Brendan Gallagher provides insight into what is going to be a fascinating year for cycling, bookmarking a selection of events, teams and riders, as ‘ones to watch’ for 2014.

I’m no Mystic Meg but as winter camps gather pace and indeed some riders head to Adelaide for the Tour Down Under I sense a 2014 season when the subtleties of racing and winning attract more headlines than in recent years with stories about doping issues beginning to recede slightly, through reader fatigue if nothing else. Rather like the recent England Ashes Tour there comes a point when you simply cannot consume another word or listen to another report. The body rebels and you look elsewhere

These things are cyclical, the Armstrong Tsunami is almost spent and although there will undoubtedly be nasty little storms to contend with – there will always be somebody trying to beat the system whatever the sport and even a new ‘clean’ cycling should never pretend otherwise – but frankly nothing will ever quite match the last 18 months. That should be as bad as it ever gets. No cycling name is bigger than Armstrong and no scandal will reach his level of infamy.

The UCI Commission will swing into action soon – it will be called the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) – and we now have a more precise idea of its remit. The three CIRC commissioners, chaired by Dick Marty, will “investigate allegations that the UCI has been involved in wrong doing in the past … and to understand what went so wrong in our sport and to make recommendations for change that as far as possible those mistakes are not repeated.” I like the implied forward looking slant to that wording rather than an open invitation for anybody to belatedly ‘dump’ and play a get out of jail free card in an attempt to achieve absolution for their sins. I suspect it will be a glacial process however and much of what is set to be examined is now to a large degree in the public domain. We’ll see, the Commission is perhaps the biggest unknown of 2014.

No, it’s the racing and the riders that should reclaim the headlines this year. Let’s start with Team Sky’s Richie Porte who has been given licence to chase his Grand Tour GC ambitions at the Giro, a race he lead for three days during his first season as a professional. The tough Aussie definitely has the potential to win another mountain fest in Italy with, at this stage, his most dangerous opponent seemingly Nairo Quintana, the pocket rocket Colombian whose Movistar team are one of the few Pro-Tour outfits who can match Sky’s strength in depth in terms of support riders. Quintana checked out the Giro’s Queen Stage – Stage 16 – and the Time-Trial route before heading back to Colombia for the winter.

The fascination with Porte, for me, will be twofold. After two years in the loyal service of, first Bradley Wiggins and then Chris Froome, it will be intriguing to see how he copes with leadership duties for a full three weeks, a stress which is as much mental as physical.

Wiggins struggled mightily with the whole leadership “thing” in his first season with Sky (2010), although in fairness his leadership responsibility encompassed the entire team it seemed during a difficult debut. Later he grew into the role, notably in his annus mirabilis of 2012, but even the seemingly super cool and relaxed Chris Froome admits that he found his first Grand Tour as the designated leader – the 2012 Vuelta – quite taxing when in truth he probably let a podium place slip away although fourth was hardly a disaster.

The other factor here is if Porte buries himself at the Giro in pursuit of the Maglia Rosa is how much will he have left to help Froome in the Tour de France? No one man is irreplaceable but I fancy both Wiggins and Froome would have found their Tour de France titles harder to win without the Tasmanian Devil riding shotgun. I know Porte and Tim Kerrison have already discussed in detail recovery strategies after the Giro but it remains a huge challenge, the biggest of Porte’s career. He is adamant though: “If Chris wants to win the Tour again, which I think he does, then I want to be there.”

As for Froome, he weighed in Sky’s Majorca training camp last month less than 1lb. heavier than his racing weight, this despite a hectic round of VIP engagements, appearances and trips back home to Kenya. Mentally I can’t imagine anybody who will be less affected by fame and fortune than Froome and he seems massively motivated to embark on a period of domination, not just winning. He is in a very good place but each Tour de France is an epic adventure in which the only controllable is your fitness and form. Who knows what Vincenzo Nibali, Joachim Rodriguez, Rui Costa et al have up their sleeves, let alone Lady Luck.

To finish on the Team Sky theme, what an interesting season for Wiggins, probably his last totally committed to the road. A much talked about assault on Paris-Roubaix would be fun, the Tour of California is a target, but most of all I would like to see him put in a massive shift on Froome’s behalf at the Tour de France. No seriously. I have no problem whatsoever with him and Froome not getting on, there is nothing in your contract which says you have to be mates with your colleague and the sporting and media world is full of such rivalries, petty or otherwise. Whisper it quietly but they are usually a positive with those concerned spurring each other on. The really odd thing here is that the Brad Wiggins I have reported on for nearly a decade has, with one or two exceptions, been a team rider par excellence culminating with the unique sight of him – in the yellow jersey – leading THREE Team Sky sprint trains in the last eight days of the 2012 Tour de France trying to engineer victories for Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mark Cavendish when he should have been tucked up safely in the peloton.

Image: Bradley Wiggins signing autographs outside the Team Sky bus, 2013 Tour of Britain – Stage 6.

Wiggins must rise above whatever has or hasn’t been said between him and Froome. Although personally I believe he would have won the 2012 Tour even if Froome had been given free rein in the mountains there is no doubt that the win threat that Froome’s fine form posed, helped Wiggins enormously and certainly on that last mountain stage up the Peyragude where Froome chivvied him over the finishing line when the yellow jersey was beginning to go AWOL mentally. There is a debt which needs repaying that is absolutely nothing to do with money and it would reflect well on Wiggins if he signed off his road career with a mighty effort on behalf of a rider who is now clearly Sky’s main man. I fancy it could well make a difference in a tighter than expected Tour.

Mark Cavendish, the other stellar name in British cycling, faces a testing season with Omega Pharma Quickstep with whispers that he is about the lose his “world’s fastest man” mantle to the excellent Marcel Kittel. Um, I’m not so sure. As a journalist I have learned to my cost never to write Cavendish off, he always hits back when the criticism starts mounting or, in fairness, he acknowledges that he has let it slip fractionally. I’m expecting no less than four TDF stage wins from a pumped up Cavendish, including the opener in Yorkshire, in his mother’s hometown of Harrogate, where a yellow jersey beckons. Although I suspect only something catastrophic like a nuclear attack is ever going to deny Peter Sagan the green jersey.

Image: Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish – 2013 Tour of Britain.

Elsewhere, I have my own little wish list of races I want to see, spectacles I’m looking forward to. The Track first and next month’s World Championships in Cali. Becky James was a wonderfully assured and imposing double world champion in Minsk last February and is clearly the future, but is she ready yet to get past Anna Meares who basically took 2013 off to recharge the batteries following a big Olympic year in 2012. Their clashes in the Sprint and Keirin would alone be worth the cost of a flight to Colombia while there is the perennial question of how much quicker the Women’s Team Pursuit can go? They are down to 4.16.552sec and although altitude (3,200 feet) is not a huge factor at Cali I would be surprised if they didn’t make further inroads into that.

The inaugural Women’s Tour in May, incidentally featuring many of those GB Team Pursuit riders will be an historic and much needed addition to the Women’s circuit, a rare opportunity for some of the world’s best riders to be treated equally to their male counterparts and like the elite athletes they are. Once that genie is out of the bottle hopefully the sport will never return to the bad old days. It kicks off in Oundle on May 7, a landmark day for the sport.

The Depart of the Tour de France in Leeds and those first two stages in Yorkshire should be sensational, no other word suffices, and that’s before we even contemplate the sprint finish down the Mall for Stage 3. Can all this really be happening? It’s only ten years ago that the Tour de France proceeded happily without a single British rider and without a thought to involving what seemed a cycling backwater.

Onwards we barrel through the year. Fabian Cancellera hasn’t yet decided when his much talked about attempt on the hour record will take place, or indeed where, so look out for that one and we haven’t yet been informed of the Depart venue for the Tour of Britain, a race that is increasingly catching the imagination and last year had the TV giants competing for coverage, a sure sign that somebody is onto a winner.

Occasionally, in fact rather more than occasionally, you hear some commentators talk about cycling a sport in crisis. On the contrary I see a sport that is mysteriously bullet proof to the outrageous slings and arrows of misfortune. Enjoy the next 12 months.

 

Brendan’s Top Ten dates for your Diary

1: Feb 26-March 2: Women’s Team Pursuit and Individual Sprint Finals Cali.

2: April 6: Tour of Flanders: Can Geraint Thomas stay upright and get among the big boys?

3: April 13: Paris Roubaix : Wouldn’t it be great to see Brad Wiggins is racing for real.

4: May 7: Opening day of the game-changing Women’s Tour from Oundle to Northampton.

5: May 27: Stage 16 of the Giro featuring the Gavia (2618m) and the Stelvio (2758m). Ouch!

6: July 5: TDF Depart: Leeds-Harrogate. This, simply, should be the greatest day in British cycling history.

7: August 3: The two Commonwealth Games Road Races on Glasgow’s cracking course.

8: September 7: The opening day of the Tour of Britain is always special, wherever that might be! Watch this space.

9: September 28: The Men’s World Championship Road Race in Ponferrada Spain. An annual pleasure.

10: TBC: Fabian Cancellara’s much touted attempt on the World Hour Record.