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January 3, 2014
As always, it’s hard to look ahead at a New Year without first closing down the previous twelve months. An awful lot happens in one cycling season, and sadly in this sport not all of it happens on a bicycle – witness the recent positive drug-test by Michael Rogers, and the still on-going theatrics that followed the Lance Armstrong confession made almost one whole year ago. I prefer to concentrate on the sporting things that made 2013 such a great year on the bike. I can tell you for example that my favourite one-day Classic was not Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, but the E3 Harelbeke, won so convincingly by Fabian Cancellara in a solo 40-kilometre escape. My favourite short stage-race was Paris-Nice, partly because it threw up two new young combatants in Andrew Talansky and Richie Porte in a classic showdown through the Provençal Alps. And my preferred grand tour was the Giro d’Italia, a feast of good racing, good photography, and great entertainment – as it always is! Just mentioning these few accolades opens up a string of other notable events.
The best time trial of 2013 was Chris Froome’s effort that won him stage seventeen on a near-suicidal course in the Alps. The best TTT had to be Orica Green Edge’s barnstormer that won them stage four of the Tour in and out of Nice – it was a bitter contest won by just one-second at massively fast speeds. The best climbing performance of the year? Try Chris Horner’s attack on the Alto Hazallanas that won him stage ten of the Vuelta. The best climbing duel of 2013? Has to be the Chris Horner v Vincenzo Nibali battle on the Alto de l’Angliru – sensational stuff! How about the flatland battle between Sep Vanmarcke and Fabian Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix ? Or Cancellara again as he dueled and then dropped Peter Sagan on the Paterberg to win the Tour of Flanders? The best sprint of 2013? Choose anything of Marcel Kittel, either beating Cavendish to win stage twelve of the Tour, or beating Andre Greipel on stage ten of the Tour, or beating Cavendish again, on the Champs Elysees stage that closed the Tour off. But I recall Kittel’s win - again over Cavendish - in the G.P.Scheldeprijs as truly the best sprint of the year: it was probably the scariest rush to the line I photographed.
What else…how about the best descent of 2013? Hmm…maybe Daniele Ratto on the wet roads of the Pyrenees on stage 14 of the Vuelta – the Italian probably won because of his ability to descend the Envalira, Ordino and Cornelia passes, cornering with one leg out to maintain his speed! Which leads me to state that my finest memory of 2013 was the long escape by Tony Martin on stage six of the Vuelta. Martin attacked after the start-line, soloed away wearing a time trial skinsuit, spent half the stage in a descending tuck even though it was relatively flat, and then held off the peloton 200-metres behind him for the last 20-kilometres! The German was only caught with 100-metres to go, with TT rival Cancellara the first to pass him, yet Martin still finished seventh – what a day! Martin was without doubt the best time trialist of 2013, with wins all the way from February in the Tour of the Algarve to October in the Chrono des Nations. But that stage six solo in the Vuelta is how I’ll remember his year.
Such memories make for a happy end to the year, and help close what has been an interminable gap to the new season - but will 2014 shape up the same way? Yes, of course – any new season brings with it oodles of excitement, for the very nature of this sport ensures that such deeds of panache, strength, courage and bravado are always pushed to the fore. Like just about every other fan of the sport I’ve had to survive the winter living off the drip-feed of information, speculation and imagery available on the Internet. I’ve noted the new colours of Omega and Lotto in particular, and admired the subtle changes made to the Astana, BMC, Cannondale, Sky and Movistar teams – and cannot wait to see more any day soon. When the season does begin, simultaneously in Argentina and Australia on January 19th, all will be known about the World Tour peloton and its smaller brother in the Continental class. But one sporting question remains from 2013 – will Vuelta winner Chris Horner join a top team or not, for to me it still seems incredible no-one has signed the man up.
My plans are almost set for the entire season, with clients secured, hotels booked, drivers engaged, assistants prepped, colleagues soothed, rivals warned… Now, I’m just waiting on the new route announcement of the Vuelta a España before closing down the first phase of my organizing for 2014. Then, each up-coming race will get closer attention, with flights to book and cars to rent, as well as a study of each course and the competitors I can expect to see in each race. By and large, there are few changes to a familiar routine, and my season will kick-off as usual with the Tour Down Under, where I’ve been the race photographer ever since the first event, way back in 1999. The race has grown ten-times from its original size, yet I’ll still get to enjoy a very laid-back start to the season shooting some great racing and equally great scenery. The Tour Down Under threw a new obstacle, Corkscrew Hill, into its canvas in 2013, and this, together with the familiar double-ascent of Old Willunga Hill, has taken the event away from the sprinters at just the right time. Andre Griepel, Marcel Kittel, Matthew Goss and Mark Renshaw still have plenty to aim at, but it’ll be a multi-talented powerhouse who wins overall.
If the races in Argentina and Australia serve as nothing more than the chance for cyclists to blow off the cobwebs of a long winter, the races that follow in Arabia start to build a pattern of form, and give the first clues as to who is going to do what and when. The first-ever Tour of Dubai could be won by whoever wins the 10-kilometre time trial in the city on day one – and that doesn’t necessarily mean Fabian Cancellara – as the following three days are all flat except for a brief sortie onto the rolling desert roads on stage three. But the Tour of Qatar provides a very different prospect, with the sprinters mixing in with the Classics’ specialists to form the final G.C. Qatar is where Tom Boonen will be aiming to win after a horrible 2013, and he can best do that by attacking into the hoped-for crosswinds and then out-sprinting those who managed to stay away with him. If ‘Tomke’ is truly on-form in Qatar, then we’ll know he’s also going to be set for a great Classics campaign. But Cancellara will just be happy to use the races in Dubai and Qatar as a gauge of his form, without showing himself too much too soon.
The Tour of Oman acts as a delicious antidote to Qatar as it has real hills, though not exactly mountains, to climb, and the winds are almost absent because of the shelter Oman enjoys south of the Persian Gulf. It’s also a very beautiful country with mystical mountains, rich brown soil, and plenty of green foliage prospering from a myriad of oasis. And because Chris Froome won in 2013 and then won the Tour de France five months later, it is most definitely a race worth winning. Boonen and Cancellara might well ride Oman for extra training, and some of the sprinters from Dubai and Qatar might find success on three of the flatter days. But a very different cyclist will emerge on the tough climbs that litter the race-route. The Giro d’Italia may be a long way off in May, and the Tour even further. But like the sprinters in the Tour Down Under, there’s nothing like an early chance to display some climbing prowess and strike a very important psychological blow against one’s rivals. Team Sky will want to win again, be it through Froome or maybe Richie Porte, but I bet Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez and Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali won’t be far away.
I may not be able to see all the new team colours, but I can see the team line-ups on these first days of the year. Considering that in 2013 we lost Euskatel, Vacansoleil, Sojasun and Champion Sports, the 2014 global peloton doesn’t look too different. With the exception of Rigoberto Uran and Rui da Costa, all the teams’ big-hitters have stayed where they were, so the secrets of any success might come down to which supporting riders line up for the biggest races. Even without Uran, Sky seems as indomitable as ever, while Omega’s capture of the ex-Sky rider might add a twist to the familiar hierarchy at the grand tours as they have riders like Michael Kwiatowski to help him win. Astana is even stronger with Michele Scarponi on-board, while Movistar has taken on a trio of ex-Euskatel riders to help Nairo Quintana flourish. A huge swathe of other teams – BMC, FDJ, Katusha, Cannondale, Trek (ex-Radio Shack), Argos-Shimano, AG2R, Lotto and Orica Green Edge have barely changed at all. Even World Tour newcomers, Europcar, have resisted investing in bigger ‘stars than their own Pierre Rolland and Thomas Voeckler.
With Michael Rogers under the threat of suspension, I wonder who Saxo-Tinkoff will take on to replace the solid team-worker if his ‘B’ sample shows the same impurity as the original test? With the money now afforded to the team with Oleg Tinkov in sole charge, both Sammy Sanchez and Chris Horner must be on a short-list, with the Specialized bicycle company surely pushing to get Horner, an American, on that team now that Tim Duggan has retired – we’ll know soon enough. Two other teams fascinate me particularly – Garmin-Sharp and Belkin. As befits their multi-national sponsors’ needs, these two teams seem to have truly worldwide race-schedules, with a squad of talented riders to match. Belkin have potential winners for all types of races – Bauke Mollema, Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam for the stage-races, Theo Bos and Jonathan Hivert for the sprints, Lars Boom and Sep Vanmarcke for the one-day Classics, and seemingly a dozen others to help them. Garmin-Sharp has Andrew Talansky, Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin for the grand tours, Tyler Farrar, Sebastian Langeveld and Steele von Hoff for the sprints and Classics, and a plethora of talent like David Millar, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Ramunas Navardauskas, Tom Danielson and Jack Bauer to play with on other days. Both Belkin and Garmin have the firepower to match Sky and Astana, so maybe 2014 is the year to do that?
My daily race-updates will continue for the new season, subject to some decent Internet in all four corners of the globe – it’s always a challenge but rewarding when it’s done. I’ve spent the winter in New Zealand, marrying, holidaying, cycling, but also preparing for 2014. We’ve got the Giro d’Italia starting in Belfast, and the Tour de France starting in Leeds – what a year for British and Irish fans! An exhibit is being worked on right now for Leeds, even from a distance of over 11,000 miles away. I last held a UK exhibit for the 2007 Tour that started in London, so I’ve a lot of images to add to that exhibit held seven summers ago. I’ve also re-jigged parts of my website to make things more attractive and user-friendly, and now everything is set for an incoming assault by thousands of new images. Yes, my cameras will be quite well employed in the coming weeks and months - that much is for sure! GW