Autumn is upon us and the season is drawing to a close. The Worlds are done. Nibali nicked the final monument of the year at Lombardia. There are only a small handful of races left in the calendar, and many riders have already called it a day (or switched to track). We can now reflect on the past six months or so and pick through the highs and lows, the moments we’ll remember, and those we would rather forget.
There is always so much going on in cycling and this year has been no exception. Although some big names have been largely absent from our news feeds but for negative updates, people like Marcel Kittel and Marianne Vos, some big personalities just can’t stay out of the spotlight.
The figurehead of Team Astana, Alexander Vinokourov has been embroiled in controversy for as long as anyone can remember. After the doping storm that concluded the team’s 2014 season, Astana’s credibility was shattered (again) and they had a lot to prove.
To be fair Astana have had a pretty good season, even if every time one of their light blue jerseys rides up the road mutterings can be heard across the cycling world. Perhaps most notably, Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa book-ended the podium at the Giro d’Italia, and Aru won the overall at the Vuelta, arguably the most exciting grand tour in recent history.
However, the drama between Vinokourov and Nibali at the Tour de France puts the first stain on the season for Astana. The team handed race leadership to Jakob Fuglsang after Nibali slipped down the standings, and it was subsequently reported that Vinokourov had told the Italian to find a different team for the 2016 season. “Vincenzo needs a good mechanic because something is broken in his head. The day was a disaster. We’ve decided to give Jakob [Fuglsang] freedom to ride for the classification, instead.”
The team were all over the road for the rest of the Tour with no clear direction or leader. Nibali said that Vinokourov’s words were meant to come as motivation, to “bring out some nastiness”. If that’s the case then it worked, as Nibali went clear on the Croix de Fer to claim stage 19, pissing off race leader Chris Froome in the process.
Vinokourov’s own career was peppered with scandals. Client of the infamous Dr Ferrari, he was a rider straight out of the Lance Armstrong mould. The latest news (as of 1st October 2015) is that Vinokourov and Katusha rider Alexandr Kolobnev are likely to stand trial on corruption charges under allegations that Vinokourov ‘bought’ his 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege victory. If found guilty the pair could face prison and a hefty fine.
Pretty much the whole cycling world has become wary of this guy, the Russian billionaire who is never known to hold his tongue. He is rich and big-headed enough to say what he wants, when he wants, with no regard for the consequences. He is never shy to share his often inappropriate ideas, even if they stink of racism and/or sexism. Many of his tweets make for jaw-dropping reading.
“Fresca idea: to sponsor women’s cycling team, definitely win all for this budget, plus you can chose only long leg sluts into the team :-)” – Oleg Tinkov (@olegtinkov) 15-Jul-2013
The sexist theme picked up again this summer when he commented on Froome’s poor form at the Vuelta (the Tour de France winner had actually broken his foot), tweeting that he was “riding like a girl”. This sparked a Twitter storm but it did not dent his armour.
He even thought it would be a good idea to tweet this gem to the world on April 1st. Yes, it’s April Fool’s Day but, come on!:
“Happy to annouce @lancearmstrong as @tinkoff_saxo new General Manager instead of Mr.Riis. Stay tuned…” – Oleg Tinkov (@olegtinkov) 1-Apr-2015
As for his management style, his methods don’t seem to inspire confidence. Granted, the team did have a rocky start to the 2015 season with very little success in early races and classics. Indeed, Tinkov and team manager Bjarne Riis (see above tweet) had a public altercation at the Tirreno-Adriatico where the team picked up just their second win through Sagan in mid-March. Tinkov was frustrated with the lack of results from both team leader Contador and big money signing Sagan, and he publicly acknowledged that he regretted paying Sagan such high wages and said that he wanted to reduce the Slovak’s hefty salary. Sagan will have been thanking his lucky stars for the existence of his contract.
Apart from appearing to be a genuinely friendly, polite and humble individual, Lizzie Armitstead is also a wonderful rider of bicycles.
I was impressed with the calmness with which the male British riders responded to attacks at the Tour de France this year as they defended the yellow jersey. I was equally in awe of the way Armitstead dealt with a fierce group of nine riders disappearing up the road at the Road World Championships. It looked like the breakaway had formed an almost irreparable gap, leaving the chances of pre-race favourites and defending champions alike in tatters. But instead of panicking as her dream looked to be slipping away from her, Lizzie almost single-handedly reeled the leaders in and eventually crossed the line in first place. It was exhausting just watching, and as she crossed the line and immediately became overwhelmed by the emotion of it all, a lump rose in my own throat as I jumped from my seat and woke up the whole building.
Her world championship victory came at the end of an almost perfect season for the British National Champion, with the Women’s World Cup added to her palmarès and now top spot in the UCI Individual rankings.
There was of course one slight hiccup along the way when she came down after crossing the line first on Stage 1 of the Aviva Women’s Tour, both arms raised, and crashed into a group of photographers. A few weeks later, she made a point of keeping one hand firmly on the bars as she crossed the line as British National Champion in Lincoln.
Up there with the most successful athletes of 2015, Lizzie Armitstead has had a season most couldn’t even dream of and the way in which she operates on and off the bike make her most deserving. Watch out Marianne Vos!
Sagan’s rollercoaster season undoubtedly ended on a high at the World Champs, but this year’s plot line has been riddled with twists and turns. After a lacklustre start to 2015 at the classics, even a close overall victory at the Tour of California would not quell the desire of team owner, Oleg Tinkov to cut his wages.
Despite winning his fourth consecutive green jersey, his dearth of top step finishes at the Tour de France was clearly getting to the Slovak champion by stage 13 when he swore on live TV after being pipped to the post by Greg Van Avermaet.
However, he was not all second-place and swearing at the Tour de France. His bottom-pinching exploits of 2013 were replaced by the slightly more PC playfulness of photobombing his fellow riders. His first victim was former Liquigas teammate Vincenzo Nibali, then it was Froome’s turn, and finally he surprised fellow fast man Andre Greipel by resting his chin on the big German’s shoulder after the final stage in Paris.
We saw a different side of Sagan’s character at the Vuelta when he had a tantrum on the roadside after being hit by a motorcycle. There is some debate as to whether his subsequent withdrawal was down to his injuries (definitely real) or in protest to the incident. The Slovak rider was fined 300 Swiss Francs for, “behaviour that damages the image of cycling”.
Sagan bounced back though and triumphed at the Road World Championships in Richmond Virginia on a course that suited him perfectly. It was a closely fought and exciting race, but one which Sagan won with a killer move after sitting quietly in the wheels for most of the race.
This captain of wheelies and banter is undoubtedly a very popular World Champ and we look forward to seeing what Sagan can achieve in the rainbow bands next season.
These are just four of a whole host of jostling personalities who could have been included here. In this time of social media and ever increasing television coverage, we can get to know the riders and management like never before. It will be interesting to see which characters animate next season. One thing is for sure though. The names on this list will always remain in the centre of attention, for better or worse.