For those that have followed cycling this past decade, the love affair, borne in naive adulation has certainly been strained. Many fair weather fans will have turned off their televisions long by now, pulled down their L.A. posters, clipped off their Livestrong bracelets, and packed up, gone home.
But like a good marriage; read robust; others have kept on. Braving the tension of simultaneously trying to suspend, and retain our disbelief, in a sport that's looked no less broken than ever. The railed-on have had to come to terms with the idea that the object of our affections is not what we thought, and it is, and it wasn't; a polemic peace. Evidenced by the news of the last week, and the drips and drabs from throughout this year, nobody could rightly say the sport has truly turned a corner, or detached itself from crisis. Maybe it never will.
It did however coax me, gently back in from the precipice. The spectacle was there once more, in a way that it hadn't been. The buzz in Buninyong, the roar of the crowd as Evans set forth briefly in pursuit of the green and gold jersey. That whole summer, actually. Cancellara's masterclass at Flanders. Van Avermaet's heartbreak. The image of Contador, sprawled on the road in the Vosges. Nibali's second rest day press conference, with the title in his grasp, quaintly sat in some 17th century garden. Gerrans at Liege and Ponferrada. The rise of the Poles; Kwia and Majka. The Giro! You could write some tome about the 2014 season; I'm sure one of my esteemed colleagues already is.
The point being, I was reminded, that I'm not a total masochist, and that from my occupation I do derive some true pleasure. I could write a book, too, but in surmising the year, I wanted to be slightly more disciplined. So here, below, the 2014 season broken into the five days that are most worth savouring. You may or may not agree.
1. Willunga Hill, the Santos Tour Down Under
Wasn't January everything we could've wished and dreamed? Perhaps because I was there, from Buninyong all the way to the final fanfare around Adelaide on Australia Day. Perhaps because I am myself Australian. But with three great protagonists, the sunburnt country's best, Evans, Gerrans and Porte battling for superiority in the country's premier race, and an outcome decided only by a matter of seconds, the moniker, "summer of cycling" could not have been more apt. Willunga, the climax of the Santos Tour Down Under, neatly tied together the drama of January. Evans laboured, and fought, Porte ignited the race with a daring move that nearly stole the show, and Gerrans, well, he was clinical. Evans would have been a popular winner on Willunga but with Porte taking the stage, and Gerrans, the overall, the stage was emblematic too, of a changing of the guard in Australian cycling.
2. Quintana's Giro, and that day
Through a mist of snow and sleet, with a near white-out at the top of the Stelvio, a diminutive Colombian charged on. Nairo Quintana, the man many expect to be the 2015 Tour de France champion, may have taken advantage of an amateurish officialdom to ride clear on the descent, as the peloton behind, and maglia rosa were allegedly misdirected, but to consolidate and build that advantage in the frantic chase that followed in the valley to Val Martello, and then ride clear as his rivals crumbled showed Quintana was a class above. Quintana is no-nonsense, he's a racer. While Uran complained that the descent had been neutralised by marshalls on motorbikes, and erred, Quintana simply rode on, and was not stopped. A lesson, if nothing else, in playing the whistle. Quintana donned pink at the finish, a mantle he'd keep for the rest of the race. For mine, with the controversy, the conditions, and the hype the stage had already built toward, it was, one of the most memorable days of the year.
3. La Course
Often times the symbolic can appear tokenistic. It would be easy to think La Course was just that. It was after all, only a single day, planted at the end of the 'men's' Tour de France. But, in front of a global television audience, it was the embodiment of change for the women's sport, and the circuit breaker it sorely needed. Change comes slow, indeed, La Course, is only the beginning of a broader movement to reinvigorate the sorry state of the women's sport, but it is still progress.
ASO reportedly lost money on the race's broadcast and organisation, but went through with it anyway as a show of good faith. Importantly that means the work is far from done. But if the momentum from that good faith gesture can be capitalised on, by all stakeholders, and I know there are good people working to make it so, there's no reason it won't be a commercially attractive proposition in the future.
4. A cracking Criterium du Dauphine
Short, punchy stages, friendly broadcast hours to a foreign audience, and star attraction. The Criterium du Dauphine had it all, and with Froome and Contador both bowing out of the Tour, it was perhaps the contest we were denied there, brought forward. Stages 7 and 8 were classics. Contador unfurling his sails after looking second-rate in the early forays of Froome to take the lead with a daring, let's shake things up kind of move. But it was the final day, often little more than a formality that was outstanding. Those expecting a final climb showdown between Froome and Contador were left pleasantly surprised when the race imploded from the gun, with Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen in a star-studded escape group that threw the stage into chaos. Froome was left scrambling, and ultimately, wavered. Contador let the race slip, mistaking Froome's weakness as a tactical ploy, and meanwhile ahead, Talansky took out the overall win. If you can source Talansky's reaction after the stage, it's priceless.
5. Rob Power's Tour de L'Avenir
And, to conclude, Rob Power's second overall the Tour de l'Avenir, must be heralded as a landmark achievement. Okay, he didn't win, but from a far more parochial standpoint than that which I'd normally assume, his performance did what no Australian has done before - gaining a place on the l'Avenir podium. While Australia has had substantial success at the espoirs version of Tour de France, see Michael Hepburn, or Caleb Ewan, it's never done quite so well as Power did on GC. And at a time when Australia's greatest Grand Tour rider, Cadel Evans, approaches the end of his time in the sport, Power's ascendancy, a rider of just 19, bodes well for the country's future. 'Course, I don't want to load too much undue pressure on young Rob, but it's youngsters like him that as I said earlier have helped remind of what makes this sport so great.