The weekly spin: The 10 most impactful moments of 2018
Some were wins on the road. Others were losses of the most grave nature. Some were decisions made behind closed doors, with massive implications. According to our Editor at Large, these were the 10 most impactful moments of the 2018 cycling season, presented in chronological order. In some instances, excerpts from his previous news reports or columns have been used.
April 8: Peter Sagan wins Paris-Roubaix
If you’d started to wonder if Peter Sagan would ever win Paris-Roubaix, you weren’t alone. In six starts, he’d never reached the podium; his best finish was sixth, in 2014. The Queen of the Classics had proven elusive for the three-time world champ, and his performance at the Ronde van Vlaanderen one week before this year’s edition, where he raced defensively against Quick-Step Floors and finished sixth, had drawn criticism.
The Bora-Hansgrohe leader lined up in Compiègne with a point to prove, and he didn’t wait around to prove it. The Slovakian star attacked the group of favorites with 54km remaining, bridged across to the remnants of the day’s breakaway, and aided by a tailwind, rode to the line with Swiss champion Silvan Dillier (Ag2r La Mondiale) taking a two-up sprint that was closer than anyone might have expected. Sagan later admitted he’d been cramping and never believed the victory was assured, though from the outside it looked like a commanding performance — he even had the composure to tighten the bolts on his stem with 30km remaining, riding at nearly 50kph.
“The key for my success is that I went away alone,” he said. “I caught the occasion on the right moment. I had very good luck, with no punctures and no crashes.” Easy, right?
With the win, Sagan became the first rainbow jersey to win in the Roubaix velodrome since Bernard Hinault, in 1981. That’s pretty good company.
April 8: Michael Goolaerts dies at Paris-Roubaix
Peter Sagan’s first victory at Paris-Roubaix was overshadowed by tragedy — 23-year-old Belgian Michael Goolaerts collapsed after 109km of racing, and though he was resuscitated by paramedics and flown by helicopter to a hospital in Lille, he was could not be saved. An autopsy concluded that he had suffered cardiac arrest before he crashed. It was the worst possible scenario on the sport’s biggest stage.
Goolaerts was racing in his Roubaix debut, his dream race, one week after he’d ridden the Ronde van Vlaanderen in support of Vérandas Willems teammate Wout Van Aert, who had finished a respectable ninth. Like many young Belgian riders, the cobblestone classics were Goolaerts’ favorite races; one year earlier, he had ridden in the daylong breakaway for over 200km in his Ronde debut.
“I have known Michael since I was a junior,” Van Aert wrote on his website. “We were both born in 1994 and from the same region, so we have been together for a long time, albeit as competitors. I remember Michael as an ever-cheerful guy, never bad-tempered and always extremely motivated, a barrel full of talent, even though he needed a bit more time to grow than I did, he had taken a big step forward this year. The fact that he kept working for me all spring says it all about his mentality. Paris-Roubaix was also Michael’s dream race. On Wednesday we went with the team to recon the cobbles. Michael had real enthusiasm as he rode off.”
Goolaerts was pronounced dead about five hours after the race had ended, surrounded by family and friends. Subsequent toxicology tests came back negative for alcohol, drugs, or medication; his heart had simply short circuited, and the racing community’s collective heart was broken.
May 25: Chris Froome’s 80km solo to win Giro d’Italia
It was the shot heard around the world.
Chris Froome was sitting fourth overall at the Giro d’Italia, 3:22 down on the maglia rosa, with just two mountain stages remaining. Though his form had been questionable and he’d been recovering from an opening-day crash, he had already won a stage, jumping clear atop Monte Zoncolan. The podium was within reach, but his first GC attempt at the Giro had been in search of an overall win, not a minor placing. Still, no one, not even Froome, could have believed that an 80km solo attack on the queen stage would net him another stage win and the GC victory.
On Stage 19, with four categorized climbs, Team Sky massed at the front on the early slopes of the Colle delle Finestre and immediately put race leader Simon Yates into difficulty. Then Froome went to the front and attacked, putting defending champion Tom Dumoulin, who sat second overall, on the defensive. Froome opened up a gap of 38 seconds over the unpaved summit, and his gap grew to nearly two minutes at the bottom of the long, technical descent. For the next two hours, the maglia rosa hung in the balance.
Dumoulin had gambled on collaborating with a group across the valley that followed, but that cost him a minute on the descent as he slowed and waited for Groupama-FDJ’s Sebastian Reichenbach to come across to his teammate Thibaut Pinot. Meanwhile Froome went all in on the descent, slicing the corners in an aggressive aerodynamic tuck.
Making matters worse for Dumoulin, two of the riders in the group, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Richard Carapaz (Movistar), refused to work, more concerned with one another and their battle for the white jersey. Following suit, Pinot contributed little, using Reichenbach, and his own podium position, as excuses.
Dumoulin was stuck. Up ahead, Froome was willing to risk everything. He went on to win the stage by three minutes ahead of Carpaz — taking 10 seconds of time bonus as well — while Dumoulin crossed the line fifth, 3:23 down and out of the time bonuses.
It was an extraordinary demonstration, reminiscent of rides from cycling’s golden era, performed by champions like Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault. It was the antithesis of Team Sky’s typical controlled, conservative riding. It was throwing caution to the wind. And it worked. Froome would become a champion of all three Grand Tours, and he’d won all three in succession.
July 2: Chris Froome cleared in salbutamol case
The dark cloud that loomed over the sport for the first half of 2018 cleared suddenly on July 2. Just five days before the start of the Tour de France, the UCI announced that based on findings of the World Anti-Doping Agency it was dropping its investigation into Froome’s excessive levels of salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a España. Froome’s urine sample had been found to contain 2,000 nanograms per millilitre of salbutamol, double the permitted maximum set by WADA.
“The UCI has considered all the relevant evidence in detail (in consultation with its own experts and experts from WADA),” a UCI statement read. “On 28 June 2018, WADA informed the UCI that it would accept, based on the specific facts of the case, that Mr. Froome’s sample results do not constitute an [adverse analytical finding]. In light of WADA’s unparalleled access to information and authorship of the salbutamol regime, the UCI has decided, based on WADA’s position, to close the proceedings against Mr. Froome.”
Until that point, Froome had resisted calls by race organizers not to compete until his case was resolved. Tour organizers ASO had stated they would attempt block Froome from participating while his case remained unresolved, citing rules intended to limit damage to the image of the race. And then, after months of speculation, the sport’s biggest Grand Tour champion was cleared to ride in the sport’s biggest race.
“Chris Froome will be at the start of the Tour,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme told L’Equipe. “The procedure about the damage to the image of the race is obsolete as the sporting authorities have indicated that he wasn’t at fault. That’s it. The UCI and WADA have finally given their answer. All that… for this.”
The UCI’s statement provided little indication that it would provide any further explanation as to why Froome was cleared; it did, however, end with something along the lines of “the cycling world can now focus, and enjoy, upcoming races.” So there was that.
July 15: John Degenkolb takes Roubaix stage at Tour
The drama on the road on Stage 9 at the Tour de France, across the cobblestones into Roubaix, was no match for the drama in stage winner John Degenkolb’s post-race interview. The Trek-Segafredo rider took his first major victory since a January 2016 accident, when he and his teammates were struck by a car in Spain. Degenkolb suffered hand injuries, including nearly losing a finger, that threatened to end his career.
Through tears, Degenkolb, winner of Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015, explained what the victory meant to him after a difficult journey that had also involved the recent loss of a close friend he described as a second father.
“Pure happiness,” Degenkolb said, his emotions flowing. “I was chasing this victory for so long… It’s really hard to describe. It’s a very big victory after a very long time. I have been through a lot of things in the past, and it was such a hard time.
“I’m so happy to dedicate this victory to one of my best friends, he passed away last winter. This was really something for him, because everybody said I was done, that after this accident, I will never come back. I said, no, I am not done. I have to get at least one really big victory for this guy, his name is Jörg and he was my second father. It was a horrible accident, and it is a huge loss without him. I’m so happy to get this victory now for him. There’s no way to make it more dramatic, more nice, more fantastic. I’m totally overwhelmed.”
After a highly anticipated day of intense racing, it was a moment that transcended sport.
July 17: Thrilling finish at La Course
It was Olympic gold medalist versus world time trial champion. Reigning Giro Rosa winner versus the queen of the classics. The two best women in professional road racing, from the two best teams in the peloton, pitted against each other on what is arguably the biggest stage in women’s cycling — La Course by Le Tour, which utilized Stage 10 of the Tour de France, featuring four categorized climbs with a finish at Le Grand Bornand.
Anna van der Breggen had attacked and gone clear of Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton–Scott) and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervélo–Bigla) over the top Col de la Colombière with 15km remaining. A nail-biting chased ensued on the descent, punctuated by a short, punchy climb to the finish.
Making matters more interesting, van Vleuten was coming off winning the 10-stage Giro Rosa just two days earlier, where she’d won three stages, including on Monte Zoncolan, while van der Breggen, the 2017 Giro Rosa champion, had skipped the race and instead competed in the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Val di Sole nine days earlier. What might win out — razor’s-edge race fitness, or fresher legs?
With van der Breggen holding a 10-second lead but showing fatigue, it was anyone’s guess right up until the final 20 metres, when van Vleuten caught and passed van der Breggen to take her second consecutive La Course title. It was a truly a thrilling finish. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
July 19: Geraint Thomas wins atop l’Alpe d’Huez
If there was a moment that turned the tide at the Tour de France, it was atop l’Alpe d’Huez on Stage 12, where Geraint Thomas not only became the first British rider to win on the sport’s hallowed climb, he did it wearing the yellow jersey, in what was his second mountaintop stage win in two days.
Inside the final 10km of the hallowed climb, with Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) up the road, Thomas held his own behind teammate Egan Bernal, one of the most talented pure climbers in professional cycling, whose pace gapped off riders like Adam Yates, Dan Martin, Nairo Quintana, and Mikel Landa. In the finale, Thomas easily won the sprint ahead of Tom Dumoulin and Romain Bardet, taking his second 10-second time bonus in two days, confirming that he was the strongest climber at the Tour. Chris Froome finished fourth, out of the time bonuses.
His GC lead over Froome stretched out to 1:39, and though Thomas contended that he would still ride in support of Froome, the reality that the Welshman might just be Team Sky’s best rider in the race began to set in.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would win up here,” Thomas said. “It will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is just insane.”
Thomas’ Tour win was unexpected, but not a complete shock, either. A former track world champion and classics specialist, he’d had a steady, if unconventional, progression over his career. He dropped eight kilograms (18 pounds) in 2015 to transform himself into a stage racer. In 12 years as a professional, Thomas had never been a team leader at the Tour. He’d never finished in the top 10 of a Grand Tour, almost always riding in support of Froome or Bradley Wiggins. He’d become a superdomestique on the sport’s strongest team.
In June, Thomas won the Criterium du Dauphine, and had been designated Team Sky’s “Plan B” should Froome’s salbutamol case go the other way, or should Froome show fatigue from winning the Giro — which happened.
In July, the stars aligned for Geraint Thomas. He never crashed. He never had an untimely mechanical. He never missed a split in the field. He was the best rider across three weeks, strong against the clock and in the mountains, supported by a strong team and the defending champion, somewhat underestimated, and, also a bit lucky. And it all began to crystalize on the Alpe.
September 30: Alejandro Valverde wins world championship
After spending his entire career chasing a rainbow jersey, six times finishing on the podium, 38-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Valverde had finally done it. He out-sprinted Romain Bardet, Michael Woods, and Tom Dumoulin to be crowned road world champion. He would immediately call the title the best result of his career, high praise for a rider who has seemingly won every other race he’s targeted.
Valverde sobbed in the team tent, and the emotion continued to flow in his post-race interviews. It was touching, a moment of true humanity — but it wasn’t a result that was universally lauded.
After all, Valverde had served a suspension in 2010 and 2011 when a bag of his blood, containing EPO, was DNA matched to a blood sample taken at the 2008 Tour de France. He steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, and never showed an ounce of contrition. He admitted nothing. He apologized for nothing. He returned to racing in 2012, winning at his first race back. He was the top-ranked rider in the sport in 2014 and 2015, as he had been in 2006 and 2008. He had been free to race for years, and had won major races such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but for some winning worlds was different. Like so many issues in today’s political climate, it quickly become a divisive topic, and at times, the dialogue became nasty. The truth is, there is no clean, easy answer.
Valverde is a professional athlete who made the decision, like so many others did, to blood dope; to mount a legal battle against a sanction; to refuse to acknowledge, admit, or apologize for his sins; and to get back to business as though nothing had happened. He is also a human being, by all counts humble and well respected by teammates, who cried real tears of joy, who called the world title the best day of his career, and who brought his children onto the podium to celebrate the moment with him. All of these things can be true at once.
Valverde is also a symbol. He represents an era — a mindset — that is almost, but not quite, removed from today’s peloton. The rainbow jersey is also a symbol, one of the most iconic images in all of cycling, the defining representation of the UCI, the sport’s international governing body. And until September 2019, like it or not, those symbols will share the same space.
December 2: Paul Sherwen dies at age 62
On Sunday, December 2, the cycling world was shocked to learn that race commentator Paul Sherwen had died unexpectedly at his home in Uganda at age 62. The cause of death was ruled as heart failure. For many, watching pro cycling would never be the same.
A professional racer from 1978 to 1987, Sherwen started seven Tours de France, and finished five of them. He had only a handful of victories, but he did win a stage of the 1983 Four Days of Dunkirk, finishing second overall, and he was the British national champion in 1987, his final season. He finished in the top 15 at Milan-San Remo in 1980, and Paris-Roubaix in 1984.
Prior to his full-time commentary career, Sherwen worked as press officer for the American Motorola team. It was there he first met Lance Armstrong, whose reign of seven Tour de France wins ran parallel to Sherwen’s prime years behind the microphone.
Sherwen first linked up with race commentator Phil Liggett in 1986, while he was still racing; he cleared his calendar during July to commentate on the Tour de France rather than participate. Together, they were known simply as “Phil and Paul,” arguably the most famous commentating duo in the sport’s history, and certainly the longest lasting, covering the sport together for 33 years. Countless pro cycling fans had been introduced to the Tour de France with Sherwen and Liggett on the mic, walking them through the intricacies of a complicated, beautiful sport.
Sherwen wasn’t just an affable former pro; for many he was a friend. A guide. An ally. A voice of summers past and present. His skill was to share insight into the vast international sport of bicycle racing, a sport rooted in foreign soil and language, to a disparate community of English-speaking fans built around a shared passion. That’s not an easy job, and not everyone who has tried their hand at cycling commentary has succeeded. But Sherwen’s style — warm, humorous, enthusiastic — welcomed all comers. He’ll be missed.
December 12: Sky announces end of cycling sponsorship
Over the past decade, Team Sky hasn’t won the most races of any pro cycling team, but they’ve certainly won the biggest races. When the British squad launched in 2010, its stated goal was to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years. They did that twice in four years, first with Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and then with Chris Froome the following year. A third British rider, Geraint Thomas, was added to the list in July. And though each of those riders was likely the strongest rider of the race, they were also supported by the best team that money can buy; twice in six Tour victories Sky domestiques also reached the podium, and in 2017 Mikel Landa came within one second of doing it as well.
Over the years, Team Sky’s budget ballooned to double that of other WorldTour squads, allowing manager Dave Brailsford to recruit or retain riders who would otherwise have leadership roles elsewhere — names like Porte, Landa, Poels, Kwiatkowski, and yes, Thomas.
The sight of five Sky riders at the front of a mountainous Grand Tour stage, stifling attacks, became commonplace, prompting some to suggest a salary cap is needed to restore balance within the pro peloton. Team Sky’s market dominance was never more apparent than earlier this season, when Brailsford locked down Colombian phenom Egan Bernal to a five-year contract. For all the talk of marginal gains, Team Sky has quite simply been the best team that money can buy.
Which is why the news last week that the London-based telecommunications company will be ending its sponsorship at the end of the 2019 season was such an important story in 2018. Team Sky won six Tours in seven years with three different riders. They won three consecutive Grand Tours. They not only changed the game on the road, they changed the game for riders, their agents, and every other team manager.
It’s possible another $50M/year sponsor will step in and the team will continue on as it has, annually assembling an all-star roster. It’s also possible that Team Sky was a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly — a British team affiliated with the British federation backed by a big-money British sponsor and built around British Grand Tour contenders — that pulled off the unthinkable. Whatever happens next will surely be one of the biggest stories of next year.