Vincenzo Nibali Leads the Charge On Team Sky In 2014

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by Barnaby CHESTERMAN

PARIS, Dec 16, 2014 (AFP) – After two years of Sky dominance, 2014 was the
season that the rest fought back and but for the Astana doping scandals, would
have gone down as a vintage edition.

Team Sky had in many eyes taken the drama out of the Tour de France by
guiding Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to dominant victories in 2012 and
2013 respectively.

But the British outfit’s inability to maintain that level of performance in
2014 helped to make it a thrilling year in cycling.

Vincenzo Nibali was the main beneficiary as he emerged from the chaos of
crashes during the Grand Boucle — that saw three former winners in Froome,
Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck hit the deck and leave the race during the
first 10 days — to streak away to victory.

The Grand Tours produced a high level of winner during the year with Nairo
Quintana triumphing at the Giro d’Italia and Contador claiming a third Vuelta
a Espana after a terrific battle with Froome.

It has all led to much excitement ahead of the 2015 Tour with people
expecting the four best stage-racers in the world — Froome, Contador,
Quintana and Nibali — to put on a nail-biting show on the way to Paris.

That should be the case now that the International Cycling Union (UCI)
granted Nibali’s Astana team a World Tour licence for 2015, despite a spate of
doping scandals.

Five Kazakh riders tied to the Kazakh team’s World and Continental Tour
squads tested positive for either the banned-blood-booster EPO or steroids
during 2014, leading to speculation the UCI would kicked Astana out of cycling.

But fortunately for Nibali, Astana were granted a licence under certain
conditions that will see them closely monitored in 2015.

– change of guard –

Away from the Grand Tours there was the start of a changing of the guard.

Spartacus — Fabian Cancellara — won his third Tour of Flanders with a
masterful and patient ride, making his move at just the right time to deny
Belgian duo Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke.

But a week later and it was Dutchman Niki Terpstra who claimed victory at
Paris-Roubaix with Cancellara and Tom Boonen out-thought in the finale.

But it was the emergence of the likes of Norway’s Alexander Kristoff in
Flanders (fifth) and German John Degenkolb in Roubaix (second) that suggested
the old guard are starting to be eased out.

There was more such evidence during the Ardennes Classics despite Philippe
Gilbert (Amstel Gold), Alejandro Valverde (Fleche Wallonne) and Australian
Simon Gerrans (Liege-Bastogne-Liege) claiming victories.

Young pretenders such as Pole Michal Kwiatkowski, who finished in the top
five in all three, including taking two podium finishes, and Ireland’s Dan
Martin (Fleche Wallonne) and Jelle Vanendert of Belgium (Amstel Gold) both
earning a second place finish.

Martin, in fact, would almost certainly have won a second straight title in
Liege but for a crash on the final bend as he was streaking clear to victory.

– masterful late break –

But it was 25-year-old Pole Kwiatkowski who took the most confidence from
his performance and went on to become world champion in September with a
masterful late break in Ponferrada.

It was also the setting for Wiggins to demonstrate he is the only man
capable of upsetting timetrial king Tony Martin.

The German had won three world titles against the clock in a row but
Wiggins, who also beat Martin at the London Olympics, proved he is one of the
greatest, and most versatile, riders of his generation.

The popular Brit finished the year by vowing to tackle the world hour
record and Paris-Roubaix in 2015.

The hour record was thrust back into the limelight by the UCI changing the
rules and allowing more modern bicycles to be used, meaning that the 49.7km
mark set by controversial Czech Ondrej Sosenka in 2005 could now be attacked.

Veteran German Jens Voigt, to the delight of cycling fans, went first and
pushed it out to 51.11km in September, although six weeks later Austrian
Matthias Brandle went almost 750m further.

That record is sure to come under pressure from more than just Wiggins in
2015, a year that promises fireworks on so many levels.