By Agence France Presse
As fans and rivals know only too well, Lance Armstrong is not used to coming in second – or third – best.
But in what proved to be a bumper year for cycling, with serious progress apparently being made to beat drug cheats, the record seven-time winner of the Tour de France had to, for once, play second fiddle.
Apart from a conspicuous lack of major scandals the return of Armstrong, whose own career has at times been plagued by unproven allegations of doping, was by far the biggest story of the year.
Fans just couldn’t wait to see whether the 37-year-old icon, who had controversially joined the Astana team of his main rival, Alberto Contador, could win an eighth yellow jersey on the three week epic.
At the end of July, however, the normally unshakeable Texan had to settle for what, in the end, was a commendable third place finish behind Contador and Luxembourg’s star cyclist Andy Schleck.
Armstrong had ended a three-year retirement to compete at the race which he dominated a record seven times consecutively from 1999-2005.
And while his return was a huge boost for the sport, Contador – looking every bit as talented as his American rival – emerged as one of the year’s biggest winners.
Adding the 2009 Tour de France title to his yellow jersey in 2007, and his Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia crowns from 2008, many feel the Spanish ace can go on to equal, if not better, Armstrong’s record on the world’s biggest race.
Stronger than Armstrong in the mountains and showing surprising strength in the equally crucial time trial, the Spaniard also has a hunger for victory in other stage races, such as Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné Libéré.
However it was Contador’s strength of character, during an uneasy three-week co-habitation with Armstrong at the Tour, that suggested he can go on to be just as mentally tough than the rider known as “The Boss.”
After weeks of trying, and failing, to hide their contempt for each other as competitive cyclists, Contador let fly days after his yellow jersey triumph.
“My relationship with Lance is non-existent. Even if he is a great champion, I have never had admiration for him and I never will,” said the Spaniard.
A duel which Schleck is likely to gatecrash again should certainly liven up next year’s race, where Armstrong will spearhead the RadioShack team’s victory bid in what could be his final year as a rider.
Schleck was a deserved champion of the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic in April and once again showed his yellow jersey credentials by winning the Tour’s white jersey for the best young rider the second year in a row.
There are numerous battles and prizes to be won on the Tour de France and Britain’s Mark Cavendish, of Team Columbia, was one of the benefactors with an amazing six stage wins in 2009 taking his tally to 10 in two editions.
Cavendish failed in his bid to win the green jersey, the easily-irritable Manxman at times clashing, during hectic bunch sprints, with the points competition’s champion Thor Hushovd.
Hushovd, of Norway, was one of those who hailed the return of Armstrong to the sport.
“It’s been good to have him back, just look at the size of the crowds and the extra publicity his presence has generated,” said Hushovd.
As road cycling benefited from the Armstrong effect, track aficionados were stunned when the International Cycling Union (UCI) announced a program reshuffle for the London Olympics.
In the search for “gender parity,” the men’s individual pursuit and Madison were dumped meaning in 2012 there will be five gold medals on offer for both sexes.
Although Britain’s Victoria Pendleton, the Olympic women’s sprint champion, will now aim for gold in the keirin and the team sprint, Bradley Wiggins, who finished an astonishing fourth overall on the Tour de France, will not be able to defend his pursuit crown.
The end of the season usually ends on a high with the search for the annual rainbow warriors at the world road race championships.
Cadel Evans, a two-time Tour de France runner-up who had never before finished outside the race’s top 10 until a mediocre display in this year’s edition, was not seen as a major contender for the road race championship.
Only two kilometers from his Swiss base the Australian made amends in style by clinging on during a tough race of attrition and racing away from the few remaining survivors to claim his biggest win to date.
Becoming his country’s first ever winner of the world road race title, the quirky Australian had harsh words for those who doubted his abilities.
“The world’s been telling me for years I can’t win big races, can’t win one day races, because my job is to win stage races,” said Evans. “This is an answer to those criticisms that I’ve had.”