Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Daily Cycling Facts 16.07.2013

On this day in 1961, Jacques Anquetil won the second of his five Tour de France General Classification victories when he beat second place Guido Carlesi by 12'14", having led the race since Stage 1b. On that very same afternoon, 315km away at Laeken in Belgium, another race was taking place. The riders there had no doubt been following Anquetil's progress and dreaming that they might one day compete in Le Tour too; one of them, from the Evere Kerkhoek Sportif club was a stocky sixteen-year-old, making his race debut. The boy didn't win, but had Anquetil have been there to see it he might have felt a sense of foreboding about his unofficial title of The Greatest Cyclist of All Time...

The boy's name? Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx.

Miguel Indurain
Indurain in 1996
Born in Villava in Spain on this day in 1964, Miguel Indurain Larraya was given a green second-hand bike on his tenth birthday and enjoyed riding it so much that, when he was eleven and it was stolen, he went to work with his father on a farm after school each day until he'd earned anough money to buy a new one - and rode his first race on it, winning a sandwich and a drink for reaching the finish line. He tried various other sports during childhood, but none of them gave him a thrill equal to riding a bike fast so he joined a local club and, at the age of 14, entered a race for unlicensed amateurs, taking second place. He won the next race he entered, then became Spain's youngest ever National Champion three years later.

In 1984, Indurain was selected for the Olympic team - he didn't win a medal, but he impressed managers at the Reynolds trade team who offered him his first professional contract shortly after the Games. The next year, he entered the Vuelta a Espana and was second in the prologue, then led the race for a short time after Stage 1 before coming 84th overall; later in the year he rode for the first time in the Tour de France but abandoned in the fourth stage. He would abandon again, this time in Stage 8, in 1986. In 1987 he finished for the first time, coming 97th, then improved to 47th in 1988; good results (just finishing a Tour is a good result) but nothing spectacular. Then he came 17th in 1989, making it clear that he was a serious contender, and if anyone doubted it he proved them wrong by coming tenth in 1990.

Indurain in yellow, 1993
Indurain's strength made him an all but unbeatable opponent in a time trial, but at 1.88 tall and 85kg during his early career he suffered in the mountains and the lighter climbers had little difficulty in dropping him. Since 1987 he had been working with the legendary (in those days, not yet notorious) Dr. Francesco Conconi, who took a few measurements and found some extremely promising statistics including an 88ml/kg/min VO2 max, a lung capacity almost two litres greater than average and a 50l/min cardiac flow rate. With work, Indurain had the potential to be a world-beater, and the first step was to lose a few kilos. He dropped to 78kg - still heavy compared to a climber, but light enough to take them on when combined with his strength. When he rolled up to the start line of the 1991 Tour he was a completely different rider to the one he used to be and there was little doubt that he was going to win.

Nowadays, fans think of doping whenever they hear the name Conconi - with good reason: whilst employed to develop new anti-doping tests, he was also investigating new drugs that the tests couldn't detect and introducing them the sport, his most lasting legacy being EPO. However, this tends to obscure the fact that he is also a very skillful sports doctor and scientist, a man able to transform one of his "projects" from likely one-off Tour winner into one of cycling's all-time greatest athletes. Indurain became one of those projects and, under the doctor' direction, adopted a policy last used by Lucien Petit-Breton to become the first man to win two Tours back in 1908 - centreing his season entirely around the Tour with all other races used merely for training purposes.  He was good enough that winning a prestigious bonus here and there, such as the Giro d'Italia in 1992 and 1993, but he made no secret of the fact that the Tour was his raison d'être and this to accusations that he was a boring rider and that he made the Tour boring - he must have been especially stung when his hero Bernard Hinault said "Indurain is the best rider of his generation but he has won this Tour quietly, without great opposition."

Indurain on his way home, with trophy
Boring the method may have been, but it worked and he won a third Tour in 1993; having again won the Giro earlier in the year. This time it was the veteran journalist Pierre Chany who attacked: "[Indurain never] did anything unprovoked which would have allowed this exceptional rider to rise above the rest and excite the crowd," he complained. In 1994, having survived an anti-doping test that came up positive for salbutamol he broadened his horizons in an attempt to become the first man to achieve a third Giro-Tour double, but by now some other riders had adopted his technique - Evgeni Berzin and Marco Pantani had based their seasons around the Giro and took first and second place. Instead, he went after an hour record once he'd won his record Tour; on the 2nd of September he set one at 53.040km.

In 1995 he equaled the record set by Anquetil, Merckx and his hero Hinault with a fifth Tour, but went one better by taking his five consecutively - the fifth was a great victory, just like every Tour win that isn't won by a doper, but cycling fans said it may as well have been a demonstration race with the finishing order decided before the riders even began. He couldn't resist an attempt at a record-breaking sixth victory, but even in the prologue it became obvious he'd made the same mistake as Merckx and Hinault: he'd failed to quit while he was ahead and, after failing to win time in the first week due to bronchitis, gradually slipped away down the rankings for the rest of the race and ending in 11th place. Many fans decided it must be impossible to win more than five Tours then, an opinion they held until another rider adopted the Tour-centric approach and won seven in a row: we may soon find out finally if Lance Armstrong did so by his own merit or with a helping hand from drugs.

For five years, Indurain dominated the Tour in a way that nobody else ever had; but the Tour dominated him, too, and like a prisoner released after ten years in prison he had become institutionalised. He had spent so much time concentrating solely on his racing that the world moved without him: when he went to buy a bike shortly after retiring, a rather surprised shop assistant began explaining the different gear cassettes, chain rings, cranks and so on, assuming that Big Mig would probably know exactly what he wanted - but it didn't take long before he realised the rider hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. He was also shocked at how much modern bikes cost when compared to the far more basic machines on offer when he'd last had to actually go out and buy one and couldn't believe that a top-level Cannondale mountain bike could cost as much as the equivalent of 3,300 euros.

Stefano Garzelli
Born in Varese on this day in 1973, Stefano Garzelli found his first professional contract with the Mercatone Uno team, which took him on as a domestique for Marco Pantani. However, as a good all-rounder he was always going to win races for himself; in his second year with the team he won two stages and the overall Points competition, Combination category and General Classification at the Tour de Suisse.

Stefano Garzelli
He had ridden his first Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, in 1997 and finished Stage 14 in third place before abandoning. In 1999 he was selected for the Tour de France and came seventh on Stage 18, finishing in 32nd place overall - not a bad result for a Tour debut. It was in 2000 at the Giro that he got hos opportunity to really shine, however: once again, he began the race as Pantani's domestique. When it turned out that Pantani was not going to find the form he needed to win, the team managers were unsure who should be declared new leader and freed all the riders from responsbilities, than watched to see who came to the fore. Though not much of an attacker, Garzelli caught their eye by staying with the climbers, performing consistently well in the time trials and with his effective sprint: he might not have been as certain a winner as Pantani, but he'd shown he was the best they had.

When it came to the final time trial, Garzelli had some luck - race leader Francesco Casagrande started the stage with sciatic nerve problems and was unable to perform at anything like his best level, leaving Garzealli to win with a margin sufficiently large to place him into the overall lead, a victory he dedicated to Pantani. From that point on he was unchallenged, winning the General Classification.

Federico Gay, born in Turin on this day in 1896, distinguished himself as a pilot during the First World War and won the Medaglia d'Argento for valour. Following the war he returned to cycling, having had an amateur career in the sport prior to the conflict and turned professional in 1920. In addition to many victories and good results in smaller races, he won Stage 13 at the 1922 Tour de France and Stages 2, 3, 5 and 6 at the 1924 Giro d'Italia when he was also second in the overall General Classification. In 1925 he was tenth overall at the Tour and in 1932 he became National Track Stayers Champion.

Other cyclists born on this day: José Balaustre (Venezuela, 1965); Leo Sterckx (Belgium, 1936); Maurizio Colombo (Italy, 1963); Sam Webster (New Zealand, 1991); Alberto Velázquez (Uruguay, 1934); David Sharp (USA, 1941); Leo Peelen (Netherlands, 1968); Ernest Kockler (USA, 1892, died 1970); José Torres (Chile, 1889); Murray Steele (New Zealand, 1961); Alan Marangoni (Italy, 1984); Derek Bouchard-Hall (USA, 1970).

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