One of Iñigo Cuesta's best wins: stage 6 of the...

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

Tour winners Armstrong, Sastre among the 15 leaving the peloton

Tour winners Armstrong, Sastre among the 15 leaving the peloton

2000 Critérium du Dauphiné stage 6, Iñigo Cuesta wins. PHOTO PATRICK KOVARIK AFP

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

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.

José Vicente Garcia Acosta (Sp)
Age 39, 17 years pro, 9 wins

This well-liked Spanish domestique spent his lengthy career with the same team (originally sponsored by Banesto, then Illes Balers and Caisse d’Épargne, and finally Movistar), starting as a stagiaire in 1994. The highlights were stage wins at the Vuelta (1997 and 2002) and Tour (2000).

Sylvain Calzati (F)
Age 32, 9 years pro, 3 wins
A career unfulfilled is the story of this talented French rider. He seemed destined for great things when he won the 2004 Tour de l’Avenir and, two years later, won a stage at the Tour de France. But injuries and illness then stopped the good results and he bounced from team to team — from AG2R to Agritubel to Sky to Bretagne-Schuller — before calling a halt.

Mario Aerts (B)
Age 36, 17 years pro, 4 wins
Aerts was the quintessential support rider, mostly with the Lotto team in its various denominations. There were expectations that he’d become a leader after winning the 2002 Flèche Wallonne classic, but he fit comfortably into the top-teammate role at the grand tours for riders that included Jan Ullrich, Cadel Evans and Jurgen Van den Broeck.

David Loosli (Swi)
Age 31, 9 years pro, 2 wins
This Swiss rider took his two wins in his first two seasons with Team Saeco, and he spent the rest of his career at the Lampre team as a domestique for top Italian racers like Gilberto Simoni and Damiano Cunego. Loosli was the perfect example of a “ride, ride, ride” racer who faded away.

Iñigo Cuesta (Sp)
Age 42, 18 years pro, 3 wins
There’s no better example of the exemplary team man than Iñigo Cuesta, who raced a record 17 consecutive editions of the Vuelta, his best finish being 13th in 2001 — and he retired when his final team, Caja Rural, was not selected for the 2011 Vuelta. He was Sastre’s right-hand man at Cervélo and Team CSC after spending four seasons at Cofidis and five at ONCE.

Andrea Noè (I)
Age 42, 19 years pro, 2 wins
This studious Italian climber, who’s been a blogger since retiring after this year’s Giro, was one of the “nearly men” of the sport. He started his career as a gregario at the legendary Mapei team before being a leader for two years at the Asics squad, where he finished 11th at the 1997 Giro and won a stage and wore the pink jersey for a day the following year. He returned to Mapei for four seasons, and took fourth overall at the 2000 Giro; he again came in fourth in ’03 with the Alessio team; and in a five-year stint with Liquigas, Noè made history at the ’07 Giro by becoming, at 38, the oldest rider to pull on a leader’s jersey at a grand tour.

Addy Engels (Nl)
Age 34, 12 years pro, no wins
He never got close to winning a race, but this Dutchman’s great value as a domestique was emphasized by spending seven years with Tom Boonen at Quick Step, preceded by four formative years at Rabobank.

Iñaki Isasi (Sp)
Age 34, 11 years pro, no wins
All 11 years of this Basque’s career were spent with Euskaltel-Euskadi, where he rode any race his bosses asked him to race. Like Engels, he never got close to winning for himself.

Charly Wegelius (GB)
Age 33, 12 years pro, no wins
He was born in Finland, but Wegelius was a pioneer in the new wave of British road pros, riding exclusively (and riding very well) for non-UK teams. He spent three years with Mapei, two with De Nardi, four with Liquigas and two with Omega-Lotto before riding for UnitedHealthcare in his last campaign. Next year, he’ll be a valued new sports director with Garmin.

Editor’s note: Former editor-at-large John Wilcockson is no longer a staff member at VeloNews, but is NOT fading away! He will continue writing for this website as a guest columnist.

Final total wins for 2011 UCI ProTeams
Team Astana added two wins to its final 2011 total thanks to Valentin Iglinskiy taking a stage and the overall title at China’s Tour of Hainan in late October.

1. HTC-Highroad 49 (14 riders)
2. Team RadioShack 30 (12 riders)
3. Liquigas-Cannondale 30 (six riders)
4. Team Sky 28 (11 riders)
5. Omega Pharma-Lotto 28 (five riders)
6. Garmin-Cervélo 24 (11 riders)
7. Rabobank 24 (nine riders)
8. Lampre-ISD 23 (nine riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 22 (nine riders)
10. Leopard-Trek 21 (eight riders)
11. Movistar 20 (nine riders)
12. Katusha 19 (four riders)
13. Saxo Bank-SunGard 17 (six riders)
14. BMC Racing 11 (four riders)
15. Euskaltel-Euskadi 10 (five riders)
16. Astana 9 (five riders)
17. Quick Step 6 (four riders)
AG2R-La Mondiale 6 (four riders)

(Individual wins in UCI .1 races and higher, including world RR and TT championships and national RR championships of major countries, through October 28)