Cycling: Winners and Losers of the Season So Far Heading into the Tour De France

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2013

Cycling: Winners and Losers of the Season So Far Heading into the Tour De France

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    The Giro D'Italia has been completed, and the Tour De France preceding Criterium du Dauphine has just finished. Yet before we even reached these landmarks of the calendar, the 2013 cycling season has already proven to be a memorable one.

    In a season that—at least on the European scene—has been plagued by awful weather, there has been a typical mix of success stories alongside some big disappointments.

    The year's second Grand Tour is only weeks away (beginning in Corsica on Saturday 29 June). Before attentions turn completely to the 100th edition of the famous race, now seems an appropriate time to look back through the year.

    Here are some of the the notable "winners" and "losers" of the cycling season so far.

Ciolek Wins Milan-San Remo as MTN Qhubeka Give African Cycling a Boost

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    The 2013 edition of Milan San-Remo will be remembered by most for the unseasonably freezing, snowy conditions that decimated the first Monument of the season.

    Gerald Ciolek's memories will not be of the dreadful weather, though. Instead, the MTN-Qhubeka man will look back fondly on a day he recorded the biggest win of his professional career (thus far).

    Too treacherous to navigate, the Turchino and La Manie climbs were removed in a shortened course. Despite the alterations, and the mid-race bus journey to the new re-starting point, the race remained highly competitive to the last.

    Of the lead group heading into the final kilometer, 2008 winner Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Leopard) and precocious sprint sensation Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) would have been most folks' tip for glory.

    When Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel made the first move instead, Ciolek took advantage of Sagan's wandering focus. The German sprinter got the jump on the Slovak's left, powering away to an impressive finish.

    Besides personal glory, Ciolek's win was also a landmark one for his team, MTN-Qhubeka.

    The South African team became their home continent's first Pro Continental outfit this year. Just being invited to one of the sport's most prestigious races was an honor.

    One of their star men actually winning the thing—now that was special.

A Mixed Year for Team Sky

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    After a nigh-on flawless 2012 for the British cycling machine led by Sir Dave Brailsford (big stage wins, Olympic medals and another knighthood), the road-racing arm—Team Sky—is having a mixed 2013.

    Richie Porte's Paris-Nice win went nicely with Chris Froome's own stage race successes in the Tour of Oman, Tour de Romandie and Criterium Du Dauphine (in addition to securing the Criterium International). At the Giro D'Italia, Rigoberto Uran recorded an impressive second place finish, reveling in the responsibility of being team leader.

    Less positively, Sky once again failed to establish a similar superiority during their Spring Classics campaign. Sergio Henao's second place in La Fleche Wallone and a spirited showing from Ian Stannard in Milan San-Remo were the only real highlights.

    The defining element of Sky's 2013 has undoubtedly been the power struggle between Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins.

    After working for Wiggins in last year's winning effort, Froome has been handed the team's leadership for this year's Tour. The aforementioned wins have seen the 28-year-old follow a similar pattern of form to which Wiggins did last year—competing in several targeted races as part of his preparation.

    Hopes of a second successive maillot jaune had still remained for Wiggins, though.

    The plan (at least in his mind) seemed to be that a victorious crack at the Giro D'Italia would leave him in too strong a position to be denied the opportunity to repeat—despite Sky's insistence that Froome would be their man man throughout July.

    Whether this would have worked, we will never know. Wiggins' Giro aspirations came unraveling as a chest infection took its toll, forcing him to pull out.

    Earlier this month, Sky announced he would miss the Tour de France altogether, due to "an ongoing knee condition."

Cancellara a Classics King Once More

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    Fabian Cancellara endured a frustrating 2012.

    The newly aligned RadioShack-Nissan team was in disarray. Riven by internal strife, relationships disintegrated, and doping allegations, past (team manager Johan Bruyneel) and present (Frank Schleck) came to the fore.

    Even with all the drama, Cancellara still managed a second Strade Bianche win, as well as taking the Tour de France prologue.

    Heading into 2013, improvements were a must for the retitled RadioShack-Leopard. They would not have to wait long, as Cancellara delivered the perfect remedy to the previous year's frustrations with a dominant Classics campaign.

    The Swiss superstar beat Peter Sagan into second place at E3 Harelbeke (his third win there). Just over a week later, he did the same at the Tour of Flanders—comprehensively dropping him on the final ascent of the Paterberg, before powering to his second victory.

    Further emphasizing his return to form, Cancellara went to the notoriously tough Paris-Roubaix and won for the third time.

    With a target on his back, it was a hard day's racing as the peloton did him no favors. That he managed one last push, to edge Sep Vanmarcke in the concluding velodrome sprint, was testament to the resilience and quality of the man they call Spartacus.

    Having opted to forgo the Giro D'Italia and Tour de France, Cancellara looks set for a crack at winning his first rainbow jersey on the road, in Florence in September.

Boonen's Spring Struggles

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    Inversely to Cancellara, the 2012 Classics-dominating Tom Boonen suffered a miserable spring.

    After first-place finishes last year in E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Brussels, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the best he could muster this time around was seventh in E3 Harelbeke.

    Rather than issues with form, Boonen has had rotten luck with illness and injuries.

    A severe bacterial infection saw the Belgian hospitalized in January. Then in attempting to defend his Flanders title, he crashed early in the day's proceedings—breaking a rib, among other injuries.

    After such a strong 2012, it was a blow to Boonen's sense of momentum coming out of a challenging couple of years. For cycling fans, it robbed them the chance to see how he would have fared not only against old rival Cancellara, but also the emerging force, Sagan.

    First place at the recent Heistse Pijl has at least given Boonen reason to be optimistic moving into summer.

    His Omega Pharma-QuickStep will certainly share their talisman's optimism. After a similarly difficult start to the year, their fortunes have picked up.

    Mark Cavendish won five stages at last month's Giro D'Italia, helping him to his first points classification in the race—giving him the full set for Grand Tours.

Irish Eyes Are Smiling for Dan Martin

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    2013 has already been the most successful year of Daniel Martin's fledgling professional career.

    The 26-year-old has added to his palmares what are are undoubtedly the most prestigious entries thus far. These successes will fill the Irishman with confidence about his prospects of adding substantially to this list.

    Beating Joaquim Rodríguez and Bradley Wiggins to the top spot on the podium of the week-long Volta a Catalunya, was a great source of pride for the Irishman. Not only for the merit of finishing above such fine riders, but also as he is a resident in the area.

    One month later, Martin ensured it would be a spring to remember, taking first in Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

    His first Classics win was, in large part, a testament to a good day's work by his Garmin-Sharp teammates.

    Ryder Hesjedal took up the mantle in the final few kilometers, attacking from the front as the peloton traversed the final climbs.

    After being reeled back in. Hesjedal kept chugging away, ensuring a leading group, also featuring Martin and "El Purito" Rodriguez, retained control.

    When Rodriguez attacked, Martin demonstrated his strength to get the better of the Spaniard once again.

Challenging Times for Hesjedal and Other Former Grand Tour Winners

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    Despite his fine work helping Daniel Martin win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Ryder Hesjedal will be a tad disappointed at how the first half of his year concluded.

    The Canadian headed back to the Giro D'Italia as defending champion. Like Wiggins, he pulled out prior to Stage 13 after illness had took its toll during a grueling week's racing.

    Hesjedal will at least console himself with plans for a crack at the upcoming Tour de France (and a new contract, as reported by CTV News). For Wiggins, there is less certainty about his future.

    These two men are not the only former Grand Tour winners having a challenging season.

    Andy Schleck endured a woeful 2012, and it has not been much better this time around.

    The 2010 Tour de France winner missed last year's race after suffering injuries in the Criterium du Dauphine. Since then, Schleck has been grasping for any semblance of genuine fitness and form, only for it to escape him at almost every attempt.

    Schleck will be hopeful his 25th place finish at the Tour of California will mark a turning point in his fortunes. The RadioShack-Leopard man has a further chance of resuscitating his 2013 at the Tour de Suisse.

    The Luxembourg star's occasional rival, Alberto Contador, has not been as badly in the wars. The Spaniard finished on the podium at the Tour of Oman (second) and Tirreno-Adriatico (third), after all.

    However, Contador's form at the Dauphine will have given many observers pause for thought.

    A disastrous Stage Four individual time trial (he finished 3:37 down on winner Tony Martin) ended his overall hopes of success—though he blamed this poor showing on allergies.

    More disconcerting was the way Chris Froome comprehensively caught, then blew past Contador on the way to winning the following day's stage.

    Cadel Evans recorded a respectable third place at last month's Giro D'Italia.

    Similar to Contador, the Australian's loss of time to eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali in the race's last week will have raised questions about the 2011 maillot jaune wearer's ability to perform against younger general classification rivals.

Nibali Wins His First Giro D'Italia

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    After opting to miss the 2012 edition to focus on the Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali won his first Giro D'Italia—and did it in most impressive fashion.

    Outlasting fellow race favorites like Hesjedal and Wiggins, Nibali wore the leader's jersey from Stage Eight. Evans kept things close until the final week, at which point, the Italian turned on the style.

    Nibali won Stage 18's rain-soaked mountain time trial by 58 seconds. The 2:36 he put into Evans that day all but sealed the race for the Astana man.

    Stage 19 was cancelled due to snow, but on the penultimate afternoon, Nibali further emphasized his dominance.

    The snow-covered summit of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo provided a particularly dramatic backdrop for the Shark to make his move.

    Attacking from 2.5 km to go, Nibali left the bunch and proceeded to outstrip the last remnants of the breakaway.

    The maglia rosa gleaming through increasingly-blizzard like conditions, the 28-year-old soloed to a victory that will rank among the finest of his career.

    Nibali will forgo this year's Tour to focus on the World Championships in Florence. Having previously won a Vuelta a Espana, he is slowly but surely checking off a list of some of cycling's biggest races.

That Darn Weather!

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    The weather may have made for some dramatic racing at times this season. Mostly, though, it has been a nuisance.

    Stage 19 of the Giro D'Italia was not the only day's racing to be cancelled because of snow.

    Belgian race Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne—which has been won by such notable names as Roger De Vlaeminck, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish—was the first major casualty of the season.

    As described already in this article, Milan-San Remo was severely disrupted too.

    When it was not the snow, it was unseasonably cold temperatures making life miserable for the peloton.

    Though there were exceptions, the European spring largely failed to wake from its winter slumber. Or at least, it kept going back to sleep.

    Those riding May's Giro will have been casting envious glances at their peers and colleagues taking part in the sun-drenched Tour of California.

    Even then, the poor souls slogging their way to the top of Stage Two's Greater Palm Springs summit were dealing with decidedly unenviable temperatures of around 104 degrees Fahrenheit.