Essays / s /

December 31, 2009

To look back on a fabulous decade or forward to a new one - that is the question facing me as 2009 becomes 2010 and a new season awaits right around the corner. It doesn't help that the most dominating figure of the past decade – Lance Armstrong – is still going strong on ambition and rude health, and may stretch his incredible career a year or two into this new era. Even his new Radio Shack team is a product and an extension of the Postal and Discovery teams that took Lance though those Tour de France wins between 1999 and 2005. To stretch the yarn a bit more, the only other Tour rider to dominate the last ten years – Alberto Contador – will be facing Armstrong as the new decade opens. So nothing's really changed, right? Wrong. A lot has changed, for behind the Lance-Alberto duet that has bookended the decade just ending, a whole new phalanx of racers is doing its level best to emerge – and emerge they will!

A serious look back anyway. Armstrong's second Tour victory in 2000 came after a first-ever battle with Jan Ullrich in a Tour that also saw Marco Pantani enter the fray again. The year 2000 will be remembered by many people for the Sydney Olympics, where Ullrich rode supreme against all-comers in a Games that may never be bettered. I've been to Athens and Beijing since, and will most likely make it to London in 2012 as well – but nothing will beat that fabulous memory of Sydney, surely one of the world's greatest cities. Sydney saw the likeable Marty Nothstein win a sprinting Gold and Jason Queally win the 1-Kilo event – great milestones for American and British track-racing.

In a sporting sense, 2001 can only be remembered for the way in which Armstrong won his third Tour against a highly motivated Ullrich, The German made a hero of himself that year, attacking Lance time and time again even after a nasty crash in the Pyrenees had ruined his final chances. New York City's 9/11 was by far the most significant event of the new century, and it certainly took the shine off that year's Vuelta, which saw Levi Leipheimer secure a brilliant 3rd-place and launch a memorable career for himself. Coming as it did after the win in Ghent-Wevelgem by George Hincapie, American emotions were highly mixed by the end of the year. But it hadn't gone unnoticed that Ullrich won the World time trial championships in Lisbon – there was still plenty to come from the gutsy '97 Tour winner.

I'll mostly remember 2002 for Mario Cipollini 's stunning win in the world road championships in Belgium. By far the most charismatic cyclist the sport has ever seen, Cipollini defied the passing years to win a mass-sprint after Italian teammates had controlled the race all day. When your camera viewfinder has been filled with so many great images by the man, Cipo's win meant that little bit more to me than if just about anyone else had won. 2002 was a year that saw Armstrong take his easiest Tour win, and Johan Museeuw his third Paris-Roubaix. Paolo Savoldelli won the Giro after attacking race-leader, Cadel Evans. Aitor Gonzalez won the Tour of Spain on the very last day, in a time trial that ended inside the infamous soccer stadium of Real Madrid.

2003 saw Armstrong face his toughest battle in the Tour – yet he still won. In a season that saw Peter Van Petegem win a Flanders-Roubaix double, Tyler Hamilton take Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Gilberto Simoni the Giro – and Roberto Heras the Vuelta, it was Armstrong's swashbuckling battle with Ullrich that I remember the most; it's still the most exciting Tour I have ever seen! I'll never forget the suspense of that last week – the fighting comeback at Luz-Ardiden, the nerve-wracking TT, on rain-slick roads, in Brittany, and the final – hysterical – parade of honor into Paris. Let's not forget though, that this was a season tarnished by the victories of David Millar and Igor Astarloa in the World Championships. Astarloa has now ended his career with the suspicion he cheated in Hamilton, while Millar's eventual admission of EPO-use saw his TT title taken away and given to Michael Rogers instead.

2004 was dominated by the Athens Olympics, despite Armstrong taking a record 6th Tour de France win – and with ease! It was the track titles that stay most in my mind – a series of races that elevated the roof of the velodrome into the dark and starry Greek night. Bradley Wiggins won Gold in the pursuit, Chris Hoy did the same in the 1-kilo – but it was the Aussies who won the week, led by Ryan Bayley in the sprint and Kierin, Stuart O'Grady in the Madison, and the four man pursuit who broke the world record and shattered British dreams. The Aussies didn't win it all though – a Kiwi lady, Sarah Ulmer, beat Katie Mactier to take a thrilling pursuit Gold – beating Mactier's world record time in the semi-final! The road-race was won by Paolo Bettini in a simple last-lap attack, while Tyler Hamilton won the TT against Viatscheslav Ekimov and Bobby Julich. Let's not forget that 2004 was totally ruined by Hamilton's later drug-bust in the Vuelta, that cast a huge doubt over his Athens title. And 2004 saw the death of Marco Pantani at the age of just 34 – tragic stuff indeed.

In a scenario many people hope Lance will repeat in 2010, the Texan took new sponsor Discovery to the heavens by winning a 7th Tour de France in 2005. Discovery also won the Giro through Savoldelli, while Hincapie had his best-ever season by winning the prologue and a mountain stage of the Dauphiné before also taking a Pyrenean stage of that historical Tour! Lance won the Tour but just one stage – saving his best until the very last TT, just to prove the point that he could have won more if he'd wanted. Because of his astonishing record, because of his immediate retirement, and because the sport seemed lost without him, the remainder of the 2005 season will only be remembered for Tom Boonen's scorching victory in the world road championship in Madrid. Boonen had already done a Flanders-Roubaix double in April, but having a Belgian wearing that Arc-en-Ciel jersey lightened late-season blues. For Vuelta winner, Roberto Heras, had come up positive for EPO use…

2006 saw the first-ever Tour of California, sending American fans into orbit, so spectacular was this first edition. Highway One got closed for a day, and even the fickle weather made a reversal of its normally rainy self as the race headed south. Back in Europe, Tom Boonen won Flanders as World Champion, Nico Mattan won Ghent-Wevelgem after being paced by an official's car, and Fabian Cancellara won Paris-Roubaix after a Carrefour-de-L'Arbre attack. The Giro saw Ivan Basso finally win a big race, while Levi Leipheimer won the Dauphine – his biggest win at the time. Jan Ullrich won the Tour de Suisse to set his sights on the Tour – as did Alexandre Vinokourov. But it was Floyd Landis who won the Tour de France that July to offer America a quick-fire replacement for the retired Armstrong. That dream shattered less than a week after the Tour ended when Landis was declared positive for Testosterone use. It had been a disastrous Tour anyway, blighted from the start when 'Operacion Puerto' revealed Basso, Ullrich and many others to have been part of a blood-doping ring. Luckily, my personal highlight of 2006 was the World Championships in Salzburg, Austria. Not one particular race, just the fantastic atmosphere – even if Paolo Bettini's emotional win in the big race sealed an absolutely perfect week!

Bettini won a second title in 2007, towards the end of a season not much happier than twelve months earlier. The Italian sang his heart out on the podium but his exuberance couldn't disguise serious problems within the sport. The UCI's ProTour had seemingly floundered after resistance from teams and rival organizers. Operacion Puerto was continuing to make a mockery of the sport's clean riders. And, just when the sport no longer needed it, the race-leader of the Tour de France, Michael Rasmussen, was thrown off the race with just a few days to go for lying to drug-testers about his pre-Tour whereabouts. Alberto Contador won that Tour, but it was a victory won almost by default, not through any audacious piece of racing. Pre-worlds, at the end of a pretty awful season, Giro winner Danilo DiLuca became the unwilling victim of politics and was not allowed to race in the Worlds – a highly embarrassing period for the organizers and governing body. So do I have a highlight of 2007? Well, in fact it is easy – Stuart O'Grady's incredible ride to win Paris-Roubaix!

Contador wins my award for 2008, thanks to his fabulous victory in the Giro d'Italia. Contador's Astana team got a late-invite to the Giro and no-one rated his or their chances against Italian heavyweights DiLuca, Ricco and Simoni. But Contador showed the talent he was becoming by rising to the challenge and winning by almost two minutes. I'd enjoyed Cancellara's win in San Remo, Stijn Devolder's win in Flanders and, even more so, Boonen's victory in Roubaix. But these races paled in comparison with the Giro – for the Italians worked so hard to beat off this unwanted interloper. The 2008 Tour de France was probably the quietest in years with an utterly silent winner in Carlos Sastre, who seemed incapable of smiling in his finest moments. The Tour showed a distinct slowing down in comparison with recent years, as did the Vuelta – had the proverbial penny finally dropped? Even the Worlds seemed pedestrian, with Alessandro Ballan taking an opportunistic win just a few weeks after the Beijing Olympic Games had eaten up most others' strengths. Of course, the winners of the Olympics, Vuelta and Worlds enjoyed little fanfare over their victories. For a certain American, perhaps one who'd noticed the hesitancy of the peloton, announced his comeback from the other side of the World.

Compared with 2000 and 2001, the final year of the decade is still clear in our minds. Mark Cavendish won San Remo to build on his growing stock. Devolder won a second Flanders – and Boonen a third Roubaix. Olympic TT champion Cancellara slumped after winning the TOC Prologue, but came back to have his best season ever, winning the mountainous Tour de Suisse overall, the opening TT stages of both the Tour and Vuelta – before thrashing all-comers to win another World TT championship. The Tour went to its rightful owner – Contador – who would have won by far more if he'd been the Astana team's sole leader. But the fact that he wasn't made a fairly dull Tour all the more exciting, and opened up opportunities for men like Bradley Wiggins. My highlight of 2009 came at the Worlds, when Cadel Evans finally made THE big attack and won a brilliant championship, a few weeks after losing the Vuelta with a decidedly unlucky flat tire and woeful wheel-change. Alejandro Valverde won that Vuelta, his first-ever grand tour victory, but the stigma still attached to him in relation to Operacion Puerto means that victory, as well as many others before, will always harm his stardom. Of Lance, the verdict is made – his comeback was highly successful. Of course it was, that 3rd-place in Paris didn't come so easily to a 37-year-old. Lance took a huge risk in coming back - he had so much more to lose than win. And even though he won little in terms of actual victories, the man brought so much attention back to the sport – exposure, acclaim and respect far beyond anything he did in his first career. He bought millions of fans back as well, and the best is yet to come…

And so. The future. Who will be the Tour winner in ten years time? Will Contador come anywhere near to equaling Armstrong's seven wins? Will Lance pull off the sensation of this sporting century by winning an eighth Tour in 2010? Who will emerge as the sprinter to challenge Cavendish – for sure there's bound to be one sooner or later. And is there a hardened northerner capable of replacing Boonen when his strength dissipates in the one-day Classics? Looking back on the past decade is hard work, for almost as much has happened off the bike as it has on it. It's clear that men like Armstrong, Boonen, Contador and Bettini have had a great run, thrilling millions of fans with their prowess on the bike. It's also clear that a whole string of drug-related scandals have diminished the reputations of Ullrich, Hamilton, Basso, Landis, DiLuca and Vinokourov – and threatened the sport we all love. As this decade ends and a new one begins, I feel the worst is over, and I'm delighted to see the honest men are still leading the way forward. Let's not forget that races like the Tour of California and Tour Down Under are part of the future, as are new teams like Radio Shack and Sky.

I cannot wait for 2010 to begin. It is more than just a new season, and hopefully in ten years time I'll be able to report back on another decade of great racing from all over the world. We start our updates on January 17th, from Adelaide, Australia – if you cannot actually be there, then tune in to this site!

- Graham Watson