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PARIS (AFP) — After two years of Sky dominance, 2014 was the season that the rest fought back, and but for the Astana doping scandals, it would have gone down as a vintage edition.
Sky had, in eyes of some, taken the drama out of the Tour de France by guiding Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to dominant victories in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
But the British outfit’s inability to maintain that level of performance in 2014 helped to make it a thrilling year in cycling.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was the main beneficiary as he emerged from the chaos of crashes during the Grand Boucle — that saw three former winners in Froome, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) hit the deck and leave the race during the first 10 days — to streak away to victory.
All three grand tours produced high-level winners, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) triumphing at the Giro d’Italia and Contador claiming a third Vuelta a España title after a terrific battle with Froome.
It has all led to much excitement ahead of the 2015 Tour, with people expecting the four best stage racers in the world — Froome, Contador, Quintana, and Nibali — to put on a nail-biting show on the way to Paris.
That should be the case now that the International Cycling Union (UCI) granted Nibali’s Astana team a WorldTour license for 2015, despite a spate of doping scandals.
Five Kazakh riders tied to the Astana organization tested positive for either the banned-blood-booster EPO or steroids during 2014, leading to speculation the UCI would kick Astana out of cycling.
But fortunately for Nibali, Astana was granted a license under certain conditions that will see them closely monitored in 2015.
Change of guard
Away from the grand tours, there was the start of a changing of the guard.
“Spartacus” — Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) — won his third Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) with a masterful and patient ride, making his move at just the right time to deny Belgian duo Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin).
A week later, it was Dutchman Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) who claimed victory at Paris-Roubaix, with Cancellara and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) out-smarted in the finale.
But it was the emergence of the likes of Norway’s Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), who won Milano-Sanremo, and German John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), who rode to second in Roubaix, that suggested the old guard is starting to be eased out.
In Ardennes classics, there were signs that change is on its way. Pole Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) finished in the top five in all three Ardennes races, including two podium finishes. Ireland’s Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), and Belgium’s Jelle Vanendert of (Lotto-Belisol) both earned second-place finishes, in Flèche Wallonne and Amstel Gold, respectively.
Martin, in fact, would almost certainly have won a second straight title in Liège but for a crash on the final bend as he was streaking clear to victory.
However, the old guard would not be denied in the Ardennes. BMC’s Philippe Gilbert claimed Amstel Gold, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde won Flèche Wallonne, and Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Gerrans profited from Martin’s late crash to take Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Masterful late break
But it was Kwiatkowski, 24, who took the most confidence from his performance and went on to become world champion in September with a masterful late break in Ponferrada, Spain.
Worlds was also the setting for Wiggins to demonstrate he is the only man capable of upsetting time trial king Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
The German had won three world TT titles in a row, but Wiggins, who also beat Martin at the London Olympics, proved he is one of the greatest, and most versatile, riders of his generation.
The Brit finished the year by vowing to tackle the world hour record and Paris-Roubaix in 2015.
The hour record was thrust back into the limelight when the UCI changed the rules to allow the use of modern pursuit bikes, encouraging more professionals to tackle the 49.7-kilometer mark set by controversial Czech Ondrej Sosenka in 2005.
Veteran German Jens Voigt (Trek), to the delight of cycling fans, went first and pushed it out to 51.11km in September, although six weeks later, Austrian Matthias Brändle (IAM Cycling) went almost 750m farther.
That record is sure to come under pressure from Wiggins and others in 2015, a year that promises fireworks on many levels.