Time to let the riding do the talking

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Bradley Wiggins leading the Tour de France. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET

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As cycling’s doping circus sideshow continues, it’s easy to see how our love of the sport has been somewhat diminished by a latest series of lurid revelations.

This past week saw young Dutchman Tom-Jelte Slagter win the first major stage race of the season, the Tour Down Under, but people still seem more interested in the fall-out from Lance Armstrong’s doping confession and the American’s subsequent war of words with the UCI.

Cycling’s governing body is itself embroiled in a noxious spat with the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Dr Eufemiano Fuentes and his cronies are undergoing trial in the Operacion Puerto case, Danish climber Michael Rasmussen has just come clean to 12 years of performance enhancing drugs, while Frank Schleck, third in the 2011 Tour de France, has been dealt a back-dated one-year ban for testing positive for a banned diuretic during last year’s race.

Isn’t it getting boring?

So, in a bid to release myself and you readers from the shackles of syringes, I’m going to pull out some actual cycling-related scenarios that are motivating and exciting me ahead of the coming season.

Boonen in the classics

Tom Boonen was a joy to watch in last year’s cobblestone classics, the Belgian powerhouse rampaging to a historic second Flanders-Roubaix double of his career. While his outfoxing of Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan in Flanders was highly memorable, it was the majestic way in which he soloed to such an emphatic win in Roubaix one week later that had us all purring in delight.

The 32-year-old could well make history again this spring. As it stands, Boonen is one of five men with three wins in Flanders while he’s tied with Roger De Vlaeminck on four career scalps in Roubaix.

Boonen already has enough prize-winning cobbles to pave himself a new drive way – but a third double would see the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider move outright to the top of the record books.

What will be fascinating, however, will be his duel with Fabian Cancellara, the only other rider to reach similarly lofty heights in recent years. The Swiss crashed out of last year’s Tour of Flanders with a broken collar bone – but back in 2010, Spartacus did his own glorious double.

Boonen managed to make a comeback since then – can Cancellara do the same?

Team Sky’s leadership tussle

Another thrilling duel to savour this year will take place between riders on the same team, as Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins and fellow Sky rider Chris Froome vie for the number one spot on Dave Brailsford’s British squad.

In an interview conducted last week from the team’s training camp in Majorca, Froome stressed he was “100% certain” that he would be leader come July and that Wiggins, the man whose overall victory Froome helped secure last summer, would repay the favour.

Wiggins himself confirmed that he would be focusing mainly on the Giro d’Italia this year – but he couldn’t resist adding that he still harboured a strong desire to win the Tour again. “It may be this year, it may be next year,” he added while sitting alongside Froome, who nervously sipped green tea from a flask.

The big question is this: can a rider who last year made history in becoming Britain’s first ever winner of the fabled maillot jaune really be expected to roll over and not defend his crown? It gets even more intriguing when you think that that person in question is someone as dedicated, determined, driven and proud as Wiggins.

This one has Hinault versus Lemond written all over it…

Battle for the green jersey

Free from the yellow shackles of Sky, former world champion Mark Cavendish will have his heart set on winning back the green jersey in next year’s Tour.

With new team-mate Boonen’s focus now very much on the classics, Cavendish will be OMQS’s man for the sprints in all three Grand Tours – and the prospect of the Manx Missile being reintegrated in a dedicated sprint train (after all, his team has no bona fide GC contender) is a mouth-watering one.

But his rivals are getting better and better. Peter Sagan, winner of the green jersey last year aged just 22 and riding his debut Tour, will fancy his chances – although the Slovak sensation is no match for Cav on flat, fast finishes.

Andre Greipel, however, continues to improve – and evidence suggests he can build on that first Grand Tour sprint victory secured against his old team-mate in last year’s race.

Greipel’s Lotto train once again underlined their superiority by delivering the German to four wins Down Under, while Greipel seems to have shed a bit of the bulk that used to discount him from being a contender for green, by virtue of him not being able to get over the climbs that often preceded a Tour bunch gallop.

Throw in German youngsters Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb of Argos-Shimano – at least one of whom will get his chance to shine in France – and all the ingredients are there for a royal ding dong battle for the maillot vert.

Vuelta summit finishes

The Vuelta is always a fascinating race because it’s often the last-chance saloon for many top GC riders who missed the boat in either the Giro or Tour. But it’s far from a push-over. In fact, this year’s 68th edition of the race is punishingly brutal, featuring a record 11 summit finishes and only one individual time trial.

Following an opening team time trial that starts on a raft in the Rias Baixas wine region in Galicia, the riders will tackle a first-category mountain top finish as early as stage two, setting the tempo for a demanding three weeks which culminates with the 13km climb of the fearsome Angliru, Spain’s hardest climb, on the penultimate stage.

With Sky concentrating on the Giro and Tour, this should make the Vuelta an open and exciting race – much like last year’s three-way battle between Spaniards Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez.

Frank Schleck, back from his ban, could well put in an appearance too…

French resistance

It’s been 27 years since France had a winner in their home race, and while that drought will no doubt continue a little while longer, this could be the year that French riders at least become a serious factor once again in the GC.

Pierre Rolland rode to a credible eighth place last year – despite crashing heavily early on in a race whose route was not best suited to his strengths. The 2013 route involves less time trial kilometres and more climbs – including two ascents of Alpe d’Huez, where Rolland won his first Tour stage back in 2011.

Rolland will be Europcar’s main man come July, with Thomas Voeckler given a free role to add to his current haul of four stage wins in three years. Another French rider even younger than 26-year-old Rolland who could make a splash is FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot.

Winner of a mountain stage in his debut Tour last year, the 22-year-old also became the youngest rider since 1947 to finish in the top ten.

The likes of Voeckler and Sylvain Chavanel have rewarded the French public with stage wins and yellow jersey flourishes over the past decade, but with Rolland and Pinot coming to the fore, the French can finally dream a little bit higher.

And finally…riding in the footsteps of Hannibal

To end, a personal challenge that is gearing me up to the cycling season. For so long, I have covered professional cycling without actually riding much myself. This year that has changed.

I have a monthly back-page column for Cyclist magazine in the UK chartering my rapid rise from writer to rouleur.

So far I’ve already conquered one of Europe’s most challenging climbs – the Pico de las Neives on Gran Canaria – during a mini cycling ‘holiday’ coinciding with Saxo Bank’s off-season training camp in the Canaries.

But my big aim of the season is the Hannibal 2013 – an epic 26-day ride from Barcelona to Rome covering three iconic mountain ranges and 2,300 kilometres of wondrous terrain.

The initial plan was to do the second leg of the event, from Avignon to Gavi, but then I thought why not push myself all the way and be among the handful of hardy riders who complete the entire challenge.

While the prospect of tackling legendary climbs such as Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez and the Galibier is rather daunting, the idea of being able to forget the daily grind and watch the geographical panorama unfold before my eyes is truly exciting.

It will be the hardest sporting challenge I have ever taken on – but the rewards will be bountiful.

Just thinking about all the different types of delicious food that I’ll be so unfairly forced into consuming just to maintain my energy levels is something that’s getting me through the winter months here in wet and dreary London.

All this recent talk of doping has made too many people grow cynical about cycling. Taking on a challenge like this will, I hope, make me fall further in love with the sport that gives me so much satisfaction and joy, both as a writer and a fan.

Bring on the Hannibal!

Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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