2012 was the year where stage races came to dominated by one discipline: the time trial. It is telling that the majority of the races deemed to be the best of the year lacked a time trial being the deciding factor of the race, or at least not having such a massive influence on the result as in other races. For truely it was a year where calculation and careful metering of effort was the way to win races, rather then the aggression we saw in 2011. Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky showed that by riding at a furious tempo in the mountains then winning the time trials, winning the Tour was easy, not that we didn’t know that – US Postal and Lance Armstrong did it for 7 years, and of course at least in Britain, no one has drawn any links to that, not that there are any, all though elsewhere the endless cynics cycling seems to attract as ‘fans’ have already decided the British team are fueled up on wonder drugs etc.
It has to be said that whilst it was clearly effective, with Wiggins pulling off a never before done quadruple of stage races, which cynics would again point out were against sub-par opposition ( a daft argument as he can only beat whats in front of him), it was all rather boring, with the Tour de France a procession as soon as Wiggins won the first time trial. It was only the fact that the time trials in Paris-Nice and Romandie were so short that meant the races were exciting, as Wiggins had less time to, well gain time.
So like the classics, the Stage races of 2012 weren’t as good as a vintage 2011, but of course, they were still entertaining. The enduring image will be of time triallists, however, and thats never really a good thing in a sport as romantic as cycling. Here’s my top 10 anyway.
Tour Down Under: Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge)
Tour of Qatar: Tom Boonen (OPQS)
Tour of Oman: Peter Velits (OPQS)
Paris-Nice: Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Tirreno-Adriatico: Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Volta a Catalunya: Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge)
Criterium International: Cadel Evans (BMC)
Vuleta al Pais Vasco: Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi)
Vuelta a Castilla y Leon: Javier Moreno (Katusha)
Giro d’Italia: Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp)
Tour of California: Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
Tour de Romandie: Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Tour of Belgium: Tony Martin (OPQS)
Criterium du Dauphine Libere: Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Tour de Suisse: Rui Costa (Movistar)
Tour de France: Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Tour de Pologne: Moreno Moser (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Eneco Tour: Lars Boom (Rabobank)
Tour of Britain: Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Endura)
Vuelta a Espana: Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-TinkoffBank)
Tour of Beijing: Tony Martin (OPQS)
10. Tour de France
What promise the race had when they announced the route, with an innovative mix of hilly stages featuring super steep climbs that would supposedly counter out the time trials. Unfortunately, as it was announced, eevryone could already see that this was unlikely, as those super steep climbs were too far from the finish, and despite the best efforts of the organizers telling the riders where to attack, it was always going to be a time triallist who won. And so, with an almost neglible amount of climbing by comparison, as Dr. Ferrari pointed out, it was a procession into Paris once Wiggins took the jersey after the first time trial, and the fact the press had to conjure up a battle between him and Froome showed how dull the Team Sky train tactic had made it. The points competition was wrapped up early as well, although Sagan did his best to enliven it with his celebrations, and that left the KOM competition to live up the race. Yes, the famously exciting King of the Mountains… Still, next year looks better, although I do wish the organisers would put more mountains in and kill off time trialling, as well as stop trying to plot out the result with the route as they tried this year: its up to the riders, not the organisers, to use the route to their advantage.
9. Criterium du Dauphine Libre
Essentially a Tour de France light, this had at least a couple of days where it looked like Cadel Evans was going to kick Wiggins’ ass. His descending and mountain attacking brought him to within a second of Wiggins, before he hemorrhaged all that time away in a time trial, almost getting caught by his British rival. From them on, it was clear all Wiggins had to do was not crack and he’d win the Tour. Evans kept going though, and made the race exciting in spite of the Team Sky juggernaut storming over the mountains. Oh, and Andy Schleck fell off and broke his hip, which was the other big story of the race.
8. Tour of Britain
The Tour of Britain works because of the small teams, which make it hard to control the route, and because of Team Sky, who turn up and ensure all the other teams race not to let them win. Thus, Sky haven’t won in their three year existance. Their new sigining Tiernan-Locke did instead by surviving behind all the breakaways that characterize the race ( because the ‘Stoke on Trent stage’ is the best we can do for scenery apparently), and it was breakways and suprises that made the race – Luke Rowe winning the 1st stage, Howard beating Cavendish to the second, then a succession of breaks interserped with Cavendish sprint wins. If only Wiggins had bothered, and they could find some decent stage towns, it would be excellent.
7. Tour of Poland
The Tour of Poland is a hidden gem – it’s got lovely scenery, and the ‘B list’ usually turns up to thrash each other. It suffered a little this year due to the Olympics being in its slot, but gained a lot through the battle of Team Sky to make Swift win and of Moreno Moser to retake the lead he took on the first stage. After 4 days of aggressive racing where the lead fluctuated by seconds and the Poles hauled themselves into the lead, Moser simply won stage 6 of the 7 and won the whole thing. Classy.
6. Tour of Beijing
What’s this? The Tour of Beijing as one of the best stage races of the year? No, I’m not trying to get a job at the UCI, which given the near universal slating for the race’s politics, is the default setting – it was actually genuinely good. It didn’t have a time trial, but Tony Martin did one anyway to win it, but it was the other stages that were intriguing. Boassen Hagen looked to have wrapped up the win in one stage entering the last 300m, only to tie up and the field to suddenly appear, pipping him on the line. The Marco Haller charged past Pettachi to a suprise sprint win. It was all very pretty under blue autumn skies and featured some delightful scenery. Sure, there were no crowds and I still don’t agree with it, but as a race, it was pretty good!
5. Tour de Suisse
A race that went down to the final mountainous day with 6 riders with in a minute of the leader, the Tour de Suisse was an exhilarating experience. It was a little nostalgic, with the ridiculously dangerous looking prologue of the year before which featured the riders plummeting down a single lane of a road (with traffic on the other side)and 180 degree turns. A summit finish on stage two gave Rui Costa a lead he never looked (and never did) like losing, but the Peter Sagan show and a suprise win by Kessiakoff over Cancellara in the TT made it a battle on the final stage that Frank Schleck took up most vigorously. Costa was even dropped at one point, before clawing his way back to win the race. Classic stuff.
Wiggins actually had to wins that weren’t as dull as the Tour would suggest, and Paris-Nice was the first of these. Again, he was helped by the time trials, even if this one was uphill, but this race was great for tension. First, Levi Leipheimer was dropped after crashing when Movistar went to the front as they tried to get Valverde on the podium, which opened the door to plenty of accusations about fair play and the like, before Wiggins seemingly forgot about Lieww Westra up the climb to Mende and let him charge off. Westra would have won by more then 6 seconds if he hadn’t spent so long celebrating, and it left him 6 seconds off Wiggins’ jersey with the TT to come. Jens Voigt then lost to Luis Leon Sanchez in the break, before the final TT saw Wiggins pip Westra by only two seconds to win the race he’d been 3rd at the year before.
3. Tour of Romandie
Another Wiggins win, and another one with a very tight time trial win – this time just 1 second over Andrew Talanksy when Wiggins, as he does quite often, knocked his chain off. This was after the expected challenge by Luis Leon Sanchez, who’d hauled himself to withing a second of Wiggins the day before, failed to materialize. Wiggins had already won a ‘bunch sprint; to make it an odd race, and the late drama made it just pip Paris-Nice for excitement.
2. Giro d’Italia
The Giro was always going to be better then last year, given the circumstances of the death of Wouter Weylandt and Contador not really being allowed to ride. It managed a good strong narrative as the opening stages were dominated by crashes, and the sprinters managed to have plenty of long running feuds and duels as both Guardini and Ferrari aggravated Cavendish. Taylor Phinney took pink before a horror few days where he fell off every other hour, before the GC men took over. Oddly, it was not the Italians, none of whom finished on the podium, who took the race by the neck, but a Spaniard and a Canadian in Rodriguez and Hesjedal. They traded blows, with Rodriguez looking the more likely victor, before a late Hesjedal attack pulled back the time gains. This left the Stelvio as the seeming decider, but there, Thomas de Gendt charged away after attacking the Mortitolo, and at one point looked like he could win the whole race. His charge was checked however, and Hesjedal had plenty time in the final day time trial to overhaul Rodriguez, who bested Cavendish for the points jersey by a solitary point.
1. Vuelta a Espana
Cycle Sport magazine laughably said the Vuelta was rubbish because ‘it was made for TV’ – essentially saying it was too entertaining – and that ‘you knew the stage would come down to just four riders’. Novely, they weren’t bothered that the Tour de France came down to one man after a week, but then they are so jingoistic its embarassing, as they showed by claiming the Vuelta wasn’t much good because Froome didn’t win. Back in the real world, the Vuelta was fantastic – the time bonuses and crazy steep finishes made for great finishes, even if the sprints were a tad formulaic. And then we had the time trial that made it all the more intriguing, and, of course, Contadors epic stage win that won him the race. He almost lost it on the penultimate stage when Rodriguez went all out, being dropped on the final climb, but hung on to win. It was thrilling the whole way through, with a real duel going on between the three Spaniards who eventually took the podium spots – much better to have three characters racing then one man time trialling to victory. There were so many close finishes, from the stage where Rodriguez seemingly forgot to sprint to the one where Contador was alone in the frame with 150m to go yet still was pipped to the line, that it was just simply fantastic to watch. And that’s what we want – great racing, not national pride. Thus, the Vuelta, incredibly given recent fortunes, was the best stage race of the year.