Attacking — it’s the juice that moves cycling. It’s the raison d’être for the sport.
The look and feel of aggression, however, have changed over the past few years as the sport has slowly tried to clean up its act.
Gone are the big-ring attacks over first category climbs with three Alpine summits to go to the finish. Today’s cycling is more controlled, more a test of holding on as long as possible, pushing power meters to the maximum. “Attacks off the back,” when a rider blows, are more the norm in what’s become a brutal race of attrition.
Attacks, when they do come, are typically shorter, more intense, perhaps more credible.
In a year when the Tour de France was won with nary an attack from Bradley Wiggins, there were still plenty of indelible moments.
The 2012 season was packed with thrilling moves, from Tom Boonen’s long-distance attack to win Paris-Roubaix for a fourth time to Alberto Contador’s do-or-die aggression late in the Vuelta a España that saw Joaquim Rodríguez crumble like the Spanish economy.
6. Philippe Gilbert: A world title in 1,500 meters
One attack can save a season. Just ask Philippe Gilbert, who in 2012 was languishing through his worst season since his rookie year back in 2003. Following his 2011 campaign, when he was all but unbeatable, Gilbert couldn’t buy a win going into the Vuelta a España.
Some grumbled that the Belgian had gone soft with his millionaire contact with BMC Racing. In the early part of the season, he was a shadow of his former winning image. Third at Flèche Wallonne paled in comparison to his Ardennes sweep of a year before. It was compatriot Tom Boonen who was making the headlines.
Gilbert had his eyes on bigger prizes later in the season, but those slipped through his hands as well. He fell short of the yellow jersey on home roads in July and then saw gold elude him despite initiating the action over Box Hill in the Olympic road race.
Two stage wins at the Vuelta a España bolstered his odds going into Valkenburg. Ever confident, Gilbert publicly says he never waivered in his belief that big things were sure to come.
And they finally did on a hilly course in the Limburg tailor-made for his attacking style. Belgium brought a super team for the men’s road race, putting riders into the breaks, saving Boonen for the final sprint and letting Gilbert have his chance on the Cauberg.
And he took it, with dazzling effect. With the finish line 1,200 meters past the Cauberg finish line used for the Amstel Gold Race, Gilbert timed it just right. He smashed the accelerator, following an early probe by Alexander Kolobnev. Alejandro Valverde and Edvald Boasson Hagen left it too late. Gilbert was gone.
One perfectly timed attack not only saved his season, it gave him cycling’s most treasured jersey. Gilbert promises to be back to his old self in 2013. With the rainbow jersey on his back, Gilbert’s trademarks attacks should come.
5. Ryder Hesjedal: Pink jersey assertion
When the Giro d’Italia started in Denmark, few counted Ryder Hesjedal as a favorite for the pink jersey. The Italian media completely overlooked him and his rivals didn’t start paying attention until it was too late.
The tale-tell signs were already there that Hesjedal was on good form. He was fastest among the GC challengers in the opening prologue and he remained well-positioned following Garmin-Sharp’s win in the TTT.
A seesaw battle commenced between Hesjedal and Joaquim Rodríguez that would continue all the way to Milan with the nail-biting, 16-second winning margin extracted on the final-day time trial.
It was Hesjedal’s attack three kilometers from the Cat. 1 Cervinia summit in stage 14 that erased any doubts about his intentions and his abilities during the Giro.
The long, grinding road leading up to the Italian side of the Matterhorn was the first shot in the final, climb-heavy third week. Hesjedal surged clear on one of the final switchbacks, leaving the dwindling GC group scrambling to limit its losses with three kilometers to go.
In what became a highly controlled GC battle, the attack was the longest and most effective of the entire Giro among the pink jersey favorites. Crossing the line fourth, Hesjedal extracted 26 seconds from Rodríguez, a difference that would prove critical in the coming battle, and snagged the pink jersey yet again.
The battle for the maglia rosa would go down to the final pedal strokes in Milan, but after Cervinia, the peloton finally realized what Garmin knew from the start: Hesjedal was riding to win.
4. Tom Boonen: The longer the better
Tom Boonen’s spring season — and to a larger degree, his reputation — was already saved before the start of the 2012 Paris-Roubaix.
After a string of injury-plagued, sub-par seasons, “Tomeke” was back at his best. He was hot off a rare treble, sweeping to victory at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, winning the Ronde for a third time.
The only pressure came from what he put on himself. Realizing that he was on his best form in a half-decade and with arch-rival Fabian Cancellara out with injury, Boonen had nothing to lose, yet everything to gain when the pack rolled out of Compiègne, France. Some six hours later, Boonen equaled history with a fourth chunk of France’s most famous pavé and he did it thanks to an audacious, long-distance attack.
Nearing the final hour of racing, Roubaix saw its most critical moments. Boonen’s teammate Niki Terpstra surged clear of a chaotic mix of riders, with Boonen quickly marking the friendly wheel. With about 55km to go, “Tornado Tom” simply just kept going.
Riders hesitated in his wake. Sixty kilometers to go? That seemed too far to hold off a determined chase. Boonen didn’t look back. When he did look over his shoulder, he saw fewer and fewer riders capable of keeping within eyeshot.
Boonen barreled into the Roubaix velodrome 1:39 ahead of Sebastian Turgot, the best French result since Frédéric Guesdon won back in 1997.
Boonen was back. Bolstered by his sublime Roubaix victory, he has a chance to make history in 2013. A healthy Cancellara might have something to say about that.
3. Marianne Vos: Take your pick
Marianne Vos was in a class by herself in 2012. In just about every race she contested, she was either winning or making the winning moves. She opened the year winning the world cyclocross championship and then blasted through the spring classics. In July, she won the Giro Donne with five stage wins along the way.
It was the Olympic road race over Box Hill where Vos reached her zenith to capture the lone cycling prize that had so far eluded her: the Olympic road race gold medal.
The 25-year-old surged clear over the Box Hill climb, drawing out three other riders. Everyone knew that Vos’s wheel was the one to follow. Following it, however, was another story. An unfortunate puncture for Shelley Olds in the final hour of racing knocked the American sprinter out of a chance for an Olympic medal. Arguably her top rival gone, Vos finished it off with a perfect sprint to strike gold.
Vos was even better in Valkenburg, attacking on the final climb up the Cauberg to win her second rainbow jersey on home roads. Fans ate it up and Vos got her just desserts, recognized as the best rider of her generation.
2. Alberto Contador: Knock-out blow in last gasp
Alberto Contador just couldn’t believe it. Every time the road went up in the 2012 Vuelta a España, he attacked just as he promised he would.
But rather than leaving the field choking on his fumes, the pack was staying close — too close for comfort. Joaquim Rodríguez was even turning the screws; counter-attacking Contador’s jabs and taking valuable seconds to hold a slender lead on the Vuelta’s red jersey going into the final rest day with just five stages to go to Madrid.
An elusive grand tour win, especially after coming within 16 seconds of winning the Giro d’Italia in May, finally seemed within Rodríguez’s grasp.
Contador wasn’t going to go down without a fight, but time was running out.
After fending off Contador up the steepest climbs of northern Spain in a trio of misery at Ancares, Covadonga and Cuiti Negru, the bumpy 17th stage with a second-category finale to Fuente Dé didn’t seem terribly difficult on paper.
Contador knew it was likely his last chance. The final summit finale up Bola del Mundo on the Vuelta’s penultimate stage was just the type of steep, punchy climb that Rodríguez has mastered. The “pistolero del Pinto” had to roll the dice.
When Rodríguez was languishing off the back on some unrated climbs early in the stage, Contador could smell blood. It was a textbook ambush. Saxo Bank sent riders up the road over two short, but sharp rated climbs with 50km to go. Contador attacked savagely behind, isolating Rodríguez and dropping GC threat Alejandro Valverde. Sensing an opportunity to blow open the race, Contador surged clear, reeling and dropping other riders, finally riding alone with about 14km to go.
Rodríguez was cooked and tumbled bitterly to third place, but Valverde countered in Contador’s wake, almost catching him before the line. Contador barely hung on to win the stage and snatch away the leader’s jersey.
It was Contador’s first win following his controversial clenbuterol ban, but he did it with typically aplomb. Love him or hate him, Contador always attacks.
1. Thomas De Gendt: One for the history books
Old-school, long-distance attacks are still possible in today’s cycling and Thomas De Gendt proved it with a stunning move in the penultimate stage of a nail-biting 2012 Giro d’Italia.
The setting could not have been more dramatic in what was the Giro’s queen stage over the Mortirolo and up the highest climb of the 2012 edition atop the Stelvio, the cima Coppi at 2,758 meters.
The Belgian was quietly holding steady in the top 10 on GC without drawing too much attention. De Gendt was reserving his power for one audacious attack that nearly blew the lid off the race.
De Gendt surged clear of the GC riders on the Mortirolo and the reeled in the day’s break. He found good company with the likes of Damiano Cunego, Mikel Nieve, Andrey Amador and Tanel Kangert. One-by-one, De Gendt dropped his companions up the dreaded Passo dello Stelvio. With 13km to go, Nieve was the last to throw in the towel, and De Gendt powered home the stage win.
The GC leaders began to chip away at that inside 10km, but by then it was too late. De Gendt nearly rode away with the pink jersey as Hesjedal’s rivals were happy to let Garmin-Sharp do the heavy work to limit the losses and then counter-attack near the summit.
Hesjedal’s teammates Christian Vande Velde and Peter Stetina saved the day for the Canadian.
De Gendt called the Stelvio his favorite training climb, riding up the twisting switchbacks “20 to 30 times” over the past few years as he expanded his climbing skills.
The stage win vaulted him from eighth, at 5:40 back, to fourth, setting him up to pass Michele Scarponi in the final TT to bounce onto the podium, becoming the first Belgian to podium in a grand tour since Johan Bruyneel was third in the 1995 Vuelta a España.
For 2013, De Gendt will turn his attention to the Tour de France. A climber-friendly course, with time trials fitting his skillset, could be the backdrop for more raids a la De Gendt.