Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images
Being a cycling fan these days consists mostly of talking about races from the past in a wistful, “that was awesome!” kind of way. There have been a lot of great races. Sometimes more than one in a single year. So … with all this time on our hands… maybe we should ask, what was the best year to be a cycling fan?
A few ground rules, to keep the fighting to a minimum. First, I am only going to choose among the years from 1980 to now, and honestly I can’t say much about anything before 1985. But given that a number of us are from the western hemisphere, where anything approximating live video was nonexistent until Phil Liggett said it was OK to show cycling to us, well, there is no point in waxing poetic over what I think may have happened in 1968.
Next, let’s throw out some potential ingredients one might expect to use in concocting the ultimate cycling year.
- Super awesome action in the monuments, grand tours, and what the hell, the Worlds and Olympics.
- Charismatic champions… legends, even. Doing legendary things.
- Compelling diversity of protagonists (somewhat at odds with legends being legends but hey, you can have the blueberry scone or the cherry almond one, they’re both delish).
- Maybe even a notable era of some sort, like the Mapei Years or the Boonen-Cancellara era. Some sort of longitudinal excellence that was happening in the year in question.
- Memorable Firsts can be a nice cherry on top.
Feel free to supplement the criteria here.
Classics Winners: Alaphilippe (MSR), Bettiol (RvV), Gilbert (P-R), Fuglsang (LBL), Mollema (Lombardia)
Grand Tour Winners: Carapaz (Giro), Bernal (Tour), Roglic (Vuelta)
World Champion: Pedersen
Recency bias? Maybe, but the diversity and surprise in the grand tour results were like nothing seen since 1988, or arguably ever, as two countries far outside the inner circle of cycling won their first ever three-week race, while a third completed its nearly forty-year quest to win the Tour. The riders themselves — Carapaz, Bernal and Roglic — are part of an astonishing wave of talent that is poised to take over the entire sport. Each of the tours saw additional youngsters just out of the winner’s circle, guys like Buchmann, Pogacar, Lopez Higuita and Sivakov, all of whom have what it takes to compete for the ultimate glory.
The classics and the World Championships were all refreshing enough, with new winners up and down the stat sheet. Alaphilippe continued his rise to stardom with a win in MSR from a small group where he wasn’t considered the best sprinter. Bettiol, brimming with newfound confidence and strength, took de Ronde in classic solo form. Fuglsang in Liege and Mollema in Lombardia featured convincing wins by veteran riders due for a big splash. And Gilbert’s victory in Paris-Roubaix brought him, improbably, to the brink of a career sweep of the Monuments. Pederson at Worlds was a worthy and likeable winner, after a week of thumping results. And despite all that, 2019 might be best remembered as the year Mathieu van der Poel started his assault on the sport, taking four classic wins including a victory in the Amstel Gold Race that still has Dutch fans speechless.
The grand tours themselves weren’t the most dramatic contests. Carapaz won the Giro with a solo win at Cormayeur on stage 14, while Roglic pounded the competition at the Vuelta into submission with a stage 10 time trial win. Bernal’s victory came on a day when he had escaped and was soaring to a landmark victory, only for a mudslide to prematurely end the stage before the final climb.
Classics Winners: Goss (MSR), Nuyens (RvV), Van Summeren (P-R), Gilbert (LBL), Zaugg (Lombardia)
Grand Tour Winners: Scarponi (Giro), Evans (Tour), Froome (Vuelta)
World Champion: Cavendish
Plenty of thrilling results, including the results behind the results. The Giro was terrible in almost every conceivable way, but things rebounded with a Tour which will be remembered for the majestic rides of Andy Schleck and the well-deserved breakthrough win for Cadel Evans and the generally overdue for greatness Aussie cycling universe. Tyler Farrar winning a Tour stage was both historic for US cycling and poignant, following the death of his friend Wouter Weylandt. The Vuelta was a wild ride, ending in an 11” victory for JJ Cobo, which was eventually thrown out and awarded to the race’s most interesting protagonist, a then-not-well-known Chris Froome.
Big start to the Coming British Hegemony, which included an otherwise boring Worlds win for the love-him-or-hate-him guy of the decade, Mark Cavendish. These milestones teed up 2012 with the Tour and London Olympics.
The spring season was generally cool, with surprise wins in four of the five monuments, plus a side of history in the Ardennes. Goss in MSR was another Aussie first and Nuyens was a similar surprise, both riders pipping Cancellara and other stars in small sprints. Then the Stop Fabian Movement went into high gear in Roubaix, resulting in Van Summeren’s mega-shock win.
In the Ardennes, the upsets came to a screeching halt, but even that got dramatic as Gilbert completed the first Climbers’ Classics Quadruple (Brabantse Pijl plus the three Ardennes races). He got plenty of competition for best spring ever in this Boonen-Cancellara era, but when you add in this feat, the fact that the Ardennes Triple had only been done once before by David Rebellin (so really, it had never happened legitimately). Then add in his win at Strade Bianche, and his near miss at MSR (third) and… dear god.
The deaths of Weylandt and Xavier Tondo hang heavy over this season, as does the hollow Giro win of Michele Scarponi, who also died tragically a few years later. I think if we are talking about which season makes us happiest to recall, this is disqualifying.
Classics Winners: Freire (MSR), Cancellara (RvV), Cancellara (P-R), Vinokourov (LBL), Gilbert (Lombardia)
Grand Tour Winners: Basso (Giro), Schleck (Tour), Nibali (Vuelta)
World Champion: Hushovd
My last choice for the post-Postal, maybe-not-so-doped era. [Just a warning that this whole exercise gets murky for about 15 years.] Oh, and I have to acknowledge my bias here, having been by the roadside for several of the classics. But it was an incredible spring, and an exciting, almost too exciting, set of grand tours.
After a chalk win for Freire in MSR, the Belgian Classics witnessed the Cancellara-Boonen Era kicking into full swing. The Swiss Bear completely dominated and pulled his subtly awesome career up to the superstar level, beating Boonen cleverly in E3 Prijs and powering away from him in legendary fashion in both Flanders and Roubaix. The vision of the two side-by-side, in their iconic national champion jerseys, is one of the sport’s all-time great visuals. Gilbert continued to expand his resume with wins in Amstel and Lombardia and just missed a few others, including losing to Eisel and who’s-that-guy Sep Vanmarcke in a rowdy Gent-Wevelgem. Vinokourov’s LBL win was peak Vino, for good or ill.
Then things got fun(ish?), with a Giro that went to Ivan Basso (boo!), but not until David Arroyo faltered on the climb to Aprica after the Mortirolo — a stage success powered by young Vincenzo Nibali. The Tour was even more bizarre, won by Contador over Schleck thanks to Chain-gate, the unsolvable ethical debate about how to treat a rival’s mechanical issues. The reality is that the two were dead even, to the second, but for Chain-gate, which is pretty cool. And when Contador ate a piece of bad steak, the title got flipped to Schleck, which is pretty… I don’t know. But for all those shenanigans, the Vuelta cleaned our collective palates with a gutty Nibali victory over Zeke Mosquera that hung in the balance all the way up the race’s final climb. Hushovd’s world title in Australia was slightly surprising but mostly perfect.
This year can be summed up as one of peak performances by riders of the immediate post-Lance era, most of whom are retired or grudgingly giving way to another completely new and distinct era. Obviously the scourge of doping still hangs over this season, but not as heavily as the stretch from ‘91-’05, pre-Operacion Puerto. And even with that hint of misery, we mostly regard the guys from this year with real respect for them and their accomplishments.
Vino and Basso are two of the more shameless deniers from the Puerto realm. Also the Cancellara solo wins, legendary though they may be, weren’t quite down to the wire affairs.
Classics Winners: Freire (MSR), Ballan (RvV), O’Grady (P-R), Di Luca (LBL), Cunego (Lombardia)
Grand Tour Winners: Di Luca (Giro), Contador (Tour), Menchov (Vuelta)
World Champion: Bettini
I’m not going to pitch this year too hard, but it certainly had its moments. Ballan’s Flanders win was brilliantly executed (shout out to Danele Bennati) and a huge upset over the seemingly invincible Boonen. I might have cried that day. For O’Grady to do in Quick Step again a week later was even more delicious, provided you aren’t even slightly Flemish. Cunego deserves more love and his Lombardia victory, second of his three wins, was exciting enough even before you consider that he took out Ricardo Ricco in the sprint, thankfully.
Di Luca’s Giro win had some pretty cool elements to it at the time, the first Mezzogiorno win in forever, and what seemed like one for the Classics riders as Di Luca made time on the punchier hills and hung on for dear life on the bigger climbs. The Tour got positively wild, with two leaders (Vino and the Chicken) thrown off the race and a dramatic three-way penultimate stage battle won by Contador over Evans and Leipheimer, one of the most dramatic time trials of the era. Likeable Linus Gerdemann gave the race an early cleansing after the doping mess of 2006. And Cancellara overtaking the camera moto during the London prologue was fucking legend.
So. Much. Doping. The “new clean era” turned out to be the “slightly cleaner but not really era” and only a few of these highlights feel unsullied to me. You broke my heart, Ballan. You broke my heart!
Classics Winners: Pozzato (MSR), Boonen (RvV), Cancellara (P-R), Valverde (LBL), Bettini (Lombardia)
Grand Tour Winners: Basso (Giro), Uhh (Tour), Vinokourov (Vuelta)
World Champion: Bettini
So much insanity. Pozzato won MSR with his and his teammate Boonen’s arms in the air, having snuck away from the front group, mere meters ahead of the big-name sprinters, in a tactically brilliant final km. Flanders saw Boonen raise his arms in the rainbow jersey, Flemish Nirvana, over Leif Ho/ste. But his dreams of a second Double got smothered in an avalanche of drama, first as Cancellara snuck away on a brilliant attack, and then in the madness of the train gate coming down, causing the chasing trio to be disqualified for crossing ahead of a train (successfully and just sparing us the most horrible TV-watching moment of our lives) and an insurmountable delay for the Boonen chase group. I still can’t believe what we were watching.
Valverde padded his emerging mega-status with two Ardennes wins, plus intrepid Frank Schleck in Amstel with probably his biggest ever win. And World Champion/Lombardia winner Bettini wrote a sort of Greek tragedy final chapter to the season, accomplishing his biggest goal by taking the rainbow jersey, only for that jersey to end up streaked in tears as a devastated Cricket won Lombardia two weeks later, weeping for his brother Sauro who died in a car crash in between races.
On the grand tour side of the menu, only the Tour is worth mentioning, but… good lord. On the eve of the race Operacion Puerto blew wide open and almost all of the favorites were kicked out before it began. That left a group of marginal contenders, who proceeded to behave like marginal contenders, until an enraged Floyd Landis rebounded from losing the maillot jaune at La Toussuire and went on an utterly savage 120km attack that briefly seemed like one of the greatest moments in Tour de France history. It was so great that, even knowing what we know now, I still can’t help but feel a guilty pleasure watching him smack down the likes of Pereiro, Kloden and Schleck.
Hardly bears repeating, they’re so obvious. But at the time, these were unbelievable moments.
OK, from here I had trouble coming up with a sustainable narrative for any year until the Glorious 80s. If you want to do an ode to Mapei or something, be my guest. I thought about 1998 as a possibility, with Pantani’s wins being the highlight, but there’s no way the 1998 Tour is on anyone’s list of happy memories. 97? meh, Ullrich. 96? Meh, Riis. The Lance Years? No way. Not even 2003.
From there, several years from the 1980s have their merits, but there is one that looms so large over the others, I think I’ll just write that one up and call it good. Details from that far back get sort of hard to conjure up anyway.
Classics Winners: Kuiper (MSR), Vanderaerden (RvV), Madiot (P-R), Argentin (LBL), Kelly (Lombardia)
Grand Tour Winners: Hinault (Giro), Hinault (Tour), Delgado (Vuelta)
World Champion: Zoetemelk
Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between actual legend and that which feels like legend because we have talked about it so much, but I don’t think we will have any such problems here. That list of names directly above this paragraph needs no embellishment, just true great after true great. And it only begins to tell the story.
Kuiper, a first-ballot hall of fame rider, capped off his brilliant career by winning his fourth monument (missing only LBL from his resume), an exciting MSR win where he caught and passed the leaders coming off the Poggio. Next, Kuiper’s generation began to give way to the next wave at Gent-Wevelgem, where supposedly Vanderaerden beat Phil Anderson in a sprint, although if bars were open in Flanders now, at least one of them would be hosting an argument as to who actually won that day.
Back then, GW took place in the middle of Holy Week, and this lovely day was bookended by two complete monsoons. Vanderaerden won the Ronde van Vlaanderen in conditions so cold and miserable that only 24 riders finished and riders could be seen shouldering their bikes not just up the Koppenberg but on the Muur as well. Vanderaerden was the youngest Ronde winner of the post-war years, and he nearly accomplished the historic Holy Week Triple at Paris-Roubaix when he had a solo lead late in the race before giving way to … uh, well, there was a lot of action. Riding in slightly less apocalytpic weather but a course completely coated in mud, Vanderaerden came around three-time winner Francesco Moser, who slid down off the crown of the cobbles and tumbled into a ditch. But behind him a field of Tour studs plus the cobbles kings from Renault gave chase and eventually caught Vanderaerden. One of those Renaults, Marc Madiot, surged away for his career-defining victory, followed by his teammate Bruno Wojtiek. The battle for third featured a velodrome crash and Sean Kelly pipping Greg Lemond for the last podium spot. Everyone was so covered in mud they looked like actors from a minstrel show. No wonder that after watching this race, my first ever exposure to the sport of pro cycling, I was hooked for life.
Argentin and Kelly cemented their growing legends in the two remaining monuments, and ageless Zoetemelk’s Worlds title capped off his own extraordinary career which included the most Tour participations, one of which ended in Yellow.
OK, enough of that, because the grand tours are what make this year pure gold. The 1985 Vuelta (held in spring back then) is best remembered as the time when Scottish climber Philippa York, then known as Robert Millar, seemed to have the race in hand until the penultimate stage, when Pedro Delgado snuck away for a decisive win. I mean snuck because Millar was unaware for a long time that Delgado was up the road. Oh, and Delgado got help from another Spaniard, Jose Recio, who was not his teammate. Meanwhile Millar was isolated and got no help in the chase, and Delgado reversed a more than six minute gap to take the “stolen Vuelta.”
The Giro was tame by comparison, although Bernard Hinault’s win signaled to the world that he was back in business after two years of injury, and the appearance of the 7-Eleven team got taken seriously after the Americans won a pair of stages. And in case the peloton didn’t get the message, Hinault went on to win the Tour too. But that Tour… I mean, books have been written about it. Hinault won on a course that heavily favored his time trial skills, eeking out a victory over his teammate LeMond when… well, Hinault had crashed heavily at the end of a transition stage in St-Etienne, and looked like he was maybe fading out of the lead in the Pyrenees, with LeMond poised to take over, following Steven Roche to glory. But his Directeur, Paul Koechli, held him back to preserve Hinault’s lead, which led to another bonkers soap opera of a Tour in 1986. Anyway, apart from the GC chase, you had Kelly taking the points competition, Luis Herrera in polka dots as the first great Colombian climber to influence the Tour. Stage wins by Herrera and Fabio Parra in the Alps, and by future Tour winners Delgado, Roche and LeMond in the final week. There was even a thoroughly cobbled stage to Roubaix, won by Henri Manders, following some very classics-style attacking.
Oh, and 1985 was a gear milestone season, from the Look pedals that ended toe clips to the Oakley face shields that ended… uh, subtlety in eyewear?
The best you can do here is pointing out that Renault were in a down phase after Hinault and then LeMond broke off to form La Vie Claire, and Renault’s new captain, two-time winner Laurent Fignon, couldn’t answer the bell in ‘85 thanks to a knee injury. As crazy as it all was, Hinault won from a position of heavy favorite rather than being pushed to the limit by Fignon. We never got the Hinault-Fignon duel we deserved… so we got the LeMond-Fignon battle instead. I’m not complaining.