Cycling is a sport of fluctuating fortunes. It is a sport of timelines, eras, and these tend to be defined by the dominant figure of the era. With each dominant figure, there is an upheavel of support in their home country – see the Italian joy in the Coppi-Bartali era, Belgian euphoria in the time on Merckx, French pride in Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon, and the USA’s move to push aside the Eurocentrism of the sport as Lance Armstrong conquered hearts and minds in the early noughties.
However, thanks to these domineering figures, there is a tendency for a power vacuum to be left when these Goliaths of the sport bow out. This is particularly noticeable for France, with Bernard Hinault’s 1985 victory becoming a scar in the minds of the creators of the world’s greatest race, with only a fourth place from Thomas Voeckler in the last decade to show for their hopes of a home winner. Belgium has yet to find a successor to The Cannibal (although perhaps the problem there is the expectation that they will find one), which is why any young classics rider is given the moniker ‘the new Merckx’ and is subject to speculation about possible Tour de France winning ability. There was even talk of a dirth in Spain for a while, with the years following Miguel Indurain’s run of five victories at the Tour devoid of a challenge in France. Sure, they won the Vuelta, but these were the infamous ‘crisis’ years of that race, and no matter, because by the mid noughties Alberto Contador, Carlos Sastre, Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sanchez amongst others had risen to the challenge.
Now though, there seems to be a chasm opening on the other side of the Atlantic. For a few days in 2006, the USA had eleven Tour de France wins to its credit, arguably the most well known and inspirational athlete on the planet on its books and a bright looking future ahead of it. Now, thanks to the sort of slightly deluded historical revisionism which removes Armstrong but leaves in Pantani and Riis, the United States, for all its resources, has only won the Tour three times, the last time in 1990. The US is yet to win a Monument Classic, has taken one Tour de France stage win since Armstrong’s 2005 retirement (Tyler Farrar in 2011 – Levi Leipheimer’s 2007 TT win has been expunged from the records, as has the infamous Morzine stage win by Floyd Landis in 2006), and has struggled to find anyone with the ability to pick up another Tour win.
So what has happened to the ‘Race to Replace’ as it was termed in 2006? Of course, circumstances with Armstrong have meant no one is particularly keen to associate with him anymore, but it should still stand to reason that a generation of young riders inspired by Lance should be coming to age round about now, and yet the US seems to be under producing talent when taking into consideration its size and the teams it has available – after all, the country technically has three World Tour teams in Garmin, Trek and BMC (who are really Swiss) plus a healthy contingent at Sky. And yet it is Chris Horner, a 42 year old, who has produced their best result of the post Lance years. So what has happened?
2006 – Hope and Despair
In 2006, the US was riding the crest of a cycling wave. Lance had left a legacy that basically meant that the nation’s cycling prowess would be judged on one thing and one thing only: The Tour de France. Armstrong had bowed out at the top of his game, but had left a posse of American helpers who looked capable of winning the Tour. There was the 27 year old Tom Danielson, feted as the the wonder kid of American cycling, and George Hincapie was being feted as a dark horse for the Tour on the back of his 15th place on the flattened out 2005 course coupled with his victory on the queen mountain stage to Saint-Lary-Soulan (everyone realised that this was a bit daft in hindsight). That was just one team as well – elsewhere, there was ex-Lance helper Floyd Landis at Phonak, who set about winning Paris-Nice, the Tour of California and the now defunct Tour of Georgia in the early season, a 34 year old on Davitamon Lotto called Chris Horner who was clearly past it (…) and 32 year old Levi Leipheimer,who had come 6th in 2005 at Gerolsteiner.
The odd thing was however that the one American team in the peloton, the one that had just seen an American win seven Tours in a row, was not really pushing for an American to come through and replace Armstrong. Sure, the team was running some PR with its ‘Race to Replace’ campaign to find US amateurs who could take up the mantle, but in reality, the team was looking abroad – it made no secret of its attempts to sign Ivan Basso, who they had tried to sign up in 2004, presumably on the basis that he could be subservient to Armstrong in 2005, ‘learn from the master’, then get the full team backing in 2006, but Basso didn’t bite. They also pushed Yaroslav Popovych, who had been best young rider at the Tour in 2005 and had a Giro podium to his name. The odd thing is that there were only four Americans on Discovery Channel in 2006. It seemed, in that typically American way, success was more important then patriotism.
Arguably 2006 demonstrated a problem with US cycling – it was too top heavy with ageing stars who were being over hyped (Hincapie being the supreme example) and combined with their seven years of success this had hidden the dearth of younger talent coming through underneath. Reading back some of the old literature from this time, it is incredible that Tyler Hamilton had already been whitewashed from history thanks to his positive tests two years earlier, and that surprisingly little was dedicated to other talents such as David Zabriske. This quickly all came crashing down with the 2006 Tour however. Whilst Leipheimer and Landis took control in the mountains (albeit with some appalling tactical judgment), Landis’ triumph lasted just 48 hours before adding another match to the future scandals yet to set themselves ablaze. An American had won the Tour, but American cycling was beginning a venomous slide.
2007 – Goodbye Discovery
After Discovery Channel had bombed at the 2006 Tour, with only a couple of days in yellow and a Popovych stage win rather than the all-conquering dominance they had hoped, they set about furiously recruiting. Levi Leipheimer was signed up as the Tour’s best American now that Landis was out of the picture, and thanks to the eccentricities of the Puerto case, their dream signing, Ivan Basso, who had left CSC by mutual consent. So it seemed that Americans were still being relegated behind the Europeans the teams believed could win. This became clear when, after Basso left Discovery once the evidence for his involvement in Puerto became too big to ignore, it was Alberto Contador who assumed leadership during the 2007 Tour ahead of Leipheimer, who almost snatched the race on the final time trial to get on the podium (although given he admitted doping, this was stripped.)
But the odd thing was that even though they’d won the Tour, Discovery were still pushing foreigners as the future. Armstrong himself backed Stijn Devolvder as a future Tour winner, whilst Janez Brajkovic seemed a good young bet for the future. The problem though was that without Lance, and without any Americans winning the Tour, the sponsors just weren’t interested. Discovery couldnt be replaced, and so the US Postal/Discovery Channel Behemoth died. Suddenly, there were no US teams at the top level, and things were about to get worse…
2008 – New Hope or the last gasps of the old guard?
With Discovery gone, the team migrated to Astana, which went well – they were near immediately barred from the Tour, which meant the teams two US riders, Leipheimer and Chris Horner, wouldn’t be riding. However, most of the American’s from the ProTour had migrated to an outfit that had been created in 2006 that was now pushing to get into the big time – Slipstream Chipotle, powered by Jonathan Vaughters. Fourteen American riders were in the team,such as David Zabriske, Christian Vandevelde and Tom Danielson were included, and the team began to take some steps to the big time with a TTT win and the pink jersey at the Giro before getting Christian Vandevelde to 4th place in the Tour. Ironically, despite proclaiming a clean new start for cycling, Vaughters and co were complicit in its problems, harbouring an impressive assortment of past cheats (Millar, Vandevelde, Zabriske, Danielson, Hesjedal) and deciding they knew best as regards outing the truth (although in the end the threat of prison saw the end of that).
However, this seemed again to be papering over the cracks. Vandevelde was 31, and their was still little sight of much in the way of young Americans breaking through. Garmin, as Slipstream became, had Thomas Peterson,who was 21, and Tyler Farrar was beginning to do well, but aside for a young hope stateside called Taylor Phinney who was turning heads, little seemed to be coming out of the States. That was until, of course, the biggest name of all came back…
2009-10 – Nostalgia collapses
If Vandevelde was papering over the cracks with his performance, the second coming of Armstrong was an even greater veil over the deficiencies. The Second Coming description is apt – the wave of publicity meant that anyone else of interest was relegated behind the Armstrong machine. So whilst Tyler Farrar gathered second places behind Cavendish and Garmin got Bradley Wiggins to 4th place at the Tour, all paled in significance. At least the US was getting more teams – HTC had apparently become American, despite a lack of US riders bar Mr Hincapie,whilst BMC was registered in the US as well. Radioshack was added to this list for 2010, but was really a retirement vehicle for Armstrong – especially when Taylor Phinney, having come up through the junior ranks with Armstrong’s Trek-Livestrong set up, defected to BMC. When messrs Landis and Hamilton decided to tell their stories/make some money/settle some grudges, it quickly became apparent that the US didn’t have much in reserve.
So what now?
‘B-but what about Tejay and Talansky?’ you might bawl. Well, Van Garderen has promise, but as someone who had success young is now into the second stage of the ‘successful young rider’ roller coaster of media coverage, the three stages being 1) Praise and hype about solid results 2) Rising discontent as rider fails to reach absurd levels hype endorsed, 3) Scorn and derision that rider is ‘useless’ (despite still getting good results) because they never reached the level of hype attributed to them by the media who now bemoan them. Van Garderen benefited from a weak field at the 2010 Dauphine to come third, but the fact it was only Janez Brajkovic and Alberto Contador ahead of him (with a still developing Van den Broeck the only major Tour contender who was there) made him look better then he was, as was his high placings in the US stage races against mainly national opposition. He then did well on the comparatively easy 2012 Tour course thanks to his TT ability, but sufferred on the more mountainous 2013 variant.
This isn’t to say Van Garderen is rubbish – he’s just been over rated so far in his career. He is still only 25 years old, yet it seems like he has been expected to podium at the Tour already. The better bet for American success is Andrew Talanksy, who has a bit more climbing grit to him- witness his being dropped at the foot of the Semnoz climb on the penultimate stage of the 2013 Tour only to drive through the field to beat Alberto Contador and company to the line and snatch 10th place.
The reality though is that the US still has too many riders who are too old, too many riders who are too young and a dirth of riders in their prime. Everyone is seemingly knocking on the door or has just checked out. Taylor Phinney is another who has suffered from media hype (he has after all won a Giro stage, been World Individual Pursuit champion twice and had top 10s in the classics before the age of 23), whilst Tyler Farrar has become a running joke for coming second. Whether Team Sky’s Ian Boswell and Joe Dombroski can deliver is still unknown, as they too are too young. The worry is that now the infamous Garmin foursome have retired, the weight of expectation now rests on young shoulders, and they simply aren’t ready for it.
So for whatever reason, we haven’t seen any Lance-inspired surge of young American cyclists ready to sweep all before them. Instead, it’s just like the 1980swhere a small group mixed it with the Europeans. Indeed, the fact that Chris Horner won ‘against all odds’ at the Vuelta to give the US a clean sweep of Grand Tours seems to typify the American attitude – they’re not in their comfort zone, but they’re here to mess other people’s up. The problem is, why can’t they form a US Team Sky equivalent (as French cycling are) and bring back some true US dominance?