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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Cycling extends hope to the world on 9/11 anniversary

New races and riders have helped globalize the sport in the past decade African-born Chris Froome, the revelation of the 2011 Vuelta, is just one example of the globalization of cycling. Photo: Graham Watson | It seems inappropriate to be writing a column about the sport of cycling…

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New races and riders have helped globalize the sport in the past decade

2011 Vuelta a España stage 19
African-born Chris Froome, the revelation of the 2011 Vuelta, is just one example of the globalization of cycling. Photo: Graham Watson |

It seems inappropriate to be writing a column about the sport of cycling on this week of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in America. But, on Sunday, as we watched replays of the twin towers falling and listened to bereaved family members reciting the names of those who were lost, bike races were taking place all around the planet.

Sports don’t stop because world-changing events have anniversaries; but sports can help change the world by giving individuals a chance to forget the pain of tragedies and heal their wounds. Just as 9/11 brought us together — remember people saying, “We are all Americans” at candlelit vigils around the world? — so the Olympics, World Cups and Tours de France give us a better understanding of those from different cultures.

This past Sunday, cycling’s increased globalization was emphasized by major international races taking place in places as diverse as Madrid and Montréal, Xi’an and Sofia, Adapazari and Alba. You already know that Madrid hosted the final stage of the Vuelta a España and Montréal ,the second edition of its blossoming UCI WorldTour classic, but only the most dedicated cycling fans and geography students have likely heard of those other cities.

Xi’an, which is five times the size of Montréal, is the biggest city in central China and one of the country’s four ancient capitals. It saw the start of the 10-day Tour of China this past weekend, with a young Norwegian Adrian Gjolberg winning the second stage in a long two-man breakaway with veteran Uzbek Muradjan Khalmuratov. Team Type 1 and the U.S. national under-23 team are also taking part in this recently revived tour.

Sofia, the capital, saw the start of Bulgaria’s national tour, where a member of the Russian Katusha team’s development squad, Pavel Kochetkov, won the opening stage. As for Adapazari, it’s a Turkish city that gave the start to the final stage of that country’s Tour of Marmara, with the overall win going to a 20-year-od Turk named Ali Tanriverdi. And Alba is a wine-making town in the Piedmont region of Italy, which hosted the final stage of the 48th Tour de l’Avenir.

Near-miss for Canadian at Avenir

Known as the under-23s’ Tour de France, the Avenir (French for “future”) is a proven testing ground for young riders. Many of its podium finishers in recent years are successful pros today. The 2007 winner, Dutchman Bauke Mollema, was one of the revelations at this month’s Vuelta; the Rabobank man held the leader’s jersey at one point, ended up fourth overall and clinched the points classification in Madrid on Sunday by finishing ahead of his closest rival Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha.

The 2008 Avenir’s second-place finisher Rui Costa of Portugal, now with Movistar, won the big race in Montréal. And the past two Avenir runners-up, Americans Tejay Van Garderen (2009) and Andrew Talansky (2010), raced respectively this past Sunday in Canada’s Grand Prix race and Spain’s Vuelta.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

While the about-to-be-defunct HTC-Highroad team has continued to notch victories in the past two months to increase its overall lead, strong runs have come from RadioShack (thanks to Levi Leipheimer’s Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge victories), Liquigas (with Peter Sagan’s Tour of Poland and Vuelta stage wins) and Omega-Lotto (mainly with Philippe Gilbert’s move into the lead of the UCI WorldTour rankings), to move them clear of the previously surging Garmin and Rabobank squads.

1. HTC-Highroad 42 (14 riders)
2. Team RadioShack 27 (12 riders)
3. Liquigas-Cannondale 28 (six riders)
4. Omega Pharma-Lotto 27 (five riders)
5. Sky 25 (10 riders)
6. Lampre-ISD 23 (nine riders)
7. Garmin-Cervélo 22 (11 riders)
8. Vacansoleil-DCM 21 (nine riders)
Rabobank 21 (nine riders)
10. Movistar 20 (nine riders)
11. Leopard-Trek 19 (seven riders)
12. Saxo Bank-SunGard 16 (five riders)
13. Katusha 15 (three riders)
14. Euskaltel-Euskadi 10 (five riders)
15. BMC Racing 10 (four riders)
16. Astana 7 (five riders)
17. Quick Step 5 (three riders)
AG2R-La Mondiale 5 (three riders)

(Individual wins in UCI .1 races and higher, including national RR championships of major countries, through September 11)

At this year’s Avenir, Dave Boily of Canada was on the cusp of trumping Talansky and Van Garderen and becoming the event’s first North American winner since Greg LeMond in 1982. The leader since the third of seven stages, Boily, a 21-year-old from Québec City, had only two Canadian national teammates remaining to defend the yellow jersey, but he managed to keep seven seconds in hand over Colombia’s Esteban Chaves going into Sunday’s difficult finale at Alba.

Boily was strong enough to stay with the lead group on the hilly concluding stage, but “when you find yourself with five Colombians in a group of 20, it’s very difficult to control,” he said. The result was Chaves and teammate Michael Rodriguez broke clear on the last climb with U23 Tour of Italy winner Mattia Cattaneo and Frenchman Warren Barguil and finished 24 seconds up on Boily’s chase group.

So, like Talansky and Van Garderen before him, Boily ended up in second place — by just 17 seconds. That performance will surely enhance the prospects of the Canadian’s Pro Continental SpiderTech team next year, while Chaves, along with his fellow climber and teammate Nairo Quintana, the 2010 Avenir champ, plan to lead their Colombia es Pasion squad (sponsored by the Colombian government) to the Tour de France within two years.

Africans and Asians

Other promising riders have graduated through the Avenir. Daniel Teklehaimanot, from the small African nation of Eritrea on the Red Sea, placed sixth overall at the 2009 Avenir, riding for a mixed international team. Now 22, he has just signed a first pro contract with the new Australian squad, GreenEdge, with whom he could some day become the first black African to ride the Tour de France.

UCI coaches have developed Teklehaimanot’s talent at their Aigle, Switzerland, headquarters, where athletes from around the world come to use the facilities and training roads they lack in their own countries. At present, three riders from the Chinese national team are training in Aigle, preparing to race against the 18 UCI ProTeams in the inaugural Tour of Beijing next month.

Others from lands far from the sport’s European epicenter have risen to cycling’s upper echelons in other ways. Riders from North and South America and Australia usually followed the pioneers of the 1970s and ’80s; but today other paths are being created because of the sport’s worldwide expansion through television and the Internet, which have helped raise interest in pro racing and created new races and teams.

Such a rider is Chris Froome, the undoubted revelation of the just-competed Vuelta, where he failed by just 13 seconds to beat Spain’s Juan José Cobo for the overall title. Froome has English grandparents but he was born and grew up in Kenya before moving with his parents to South Africa as a young teenager. He discovered road cycling there, joined the local Konica-Minolta team as a U23, and won a hilly stage of the 2007 Tour of Japan.

That solo win and his subsequent friendship with South African sprinter Robbie Hunter clinched him a pro contract with the South African-sponsored Barloworld team in 2008. Prophetically, in an interview with Cycling Weekly that spring, when Froome was asked to define himself as a bike rider, he replied: “I’m a long-distance time trialist and climber; I’m best in stage races.”

Froome took out British citizenship because the UK’s national cycling federation offered a better structure than he could have had as a Kenyan rider. He joined Team Sky last year, but few could have expected that he would fulfill his self-defined qualities as he did at the Vuelta. As more and more non-Europeans take up cycling because of its globalization, we can hope and expect that the sport will continue to bring nations and athletes together in the spirit that briefly engulfed the world after September 11.

(Editor’s note: Former editor-at-large John Wilcockson is no longer a staff member at VeloNews, but he will be writing regularly for as a guest columnist.)