With Yates’ win at Vuelta, British domination is complete

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PARIS — When Lance Armstrong won the last of his seven Tour de France titles back in 2005, there was not a single British rider on the starting line. The face of cycling has dramatically changed since, with Armstrong erased from the records books for doping and British cycling now ruling the Grands Tours.

Simon Yates capped a fantastic year for British riders on Sunday by winning the Spanish Vuelta, completing a clean sweep of cycling’s biggest races for the country following the successes of Chris Froome at the Giro d’Italia and Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France.

It is the first time in cycling history that each of the three titles have been held by three riders from the same nation.

“It’s astonishing really. Growing up I was so accustomed to seeing the French, Italian and Spanish riders lead the way, so for myself, Chris and Geraint to all win a Grand Tour in the same year just shows how far the sport has come in this country,” the 26-year-old Yates said. “It has not happened by accident.”

Like Thomas, Yates is a pure product of British cycling, having joined the country’s renowned academy program when he was 18 years old. At the time, Britain had already started its cycling revolution under the helm of coaches Dave Brailsford and Peter Keen, who masterminded the rise of homegrown talents, on both the track and the road.

The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona were a milestone in British cycling history. In Spain, Chris Boardman, who was coached by Keen, won the gold medal in the individual pursuit, Britain’s first cycling gold medal in 72 years. From 1997-2004, Keen was in charge of the elite performance program of the British cycling federation and developed a plan focusing on track cycling to attract funding from the National Lottery, which had just started to invest millions of dollars into British sport federations.

“Britain has invested heavily in lower ranks,” said Brailsford, who runs Team Sky. “It does not happen overnight.”

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Jason Queally won the gold medal in the 1-kilometer time trial and the harvest of track medals expanded in Athens and Beijing under Brailsford’s leadership. But successes on the road remained scarce despite the emergence of a talented generation of riders including Mark Cavendish and Thomas, who developed their skills through the academy program run by Rod Ellingworth.

In 2009, Bradley Wiggins achieved a fourth-place finish at the Tour – he was later awarded third place after Armstrong’s disqualification – while riding for Garmin. He became an obvious choice for the newly-created Team Sky that Brailsford helped to create and then managed, and was recruited as the team’s leader. With his “marginal gains” philosophy and unmatched budget, Brailsford produced the first British Tour de France winner in 2012 with Wiggins, just a year after Cavendish became world champion at the road race championships.

Success has not stopped since.

“There were no British winners in any of the first 259 Grand Tours, yet following Yates’s victory in Madrid this weekend a British rider has now been victorious in nine of the last 20,” read a British Cycling statement after Yates won the Vuelta.

This year’s British dominance has, however, been met with skepticism outside the country after Froome returned an abnormal doping test at last year’s Vuelta. Froome was cleared to compete at the Tour de France just days before the race started but was subjected to abuse by some fans on the roads of France, repeatedly spat at and even punched.

Thomas was also booed and jeered this year because he rides for Team Sky, which has been accused by a British parliamentary committee of crossing an “ethical line” after preaching zero tolerance and is now often associated with doping. In March, the British legislators said they received evidence showing Team Sky sought a therapeutic use exemption for Wiggins to take a banned corticosteroid to enhance his performance while preparing to win the 2012 Tour.

Yates, who competes for the Mitchelton-Scott team, was suspended for four months for non-intentional doping two years ago after testing positive for a banned substance during Paris-Nice. He had been treated for asthma, but his team failed to apply for a therapeutic use exemption.

Giro d’Italia to start in Hungary next year

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — The Giro d’Italia will start in Hungary next year.

The prelude stage will take place in Budapest, followed by two further stages on Hungarian soil.

Giro d’Italia organizers made the announcement on Tuesday at the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest.

It will be the Grand Tour’s 14th start outside of Italy, with the most recent being in Israel last year.

This year’s Giro d’Italia will begin in Bologna on May 11 and conclude in Verona on June 2.

Gilbert beats Politt to win Paris-Roubaix

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ROUBAIX, France — Veteran cyclist Philippe Gilbert beat German rider Nils Politt right at the end of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix race to win it for the first time.

Gilbert strategically placed himself behind the 24-year-old Politt, and then attacked him down the left to win by about a length after nearly six hours of riding. Belgian rider Yves Lampaert finished in third.

The race is one of cycling’s five high-profile classics, along with the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia. The 36-year-old Gilbert, a former world road race champion, has won all except Milan-San Remo.

“I still have this dream to win all them. Little by little I’m getting there,” an elated Gilbert said afterward. “Politt’s very courageous. In the end the best rider won, and thankfully it was me.”

Last year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Peter Sagan joined Gilbert and Politt near the front with about 20 kilometers left. But Sagan dropped off, leaving Gilbert and Politt to contest victory as they reached the Roubaix velodrome in northern France.

Paris-Roubaix is known as the Queen of the Classics because it is the most prestigious of the five, which are otherwise known as “monuments” of cycling.

But the grueling and dangerous 257-kilometer trek is also known as the “Hell of the North,” because of its treacherous profile including more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) of cobblestones spread out over 29 sectors.

“A lot of people said cobblestones aren’t for me. But I’ve won Tour of Flanders and now I’ve won here,” Gilbert said. “I rode a good race tactically.”

Belgian cyclist Tiesj Benoot crashed into the back of a Jumbo-Visma team car near the end of Sunday’s race, smashing the back window completely. He was taken to hospital but his injuries were not immediately known.

Last year’s Paris-Roubaix was overshadowed by the death of Belgian rider Michael Goolaerts, following a crash.