for some of the Spring Classics but if the final weeks of the 2009 season are any indication, he will be a confident challenger in 2010, despite his weird shoe design.

All in all, 2009 was a pretty entertaining year in the cycling world. Sure, there were many things that I did not recall in this process and there are many reasons that the aforementioned events stuck out to me, good and bad. But at the end of the day (or year), bike racing continued to provide a welcome diversion from the mundanity of my existence and yet again confirmed my optimism for the upcoming season. I can only hope that 2010 turns out better than 2009 on every level. Especially for Chris Horner.


Sebastian said...

Indeed, perhaps only the only thing that can stop Mark Cavendish is the Mayan Calendar itself.

Anyway, for me the big let-down of the year was the Tour of California route. All this hubbub about moving to May and becoming a Grand Tour and doing the Sierras and then . . . Huh? Visalia to Bakersfield?

CaliRado Cyclist said...

Manxman and Mayan are kind of similar words...Coincidence?

Yeah, I'm bummed that they dropped the Solvang TT for 2010 too. The Giro is getting too hard to be a Tour-prep race so maybe the calendar move will be good for the ToC. The weather will be better at least.

Thanks for still reading.

Sebastian said...

By the way - re: EBH and yesterday's Sky presentation - what do you make of the escalating Team Cinzano Look-Alike Contest between Cerrvelo, Caisse-D'Epargne, and now Sky?