2008 will be remembered largely for the emphatic highs enjoyed by British cycling fans: the unprecedented cycling medal haul in Beijing; the dominance of team GB at the Manchester World Championships and World Cup events; Nicole Cooke?s world road title and Mark Cavendish?s four stage wins at the Tour de France.
Great Britain now holds more world and Olympic titles than any other nation.
This incredible year will also be remembered for Carlos Sastre?s maiden Tour de France win and Alberto Contador?s Giro-Vuelta double. Not far behind, however, drugs scandals almost gave the kiss of death to the sport?s very existence in Germany.
From Mario Cipollini?s short-lived comeback to Lance Armstrong?s return in September, we look back at the stories that shaped the year that was 2008.
AUGUST 10: COOKE STRIKES GOLD
Nicole Cooke emitted a primal scream as she crossed the line to win the Beijing Olympic road race, banging her fists on the bars in sheer ecstasy. Cooke?s gold-medal-winning performance, incidentally the first gold medal of all the British athletes in China, set the tone for the rest of the Games.
Despite having taken nearly every honour at senior level, the Olympic and world titles had continued to elude her. The Halfords Bikehut team was formed with the primary objective of helping Cooke achieve her aim of winning the Olympic road race. Racing on the continent for Great Britain, Cooke was able to familiarise herself with her Olympic team-mate Emma Pooley, who was not a part of Cooke?s trade team.
The race tactics worked perfectly; Sharon Laws stuck by Cooke while Pooley attacked on the decisive final climb, whittling down Cooke?s opponents. Coming into the final corner, there was no sign of Cooke. Taking the corner very cautiously, she appeared from nowhere to crush her opposition in the final drag to the line. The rain dripped from her face as her smile broadened. She was
lost for words.
AUGUST 16: KENNAUGH’S BIG WIN IN CAPODARCO
Peter Kennaugh?s win in the GP Capodarco was highly significant, not least because of the race?s stature as one of the most prestigious amateur races on the calendar.
The success of Kennaugh, who incidentally only joined the British Cycling Academy at the start of the season, was indicative of the fruits that the Academy is starting to bear under the expert tutelage of Rod Ellingworth and Max Sciandri.
Until very recently, the advances made by British track cyclists completely overshadowed those made by the British continental road riders. Thanks to the Academy, more British riders than ever are entering the professional road ranks, with Ben Swift and Jonny Bellis both gaining professional contracts for next season, at Katyusha and CSC respectively.
Providing a structured, supportive atmosphere in which to learn, the Academy has rapidly become a coveted destination for young British riders aspiring to turn pro.
AUGUST 17: ROMERO’S REDEMPTION
Beijing was sweet redemption for Rebecca Romero, who finally laid her Athens demons to rest.
What made Romero?s gold-medal winning performance in the individual pursuit all the more remarkable was that just four years previously she had been competing in the silver-medal winning rowing quadruple sculls team.
Becoming the first ever British woman to win medals in two different sports, she circled the track after her victory screaming for joy. We?ve certainly not seen the last of Romero.
AUGUST 18: GB DREAM TEAM STEAMROLL THE OPPOSITION
World champions. World record holders. The only title that had eluded the all-conquering pursuit team before Beijing was the Olympic title.
Setting an astonishing new world record of 3-53.314 in the final, the British team looked untouchable. Denmark offered the most resistance to the quartet of Wiggins, Thomas, Manning and Clancy but seven seconds was the closest any nation got.
?It?s just a relief,? said Wiggins. ?You know you?re the favourites, you expect to win, but to actually get the job done is what matters. We were under a bit of pressure because we didn?t know how much the Danes had in them.?
Not enough, it proved, and the British team swept all before them, setting a new benchmark in pursuiting. With veteran Paul Manning retiring, other nations may have sighed in relief, but the Manchester World Cup proved that with young talent such as Steven Burke developing, Britain?s pursuiting supremacy might not be over just yet.
AUGUST 19: PENDLETON’S GOLD AT LAST
In Beijing there was no sign of Victoria Pendleton?s former, nervous, Athens self. Admitting that she had almost left cycling for good in 2004, Pendleton arrived in China as the firm favourite.
Three World Championships since Athens augured well, and her first appearance on the track confirmed her status as the pre-race favourite.
She dominated the sprint event, winning every heat with clear daylight between her and her opponents. The final was no different, with Australia?s Anna Meares giving up in the final banking.
Three British titles, two world titles and three gold medals in the Manchester World Cup sealed Pendleton?s reputation as one of the finest track cyclists in the history of the sport.
AUGUST 19: HOY MAKES HISTORY AT THE GAMES
Just three years ago, Chris Hoy?s specialist discipline, the kilo, was dropped from the Olympics by the IOC to make way for BMX. Since then, Hoy has transformed himself into perhaps the finest sprinter and keirin rider the world has ever seen.
In taking three gold medals at the Beijing Olympics ? in the keirin, team sprint and sprint disciplines ? Hoy became the first Briton since swimmer Henry Taylor in 1908 to achieve such a feat.
It did not look as though any of Hoy?s rivals posed a serious threat to him at any point in the competition, with only fellow Briton Jason Kenny coming close in the final of the sprint. Hoy?s strategy of leading from the front in the keirin and the sprint may have lacked subtlety, but it was devastatingly effective.
Hoy?s success was recognised by the national media and the general public, with 4.45 million people tuning in to see the final of the keirin.
Also winning world titles in the sprint and keirin events at the World Championships in Manchester, Hoy enjoyed his finest season to date.
Accolades came thick and fast, with news that the new velodrome in Glasgow, being built for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, will be christened the Hoy Velodrome. As we went to press Hoy was also a favourite to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, after a great year for British sport.
AUGUST 19: REDBRIDGE CIRCUIT UNVEILED
The opening of the Redbridge Cycle Centre at Hog Hill in London in August was the first 2012 Olympic Games legacy sports centre to be completed.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson who performed the opening ceremony declared: ?It?s a superb facility.?
Kate Hoey, commissioner for sport, added: ?It?s the first real legacy from the Olympics because it?s an extra facility, even though for the moment it?s a replacement for Eastway. And I think it?s going to change the face of cycling in London. It?s an extra place for young people to come to, so I?m delighted about it.?
The two-kilometre circuit, built by the London Development Agency, is beautifully surfaced. It runs up the hill where the clubhouse stands. There are various loops and mini-circuits to allow for multiple events at the same time.
The clubhouse includes changing rooms, a gym, workshop and function rooms and 100 bikes for rent.
Winner of the first elite race, Daniel Patten (PCA-Ciclos Uno) said: ?It?s probably the hardest closed circuit ? but it?s great.?
SEPTEMBER 7: GB YOUNGSTERS TAKE 10 GOLDS
Echoing the success of their senior counterparts in Beijing, Britain?s young cyclists won a handful of medals at the Under-23 and Junior European Track Championships in Poland.
Illustrating that the British Cycling development programmes really are bearing fruit, the British team left the Pruszkow velodrome leading the medal table, with 10 gold, six silver and seven bronze medals.
British riders were dominant in most of the events they entered, but perhaps the most impressive of all were the young women, who took seven of the 10 British gold medals.
Taking gold in the scratch and team pursuit events, one of the most promising of all the under-23 riders was Lizzie Armitstead, who enjoyed her finest season to date.
Shepherding Nicole Cooke to a World Championship title in Varese, Armitstead proved her talent was no flash in the pan, taking three golds at the Manchester World Cup. With track veterans such as Paul Manning retiring, it?s comforting to know that they will be leaving the sport in safe hands ahead of London 2012.
SEPTEMBER 10: ARMSTRONG IS BACK
?I am happy to announce that after talking with my children, my family and my closest friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden.? Lance Armstrong?s amateurish announcement, on a home-made video, that he would be returning to the peloton, four years after retiring in the yellow jersey on top of the podium on the Champs Elysées, was as sudden as it was unexpected.
Admittedly, there had been rumours of a possible comeback by the seven-time Tour de France champion, but at the age of 37, it seemed little more than fanciful speculation to occupy forum users in the off-season.
Despite stating that his motivation for a comeback was to raise awareness of cancer and his own cancer charity, Livestrong, it was clear that he had thought long and hard about a return and decided that he still had what it took. ?We?re not going to try to win second place,? said Armstrong?s lawyer, Bill Stapleton.
A signing to the Astana team and former mentor Johan Bruyneel was greeted with antipathy by team-leader Alberto Contador, who was halfway through winning his third Grand Tour in little over a year at the time. Temporarily placated by an assurance that Armstrong would concentrate on the Giro d?Italia in 2009, Contador opted to stick with Bruyneel.
As ever with Armstrong, his comeback ? his second after making a successful recovery from testicular cancer a decade ago ? was greeted with a firm and decisive polarisation of opinion. Some, such as Tour organisers ASO, snubbed Armstrong by refusing to even mention the Texan at the unveiling of the 2009 Tour route, while others lauded his return as salvation for a drug-scarred sport.
SEPTEMBER 13: 17 GOLDS FOR BRIT PARALYMPIANS
Britain’s Paralympic athletes dominated the Laoshan velodrome as the Olympic cyclists had done just a few weeks previously.
In only four days of track competition, an incredible 12 gold medals and one silver were amassed, along with a host of new world records.
Britain?s command of the track was almost total, with Darren Kenny topping his own pursuit world record by six seconds with the British riders winning every event they entered bar one.
The target of between six and eight golds was eclipsed as attention turned to the road, where another five gold and two silvers were achieved.
SEPTEMBER 21: CONTADOR’S GRAND TOUR BOOKENDS
Moving to the Astana team in the off-season, 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador soon found himself in the wilderness as ASO barred the troubled team?s entry from all its races, including the Tour.
Resigning himself to a season of missed opportunities, Contador was offered salvation when the Giro d?Italia organiser offered Astana a spot on the race, within a week of the start.
Famously answering a call from directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel while sitting on the beach, Contador arrived in far-from-optimal form. The Spaniard quickly rode himself into shape, finishing second in the first time trial and defending well in the mountains.
For those who thought that Contador?s victory in the 2007 Tour was a win by default, the Giro was his coming of age.
A dominant performance in the Vuelta in September bookended Contador?s finest season to date and marked a new dawn in stage racing. The peloton has a new GT patron ? Contador.
SEPTEMBER 21: SEVEN OUT OF 10 FOR DOWNING
Russell Downing was the man to beat in the Premier Calendar, winning seven of the 10 races. Never in the 16-year history of the series has one rider dominated to such an extent.
It gave the 30-year-old from Yorkshire a comfortable win in the overall competition, ahead of his brother, Dean. Returning to the domestic scene full-time after a troubled season with the American Health Net squad, Downing showed his killer instinct to maximum effect.
He?s a racer, pure and simple, and woe betide anyone who tows him to the finish because he has the kick to complete the job. Working out how to isolate him and put him on the back foot became harder as the season went on. Rob Hayles fashioned an effective way to distance him by attacking on the descents, as he did at the National Championships, the Beaumont Trophy and the Tour of Pendle.
Downing?s remarkable streak began at the Girvan stage race in March, when he won the opening two stages to wrap up the overall classification. From there, he won the Tour of the Reservoir, the Chas Messenger and the Lincoln Grand Prix, perhaps his most impressive performance.
He also clinched the Tour of Blackpool, East Yorkshire Classic and Richmond Grand Prix, although his string of victories did not stop there. He won in Majorca, at the Ciclista Cinturon and at the Tour of Ireland as well as the Grand Prix of Wales on a super tough day in Abergavenny.
By the end of the season, Downing was riding a Pinarello Prince in red and gold just like Alejandro Valverde?s. There are similarities in racing style. Downing has an all-round depth that few in Britain can match. He can sprint as fast as the fastest, and he has a lively climbing style.
Downing raised the bar at a time when the domestic-based Premier Calendar series is enjoying a resurgence.
It promises much for 2009.
SEPTEMBER 27: COOKE’S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP STUNNER
If Nicole Cooke?s win in the Olympic road race was fuelled by anger and determination, the look on her face when she crossed the line to win the World Championships in Varese was one of sheer elation and relief.
It was the perfect cherry on the cake for an astonishing season for Britain?s cyclists. It was also noteworthy that the Great Britain team was perhaps the strongest women?s team ever fielded for a world championship. For the eight-time British national champion, one of the most dominant women of her generation, it was the senior world title that had eluded her grasp since taking the junior title for the first time in 2000.
The tactics worked to perfection. Lizzie Armitstead was sent out in a strong breakaway, forcing other nations to chase. Cooke, who rested her legs in the chase group, arrived at the final kilometre in the best shape. When Marianne Vos started her sprint, Cooke?s chances against the finer sprinter looked slim. Her utter determination was pervasive. The elusive world title ? a fitting end to the season for British cycling.
OCTOBER 13: KOHL DESTROYS GEROLSTEINER
Of all of the drugs scandals from the 2008 Tour de France, it was perhaps the positive test of Gerolsteiner rider Bernhard Kohl for CERA that was the most disappointing.
The revelation that French anti-doping agency AFLD had a test for CERA set many pulses racing with news that many of the riders with suspicious blood values from the Tour would be retested. Stefan Schumacher?s performances during the Tour stretched the bounds of credibility to the extreme. Schumacher, who had no previous outstanding performances in time trials or in the mountains, smashed Fabian Cancellara?s times in both time trials and went on back-to-back day-long breakaways over some of the Tour?s most fearsome cols.
However, it was Kohl?s test that was the most surprising. Supposedly one of the new, cleaner generation, Kohl?s performances were believable. His progression from promising stage racer to Tour contender was compelling, and his breakthrough performance in the Tour appeared to confirm this.
At least Kohl had the grace to admit his sins, but the damage had already been done. His team had failed to secure a sponsor for the following season and all the work that team manager Hans-Michael Holczer had done in promoting a vehemently anti-doping team was in ruins.
It was a bitter end for Holczer and all of the other Gerolsteiner riders and staff. Kohl?s positive was the nail in the coffin of cycling?s credibility. If young Kohl, riding for a team which promoted anti-doping values, could turn to doping, where did the distinction now lie? Who was there now to trust? It was yet another dark day in the annals of the Tour de France.
OCTOBER 23: PAIN IN THE LANES
The credit crunch, rising costs of motoring, the Olympic effect. All contributed to the rapidly increasing popularity of cycling not only as a viable method of transport, but also as a hobby, throughout 2008.
However, peel back the euphoria surrounding Britain?s Olympic and Paralympic cycling successes and the fact that the average cyclist has to battle with appalling infrastructure remains.
The CTC revealed in October that year-on-year, fewer and fewer cycle lanes are being built in England. Despite the fanfare which accompanied many local cycling events, the Department for Transport reluctantly admitted that local councils are actually reducing expenditure on cycle lanes.
Victoria Pendleton bemoaned the fact that she is afraid to train on British roads and she has a point. Last year, local authorities painted an appalling 2.8mm of cycle lanes for each person. If cycling is ever to truly gain widespread appeal, particularly in the afterglow of the London Olympics, the infrastructure that the CTC is campaigning for must be improved.
NOVEMBER 2: ARMITSTEAD COMES OF AGE
Lizzie Armitstead?s performance at the first round of the Track World Cup in Manchester marked her coming of age and demonstrated her potential for years to come.
Armitstead showed that she could be the next great female track endurance rider, stepping up to the mark in 2008. Forming part of a key breakaway at the road World Championships, helping Nicole Cooke to a historic Olympic-Worlds double, Armitstead was the star of the show in Manchester, taking gold medals in the points race, the scratch race and the team pursuit, thus demonstrating her versatility to adapt to road and track events.
The Manchester World Cup also saw Victoria Pendleton and the men?s team pursuit and team sprint squads winning gold medals. However, if the incredible weekend in which Great Britain won 14 of the 17 available gold medals is to remembered for anything it will be the fruition of British Cycling?s hard work in developing young talent to step up to the mark.