The Road Book 2019: Ned Boulting’s review of the year, part one
If 2018 had been the year of the miracle, then 2019 was a paradigm shift. The cycling world tipped on its axis.
Years from now, the historians of this magnificent sport will reflect that this was the point in time when the old guard shuffled out, the new phalanx marched in, dusty traditions were torn up, tired conventions ignored and the continental shelves of the cycling world crashed their century-old tectonic plates together, with seismic consequences.
It could hardly have been more dramatic, race after race playing itself out in a spirit of renewal that seemed to perfuse the peloton with undiluted ambition. If Greta Thunberg could save the actual world, her same generation could most certainly redefine road racing.
How did this come about? One could argue that one of the most significant triggers came about by accident. Was it not the moment that Chris Froome, riding reconnaissance on his time trial bike before stage 4 of the Dauphiné, chose to lift his hands from his handlebars in order to blow his nose? The violence of the subsequent collision with a stone wall that left Froome with multiple broken bones also reverberated around the cycling world in unexpected ways.
For when, just a few weeks later, the peloton of the Tour de France rolled out of Brussels under the watchful gaze of Eddy Merckx, 50 years after the great Belgian won his first Tour on exactly the same day Apollo 11 landed on the moon, there was a sense, as yet undefined, that anything was possible. With Chris Froome – the greatest stage racer of his generation – sidelined, everything changed.
And yet the year started in the most familiar way imaginable, with Richie Porte attacking at precisely the same point up Willunga Hill that he always does to claim victory on the Queen Stage of the Tour Down Under for a sixth time.
There are certain riders one associates with certain races, such as Mark Cavendish and the Champs-Élysées stage, which he dominated for an unparalleled four consecutive years. Or Tony Martin and his astonishing record in the German National Time Trial Championships, which he won again in 2019 for the ninth time.
So it is that Willunga Hill belongs to Richie Porte, and should probably be retired from the parcours when the Tasmanian eventually stops racing, in much the same way that the green jersey should be replaced with something else when Peter Sagan (who won it for the seventh year in 2019) finally loses interest in being ridiculously consistent and unstoppably strong.
Daryl Impey won the overall in the Tour Down Under for the second successive year, proving his credentials as the all-rounder’s all-rounder and reinforcing the all-round impression that the Tour Down Under is the all-rounder’s race. A week later Elia Viviani – at the beginning of his final year with Deceuninck-QuickStep – took the clumsily named Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (or CEGORR, as no one calls it).
In South America, first Argentina and then Colombia hosted week-long stage races. The Tour de San Juan was overshadowed by controversy after complaints were made against Iljo Keisse of Deceuninck-QuickStep after he made a lewd gesture when posing for a photo. To compound the issue further, team boss Patrick Lefevere seemed to dig in and defend his rider, prompting justified outrage and forcing the team to back down and offer an apology that was too little, too late.
On the bike, Julian Alaphilippe started to show the form that he would continue to demonstrate all year, winning two stages, including a time trial.
January gave way to February. At the Tour de Colombia, the top of the GC was a domestic affair, after Alaphilippe – who had led going into the final stage – conceded defeat on the last, long climb outside Medellín. He dropped to seventh, with six Colombians ahead of him, including the winner Miguel Ángel López.
In Mallorca, Marcel Kittel took victory in the Trofeo Palma, unware as he did so that it would be the last win of his exceptional career. He would go on to announce his retirement shortly after the Tour de France, citing extreme fatigue, both psychological and physical, and looking forward to becoming a father in the autumn for the first time.
Stage racing also got underway on the Iberian peninsula, with wins going to Ion Izaguirre in Valencia, Jakob Fuglsang in Andalucía, and – most significantly of all, perhaps – 20-year-old Tadej Pogačar at the Tour of the Algarve.
Primož Roglicˇ was expected to move from hipster choice to mainstream favourite in 2019. Three years on from his very sudden and equally impressive emergence as a major talent with all the attributes of a future Grand Tour winner, the cycling world was beginning to tire of repeating ad nauseam the well-worn biographical nugget that seemed forever to accompany his name – it was time to move on from being simply an ex-ski jumper.
With that in mind, it was highly promising that the Slovenian took the overall at the first WorldTour stage race of the northern hemisphere: the freshly minted, newly merged UAE Tour. Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma, who were destined to grow in stature beyond measure before the end of the year, took the opening team time trial, and their leader finished either third, second or first on every stage that ended uphill.
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That was enough to win the race overall – a feat he would repeat at both Tirreno–Adriatico (albeit by a single second to Adam Yates) and the Tour of Romandie, before heading to Bologna to try and win the Giro. But the sponsored sunshine of the Middle East could not mask the fact that road racing’s roots lie elsewhere, and that the scudding clouds, leafless trees and biting winds of Belgium still signal for many people the commencement of hostilities.
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