On Sunday, Juan Antonio Flecha announced his retirement from cycling, flagging his intention to stop once and for all after the Tour of Beijing, which will mark the Spaniard's swansong. Nearly 14 years after Flecha began his career with Relax, he broke the news after a creditable 13th place finish in the Giro di Lombardia.
"I say goodbye to cycling forever at the Tour of Beijing," he said to El Pais after the finish in Lecco. "I cannot wait to finish that race in mid-October and go to Maui, Hawaii, with an open date on the return ticket.
"I'll swap the asphalt for the foam of the waves, the bike for the surfboard, and walk barefoot all day, and be free."
The race of the falling leaves also marked a less-heralded farewell to American Dave Zabriskie. Confirming just moments before the race rolled-out to Cyclingnews that Il Lombardia would be his final jaunt in the professional peloton, after some 13 years.
"There's a time for everybody, nothing lasts forever, even cold November (sic) rain," he said as the mid-autumn showers sprinkled the American in Bergamo. Five hours later he stepped off the bike, racked it up and slipped into the team car without ceremony. His professional career behind him, and a new chapter beginning.
Zabriskie, 34, is set to in the short-run spend more time with his family, but what legacy does the eccentric American leave, or for that matter Flecha?
I vividly recall the first year that SBS broadcast the Tour de France in full, in 2005, and Zabriskie starred. The smooth pedal stroke, the sublime position on the bike, a steely look on the start ramp. DZ was imperious, in his element and a pleasure to behold.
By then, of course, Zabriskie was a synonmous name against the clock. A Giro and Vuelta stage winner, and the 2004 Elite Men's national champion. But it was the 19km in Fromentine that sticks out. With Armstrong in his twilight, Zabriskie's rise gave hope to a new generation. He donned yellow and held it through the first three stages, before disaster in the team time trial on Stage 4, as he, all but in sight of the finish crashed, and ceded yellow.
Whenever he got on the time trial bike, Zabriskie was without peer. He appeared natural, perhaps more so even than the fluid figure that Fabian Cancellara cut and on occassion, could even climb.
Off the bike, Zabriskie's quirkiness earned him attention from unconventional sources. The Wall Street Journal covered Zabriskie's attempt at riding the Tour de France on a full vegan diet in 2011, and the American's unique sense of humour is hard to beat. Cue Zabriskie's dulcet tones at the 2012 Garmin presentation, and you know what I mean.
Meanwhile, Flecha, the "Belgian" Spaniard, named for his penchant for success in the cobbled classics, an oddity in the professional peloton for a country blessed with climbers, was and always has been a fixture of the spring. Only once since 2005 has he failed to score a top-10 result in Paris-Roubaix, a feat unrivalled even by Cancellara and Tom Boonen.
Though unrewarded, Flecha earned respect as a freelancer at Rabobank, a bit part player capable of riding with the strongest riders even without the depth in support of his rivals. Then there was the 2011 Tour de France, a French television car, and Johnny Hoogerland. While Hoogerland ended up in the barbed wire, Flecha was in fact the first to be hit, and no more fortunate. He soldiered on all the same in a brilliant example of triumph of the human spirit.
Together, both riders are poster boys of a generation, of all its successes, but just as much its failings. With the reams of evidence flowing from USADA, from Puerto and CONI, Zabriskie and Flecha are just the latest two in a generation with blemished pasts, leaving the sport behind.
Zabriskie admitted his own part in the doping charade with his affidavit in USADA's Reasoned Decision. A shattering story that is one of the hardest to reconcile among his peers. From a family of drug-abuse, Zabriskie was a needle-phobe and vehemently opposed drug use. And yet on one dark day in Spain his resolve collapsed.
"He (Zabriskie) had embraced cycling to escape a life seared by drugs and now he felt that he could not say no and stay in his mentor's good graces," reads the USADA Report. "He looked to Michael Barry for support but he did not find it. Barry's mind was made up. Barry had decided to use EPO, and he reinforced Bruyneel's opinions that EPO use was required for success in the peloton. The group retired to Barry's apartment where both David and Barry were injected with EPO by Dr Del Moral."
Flecha meanwhile is alleged to have been a client of Eufemiano Fuentes, a report in Dutch paper Volkskrant, April, which the Spaniard denies suggests he underwent blood transfusions while under the disgraced doctor's care. And then there was his departure from Team Sky at the end of 2012 which came simultaneously as team principal Dave Braislford obliged team staff and riders to sign a hardline anti-doping document.
Caught in the cross-hairs of a changing environment in the professional peloton, as the culture shifted, people like Flecha and Zabriskie; Christian Vande Velde and Stuart O'Grady, Levi Leipheimer and Matt White leave us with a difficult history to reconcile. Some have come forward in the interests of transparency and for that we can be grateful in allowing the sport to heal. Some have even been proactive, but others remain notable in their silence.
Do we remember the good, and glaze over the bad? Does doping define a generation or do we look past indiscretions and remember times when these people, entertained and inspired us? Does the asterisk cast a pall over careers, or are memories, and moments in time untouched by the doping question? How do you look at cycling's past? Do you feel betrayed or are you at peace? Do you forgive them their demons, or hold a more critical eye? These are tough questions, and ones that will continue to arise in seasons to come.
What do we remember?