|Iban Mayo at the 2007 Giro d'Italia
The French, at one time, elevated cycling to the level of a religion, as did the Italians. The Belgians are obsessed with it, and the British are becoming so. The Dutch adore the sport too - but no other people have cycling in their blood in quite the same way that the Basques do, and nowhere else is cycling an expression of national identity. There are 2.1 million Basques in their country, Euskadi; according to author Daniel Coyle, 70 of them were riding among the 400 ProTour athletes in 2004, and rider Haimar Zubeldia says that cycling is "an emanation of our people." Iban Mayo, born in Igorre on this day in 1977, was the best of them all during the first five years of the 21st Century.
A few years after leaving school, Mayo became an ambulance driver. One day, the tyres on his ambulance lost their grip and the vehicle smashed headlong into a stone wall, leaving him with two shattered legs that put him in a wheelchair for eight weeks. When he recovered he decided to train as an electrician, because people told him it wouldn't put much strain in his legs and the pay was good. Within a year, he'd surprised doctors by getting on his bike and developing a new style that didn't make his knees hurt quite so much.
Mayo turned professional with Euskaltel-Euskadi in 2000, a team funded partly by commercial sponsorship, partly by public subscription and partly by the Basque government; it is unique in that it functions both as a trade team and as a national team. In his second year with them, he won the GP du Midi-Libre, the Classique des Alpes and a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné; in his third year he completed the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, coming fifth overall at the latter.
In 2003, Mayo went back to the Tour and won Stage 8 on the Alpe d'Huez, right then and there becoming the biggest threat to Lance Armstrong since Marco Pantani in 1999 (it was also in 2003 that Joseba Beloki, another Basque and one who once claimed that Mayo was a "simple shooting star" who would never complete a Grand Tour, came to the end of his career with a high-speed crash on the Col de la Rochette). He knew, meanwhile, that he wasn't ready to take Armstrong on just yet, so instead he spent the rest of the Tour waging a peculiar reverse-war of attrition against his enemy - which, alongside cycling, is something else that the Basques are very good at doing; because they've been fighting large and powerful foes ever since Roman times, and have outlasted all of them. Without ever letting up, he would allow himself to drift to the back of the peloton and then power up through the ranks, cruising alongside Armstrong for a short while before suddenly thrusting forward - then when the Texan responded and caught him, he'd do it again, and then again and again. Armstrong had no idea what to make of it and spent much of the race looking rather confused, though he won in the end and Mayo was sixth.
|Mayo in the unmistakable orange of Eukaltel-Euskadi
Almost all riders have one bad year at some point in their career. For Mayo, it was 2005 when he finished the Tour in 60th place and abandoned the Vuelta. He won Stage 6 at Dauphiné in 2006, but the year wasn't to be much of an improvement over the last and he abandoned the Tour before coming 35th at the Vuelta. Nobody - except for Mayo himself - knows when he started doping, but his fans prefer to think that it was at the end of this period and that he frightened Armstrong without needing to cheat (we may, in 2012, be about to find out if Armstrong was himself a cheat, of course); he certainly wouldn't be the first cyclist to resort to the syringe when he found he wasn't living up to earlier promises and dreams. After riding his first Giro d'Italia and winning Stage 19 in 2007 he went to the Tour, which was where he was caught: the UCI revealed on the 30th of July, the day after the final stage, that a sample Mayo provided earlier in the race had tested positive for EPO. He appealed and, on the 22nd of October was cleared by the Spanish Federation when the court heard that the test on his B-sample (tested to confirm or disprove the results of an A-sample if requested by a rider) had been negative; but the UCI insisted that the B-sample had not yet been analysed, refusing to support the Spanish decision. When it was, it was found to be positive; Mayo was banned from competition for two years.
Ewald Hasler, Alois Lampert and Rolf Graf
Liechtenstein has produced a very small number of professional cyclists. This isn't especially surprising as it's a very small nation, just 160 square kilometres with a population of around 35,000 - and many people are put off cycling by mountains, which will always limit the number of people taking up a sport in the only nation lie entirely within the Alps. It is, therefore, curious that two of the most famous, Ewald Hasler and Alois Lampert, were both born in Eschen (which, with a population of a little over 4,000 people, is the nation's fourth-largest city) on this day in 1932. Hasler finished the road race at the 1952 Olympics in 43rd place and turned professional for Gitane-Hutchinson team in 1954 (when he rode with Jean Stablinski, Rik van Looy and Gilbert Bauvin) but switched that same year to the Swiss Cilo team, then retired in 1957 when he rode for König. Lampert became a professional two years later with the German Altenburger team, by which point he had already won Stage 4 at the 1951 Österreich-Rundfahrt and been 30th at the same Olympics Hasler rode, but also rode for the Swiss team Mondia with whom he remained for three years. In 1958 he rode for three teams - Mondia, Allegro and Tigra - then retired at the end of the year.
In 1959, Graf went to the Giro d'Italia and won Stage 22, then to the Tour de France where he won Stages 12 and 19; in 1960, he returned to the Tour and won Stage 19. Nine victories in the next two years suggest that his career had at least a few more years to run, but it was cruelly ended by a serious car accident in 1963 from which he never fully recovered. He officially announced his retirement in 1964.
Hasler, Lampert and Graf (and Kübler, for that matter) are all still alive.
Ezio Cecchi finished the Giro d'Italia in second place twice; first in 1938 behind Giovanni Valetti and then in 1948 behind Fiorenzi Magni. The gap between first and second place in 1948, 11 seconds, the the smallest winning margin in the history of the race.
South Korean Gu Sun-Geun, born on this day in 1984, won silver medals for the Points and Scratch races at the 2002 World Junior Track Championships and a gold for the Points race at the 2005 Asian Championships. In 2007, after coming second in the time trial and third in the road race at the World B Championships, she qualified for the national team at the 2008 Olympics. During the road race at the Games she became famous around the world for losing control of her bike in the treacherously wet conditions and falling into a shallow concrete drainage channel. After picking herself up and despite obvious pain, she got back on her bike and finished in 59th place. She is still racing and won the silver medal for the road race at the Asian Championships in 2011 and 2012.
Alphonse Antoine was born on this day in 1915 in the French village of Corny, but later took Belgian nationality and won the Belgian National Championship in 1935. In 1937, he won Stage 12a at the Tour de France.
|As a Paris-Roubaix winner, Paul Maye is commemorated
on the Chemin des Géants.
Lucien Vlaemynck, born in Izenberge, Belgium on this day in 1914, became a professional rider with Alcyon-Dunlop in 1935 and stayed with them until his retirement in 1949 - he would, therefore, have known Paul Maye. Vlaemynck specialised in shorter stage races and criteriums; however, he rode the Tour de France once - in 1939, when he came third overall
|A Wright Cycle Co. racing machine
Other cyclists born on this day: Kazimierz Jasiński (Poland, 1946); Ján Valach (Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia, 1973); Hernán Medina (Colombia, 1937); Miklós Somogyi (Hungary, 1962); Andrzej Bławdzin (Poland, 1938); Gerard Veldscholten (Belgium, 1959); Jiří Prchal (Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic, 1948).