Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rise of Nations

Just like in geopolitics, nations rise and fall as they contend in professional cycling. With the call for more and more globalization of pro cycling, we ask the question: what of the "old" nations and what of the "new emerging" nations?

In this article we use basic analysis tools to examine the rise and fall of nations in one-day racing. To be more precise, we consider Monuments and World Championship (WC) wins of Italy, Belgium, and France, versus those of "other nations." We use a moving-average of 7 years, which we consider the typical "mature and winning" period of a rider's career. We consider Milano-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Giro di Lombardia, Paris-Tours, and the World Championships.
What insights were we able to gleam? Read on ...



Belgium

Examining the performance of Belgium, it is impossible to miss the significant hump in the 70s, which we call The Merckx-De Vlaeminck Era. Between the two of them, they won all monuments - and the WC - multiple times. Among others, Maertens is there too, winning two WC titles but no monuments. More remarkably, all three were also GC contenders in the grand tours, netting multiple Giro, Tour, and Vuelta victories at the same time they contended the one-day races. Such was the dominance of the Belgians that in some years (1972 and 1976) they had a clean sweep of the monuments. Is it a wonder that Cycle Sport used to have a column "In the Shadow of Merckx"?
Recent history shows the Belgians to be in good shape. Classics warriors Boonen and what's-his-name Gilbert are all still active, and are considered very serious contenders. A younger cadre of contenders are also rising, among them Greg Van Avermaet, Jurgen Roelandts (even if he is injured), and Thomas De Gendt.


France

France never did specialize in one-day races. But they had a good run in the late 70s to early 90s which we call the French Hardmen Era. Their victories were truly earned in tears, sweat and blood: Hinault's legendary 1977 Liege-Bastogne-Liege win in snow, his win in Roubaix in rainbow stripes (notably outsprinting De Vlaeminck, Moser, Demeyer, Kuiper - all former or then-future winners of the race), Marc Madiot and Gilbert Duclosse-Lasalle's two Roubaix victories each, and Laurent Fignon's two Milan-San Remo. Hinault was so confident of WC win at home in Salanches in 1982 that he slept so soundly the night before the race and had to be woken up by teammates. Laurent Jalabert contributed wins in Milan-San Remo in 1995 and Lombardia in 1997. Finally, long escapes can pay off for them, as evident with Jacky "Dudu" Durand's Flanders win in 1997 and Richard Virenque's Paris-Tours win in 2001.
Unfortunately for the French, recent history hasn't been kind to them. The last monument won by a Frenchmen was Frederic Guesdon's Paris-Tours in 2006. Their last WC win was in 1997 by Laurent Brochard. Both were daring rides, even if Paris-Tours itself isn't exactly the most-regarded of the Monuments. Both Virenque and Brochard had to serve suspensions following the 1998 Festina Affair, and it can be argued that their performance relative to their peers have suffered since. The Festina Affair cast a long shadow on the French, as it rightly punished many dopers who were at the height of their careers but at the same time turned away an entire cadre of juniors from emerging to the top echelons of pro cycling.

Sure, Sylvain Chavanel was the near-man in the 2011 Ronde, and at 32 years old he still has a few years of riding ahead of him. But it is hard to deny that today he seems nearly the singular contender who could legitimately challenge the Monuments. Will the French rise again? And if they do rise again, will they be singing La Marseillaise in the one-day races? We think that with it may take a few years for this to happen, as we continue to watch the progressions of the likes of Yoann Offredo and Steve Chainel. 


Italy

Notably different from Belgium and France, Italy has earned her wins through many different riders, and consistently so. The earlier parts of the chart had to rely on the irrepressible Felice Gimondi, contending with Merckx and De Vlaeminck during their prime. Francesco Moser picked up the banner just as Gimondi started to age. Both netted WC wins. Gianni Bugno and Moreno Argentin contended in the early 90s, to be followed immediately by the Mapei glory years. The Mapei era gave rise to Paolo Bettini's MSR, 2 WC, 2 LBL, 2 Lombardia, even if most of these were earned under QuickStep colors. At the same time, his former mentor Michele Bartoli contributed 2 LBL and 2 Lombardia himself. Add to this Davide Rebellin and Danilo Di Luca's impressive hauls in the spring classics, Damiano Cunego's 3 Lombardias, Alessandro Ballan's Flanders, and Pippo Pozzato's consistent performance even if it leaves many wanting; Things looked extremely good in the 00s for Italy.
But there is no denying that as of today their last significant one-day win is already years old and that many of the top riders are coming past their prime.

Who will take on the mantle of Paolo Bettini? We think there is a generation gap in Italy's roster while we wait for the next crop of riders such as Daniel Oss and Diego Ulissi for the classics, and Elia Viviani and Andrea Guardini for the fast finishes. 


Other nations

We realize it is really unfair to lump everybody together into "other nations". For one, different "other nations" would rise and fall through the years. The Dutch surely had a good run in the 70s and early 80s with Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann, and Hennie Kuiper. The Germans had their days more recently with Erik Zabel. Thanks to the irreplaceable Sean Kelly, Ireland had representation well above their numbers in the 80s. And Spain had more than a few days' worth of glory with Oscar Freire and Alejandro Valverde, plus Sammy Sanchez often snapping at the heels of victory in several high-profile races.

Most recently, Swiss Fabian Cancellara has contributed several wins in MSR, Flanders and Roubaix. And not to forget recent English-speaking riders such as GB Cavendish and Aussie Matty Goss.

Dare I say that the trend of "Other nations" winning significant one-day races points to continued rise?
Will we see other nations rise to the point that they deserve their own section in the next decade? Will the mondialisation of cycling start to bring contenders from more non-western countries?

Share your thoughts below.

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