These are the moments that defined cycling in the 2010s
In a couple of weeks it’s not just a year that’ll come to an end, but an entire decade. And whilst we’ve catalogued the products and content that have made up the year for us – and that feels like a pretty long lens – let’s zoom out a little further.
A lot can happen in a decade – children can be born and almost finish primary school, pets can go from youth to old age, a website like CyclingTips can go from a single-person blog written at a kitchen table to what you see today.
Decades are quite a span in a sport, too. Case in point – cycling.
In many ways, the 2010s were a transformative time for the sport and its tech. The racing was phenomenal, and arguably the cleanest it has ever been with the introduction of the bio passport. The bikes were better than ever before, thanks to increasingly sophisticated componentry and major innovations like road disc brakes. Women’s cycling took dramatic strides forward. ‘Gravel’ became a thing.
All told, it’s been one of the greatest decades in the history of the sport. Here’s why.
Cast your mind back to 2010. Alberto Contador was the reigning Tour de France champion. Cadel Evans held the rainbow jersey. Lance Armstrong was still an active rider, and three years away from a confession. Marianne Vos was 22 years old … and already held five World Championships across three disciplines.
In the ten years since then, there have been countless phenomenal performances and memorable moments. Here are a selection that define the decade of racing:
Vos the boss
Marianne Vos’ dominance this decade can’t be boiled down to a couple of specific moments, but those moments do exist. In 2012 alone she won Olympic gold, the world title and the biggest stage race on the women’s calendar: the Giro Rosa. In 2013, another world title. In 2014, another Giro Rosa. No, as good as those moments were, Vos’ brilliance transcended individual victories or even whole seasons. Her record, her experience, and the depth of her talent made her a colossal force in any race she started, not least those on a lumpy course with a tough sprint.
Vos’ imposing palmares includes 230 wins – 168 of them this decade – and in 2019 she was phenomenal. Her four uphill-sprint stage wins at the Giro Rosa were scintillating, so too her very similar win at La Course in July. In all, her 44 race days for the year netted 19 victories. Now consider this: on number of wins alone, it’s only the seventh-best season of her career.
Still, the way Vos ended the decade left little doubt that she’s the greatest that women’s cycling has ever seen. And she’s not nearly done yet …
Lance Armstrong’s downfall
Few moments in cycling this past decade were as significant as the fall of Lance Armstrong. While the Texan built his legacy in the decade prior — winning seven straight Tours de France from 1999 to 2005 — and even though he had retired by early 2011, he would still have a defining impact on the decade.
With USADA closing in throughout 2012, and after denying doping for 14 years, Armstrong took to Oprah Winfrey’s couch in January 2013 and admitted to doping throughout his career. He was banned from the sport for life, stripped of his Tour wins (and other results besides), and cast out from the sport. It was the biggest doping story ever seen in cycling, if not in sport more generally.
Cadel Evans’ 2011 Tour de France win
Some Australian bias here, sure, but Cadel Evans’ sole Grand Tour win was a breakthrough moment for cycling in Australia. Mainstream interest in road cycling peaked, and there was a corresponding boost in the industry – a kind of halo effect similar to that experienced in the US during the Armstrong era, and the UK following Wiggins’ Tour win and time trial gold medal in the London Olympics.
A massive parade in Melbourne, welcoming the Tour champion home, showed a level of love for a cyclist that would never be reached again in the decade. Whilst Evans wouldn’t finish on the podium of the Tour again, retiring in 2015, his victory is a landmark moment in Australian cycling history.
Tom Boonen’s 2012 Paris-Roubaix win
There are few races that capture the public imagination in quite the same way as Paris-Roubaix, but Tom Boonen’s 2012 win would prove particularly enduring. Already a three-time winner, Boonen launched a daring attack more than 50km out, riding away from teammate Niki Terpstra and the rest of the race to win solo by over a minute and a half. In a career filled with great wins, that race was arguably Boonen’s greatest.
Mathieu van der Poel at Amstel-Gold 2019
Big statement, but is there a single more impressive ride in recent memory than Mathieu van der Poel’s victory at this year’s Amstel Gold? With 3km of the race remaining, Van der Poel was 40 seconds off the back of a leading trio. He singlehandedly dragged a group of 16 riders across, regaining contact with 100m to go, and still had enough in the tank to push on for the sprint, collapsing elated after the finish line. ““I can’t believe it,” Van der Poel said immediately after the win. “I went full gas, and hoped the leaders would start to look at each other. It’s unbelievable.”
Peter Sagan’s Worlds three-peat
In 2010, Peter Sagan was starting his first pro season as a 19 year old riding for Liquigas-Doimo. There were early signs of promise which would prove prophetic for his truly extraordinary palmares, but the monolithic achievement of his career thus far would come with three consecutive World Championships wins from 2015-2017.
Sagan’s wins each highlighted a different strength of the rider. The Richmond 2015 victory showcased his impressive uphill kick; Doha, 2016, was a demonstration of his finishing speed; Bergen, 2017, a masterclass in tactical nous. Taken individually, they were each impressive, but the three as a whole – and Sagan’s statesmanlike demeanour as world champion – helped reveal the true depths of his abilities.
Pauline Ferrand-Prevot’s triple rainbow
Three world championships in three years is one thing, but an even more impressive achievement is Pauline Ferrand-Prevot’s dream run in 2014-15. At the time just 23 years of age, Ferrand-Prevot claimed the road world championship, followed a few months later by the cyclocross world championships, and finally completed the hat-trick by becoming the MTB world champion.
Ferrand-Prevot is the only rider in history – male or female – to have achieved this feat. And while Ferrand-Prevot’s 2016 season was a “nightmare”, she has demonstrated that she’s nearing her incredible best again by claiming another rainbow jersey on the mountain bike this year.
The rise of Team Sky
Team Sky didn’t exist in 2009. Today they are the most dominant Grand Tour team in the sport, having won 10 Grand Tours, and seven of the last eight Tours de France between four different riders.
The breakthrough moment for the team was Bradley Wiggins’ Tour win in 2012 – at the time producing the first British Grand Tour winner (Chris Froome’s second place at the 2011 Vuelta would later be bumped up following Juan Jose Cobo’s disqualification). As shrouded in controversy as Wiggins’ win may now be, there’s no denying it was a moment that foreshadowed the team’s stretch at the top of the sport for the rest of the decade.
The GC at the 2010 Tour de France was a tightly fought battle between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, and after Contador’s win the year prior, Schleck looked to have all the answers. A win on stage 8 moved the Luxembourgish climber into the race lead, where he sat for six days. On stage 14, however, on the Port de Balès, the race was turned on its head.
Schleck attacked Contador in a bid to increase his GC lead, but having eked out a narrow lead, he dropped his chain. As Schleck ground to a halt, Contador raced past, attacked, and gained the yellow jersey. It was a moment that would spark a thousand thinkpieces about integrity and the breaking of unwritten rules. Schleck would have the last laugh, however, when Contador had the title stripped as the result of having broken a written one.
Philippe Gilbert’s 2011 season
Philippe Gilbert is no stranger to success, with striking victories at Tour of Flanders (2017) and Paris-Roubaix (2019) demonstrating his impressive skill and focus. But even those results pale in comparison to his remarkable 2011 season, which established Gilbert as one of the great one-day riders in the history of the sport.
In that fabled year, Gilbert won Strade Bianche, followed by a four-race winning streak at Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. At the Tour, he won the opening stage and held the yellow jersey. By season’s end, he’d have notched up 18 wins, the highest of any rider in the peloton that year.
Running up that hill, 2016
Spare a thought for Thomas de Gendt, winner of stage 12 of the 2016 Tour de France. After being in a daylong breakaway, the Belgian rider took one of the most prestigious wins of his career atop Mont Ventoux … Not that anybody was talking about it afterward.
Minutes later, Chris Froome, Bauke Mollema and Richie Porte would crash into the back of a race motorbike in the final kilometre of the race. Froome’s bike was broken; his team car was somewhere way down the mountain. So if you’re wearing the yellow jersey and the race is disappearing up the road away from you, what do you do? You start running after it.
La Course 2018
La Course is not enough. In the six years of the race’s existence, it’s shifted around through the Tour, expanded from one stage to two and back again, and provided a showcase of women’s cycling without ever really showcasing it enough. The 2018 edition, however, was so captivating as to almost make up for all of that.
Raced over a mountainous 112 kilometres, including the Col de la Colombiere, the race came down to a nailbiting finish. Anna van der Breggen, that year’s Giro Rosa winner, rode off the front on the climb, with Annemiek van Vleuten chasing. On the descent, Van Vleuten began closing the gap. With 500 metres to go, it still looked like Van der Breggen’s win, but Van Vleuten clawed her back and finally passed her with the finish line in sight.
It isn’t Van Vleuten’s most impressive win – that honour has to go to her 100km solo breakaway at the World Championships this year – but it is certainly the most exciting.
Rider of the decade
There’s no rider who’s left as indelible an impression on the sport in the 2010s as Peter Sagan. Taken purely on the basis of his results – including three consecutive world championships, seven green jerseys at the Tour de France, 12 Tour stage wins, victories at Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders – his record is impressive, but Sagan transcends his victories thanks to his on-bike showmanship and enigmatic persona.
The Slovakian star’s presence at smaller races is a massive boon to attendance and prestige; videos featuring him riding (or doing anything really, from driving a muscle car to goofily lip-synching a song from Grease) are almost guaranteed to go viral. But I’d argue that the reason people respond to Sagan so strongly is because he looks like he’s having fun, throwing high fives and wheelies and expressing the sheer joy that riding a bike brings.
Team of the decade
There’s really only one way we can go here – Team Sky (now Ineos). Team Sky’s entry to the sport coincided with the start of the decade, and in the 10 years since their presence has loomed large. Sky’s stated goal was to produce a British Tour de France champion within five years, a KPI that they met within two with Bradley Wiggins. They’ve now won the Tour de France seven times with four different riders, plus a couple of Vueltas and a Giro with Chris Froome, the dominant Grand Tour rider of the decade.
It’s not just Team Sky’s streak of success at Grand Tours that makes them the team of the decade, though – after all, if we were just talking about sheer number of wins, we’d probably be putting Deceuninck-Quickstep forward instead. Sky’s influence on the sport extends far beyond what they win, into how they win.
Backed by a big budget, Sky/Ineos have been able to acquire a formidable roster of talented riders that simultaneously allows them to control a race like no other team, and virtually ensures their success at the end of it. Case in point – in their 2020 roster, Ineos has reigning Tour champion Egan Bernal, the Tour champion before him Geraint Thomas, the four-time Tour winner Chris Froome, and reigning Giro d’Italia champ Richard Carapaz. The team’s not just good now, but also has a roster of promising up-and-comers including Ivan Sosa and Pavel Sivakov waiting in the wings for their opportunity to step into the spotlight.
That dominance, however, comes with a win-at-all-costs mindset that has seen them become one of the most controversial teams in cycling. Sky coined the concept of ‘marginal gains’ in relation to their cutting edge approach to tech and equipment, but has also come under scrutiny for their medical practices, with the term ‘jiffy bag’ gaining a whole wealth of added significance; former rider Michael Barry alleging the team’s wide use of the painkiller tramadol for performance enhancing reasons; and team doctor Richard Freeman under investigation in relation to a shipment of testosterone.
For better or worse, the team has seldom been far from the spotlight in its 10 years of existence. And for better or worse, that makes them the defining team of the decade.
A decade in tech
If it’s been a frenetic decade in the sport, that’s nothing compared to the pace at which the tech has developed. A great way of illustrating this is to look at some of the vocabulary we now use in relation to road bikes – all about disc brakes, 1x, Di2 and tyre clearance.
Now compare that to 2010.
A cutting-edge road bike in 2010 was mechanically shifted, unless you were a really early adopter of Dura-Ace Di2 (first released in 2009). It definitely had rim brakes and a front derailleur. It was running 23mm tyres, probably inflated to over 100psi, and most likely wouldn’t have had clearance for much more.
At the start of the decade, we had 10 cogs at the back. Now we’ve got 12 from most brands, even 13 from Rotor. Other milestones on the gearing front were Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 bringing electronic shifting to the masses in 2011, and SRAM pioneering wireless electronic shifting with eTap in 2015.
The arrival of disc brakes on drop bar bikes has also proven transformative. The shift to disc brakes opened up space for wider tyres, which in turn fed the growth of road tubeless tyres and created necessary conditions for the advent of an entire new category in ‘gravel’, arriving around 2015. By decade’s end, gravel would be a beacon for the entire industry and spark a seismic shift in the riding behaviours of countless riders around the world.
The road market, meanwhile, fragmented several times over the decade with the continued refinement of the ‘endurance’ and ‘aero’ categories, ensuring that riders always had a tool optimised for the task – no matter how specific the task and how many niches there were that needed filling.
Disc brakes are the norm today, with SRAM’s hydraulic system first to the party and Shimano following soon after. Tubeless tyres of ever-growing width are becoming the norm. Bikes are more capable than ever, on a broader range of terrain. It’s arguably been the most fertile decade in the entire history of road bike technology, filled with innovation that has resulted in transformative improvements on bikes across the spectrum.
While road bikes may have become increasingly sophisticated over the past decade, arguably the biggest shifts have happened outside of mainstream bike companies, as tech start-ups have become a major part of the cycling landscape.
For many cyclists, the training tool Strava has become a significant part of their riding experience. Strava was first launched in 2009, and over the decade since it has grown into a juggernaut of almost 50 million users worldwide, growing by a million a month. Riders of today have a growing amount of data and tools to improve and amplify their riding experience, but it’s Strava that best embodies these strides on the tech front.
The second half of the decade has seen a substantial rise in indoor training. Zwift, founded in 2014, has been at the forefront of this, gamifying the indoor training experience and making it (gasp) appealing. Zwift has boomed – in January 2019, 15% of all Strava cycling activities were on Zwift rather than outside – and now there are even national championships. Things will take a bigger leap forward next year, with the recent announcement that Zwift will be the platform used for the first Esports world championship in cycling history in 2020.
In tech, in racing, and in cycling more generally it’s been a decade of considerable change. We can only imagine what the next 10 years will bring.
Matt de Neef, James Huang and Neal Rogers also contributed to this piece.