Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 16.05.12

The 25th edition of La Flèche Wallonne took place on this day in 1961, running from Liège to Charleroi for a second consecutive year. However, the parcours had been altered and as such was 15km shorter at 193km - the shortest in the 76-year history of the event. The winner was Willy Vannitsen who won more than 110 races during his 13 professional years, including Stage 1 at the 1958 Giro d'Italia and Stages 10 and 15 at the 1962 Tour de France, yet is virtually forgotten outside his native Belgium.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest and - according to some - greatest Classic of them all took place on this day in 1909. Eugène Charlier was the first over the line, but when officials discovered he hadn't finished the race on the same bike he started with his victory was disallowed - rather than being disqualified, as some sources claim, his time was recorded as being the same as that of Victor Fastre (and the next seven men, this being the first time that the race had ended with a bunch sprint) and he was relegated to second place. In third place was Paul Deman, winner four years later of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and then Paris-Roubaix in 1920 and Paris-Tours in 1923.

Alfredo Binda
The Giro d'Italia began on this day seven times - 1925, 1936, 1959, 1969, 1974, 1985 and 1998. The 1925 edition started and ended in Milan, with twelve stages covering a total of 3,520km. It is remembered - by those few people fortunate to have seen it and still be with us - as one of the most exciting ever due to an epic battle between Costante Girardengo, who fought long and hard through the mountains and won five stages, and Alfredo Binda who matched every attack he made to take the race lead from him and keep it for the final eight stages to win by 4'58".

1936 covered 3,745km in 19 stages, though Stages 15 and 17 were split - 15a was a short road stage, 15b an individual time trial, 17a and 17b were short road stages. Gino Bartali, who had won the Mountains classification the previous year, returned and performed even better to win the Mountains and his first General Classification, leading the race through the final twelve stages and winning two of them. Olimpio Bizzi won Stage 6 at the age of 18 years and 299 days, making him the youngest Giro stage winner ever.

Charly Gaul
1959 was made up if 22 stages and 3,657km - another epic year in which Luxembourg's Charly Gaul once again proved himself unbeatable in the mountains (or, as many will point out, proved himself capable of consuming larger quantities of la bomba), driving hard over the snowy peaks and continuing to push himself when others had exhausted themselves. Gaul was almost as good in a time trial as he was in the climbs, but he wasn't quite as good as Jacques Anquetil who took a 1'30" lead after Stage 2, then proceeded to slowly grind down his opponent's advantage until the race leadership passed to him in Stage 15. Going into Stage 20, the Frenchman still had the lead and many believed the race was as good as his. Then, in Stage 21, Gaul crushed him. Pushing so hard over three challenging mountain that nobody could get near him, he won by 9'48" and took back the leadership. Rolf Graf won the final stage, but Ancquetil may as well have not bothered - bettering what Gaul had done was far beyond even his capabilities.

1969 covered 3,851.3km in 22 stages and would be one of the most controversial editions ever due to a sample provided during Stage 16 by Eddy Merckx, found to be positive for N-ethyl-3-phenyl-norbornan-2-amine, a stimulant prescribed under the name Reactivan and still used, though rarely, in medicine today. For reasons that remain unknown, news of the sample and the rider's expulsion from the race was supplied to the press before he and his team management were notified and when he revealed that he had been offered money to throw the race by an un-named Italian rider the day before, suspicions that something nefarious was going on began to pick up speed. Prince Albert of Belgium sent his own aeroplane to bring him home and the government got involved, demanding an investigation from the Italian Foreign Minister. The Italian Federation continued to insist it had acted correctly and, while Merckx was subsequently given the go ahead to ride in that year's Tour de France, which he won, the official reason for his Giro expulsion has never been retracted. Many believe that the Belgian rider would have won but, with him out of the way, Felice Gimondi dominated the remainder of the race and took the overall General Classification. 43 years later, Merckx still says that the stage was such an easy one that he had no reason to resort to cheating, as does appear to be the case when we take his abilities into account, and to this day he insists he is innocent. So does the official who was in charge of the positive sample.

From left to right: Hinault, Maertens, Merckx and de Vlaeminck
(unknown copyright)
In 1974, Merckx won for the fifth time after 22 stages and 4,001km. While he led from Stage 14 to the end, it was noticeable at several points during the race, especially when Jose-Manuel Fuente and Gianbattista Baronchelli got into a duel in Stage 20 and raised the pace so high that Merckx nearly exhausted himself in his attempts to keep the leadership (in fact, Baronchelli was "leader on the road" for a while during the stage), that his reign was beginning to crumble. He would win the Tour as well that year, becoming for the fourth time one of the few riders to have won two Grand Tours in a season.

1985 came during the reign of the man commonly considered the second greatest cyclist after Merckx, Bernard Hinault who won for a third time. Taking third place after the 22 stages and 3,998km was Greg Lemond, who would slay the Badger the following year when he became the first American to win the Tour de France. When Hinault won the Tour later in the year, he won two Grand Tours in a season for the third time. Strangely, when the Giro next started on this date in 1998, winner Marco Pantani took the first step in adding his name to the list too because he also won the Tour that year. 1998 covered 3,868km in 22 stages.

Simon Gerrans
Simon Gerrans, born in Melbourne on this day in 1980, took up cycling after injuring his knee during childhood; the sport having been recommended to him by his neighbour, who was a reasonably successful rider himself - Phil Anderson, the first non-European to wear the maillot jaune at the Tour de France. It soon turned out that he wasn't bad at it either and he was awarded a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport, where he began to develop into a world-class road racer.

Simon Gerrans
(image credit: GreenEDGE)
Gerrans' first major success was the Under-23 title at the National Championships of 2002, where he also took 5th in the Elite race. The big European teams were not slow in taking note and in 2003 he was invited to join Carvalhelhos-Boavista as a trainee after spending a short while with the Norwegian team Ringerike, then a year later AG2R Prévoyance with whom he turned professional in 2005 and entered the Tour de France for the first time, surprising many by coming third in Stage 17 and leaving no doubt that he was a new talent - one that could very easily have been ended in February the next year with a crash at the GP d'Ouverture la Marseillaise which left him with pins in his collarbone and shoulder as well as several stitches to repair flesh wounds to his head. He recovered quickly and rode his second Tour that year, improving his General Classification result from 126th to 79th, then dropped to 94th in 2007.

In 2008, having moved on to Crédit Agricole, he won Stage 15 after sprinting to the finish without challenge from the other surviving two riders of a four-man break that had escaped early in the stage and managed to stay out in front. The next year he joined the legendary Cervelo Test Team, but managers mystified fans by failing to pick him for the Tour squad. However, he did go to the Giro d'Italia, where he won Stage 14 (Cervelo's first Grand Tour stage win), and the Vuelta a Espana where he won Stage 10; thus becoming the first Australian rider to have won a stage at all three Grand Tours. 2010 saw him depart for the new British team Sky, with whom he went back to the Tour. Another crash ended his chances in Stage 8 and left him with a broken arm. He stayed with Sky through 2011 and began to show promise as a Classics rider, taking third at the Amstel Gold, second at the Waalse Pijl and 12th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, then third for Stage 2 at the Tour.

In 2011, it was announced that a new team, GreenEDGE, was being put together and stood a very good chance of being the first Australian team to receive a ProTour licence from the UCI. Gerrans was invited join and did so - which, in 2012, looked to have been a very wise decision. With them, he became National Champion for the first time, won a second Tour Down Under and then added the highlight of his career so far - victory at the legendary Milan-San Remo Monument when he beat Fabian Cancellara.

Matthias Kessler
The German rider Matthias Kessler, born in Nuremburg on this day in 1979, was little known outside his own nation until 2000 when he turned professional with Deutsche Telekom. In 2001 he finished in the top 5 for two stages at the Giro d'Italia but remained little known - until he was widely proclaimed an outside favourite for the Classics in 2003 on the strength of 6th place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2002 and soon caught the public's attention for his habit of unzipping his jersey and deliberately ripping his undershirt to keep cool. He finished the Amstel Gold Race in 5th place in 2003, then La Flèche Wallonne in 3rd a year later.

Unfortunately, what could have been a great career was marred by bad luck and doping. In the 2004 Tour de France he was left in agony after a bad crash and, while he finished the stage, didn't start the next day. In 2007, he provided a sample that was shown to contain unusually high levels of testosterone; leading to his dismissal from Astana a short while later. Things began to fall apart from that point on and he experienced difficulty in finding a new contract once his two-year ban came to an end. In 2010, while on a training ride in Algaida, Mallorca, he accidentally collided with a cat. The resulting crash left him with serious head injuries.

Other births: Roger de Beukelaer (Belgium, 1951); Roberts Plūme (Latvia, 1897, died 1956); Im Sang-Jo (South Korea, 1930); Pål Henning Hansen (Norway, 1953); Juan Reyes (Cuba, 1944); Wilhelm Rabe (Germany, 1876); Antonio Hernández (Mexico, 1951); Lennie Kristensen (Denmark, 1968); Gustavo Guglielmone (Argentina, 1971).

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