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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: This year’s retirees just faded away

Tour winners Armstrong, Sastre among the 15 leaving the peloton

2000 Critérium du Dauphiné stage 6, Iñigo Cuesta wins. PHOTO PATRICK KOVARIK AFP
One of Iñigo Cuesta's best wins: stage 6 of the 2000 Dauphiné. AFP Photo

It was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who famously said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” quoting an old army song to conclude his retirement speech to a joint session of Congress in 1951. The 19th century wartime ballad actually ended with the lines: “Sergeants they love to drill. Guess them bastards always will. So we drill and drill until we fade away.”

The words that old soldiers sang long ago could easily be paraphrased in this new century by professional cyclists discussing their own taskmasters, the team directors, who dish out orders via radio earpieces: “The bosses love to make us ride. Guess them bastards always will. So we ride and ride until we fade away.”

Those sentiments couldn’t be more true for most of the 15 riders from major pro teams who have hung up their cleats this year: None of them scored a victory in their final year of racing before they all “faded away” into retirement. In fact, three of the new retirees — Dutchman Addy Engels, Spaniard Iñaki Isasi and Englishman Charly Wegelius — didn’t win a single time in their combined 35 pro seasons.

Another fascinating statistic is that 2011 retiree Lance Armstrong’s record of 91 wins over 16 pro seasons was more than the combined total of his fellow 14 retirees. Which is a testament to the hierarchy that existed in pro racing over the past two decades: an array of talented team riders supporting a single leader.

That picture has slowly been changing in recent years — as proven by the 14 of 28 HTC-Highroad team members who won races in 2011, even though they mainly supported their leader (and now world champion) Mark Cavendish.

The old “single leader” paradigm is confirmed by the distorted wins-per-season rankings of the men that have just quit racing, who mostly turned pro in the 1990s. While Armstrong averaged almost six victories in each of his 16 pro seasons, most of the others didn’t even average one win per year. Here are the details:

5.68 wins/year
Lance Armstrong (USA)
Age 40, 16 years pro, 91 wins
From the day he turned pro in August 1992, Armstrong was his team’s leader (first with Motorola, then U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel), and it was only after his voluntary comeback two years ago that he had to share leader status (with Alberto Contador at Astana in 2009 and Levi Leipheimer at RadioShack in 2010). One can ask whether Armstrong should have won a lot more races. He clearly had the ability to win one-day races (as he did at the 1993 world championship, the ’95 Clasica San Sebastian and ’96 Flèche Wallonne), but winning the Tour de France seven consecutive times brought him (and his sponsors) far greater renown.

Kurt-Asle Arvesen (N)
Age 36, 14 years pro, 17 wins
This elegant Norwegian racer (who will be a team director at Sky in 2012) was never a true team leader, and the majority of his wins came at national championships and races in his native Scandinavia. Arvesen’s career highlights were winning the 11th stage of the 2008 Tour and two stages of the Giro d’Italia (2007 and 2003); and he was a valued domestique on the CSC squad that helped Carlos Sastre win the 2007 Tour.

Sebastian Lang (G)
Age 32, 10 years pro, 12 wins
This solid German’s relatively high win percentage was due to his ability as a time trialist: Half of his 12 career wins came in TTs. The rest of the time, Lang rode as a team worker, first for Gerolsteiner and then Omega Pharma-Lotto. Lang really did ride, ride, ride until fading away.

Cyril Dessel (F)
Age 36, 13 years pro, 13 wins

2006 Tour de France: Cyril Dessel in yellow
Dessel took the yellow jersey in the 2006 Tour. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

By wearing the Tour yellow jersey in 2006 (and finishing seventh overall) and winning a stage in ’08, Dessel earned his status as team leader at French squad AG2R, but his career never took off internationally, with only one of his 13 victories coming outside of France.

Carlos Sastre (Sp)
Age 36, 14 years pro, 11 wins
Although Sastre won the 2008 Tour de France (taking yellow by winning at L’Alpe d’Huez), he didn’t start that race as team leader at CSC. It was the best race of his life but he benefited from the unbelievable work done by his regular team leaders Andy and Fränk Schleck, and Fabian Cancellara.

Gorazd Stangelj (Slo)
Age 38, 15 years pro, 11 wins
All but one of this amiable Slovenian’s wins came in the early part of his pro career. The past decade saw him riding in the grand tours for leaders at the major Italian teams, Liquigas, Lampre, Saeco and Fassa Bortolo, before his final two seasons with Team Astana.

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