Cyclingweekly.co.uk?s regular comment column launched in January 2008.
It was called The Tuesday Comment and it quickly established itself as the column to read, addressing a wide range of cycling?s biggest stories. It even underwent an exciting rebranding, to become The Wednesday Comment in August.
As 2008 draws to a close, it?s time to look back over the year. Here we look at some of the stories that dominated the first six months of the weekly comment.
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Team launches can be painfully predictable. The riders always say the same things, waffling on about how they?d love to win some races, how delighted they are to be with the team, how happy they are their hitherto arch-nemesis has joined the squad, and how that business with the dope testers is all behind them now.
The Halfords Bikehut team launch was anything but predictable. For a start, it was held at London Zoo, which was a little leftfield. Also, this women?s team featured two male riders.
Anyway, this was the day when Dave Brailsford unveiled his pro-nat team concept, a marriage between the traditional trade team set-up and a national federation.
To the UK?s mainstream sports writers, it was perhaps a little bewildering to get their heads around because all many of them wanted to ask was whether Nicole Cooke felt she could win gold at the Olympic Games.
Looking back now, with a British pro team seemingly just around the corner, it?s possible to look back and reflect on how important the Halfords Bikehut/Nicole Cooke project was to British Cycling?s development.
Cooke, a world class rider in a foreign team, had never truly been accommodated by British Cycling. She?d be airlifted in for the World Championships once a season, find she had unfamiliar back-up off the bike, and inadequate support on it. To win gold, that had to change. Brailsford knew it, Cooke knew it.
So they built a team around her. It meant Cooke could ride exactly the programme she wanted, without foreign sponsors insisting she be competitive in the World Cups or stage races. There was no external pressure on her, the quality of support staff and riders around her had improved and continued to improve. And, the pro-nat idea meant worked perfectly. They may have raced more often as Great Britain than Halfords (allowing Emma Pooley to be drafted in for key stage races), but the Halfords funding enabled it all to happen.
It?s a shame that some people have chosen to criticise Halfords for supposedly ?turning their back on women?s cycling?, once again dividing the sport
Surely the arrangement was always about British cycling, not men?s or women?s cycling? The goal was to achieve Olympic gold for Nicole Cooke. Done and dusted, now Cooke and Halfords have different objectives.
Perhaps in future there will be a women?s pro team running alongside the men?s.
The Tuesday Comment in January?We suggested that riding the team or individual pursuit at the Olympics might not be as easy as Tom Boonen suggested, defended the decision to move the National Madison Championships to help Great Britain qualify for the Games (although that story didn?t have a particularly happy ending) and yawned loudly in the general direction of the Tour Down Under.
Mr Merckx will (reluctantly) see you now
Eddy Merckx owns a bicycle manufacturing company, everyone knows that. In February, we thought we?d see what happens when you turn up, uninvited, to say hello to the great man.
My colleagues Edward Pickering, Luc Claessen and I were in Belgium on a mission for our sister magazine Cycle Sport. The challenge was to immerse ourselves in Belgian cycling for two days, and try to meet as many former professionals as possible.
So, where better to start than with not only the greatest Belgian cyclist of all time, but the greatest cyclist of all time?
Arriving late in the afternoon at his factory and office in Meise, we buttered up the receptionist until she said she?d ask Mr Merckx if he?d meet us.
What followed was, by far, the most uncomfortable 20 minutes of my year.
Luc, being Belgian, was easily the most embarrassed. At least Ed and I had the excuse that we were crazy foreigners who didn?t know any better. Luc, like any good Belgian cycling aficionado, knows better than to disturb God at work.
A look at Merckx?s face suggested that he was seeking the right combination of words to make us go away. Had we been a TV documentary crew, Merckx would have been obliged to smile and laugh for the cameras, like people do when Dave Lee Travis look-alike Justin Lee Collins shows up for Channel 4.
But Merckx didn?t smile or laugh. The opening gambit fell flat, discouraging us from asking him what his favourite cheese is, or where he was planning to go on holiday, so we stuck to the cycling questions. The same cycling questions he gets asked every day of his life, probably. We?re sorry Eddy, we?ll wait for an invite next time
The rest of the trip fell pretty flat too. Lucien Van Impe was out. So was Rik Van Looy, and Robbie McEwen, and Allan Peiper and just about everyone else we tried. But we did have a chat with Freddy Maertens, who now works at the Tour of Flanders museum in Oudenaarde.
February is always a very Belgian month. For me the season starts for real with Het Volk, and this year?s race was an absolute belter. Française des Jeux deserve all the credit they get because it was a victory for team-work and clever thinking. They put a man in the break, then waited for Philippe Gilbert to attack, from a long way out it should be remembered, bridge across and take a breather knowing his team-mate, in this case Arnaud Gerard, would bury himself. Then Gilbert kicked again and got enough of a gap to win.
In many ways, it was just like my ride the previous day on the famous Schelde canal, which runs from the southern outskirts of Ghent to Oudenaarde and beyond. Riding into a stiff headwind, I was overtaken at unbelievable speed by a rider in full Rabobank kit on a Colnago. I am afraid I didn?t manage to identify him. I turned myself inside out to get on his wheel, and lasted about six pedal revs before he pulled away from me.
Another highlight was spending a very pleasant hour talking to Andy Hampsten about the 1988 Giro d?Italia for a feature that later appeared in Cycle Sport. The clarity of his recollections was impressive. Having interviewed Erik Breukink, the stage winner of the legendary day in the Gavia snowstorm, a few years ago, it was fascinating to hear the other side of the story in such detail.
The Tuesday Comment in February?
We suggested to then Mayor of London that a London Cyclo-Cross and Six-Day weekend would pull in the punters, had a jolly good laugh at the Let Levi Ride online campaign, railed against idiots in white vans driving badly in country lanes because their sat-navs had told them to, and wondered whether Victoria Pendleton needed to take her clothes off for the Observer Sports Monthly photo shoot. That?s still the most-searched page on cyclingweekly.co.uk, you mucky, mucky lot. Just for you, here?s the picture again?
If you use your mouse to drag this image to your desktop, we can tell you?ve done it, you know.
It isn?t often that you call a bike race exactly right before it happens. Three or four times a year, you may be on the money, and when you are, you want to shout about it.
With the alterations to the final kilometre of Milan-San Remo, it struck me that Fabian Cancellara would have a great chance to jump away and deny the sprinters, just as he did during the 2007 Tour de France at Compiegne.
For British fans, the dominance at the World Track Championships was the story of the year so far. There were too many highlights to choose from, even if there was a slight sense that the rest of the world had given up in the face of British brilliance.
For me there were more than a couple of moments when journalistic impartiality went out of the window, I?m afraid.
The first was in the quarter-final of the men?s sprint, when Chris Hoy beat Dutchman Theo Bos in the decider. The roof nearly lifted off, and Hoy?s clenched fist said it all. Hoy had dethroned the best in the world.
That topped the moment a new world record was set by the awesome foursome in the team pursuit. What stuck in the mind was chatting to Shane Sutton afterwards and hearing him say they?d go even faster in Beijing. He wasn?t wrong.
But the greatest performance of the weekend came from Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in the Madison. The combination of an all-or-nothing attack with the backing of the crowd made it a moment when the hairs on the back of the neck stood to attention.
The other great moments were to see British riders leading the way in the newer events, the women?s team sprint and team pursuit.
While there wasn?t much for the visiting nations to cheer, I was just as impressed by Marianne Vos?s ride in the women?s points race. She was so commanding, she could have been part of the British team.
One of the oddest incidents of my year out on the bike came when my colleague James Shrubsall and I were waiting for a break in the traffic to cross a crossroads in Hertfordshire. All of a sudden a white van swerved into the middle of the road so the driver could squirt us with a bottle of water through his open window. I?m still struggling to fathom the thought-process behind that one. His single brain cell must have thought: ?Hurr-hurr, cyclists, why don?t I soak them.? Moron.
Also in March, cyclingweekly.co.uk launched the Super Team Challenge, pitting Britain?s big three, Rapha, Plowman Craven and Pinarello against each other in the big domestic races. We also stirred up sibling rivalry between the Downings in the Battle of the Brothers, which prompted Russell to arrive at the Girvan in a boxer?s cape and gloves, just to wind up Dean.
Russell Downing. Wearing boxing gloves. Obviously.
The Tuesday Comment in March?
We wondered whether it was appropriate for the Three Days of West Flanders to be named the Johan Museeuw Classic, regretted joking about ?special medicine? with customs officials, complained about race radios (again) and suggested that Emma Pooley, not Nicole Cooke, might be the best bet for gold in Beijing. Close, but no cigar with that one.
I couldn?t quite believe my eyes when I saw the East Midlands Cicle Classic for the first time. It was one of the most spectacular bike races I have ever witnessed.
Okay, so my vantage point was from the passenger seat in the Plowman Craven team car, but I can?t believe it was any less remarkable if you were standing by the side of the road.
Truly, this race captures everything that is great about the Classics and gives it a British twist. Instead of cobbles, there are devilish farm tracks consisting of gravel, dust and potholes. The route criss-crosses the countryside, passing the same point several times as it switches back and forwards through the lanes. We passed one pub so often it was like being in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, where the background repeats itself over and over.
But that is what encouraged the big crowds to come out, because they get to see the race pass several times.
My only criticism was that the race is a bit of a bun fight and, if you are not in the front 25 or so, you?re no longer in the race. It is absolute chaos out the back, with riders puncturing and suffering mechanicals but still wanting to do whatever it takes to get back in the race.
Really, they need to understand that luck plays as big a part as strength in a race like that and that a simple puncture can mean the end of the race. It?s difficult to accept when the common practice in every other event is to change a wheel and then get paced back to the bunch, but at the Cicle Classic I saw some things that crossed the line.
That didn?t detract from the race, though. Yes, it?s unpredictable, yes it?s a bit of a lottery, and yes it?s extremely chaotic, but the way the Pezula team rode to set up Ciaran Power?s victory was very impressive. They took the race by the scruff of the neck from the very start, knowing that the one way to minimise the chances of being hampered by bad luck was to go on the attack.
The Cicle Classic was every bit the equal of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix and it would be good to think that in future years, some of the biggest teams may be tempted to come across for it, bringing their cobbled specialists with them.
In Europe, I saw enough of Ghent-Wevelgem to come to the conclusion that Mark Cavendish will win that race one day. In April there were still plenty of people wheeling out the one about how he can?t climb. But the hills of Flanders hold nothing for him to be fearful of. Both times up the Kemmelberg, he was well placed and looking strong. Had he placed himself further forwards in the sprint, he?d have won too, and he says that was the biggest lesson he learned this year. He?s fast enough to go early from the front if there?s a risk of getting boxed in further back.
The Tuesday Comment in April?
We analysed the case of Rob Hayles and his haematocrit, shivered in the rain at the Tour of Flanders cyclo-sportive, bemoaned Eurosport?s coverage of the Classics, patented the idea of holding track-style races on a road circuit (imagine a road Madison at Hillingdon, or a points race at Hog Hill and you?ve got the idea), and hammered Liquigas for signing Ivan Basso.
Least said about the Giro d?Italia soonest mended, but if you will, imagine me holding my nose and pulling an imaginary toilet chain whilst blowing a raspberry. That?ll give you a general idea of what I thought about the event as a sporting contest. Great scenery, super route and some interesting stages, but the race for the pink jersey was a total joke. This is the cycling?s equivalent of a pantomime. Where?s the comedy cheat? ?He?s behind you. Oh no, now he?s in front of you, pedalling stupidly fast, making you all look like clowns.?
The Tuesday Comment in May?
We wondered what the point of stripping Vinokourov of his Tour stages was, looked forward with relish to the Astana-fest (did you know that Astana is only a slip of the fingers away from Satan-a) and moaned about the state of many of Britain?s roads.
The Dauphiné Libéré heralds the start of the build-up to the Tour de France and there was a lot of speculation when Alejandro Valverde won the time trial stage, that he was timing his run just right.
The problem was that Valverde remained under the Operacion Puerto cloud. Even now it looks like the matter of his involvement (or not) will never be satisfactorily resolved, and that means that every major victory carries with it a giant question mark.
Should we just write it off, like a bad debt, or should we continue to press the Spanish authorities to investigate properly so that Operacion Puerto can be put behind us once and for all? I think the answer is obvious, because if there is one straw of justification the cheats clutch at time and time again, it is that the wheels of justice too often spin unevenly. Dopers shouldn?t be punished according to their nationality, but according to their offence. To do otherwise simply erodes away the credibility of the sport.
The highlight of my cycling year was completing the 150-mile Paris-Roubaix cyclo-sportive.
To ride the full route of the Classic, experiencing every painful stretch of cobbles, elevated my enthusiasm for the race still further and renewed my respect for those who batter their bodies every April. There were plenty of bad moments along the way, and the sense of satisfaction on reaching the velodrome was overshadowed by a wave of relief that it was over after almost 10 hours of riding. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but only in as much as there?s no way you?ll persuade me to ride it again.
It was great to go to the National Road Race Championships again, after missing it for several years. It clashes with the Glastonbury Festival, you see, and I?ve usually booked the time off to go there. This year, though, there was no contest, not with Jay-Z topping the bill at Pilton.
We were rewarded with two excellent races on a real sporting course. Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley broke away to contest the finish, with the Welsh girl?s power giving her the edge in the uphill sprint. The hill needed to be another 10 per cent steeper to give Pooley more of a chance.
The men?s race was a belter too, with a lot of the top European-based professionals coming back to ride. As it was, Rob Hayles attacked on a descent, then attacked round a corner, to get away and win the title for the first time in his career. Note the name of the rider who was second, though. Peter Kennaugh is going to be a very, very good rider.
The Tuesday Comment in June?
We sniggered as ASO bought a big stake in the Vuelta, tut-tutted at Tom Boonen, wondered how hard Vinokourov was training and took a big dislike to Riccardo Ricco.
ON WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 31
Part two. July to December.
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