_December 2004
   
   
   

Great Expectations: a Look Back at 2004 (Part 3)

As always the spring focus on the World Cup races finishes with the opening of the early summer stage races, the Giro and finally the Tour de France. Come August the World Cup resumes its place center stage, although this year it had to step aside for a short while during the Olympics. However the World Cup action did continue and although other riders were in contention, most people saw it as a battle between Rebellin and Bettini. Try as he may, Rebellin could not put enough distance between himself and Bettini. His summer form was simply nowhere near his astounding spring form. Likewise Bettini, in spite of his Olympic Gold, was also lacking that final spark of the past two years. Consequently the remainder of the year saw these two playing tactical games in order to claim a handful of points from the other. Bettini eventually devoured Rebellin’s small World Cup points advantage and thus claimed his third World Cup victory in a row. A unique performance that will never be bested, the World Cup is finished and being replaced by the Pro-Tour in 2005.

So while the duel for overall World Cup supremacy was something of a damp squid, cycling fans were more than compensated by the final two classics of the season. At 252 km the October 10th Paris-Tours (first run in 1896) is generally considered a sprinters race. However this year it was a break that took the laurels. This time Rabobank’s Erik Dekker delivered an unbelievable lesson in perseverance and sheer guts. After just 25km of racing Dekker was in a breakaway with four others, and at one point they had an advantage of around eight minutes. With only 15km’s left to race a group of four caught and passed Dekker’s group. At this point the main peloton was in clear view behind them and closing fast. As the new break steamed past, Dekker somehow found the energy to latch onto the end. With four kilometers to go the tiring break hit the final climb. Nervousness at the close proximity of the bunch caused a brief lull in the tempo. Dekker attacked again and took Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile) with him. Into the final very long finish straight along the famed Avenue de Grammont the bunch was literally breathing down their necks. With a final show of defiance Dekker blasted on towards the finish line to finish just meters ahead of second placed Danilo Hondo (Gerolsteiner) and 56 other riders that comprised the leading peloton. It was an astonishing performance, which must now rank as Dekker’s best from his long and very successful career.

Six days later the final classic of the season, the Tour of Lombardy (‘the race of the falling leaves’) coursed its way around what is probably the most beautiful race circuit of the entire season. The outcome of the World Cup was (theoretically) at stake with neither Rebellin nor Bettini demonstrating great form. Bettini could only manage a 29th place, but had enough to secure his 3rd World Cup Jersey. So while this limpid affair was in progress ‘the race proper’ developed into a magnificent attacking battle with some of the seasons most notable personalities playing leading roles. Young Damiano Cunego (Saeco) sealed the deal with another of his devastating sprints and in so doing relegated the luckless Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) to yet another World Cup race second place.

With that the formal 2004 season came to a close. Or at least so we all thought. With the racing finished attention was sharply focused on two big UCI issues; the Tyler Hamilton / Santiago Perez blood tests; and the new Pro-Tour. As the weeks slipped by each of these issues became uglier and stranger. At the center of the tornado is the UCI who have adopted an almost dictatorial attitude to managing the sport. For Hamilton in particular and Perez (with Phonak in general) the court of public opinion seems to be largely on their sides. Blood test protocols, political manipulations and shady figures are turning the whole affair into a major melodrama.

The “negotiations” surrounding the Pro-Tour have evolved into a cross between a Shakespearean drama and a Monty Python sketch. On the one hand the UCI claims unity and on the other the Grand Tour organizers claim no such thing. Meanwhile, like a little voice in the wilderness, the pro riders association claims to have had no representation in the discussions. We seem to be in for a long period of contentious arguments while the UCI struggles to introduce reforms that should benefit all of cycle racing in the long term.

For some these were the best of time and other the worst of times. In spite of all the wrangling, cycling’s rich tapestry will continue to be woven during 2005 with magnificent races such as the five monuments of cycling, the three Grand Tours and many other venerable races whose history stretches back to the time of our Grandparents and Great Grandparents. Politics and the UCI cannot change that!

 
       
         
         
   


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