Saturday, 9 June 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 09.06.12

The tenth edition of La Flèche Wallonne was held on this day in 1946. Having been run on shorter parcours during the Second World War, it was increased to 253km between Mons and Liège and was won by Désiré Keteleer who had twenty seasons as a professional rider between 1942 and 1961.

Luis Ocaña
Luis Ocaña (image c/o Granny Gear Blog)
Jesús Luis Ocaña Pernía was born in Priego, Spain, on this day in 1945, but moved to Mont-de-Marsan in France with his family when he was twelve and joined the local club. He showed some promise, but not enough to suggest he'd ever be anything more than a talented amateur and it took him until 1968 to get his first professional contract with the Spanish team Fagor. That very year, he won his first National Championship and even got a couple of good results in his first Grand Tours, finishing second on Stage 8 at the Vuelta a Espana and second again on Stage 19 at the Giro d'Italia. The year after that he won the Grand Prix du Midi Libre, the Vuelta a La Rioja, the Setmana Catalana de Ciclisme and three stages, the King of the Mountains and second place overall at the Vuelta a Espana; now, those French teams he'd been trying to join when he was an amateur couldn't get to his door quickly enough - he chose Bic, where he rode alongside Jan Janssen (who, in 1968, had been the first Dutch rider to win the Tour de France), Michael Wright (the Bishop's Stortford-born cyclist who was raised in Belgium and spoke such bad English that few people realised he was English) and Johny Schleck (father to Frank and Andy).

Ocaña entered his fifth Grand Tour with Bic, the 1970 Vuelta a Espana, and spent much of the race locking horns with Agustín Tamames of Werner. He won the prologue, then set about making sure the yellow jersey (nowadays, the leader of the Vuelta wears a red jersey - but that's only been the case since 2010. From 1998, it was gold; from 1955-1997 it was yellow and it had varied between white, orange and white with a red stripe before that) remained his. In Stage 13, Tamames took it; those who had followed their careers knew that Ocaña was likely to have little difficulty in getting it back when the race reached Bilbao for the the final stage, a time trial, and they were right - Ocaña screamed around the parcours and beat Tamames by 1'28". The race - the only Vuelta he won - was his, and the Spanish press called him "the best time-trialist that Spanish cycling has ever had, and the best cyclist of the moment." They, meanwhile, were wrong; because a rider from the other end of Europe, one who had already won two Grand Tours and was about to win another, and stood on the very cusp of revealing himself to be the most phenomenally talented rider cycling has ever known.

Had the pinnacle of his career come just a few years earlier or later, and had he have had just a little more luck, Ocaña would almost certainly have earned himself a place among the greatest ever Tour champions with three and possibly more victories. As it happened, he faced an insurmountable hurdle - Eddy Merckx. Merckx had sufficient respect for Ocaña for the two to become rivals (very few riders were that good, most were just people that Merckx saw briefly at the start of a race) and on a good day, the Spaniard was even capable of gaining the upper hand; but Merckx was simply in a different category to anything the cycling world had ever seen before. At the 1970 Tour, Ocaña performed exceptionally well and won a superb Stage 17 victory on the 1,464m Puy de Dôme, the Massif Central volcano that hosted some of the most dramatic moments in Tour history and is still missed since the roads were declared too narrow for future use after 1988; but Merckx, who was so powerful that he could set his sights on stage wins and General Classifications, won eight stages and overall.

Col de Menté, 1971 - the crash that could so
easily have killed
Merckx won the Critérium du Dauphiné in 1971, instantly making himself favourite for the Tour, but the Spanish remained hopeful that now he knew what he was up against Ocaña would find a way to respond. As he climbed towards the finish of Stage 8, once again on the Puy de Dôme, it looked as though he had and when he crossed the line he'd gained 15"; and then he added to it as the Tour headed through the mountains of the next three stages. By the end of Stage 11, which he won, he had the yellow jersey and an eight minute advantage over the Belgian (Merckx had been too slow off the mark when his rival attacked with Gosta Pettersen, Joaquim Agostinho and Zoetemelk - he begged the peloton to help him chase them down, but they were rather enjoying seeing the Cannibal in difficulty for once and refused). Merckx wasted no time at all in getting to work clawing it back, but in the end Fate stepped in. As they descended the Col de Menté in Stage 14, Merckx - who feared nothing - launched a savage attack, plummeting down the mountain at a rate that turned out to be too fast even for him: his tyres lost their grip and he slewed straight into a wall. Ocaña slammed on his brakes but, having been trying to stay as close as possible, was not able to stop in time and collided with him. Merckx was fine; back on his feet in seconds he was soon speeding away down the mountain. Ocaña had difficulty releasing himself from his toe clips but was also on his feet moments later, but had to wait while his wheel was replaced. As a result, he was right in the path of Joop Zoetemelk when he too lost control and smashed into him at full speed, followed by Agostinho and another rider. His Tour ended there as he was rushed by helicopter to hospital and Merckx became race leader - though he refused to wear the yellow jersey as a sign of respect the next day.

The next year Ocaña won the Dauphiné (and a second National Championship), but once Merckx announced that he would ride (he originally said he wouldn't, because he'd already won three times and he wanted to concentrate on winning a third Giro and a first Vuelta, but then changed his mind and dropped the Vuelta after hearing claims that he wouldn't have won in 1971 had it not have been for Ocaña's misfortune) it was the Belgian who was favourite. Ocaña attacked again and again, then abandoned with bronchitis in the Pyrenees. In 1973, Merckx stuck to his plans and stayed away from the Tour, but since Ocaña had only finished one of the four Tours he'd previously entered Raymond Poulidor, José Manuel Fuente and Zoetemelk were the favourites (not least of all because Merckx said they were). The race didn't get off to a promising start: he crashed in the prologue when a dog ran out of the crowd and into the peloton, but during Stage 3 when the Tour made one of its periodic visits to Roubaix to pay homage to the Hell of the North he gathered four of his Bic team mates, recruited six other riders from other teams and set off in a break that, for a while, had an advantage of five minutes. By the end of the stage the peloton had reduced it to around two and a half, but what really mattered was that Fuente was a full seven minutes down. Poulidor and Zoetemalk were closer, but all the same - one down, two to go.

Ocaña was always a good climber and had proved that the mountains were the one place where he surpassed Merckx, so it was there that he began his campaign, starting with Stage 5 but concentrating on gaining time rather than winning the stage; Walter Godefroot took the top step on the podium that day. He did the same on Stage 6, where Jean-Pierre Danguillaume won. Stage 7 was split into two sections, the first 86.5km and the second 150.5km. Ocaña won the first and took the yellow jersey, but then Bernard Thévenet won the second and, all of a sudden, Ocaña had three rivals for the General Classification again; but on Stage 8 he attacked on the Col du Télégraphe, led the race over the Galibier and won the stage, finishing up with an advantage of nine minutes over Fuente, ten over Thévenet and a crushing 23 over Zoetemelk. As far as many people are concerned, he'd already won by this point. However, cycling is a strange, unpredictable and dangerous sport, something that Ocaña understood very well after the 1972 crash and he knew he couldn't rest on his laurels - especially as Fuente was promising to get his revenge in the Pyrenees, which are a very different range of mountains to the Alps. On his side was the fact that there were still three individual time trials to go, two of which he won. Another two mountain stage victories, one of them on his old friend the Puy de Dôme, sealed the deal and his Tour was won. It's a great shame, and indication of how cruel cycling can be, that he was never allowed to forget that he'd done it in the year that Merckx stayed away. Sadly, it's also true that he probably wouldn't have won had it have been otherwise. He didn't ride the Tour in 1974 due to an injury, then returned in 1975 but abandoned in Stage 13. In 1976 he was 14th, then the following year 25th. Realising that he was fading, he retired.

The memorial (image c/o Lost Boys 2010)
Sadly, retirement was not kind to Ocaña. He owned a vineyard but it didn't do well and he was soon in grave financial difficulties, despite help from what for many people was an unexpected source - Eddy Merckx who, despite his Cannibal image, could show deep concern for a fellow rider and used his contacts to persuade a Belgian importer to purchase a considerable portion of estate's output. Things would get worse: he was involved in two serious car accidents, losing so much blood in one of them that he needed a blood transfusion which went wrong, leaving him very ill. Then he began to develop clinical depression, which proved to be too much stress for his wife Josiane and she left him; and as if he hadn't been through enough already he was diagnosed first with hepatitis C, then with cancer. On the 19th of May 1994, when he was 48 years old, he used a gun to commit suicide. A memorial stone stands on the Col de Menté, right where he crashed in 1971, and cyclists from all around the world go there to pay their respects to one of the most tragic characters the sport has ever known.

Josephine Tomic
Born in Perth on this day in 1989, Josie Tomic is one of Australian cycling's great natural talents - having taken up road racing at the age of 14, she was riding for her country at the Oceania Championships only a year later. That same year, she became National Under-17 Pursuit Champion, won the New Zealand Oceania Tour and took bronze medals in the National U-17 Road Race and Time Trial finals.

Josie Tomic
In 2005, Tomic became National U-17 Champion in Individual Pursuit, 500 m TT, Team Sprint, Duo Time Trial  and road Time Trial, took a silver medal in the National Criterium Championships and another bronze in the National Road Race. In 2006 and 2007, she won four Junior and U-19 National titles (setting a new Junior Individual Pursuit world record in the process) and in 2008 she became National Individual Pursuit Champion. 2009 brought her three gold medals at the Nationals,  two more at the Oceania Championships and the Omnium World Champion title; then in 2010 she was selected for the teams that won gold at the Track World Cup in Melbourne Round, the Oceania Track Championships, the Australian Track Championships and Track World Championships, also winning the U-19 Individual Pursuit and Points race at the Nationals. The 2011 Nationals saw her win three more gold medals and, while she has yet to win in 2012 she'll be leading the Autralian Women's Team Pursuit squad at the London Olympics and, going by her incredible record thus far, will be one of the riders to watch.

Alex Rasmussen
Rasmussen has also ridden for SaxoBank
Alex Nicki Rasmussen, who is not related to Michael Rasmussen but is the son of Danish amateur track champion Claus Rasmussen, was born in Svendborg, Denmark on this day in 1987. He followed his father into track cycling but achieved much more, winning numerous professional victories on the track including six consecutive National Madison Championships, and enjoyed success on the road including the 2007 National Championship.

On the 15th of September 2011, news broke that Rasmussen had failed to supply anti-doping officials with correct details of his whereabouts; as a result missing a test. His road race team, HTC-Highroad, was then informed that he had missed two others during the preceding eighteen months which, under WADA rules, is punishable by a two-year suspension. The team (which for many years had been famous for its anti-doping policies, which went beyond what was legally required) suspended him immediately, then he was deselected from the Danish World Championships and warned that he was likely to face legal prosecution. Highroad was at the time going through financial problems (ironically because sponsors had pulled out due to not wishing to be associated with what they saw as a "druggy sport" and which would ultimately cause the team to close at the end of the year), which had led manager Bob Stapleton to inform his riders that they might want to look for new teams during transfer season - Rasmussen had done so and been offered a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. That contract was torn up.

However, the Union Cyclist International failed to notify the rider that he'd missed a test until ten weeks after the incident; by their own rules and those of WADA, they must do so within fourteen days. As a result, Rasmussen was cleared and Garmin, who became Garmin-Barracuda for the 2012 season, once again signed him up.

Anthony Geslin

Geslin at the 2008 Vuelta a Espana

Anthony Geslin, born in Alençon (also the hometown of the legendary mountain biker and cyclo cross rider Laurence Leboucher) on this day in 1980. He was taken on by Bonjour for a two-year period as a trainee in 2000 and immediately began to get himself onto podiums, including a second place finish for Stage 5 at the Tour de l'Avenir in 2001 which got him a professional contract with the same squad in 2002, when he was second in Stage 4 at l'Avenir. In 2003, Bonjour became Brioches La Boulangère and Geslin won the Criterium des Espoirs, then rode with them in his first Tour de France where his results were not stellar, but promising: he finished in the top 25 three times, but more importantly he survived through all 3,427.5km the race. The following year he won just one race, the Route Adélie de Vitré; but in 2005 it became clear that the reason for that was he'd found his speciality and had spent the year transforming himself into a sprinter - returning to the Tour, he was eighth on Stage 3 and sixth on Stages 13 and 16.

Many of the true greats from cycling history are notable in that they excel in two or more areas, for an example an ability to both climb and descend, sprint and time trial, win on the flat stages and in the hills; this being why ultra-specialised riders such as Mark Cavenish will never win a Tour and why some riders win Tours - like Charly Gaul, who descended as well as he climbed and also had an ability (natural, though undoubtedly helped by vast amounts of amphetamines) to withstand pain and suffering far in excess of most human beings - but are greater than others who have won Tours  and why a tiny minority of riders who are so phenomenally good at everything, a category into which at present perhaps only Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Marianne Vos can be placed, are the greatest of them all. Geslin had a near unique bonus power to his skills in the sprint, and that was that he could also climb: as he proved by winning the Trophée des Grimpeurs in 2007 and the tough Brabantse Pijl with its repeated slogs up high-gradient hills in 2009. For that reason, it seems strange that Geslin did not achieve a great deal more.

An Van Rie, who was born in Menen on this day in 1974, was Belgian Time Trial Champion in 2006, 2007 and 2008. She also rode well in criterium races with numerous victories over the same time period, during which she rode first with Lotto-Belisol, then AA and finally Vrienden van het Platteland.

Sinead Emily Miller was born in South Park, Pennsylvania on this day in 1990, began racing BMX when she was five years old and rose to the top levels of the sport during pre-teen childhood, earning a place on a series of professional teams. Aged 10, she took up road cycling and soon discovered that she enjoyed it, then soon afterwards that she was very good at it, so she entered some races, winning the National Junior Criterium Championship in 2004. It would be the first of many; as a result she was selected to ride for the US team at the Junior Championships in 2006 and 2007. Currently, Miller is studying at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she rides for the cycling team and has attained several good results so far in 2012.

Other births: Petr Bucháček (Czechoslovakia, 1948); Ilya Chernyshov (USSR, 1985); Gonzalo García (Argentina, 1976); Paul Espeit (France, 1878, died 1960); János Juszkó (Hungary, 1939); Skip Cutting (USA, 1946).

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