2013 season in review: The year of first times and speculating wattages

2013 was the year that Nelson Mandella and Margaret Thatcher died, a Royal baby was born, a Pope resigned, Typhoon Haiyan devistated the Philappines, the Syrian chemical attack and the Boston marathon bombings. But it was also the year that Fabian Cancellara did the Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix double, that Daryl Impey became the first African born rider to wear the Yellow jersey and Chris Froome the first African born rider to win the Tour de France, that Vincenzo Nibali rode through the snow at Tre Cime di Lavaredo to cement his first Giro d’Italia victory, that Chris Horner became the first cyclist over 40 to win a Grand Tour, that Portugal got its first World Road Race Champion in the guise of Rui Costa, and that Peter Sagan became the first rider to win virtually every other race on the calender … or so its sometimes seemed.

The year in review

The year began not at a race, but on the sofa of Oprah Winfrey’s television show. Lance Armstrong sat before us and confessed to what we had known for some time, that yes, he had taken drugs throughout his career and that yes, he was sorry he got caught. All of that madness fueled old media and social media alike for weeks on end as bad press of cycling’s days of yore were heaped upon the sport once again and fans were left crying out for the start of some actual racing and the chance to put the over-abused subject of doping in the sport on the back burner for a while.

Some couldn’t let it go, of course, but for the rest of us that welcomed the sight of a race, one arrived later in January with the Tour Down Under in Australia in which the little known Tom-Jelte Slagter prevailed. At Paris-Nice and Tirreno–Adriatico, Richie Porte and Vincenzo Nibali triumphed respectively before the Spring Classics finally reached us. Cycling was back.

Billed as the battle between Cancellara and Sagan, it was the Swissman who won by taking two Monument victories at Flanders and Roubaix to Sagan’s none. Sagan was consistent however, finishing second at Milan-San Remo behind Gerald Ciolek, second to Cancellara at Flanders, and winning the non-Monument classic, Gent-Wevelgem. The other Monument classic won in the Spring was that of the Liège–Bastogne–Liège by Ireland’s Dan Martin. He became the first Irish winner of a Monument since Sean Kelly at the Milan-San Remo in 1992.

As spring progressed and summer began to roll in, the attention turned to the Grand Tours … though try telling the competitors at this years Giro that they rode in conditions comparable to spring or summer when one stage was snowed out and several others seen horrendous conditions. Chris Froome stayed away, preparing for the Tour de France by winning Romandie and the Dauphiné, leaving it to Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali to win on home turf ahead of Rigoberto Urán and Cadel Evans. This Giro win was the high point in what was a superb year for Nibali who on top of winning his home Tour, took a second place at the Vuelta and came forth at the World Championships despite crashing late on in the race. Nibali left many of us wondering what might have been had he targeted the Tour and gone head-to-head with Froome. It’s something we might get to see in 2014.

As a result July belonged to Froome. He came in as a joint favourite for the Tour de France with Alberto Contador but left everyone in his wake the moment the race went uphill. The Tour, celebrating it’s 100th edition, visited the island of Corsica for the first time for the opening three stages and the first week belonged to the Australian Orica GreenEdge team. They got their bus stuck under the finish line of stage 1, seen Simon Gerrans win stage 3 and pull on the yellow jersey, collectively won the team-time-trial in Nice on stage 4, then had Gerrans pass the jersey over to team-mate Darryl Impey on stage 6 as he, not the favored Chris Froome, became the first African born rider to pull on the maillot jaune, beating Froome to the achievement by two days.

Once Froome did pull it on he didn’t take it off, dominating the mountains and winning the first time-trial for three stage wins in total to take his first Tour de France victory. Peter Sagan’s all-round ability seen him win the green jersey at a canter, while new climbing sensation and potential future Tour winner, Nairo Quintana took the king of the mountains. Another surprise in this years tour was the sprinter of the tour: Marcel Kittel. The German knocked Cavendish off his perch by winning four stages to Cav’s two.

The next Grand Tour was the Vuelta and if the Tour de France had some historic moments, then we hadn’t seen anything yet. Prior to this race the oldest man to win a Grand Tour was Fermin Lambot at age 36 some 91 years ago. Cadel Evans had won the Tour de France in 2011 aged 34, but his recent drop off in form had been put down to his age, something that tends to bite all professional cyclists in their mid-30’s. Not so Chris Horner who at one month shy of his 42nd birthday turned up in Spain and won the Vuelta, beating Nibali into second. Now it could be argued that Nibali was tired after his Giro win, but what Horner did was remarkable. In any other sport this effort would be universally celebrated and lauded, but cycling fans often tend to be a cynical lot and it left many suspicious over the achievement. Still, in winning a Grand Tour aged almost 42, Chris Horner showed me that just as I thought my best days had gone before me, I suddenly still had a good ten years left yet.

With the Grand Tours won and done the professionals attention turned either to their winter break or to the World Championships to be held in Florence, Italy towards the end of September. In preparation for what was billed as a tough course, a number of contenders showed up in Québec and Montréal to prepare. Montréal especially had a resemblance to the course in Florence, with a short but tough climb on the short circuit. I siezed the opportunity of such a high ranking professional race coming so close to home and took the train from Toronto up to Montréal to watch. Robert Gesink had won in Québec on the Friday, leaving it to Sagan to put on a show of strength on the Sunday. The Slovakian attacked with 5 kilometres to go from a group of big-name riders to win solo in Montréal setting himself up as a favorite for the World Championships.

A week later the faces of the sport arrived in Florence for those World Championships. The Omega Pharma Quickstep lads won the World team-time-trial title and, as expected, Tony Martin won the individual time-trial, beating Bradley Wiggins and Cancellara into second and third respectively. In the men’s road race, Sagan didn’t feature after all. The climb on the course proved a bit too much and in atrocious conditions it was Portuguese talent, Rui Costa who emerged from a final select group of himself, Nibali, Alejandro Valverde and Joaqium Rodriguez to take his countries first World road title.

The final major race of the year and the final Monument of the year was the Giro di Lombardia and it was Joaqium Rodriguez who fittingly took the win. Rodriguez, feeling let down by his countryman Valverde, had come second in the Worlds a few weeks before but exacted revenge by beating Valverde into second at Lombardia. The result confirmed him as the World number one ranked cyclist for 2013.

On a more grim side, 2013 was also the year of speculating wattages.

It started early and it started fast and it continued relentlessly throughout the 2013 season. What watts is so-and-so — usually Chris Froome — putting out on such-and-such a climb? Is it worse than Lance Armstrong in his pomp? Is it within the threshold of normal? Normal being what a professional could put out without the need for drugs, but still beyond the normal for you and I. Nobody really knew for sure but a fair few began to speculate and so a wave of wattage began to grow and grow, sucking more and more onto it until it swept over the 2013 cycling season, threatening to take away the enjoyment many are supposed to be experiencing when watching a bicycle race.

Now don’t get me wrong. Wattage has its place in cycling … it helped Sir Bradley of Wiggins win his first and only Tour de France. It is the power output of a cyclist through their pedals at any given time … divided by the riders weight in kilograms, you are left with a figure that determines a riders watts-per-kilogram. The one with the highest number over a stretch of road — often fantasised about on climbs — is the one who goes the fastest. It’s a new(ish) technology, an expensive technology, and one that is in widespread use on the computers of cyclists throughout the professional peloton. If you know your maximum wattage at your present weight you know when you’re at your limit and how best to judge a ride. It goes against the purists dream of riding by feel, but technology is a fact of life in the 21st century.

What we found in the year that was 2013 however was that the guessing game of these figures has went beyond what is fact on the riders computer into what is fiction among speculating fans.

Without access to the UCI’s biological passport, without access to the data on a riders computer, and without access to the results of anti-doping samples, some fans found that this might be their best window into the likelihood of drug use still in the peloton and a few ‘experts’ were happy to feed their need to know.

The whole thing kicked into high gear at this years Tour de France when Chris Froome raced away from his rivals to win in spectacular fashion. Keyboards were mashed from basements across the globe and figures produced and often figures that led some so believe Froome was not winning clean. someone would start their stop watch at an arbitrary point on a climb and stop it at the top then use that time along with the distance and the weight of the rider to formulate a watts per kilogram number. These varied wildly at times and normally came to the fore on the days in which Froome did well or his number was high. His time up the climb was then compared against the likes of Lance Armstrong on the same climb years before by watching video for Armstrong to pass the same reference points.

It sounded good in hindsight, but it doesn’t really work. The timing charts were interesting as a rough guide, but were shown to have a decent degree of inaccuracy by others who felt it impossible to measure the exact starting point the same for every rider what with cameras often cutting away at different times.

The home-made calculations of wattage as any kind of reference was even more inaccurate:

Simply taking a riders speed up a climb and factoring that against his weight was ridiculous. Elements such as the following were not factored in: Wind direction, wind speed, humidity, temperature, road conditions, bike equipment, was the stage early in the tour or later in the tour, did it follow several hard days or several easy days or a rest day, did the climb in question come after a bunch of other climbs or a relatively flat climb, was the pace leading onto that climb high due to attacks or steady due to everyone waiting for that climb, was the GC battle tight putting more pressure on the Yellow jersey to push it on that climb, was a rival up the road forcing the race from the lower slopes, or did the attacks come later making the lower slopes that more steady?

All those elements would have to be factored in and until they were (impossible unless the data came straight off the riders computer), then common sense would suggest you take these numbers with a silo-sized grain of salt.

When such arguments were put forth, the attention turned to pressuring the teams, namely Sky, to release the power data of their riders, namely Froome. The issue with this is that releasing it to the public would also release it to the rest of the peloton. If a rival of Froomes new definitively what his watts per kilo output was he would know what the standard required was to drop Froome. He would know when Froome was riding beyond himself at a pace he could not sustain and adjust his own effort accordingly. You would never see a Formula One team release their telemetry data to the public, and thus their rival teams, so why on earth would we expect Froome and Sky to do the same? To appease the doubters simply isn’t reason enough.

Common sense could not prevail in the war against wattage speculation however and it continued throughout the year. Thankfully it didn’t overshadow and nor will it be what the season is remembered for. But it was still there, lurking in the corner of the season, desperate to receive credence among the every day fan. And it will be back again next year with a vengeance. We may be shifting into a cleaner era of cycling but with it comes a natural doubt. People desperate for the new era to be real, others desperate for the drug scandals to continue. The likes of Froome can thank their predecessors for that in part but a point has to come when you let the cyclists do the entertaining, let the testers do the catching, and let yourself do the enjoying.

For some that point has yet to arrive and so don’t expect the watt calculators to go away anytime soon.

Awards & Gongs

The Cycle Seen’s cyclist of the year: VINCENZO NIBALI

Many would jump for Chris Froome on this given the manor of his Tour de France victory but for me, over the course of the season, it was Nibali. He was brilliant at the Giro in, at times, terrible conditions where he won on home soil for the first time to take his second career Grand Tour. He understandably skipped the Tour, but showed up at the Vuelta where he wore the red jersey on three occasions before running out of steam late in the third week, finishing 2nd overall. At the World Championships in Florence he overcame a late crash in awful conditions to fight back and finish 4th in a race that no British or Irish riders managed to finish. His targets for 2014 are unknown as of yet but on his game he looks the only one capable of really challenging Chris Froome in France. Here’s hoping we get such a showdown.

Runners up: Chris Froome, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Rui Costa.

Past winners 2011: Philippe Gilbert; 2012: Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Other prizes

Sprinter: MARCEL KITTEL (Dethroned Cav at Le Tour)
Climber: CHRIS FROOME (Untouched when it mattered)
Time-trialist TONY MARTIN (Untouched at any time)
Classics rider: FABIAN CANCELLARA (Flanders/Roubaix double; enough said!)
Team: ORICA GREEN EDGE (For that first week of the Tour alone!)
Young rider: NAIRO QUINTANA (2nd at the Tour and won the KOM)
Hard man: GERAINT THOMAS (Rode the Tour with a broken Pelvis)
Domistique: ADAM HANSEN (Completed all 3 Grand Tours; won stage of the Giro)
Book: ‘DOMESTIQUE’ BY CHARLY WEGELIUS (A good, non-drugs, cycling story)
Best cyclist on Twitter: JENS VOIGT (Insight on and off the bike)
Best non-cyclist on Twitter: UK CYCLING EXPERT (Serious humour)

Moment of the year

VINCENZO NIBALI WINNING ON TRE CIME DI LAVAREDO

The conditions were awful, it was the penultimate stage, the Queen stage, set to finish on top of one of the most iconic climbs in the sport, the day before had been cancelled due to the weather, it was snowing … loads, Nibali was already in pink and looked good to win the Giro, yet he had something still to prove having won his only stage of the Giro against the clock two days before. In the falling snow and thick clouds on Tre Cime Di Lavaredo, Nibali turned on the style. He attacked hard on the hardest part of the climb and nobody could react. He rode away from his rivals and as he approached the finish the camera caught a glimmer of pink followed by the appearance of a man on the bike. The full image only came into full focus as he hit the line, arm in the air, Giro champion, in the pink leaders jersey, an Italian winner, alone, on this epic mountain.

 

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