In all, 2008 was another topsy-turvy year for cycling but for fans drama was abundant from the spring one-day classics through the Olympics and the three Grand Tours to the end-of-season world championships: history was made, new talents were revealed as drugs cheats and one of sport’s biggest names, Lance Armstrong, decided to emerge from retirement to show rivals 10 years his junior a trick or two.
For better or for worse, cancer survivor Armstrong decided to end a three-year hiatus from the sport and return to competition in a bid, to promote the global fight against cancer. His comeback at Australia’s Tour Down Under in January should herald a 2009 rich in drama, if not the usual, unfounded, doping accusations that seem to follow in his wake. But before Armstrong hogs the limelight, one name stood out from the rest in 2008: Alberto Contador.
The winner of the 2007 Tour de France with Armstrong’s former team Discovery Channel, Contador added the 2008 Giro d’Italia and Tour of Spain crowns to his collection in a year in which his Astana team was controversially left off the Tour organisers’ invitees list.
In so doing the 26-year-old became only the fifth rider in history, after Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Italian Felice Gimondi and Belgian Eddy Merckx to win all three major Tours – although that quartet racked up several wins in either one or several of cycling’s three-week Grand Tours.
Contador’s reputation as the perfect stage racer is well documented, but how he copes mentally with Armstrong on board his Astana team has yet to be seen.
In a bid to smooth out any ruffles, Armstrong said of Contador at the start of December: “I have a lot of respect for this man. I can’t say it any simpler. This guy is the best cyclist in the world.”
Top riders like Armstrong and Contador avoid the tough one-day classics like the plague, but for some they are the real test of a rider’s mettle.
While Belgian champion Stijn Devolder upset predictions to win the snow-hit Tour of Flanders in early April, his QuickStep teammate Tom Boonen claimed his second career triumph in the flatter, but arguably tougher Paris-Roubaix a week later.
Boonen’s balloon would burst months later, however, a positive test for cocaine ruling him out of the Tour de France.
Their victories followed a formidable ‘double’ by Swiss ‘Spartacus’ Fabian Cancellara, who won the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race in March before claiming a first victory in the one-day Milan-San Remo classic.
In Beijing, where Britain’s track supremos spectacularly won seven of the 10 golds at the velodrome, Cancellara won Olympic time trial gold and took bronze in the road race won by Spaniard Samuel Sanchez.
At Liege-Bastogne-Liege two weeks after Roubaix, Spanish ace Alejandro Valverde claimed his second win in the oldest of the one-day classics ahead of
Paris-Nice winner Davide Rebellin.
Despite his early season form, Valverde – who in June won the tough Dauphine Libere stage race ahead of Australia’s Cadel Evans – would find the Tour de France, and the dominant CSC team, a tougher nut to crack.
In July a quality field including 2007 runner-up Evans fought valiantly for the yellow jersey. In the end an attack on Alpe d’Huez, and a penultimate stage time trial performance which defied predictions allowed CSC’s experienced Spanish climber Carlos Sastre to triumph.
But before the Pyrenees and Alps beckoned the peloton, the race was dragged through the mud.
In all, seven riders tested positive, three for EPO (erythropoietin) and four for CERA, the latest generation of the banned blood booster.
Italians Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli and Germany’s Stefan Schumacher all won stages and all tested postive for CERA. Third place finisher, and the ‘King of the Mountains’ Bernard Kohl of Austria also tested positive for the drug.
Arguably, the only ‘positive’ to emerge from the scandal was that efforts to actively weed out cheats are bearing fruit.
“Of course it’s not good for the reputation of our race, or the sport of cycling, but we are happy the cheats are being caught,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.