The 10 biggest cycling stories of 2013

Andrew Hood reviews his 10 biggest stories of the year, from Horner to Froome, and everything in between

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There was no lack of headlines in 2013, a year that proved crucial to cycling’s transition toward a cleaner, more credible future.

It seemed that cycling’s past was generating just as much buzz as what was happening in the races, with a dynamic and exhilarating racing season sometimes being overshadowed by off-road drama. The Lance Armstrong scandal continued to churn throughout 2013, and coupled with the no-holds-barred UCI election, there was never a dull day in 2013.

Beyond the scandal-driven headlines was racing across the elite men’s calendar that was as exciting, unpredictable, and thrilling as cycling should be.

Today’s generation is getting fed up with questions about what happened years before, and in 2013, they more than held up their end of the bargain. Here’s a look at the top 10 stories of 2013.

10. Horner wins Vuelta

Chris Horner’s victory at the Vuelta a España did more than set a new, likely never-to-be-broken record as the oldest winner of a grand tour at 41; it also kicked open a hornet’s nest of incredulity. It seems that just about everyone was scratching their heads in a collective, “really?”

As Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) dispatched one GC favorite after another with calm resolve, the more some simply couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Horner did his best to brush off the doubters, insisting that the 68th edition of the Spanish tour simply presented the popular veteran with his first chance of his long career to truly race for the GC in a grand tour, with good health, and without the baggage of sacrificing for a team captain.

Horner told fans they could believe his Vuelta victory, and when the final controls returned clean, the conversation was over. Unfortunately for Horner, his victory coincided with an odd marketplace, and instead of cashing in on a huge victory and the UCI points that came with it, Horner was still shopping for a ride in late December. It’s hard to imagine the peloton without Horner in 2014, but whatever happens, he will go down in history as the first American to win the Vuelta, and the oldest person ever to win a grand tour.

9. Armstrong confesses/Operación Puerto trial

Early in 2013 saw two stories from the ghosts of doping past put cycling on the front pages for all the wrong reasons.

The first was the day that no one ever thought they’d see; Lance Armstrong confessing that he doped. The opening 20 minutes of the Oprah Winfrey interview in January were riveting. The fallout of the Armstrong scandal continues to rumble across the peloton, but his confession marked a clear breaking point from the past.

Barely a month later came the long-delayed Operación Puerto trial. Though not quite packing the punch of the well-produced Oprah-Armstrong show, the Puerto trial had its moments. Star witnesses Tyler Hamilton and Jörg Jaksche offered new, sometimes-grisly details on how blood doping truly worked. And it wasn’t pretty, or nearly as sophisticated as many were led to believe. Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes might have sold himself as a Svengali who could turn a mule into a racehorse, but he proved to be little more than charlatan with a refrigerator full of blood bags.

When Hamilton described how his urine turned black after a botched blood re-infusion, there was no doubt that cycling had reached its absolute nadir.

8. Talansky rises; Tejay wins

In sharp contrast were breakout performances by two Americans from a very different time and place. Jonathan Vaughters calls him the “Pit Bull,” and in 2013, Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) showed the world why. After posting impressive results in his first two seasons in the bigs, the 25-year-old raised his game yet again in 2013, winning a stage and riding to second overall at Paris-Nice.

Yet it was during an intense, hard-fought Tour debut that Talansky proved he has the guts and confidence to be a player. He never gave up, fighting all the way to Paris to snag a morale-boosting top-10 result.

It was equally as important a season for Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who finally punched his way into the winner’s column. Ever since his impressive rookie season in 2010, when he quickly proved he has World Tour pedigree, van Garderen was growing desperate for a stage race victory after a growing list of podiums. He scored his first pro stage race wins in encouraging fashion at both the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.

Those W’s will help ease the pressure as Van Garderen rides into 2014 as BMC’s outright leader for the Tour. America’s GC hopes are secure with Talansky and Van Garderen, and 2013 proved decisive to both.

7. Costa sinks Spanish armada

The Florence world championships delivered one of the most exciting finales in years. Spain had the numbers, Vincenzo Nibali had the home-road advantage, but Rui Costa had the legs. In the searing attacks of the closing laps, Costa had the head and legs to out-fox Nibali, outwit a hapless Alejandro Valverde, and then out-kick Joaquim Rodríguez in a stirring drag race to the line.

The 2013 world championships reminded everyone just how engaging a race for the rainbow jersey can be.

6. Cancellara-Sagan mash-up

Everyone says that Peter Sagan (Cannondale) is going to win a bundle of classics, but the pundits clearly didn’t ask Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard). The 2013 northern classics provided a battle for the ages between cycling’s proven king of the cobbles and his would-be usurper.

Cancellara delivered some of his most sublime performances of his career en route to a sweep across the cobbles, with victories at E3 Harelbeke, Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and Paris-Roubaix, increasing his career haul of monuments to six.

Sagan surely took some lessons out of 2013, when he was undeniably the strongest rider of the spring, but got stuck in second at Milano-Sanremo, Strade Bianche, E3 Harelbeke, and Flanders. His wins at Ghent-Wevelgem and Brabantse Pijl reminded everyone just how good he is. For 2014, the Cancellara-Sagan mash-up should be even better.

5. Kittel tops Cavendish

Sometimes the earth can move without realizing it. That’s what happened during this year’s Tour de France, when Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) finally ran into a rival that he couldn’t beat. It took a while to grasp what was happening as it unfolded over the course of three weeks of intense battles in the sprints.

After Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) won the opening stage in Corsica ahead of a crash-filled finale, with the Orica-GreenEdge bus barely out of the way, many saw it as a well-deserved, one-off victory. Then Kittel did it again, and again, reconfirming the big German ace’s kick. But when Kittel beat Cavendish on the Champs-Élysées, which had become Cannonball Alley after Cav’s four straight wins in the Tour finale, the German confirmed his arrival.

Cav’s not done yet, and Kittel will quickly learn that sprinters are only as good as their last sprint, but Kittel’s Tour performance saw a tectonic shift in the sprinter hierarchy.

4. Quintana and the Colombians

Colombia resurfaced as an international force in the peloton with daring fashion throughout 2013. The South American nation has been one of cycling’s hotbeds for decades, but following the initial boom in the 1980s and early 1990s, Colombian cyclists seemed to get lost in the woodwork. There were the occasional wins here and there, but all that changed in 2013.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) led a stampede of a new generation of “escarabajos,” who re-confirmed their place in the peloton with a string of escapades that arched across the entire season. Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) lit up the Ardennes and reached the Giro podium with the best young rider and the best climber’s jersey. Rigoberto Urán (Sky) won a stage and rode to second in the Giro d’Italia, while Sergio Henao (Sky) confirmed his rising talent with a stage victory at the Vuelta a País Vasco.

Team Colombia, riding with more confidence in its second full season, is serving as a breeding ground for young South American talent. Yet it was the pint-sized Quintana who stood tall, riding to second place and both the best young rider’s and climber’s jerseys at the Tour — the best ever result for a Colombian in the annual race through France. Some observers noted that Quintana achieved in one Tour what all of Colombian cycling had achieved over the past three decades.

It now seems only a matter of time — and a question of the right kind of Tour course — before a Colombian will be standing on the top step in Paris.

3. Nibali’s near-perfect season

The VeloNews editorial team had quite an internal debate this fall over who should receive the Cyclist of the Year award. It eventually went to Chris Froome (Sky), but Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was neck-and-neck all the way to the season’s final races. “The Shark of Messina” uncorked a near-perfect season that arched from February to October, winning Tirreno-Adriatico and Giro del Trentino until dominating the Giro, with two stage wins and his first pink jersey.

After a break to skip the Tour and reload for the fall, Nibali nearly won the Vuelta a España, only to be ambushed by Horner. Nibali also just fell short of winning the rainbow jersey on home roads, taking fourth out of the winning move. 2013 proved a huge confirmation season for Nibali. Throughout the year, the Italian showed he can handle the pressure of leading a big team, and will enter 2014 as Froome’s No. 1 threat. If he can manage to knock back the Sky leader, there won’t be much of a debate who will be “Cyclist of the Year” in 2014.

2. Cookson’s election

2013 was a season in which there were just as many headlines about the politics and controversy in the backrooms as there were about what was happening on the road. Allegations of payoffs, bribes, and cover-ups that oozed out of the Armstrong investigation threatened to engulf the UCI.

When Brian Cookson, the head of the British cycling federation, decided to throw his hat into the ring, the UCI election became one of the top stories of the year. Cookson presented a formidable opponent to two-term president Pat McQuaid, who stubbornly decided to stand for re-election despite losing the support of both his native Irish and then his adopted Swiss federations.

When Cookson won the election in a drama-filled UCI Congress in September, it marked a clear departure from the McQuaid-Hein Verbruggen era, and provided hope for a new beginning.

Cookson has stampeded out of the gates, replacing key personnel within the UCI and bringing new voices into the federation’s power structure, including the UCI’s first female vice president. Cookson promises to deliver on his call for an independent review of the allegations leveled against the UCI, something he hopes to unveil early in 2014. With the UCI’s reputation in tatters, Cookson has his hands full, but his election victory gave hope to those who believe that cycling can start anew under Cookson’s leadership.

1. Froome rules France

There was no story bigger in 2013 than Froome and his Tour de France victory. The faster he pedaled and the more he emaciated his rivals, the more the doubters doubted, but Froome proved implacable, winning the first of what could be many yellow jerseys.

Backed by state-of-the-art science and training at Sky, Froome was a man among boys during the Tour, winning two stages and taking the claws out of rivals such as Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). And it wasn’t just that he won cycling’s biggest race, it was how he did it and what it stood for that made Froome’s victory so important.

If we are to believe that Froome is clean — and there is every indication that he is — then the enormity of his achievement is remarkable. In fact, in the context of the EPO era and how far cycling has changed its paradigm, Froome’s victory, along with every other rider who is racing and winning clean in the peloton, should rank as one of the most important achievements in cycling history.

Froome and his generation represent a massive change in a sport that was synonymous with doping. Thanks to Froome, and the efforts to clean up the sport, the future of cycling heads into a dramatically different direction. For 2014, the headlines might just be about racing. Let’s hope that’s the case.

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