I’ve always endeavoured to blog about old races when gaps appear in the current racing calendar. For some time I’ve wanted to write about my favourite riders or the ones I remember cheering when I watched my first Tours.
My appreciation of some riders has waned after sins were confessed or discovered over the last decade. I grew up through a horrible era for pro cycling and possibly one of the most tarnished eras in sport. Thankfully, rife doping didn’t stop the racing from being enjoyable and I hold fond memories of several performances from the 90s and early 2000s. Here are ten riders that led to my cycling obsession.
1. Claudio Chiappucci
Claudio Chiappucci is the only rider on this list who collected his best results when my bike still had stabilisers. He’s also the only rider on this list who I didn’t discover through my own free choice; the Italian was one of my Dad’s big favourites.
‘El Diablo’ was a popular rider due to his daring, throwback style and for being the antithesis of the Grand Tour riders of the day. An unprecedented stint in the Maillot Jaune in 1990 catapulted Chiappucci to relevance but his most lauded performance came two years later in the form of a 245km attack.
His escape on Stage 13 of the ’92 Tour was made known to me at an early stage of my pro cycling development. On the first climb of a brutally hard day, Chiappucci attacked his rivals who had no interested in joining him for a suicidal adventure. Miguel Indurain and Gianni Bugno saw no need to tail the Italian as he headed for the staggeringly hard Col de l’Isran (over 9000 feet high) knowing it was followed by Mont Cenis and the climb to Sestriere. Chiappucci was solo with two climbs to go and his rivals began to wind things up for a chase. Exhausted, the Italian heaved himself up to Sestriere but Indurain was wooden and clearly not fairing any better. Chiappucci was cheered home by masses of Italian fans and Indurain finished third 1:43 down. He had never intended to pull off such a feat.
The Italian aged badly and his performances declined with every Tour de France I watched. Nevertheless, his phenomenal victory was mentioned regularly and his legend held strong. Bold attacks were hard to come by (save for prime Pantani) and Chiappucci gave the 90s a flavour of the exploits of Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.
Like several riders of his era, Chiappucci succumbed to doping and would later admit a long history of EPO abuse – a sad theme of this list.
2. Erik Dekker
Mainly due to a love of their kit, the Rabobank team played host to many of my early heroes. Marc Waughters, Leon Van Bon and Karsten Kroon were all popular figures but then – above all others – there was Erik Dekker. The Dutchman ticked all the boxes of somebody I was going to get behind at the Tour de France. In addition to the colours he wore, he attacked a lot and made those potentially dull stages through endless French sunflower fields a little more interesting. He was the first rider I actively followed and an easy choice for an appearance on this list.
It helped that he won a lot. Somewhat of a late-bloomer, Dekker took three stages of the 2000 Tour which was a remarkable feat for somebody who finished 51st overall and wasn’t considered a sprinter. He carried fantastic form that year and even upset prime Erik Zabel from a bunch finish in Lausanne.
He returned in 2001 to win his fourth Tour stage – a memorable breakaway in the rain with teammate Waughters. It seemed to rain more in the Tours of the early 2000s and Dekker’s last Tour victory is a stage that has stuck in my mind.
One-time Dutch champion and two-time winner of the Eneco Tour, Dekker was the first rider whose performances I followed away from the Tour de France. I’m still on the lookout for a good Rabobank jersey; one of the most iconic of the last twenty years.
3. Santiago Botero
Obviously I was influenced by jersey design in my formative years because alongside Rabobank I have fond memories of the brilliant Kelme jersey.
I quickly became accustomed to Lance Armstrong handing out beatings to Kelme riders with nothing more than the fierce turn of a pedal and a sympathetic nod; Fernando Escartin and Javier Otxoa come to mind.
It was therefore refreshing when Colombian Santiago Botero shelved immediate GC ambitions for a proper pursuit of the KotM jersey in the year 2000. My memory is of an exciting rider who mixed aggression with calculated climbing.
He took three Tour stages in total, including a dominant lone show on Les deux Alpes in 2002. On holiday and unable to catch the ITV highlights, I remember seeing the result in the paper. Botero had dipped from fifth to eighteenth after a bad showing on Mont Ventoux the previous day but was back up to seventh after his emphatic stage victory.
It would be a major injustice to say Botero had no GC ambitions as he achieved a trio of Tour top tens in his Kelme years including fourth place in 2002. Perhaps his most surprising characteristic was his strength in the time trial. Despite representing a nation and team known for going uphill, Botero was of a sturdy build and won the World ITT Championship in 2002. He also came just one second from a hatrick of time trial victories at the 2001 Vuelta Espana.
4. Jean-Patrick Nazon
If I wanted to put a sprinter on this list it should really have been Alessandro Petacchi. The Italian ripped through 2003 and 2004 with an unprecedented amount of Grand Tour victories. I instantly preferred him to Mario Cipollini with his silly animal print skinsuits and aversion to uphill gradients. However, about 30 seconds before writing this entry I changed my mind and opted for the obscure with Jean Patrick-Nazon.
With Christoph Moreau constantly falling short, Richard Virenque obsessed with polka dots and Laurent Jalabert coming to the end of career, the early 2000s were tough for French cycling fans. They would regularly pick up breakaway victories but it was in the sprint that they really suffered. To illustrate the point, France has had just four winners on the Champs Elysees and just two since 1982.
The 2003 race was particularly dry for the French with Virenque’s solo victory into Morzine looking like the only real highlight. Petacchi mopped up the opening sprints and Jean-Patrick Nazon rarely featured for his small Jean Dealtour team; his older brother Damien was posing more of a threat to the Italian.
As the race reached Paris the sprinters were geed up for one last showdown. Australians Bradley McGee and Robbie McEwan were locked in a battle for the green jersey with Erik Zabel and Thor Hushovd hunting stage glory. I’m not convinced I knew too much about Nazon before Stage 20 but by the time he had won the sprint, given his interviews and jumped on the podium I knew I was a fan.
It was a victory for the French, a victory for the underdog and a victory for sprinters with blonde highlighted hair. He spent five minutes wheeling round looking emotional and throwing his gloves into the crowd. It took me ages to track down the footage but YouTube came to the rescue.
For the next two years Nazon was my favourite sprinter and I followed him into obscurity and eventually retirement. I’m not sure what the younger Nazon brother is doing now but a French victory on the Champs Elysees is something to treasure.
5. Servais Knaven
I took the easy route into pro cycling – the Tour de France – meaning my memories of the cobbled Classics from before 2000 are stolen from books, magazines, YouTube and commemorative ‘Best of’ DVDs.
Searching ‘Servais Knaven’ on Google will bring up a whole host of ‘did he/didn’t he’ doping articles whipped into a storm following his appointment as a Directeur Sportif of ‘zero tolerance’ Team Sky. Claims date back to the late nineties when Knaven rode for TVM and there are plenty of clues; his mere presence at the 1998 Tour de France is evidence enough. It’s pretty hard to find an experienced DS who didn’t dope in the 90s.
Nevertheless, I remember Henricus Theodorus Jospehus Knaven for getting into breakaways at the Tour de France and leading home a Domo-Farm Frites 1-2-3 at Paris-Roubaix. The Dutchman’s success would help turn my head towards the Classics and opened up the door to that pocket of April featuring Gent Wevelgem, Ronde, Roubaix, Scheldeprijs and the Amstel Gold Race. Knaven’s Roubaix win followed an attack from the lead group with 10km to go in muddy, filthy conditions.
There was something about Knaven that made him stand out and it’s took me the best part of a decade to figure it out; his name. With his three first names, Knaven sounds like a hero you would read about in a children’s book about slaying dragons. He’d probably be a skilled swordsman. At the age of 10 that’s all I needed.
6. Alexander Vinokourov
I’m as disappointed as anybody that Alexander Vinokourov has ended up on this list but his Telekom/T-Mobile run was highly entertaining and he was one of the riders that got me out on a bike. When Lance Armstrong was at his most dominant I found Jan Ullrich to be a fairly boring alternative. Joseba Beloki was far too passive and there was something I found unlikeable about Iban Mayo. The only logical, enjoyable and vaguely plausible alternative to the big Texan came in the form of the blonde haired and reckless Vinokourov.
At the 2001 Tour he rode alongside Ullrich but an early time loss prevented Telekom from hitting Armstrong with a two-pronged attack. He would end up as a worker – a role that never quite suited his personality. His relationship with Ullrich was a fascinating element of the Tours from the early 2000s. The German was meticulous and believed he would one day squeeze Armstrong into difficulty. By contrast, Vinokourov wanted to blast Armstrong, Ullrich and the rest of the peloton off his back wheel.
It’s no surprise that his best year – and possibly Ullrich’s – came in 2003 when they found themselves on different teams. He won a stage and partly delivered on his promise to attack Armstrong. In 2005 he won two more stages including one on the Champs Elysees. It was a brilliantly taken opportunity; he completely stole the day. Vinokourov was the closest rider to the one I controlled on the PlayStation.
I’ll deliberately not mention anything after 2005 because Vino moved to Astana and was banned after heavily doping (he was disqualified after winning a Tour de France time trial by 70 seconds). The Kazakh returned and stamped his name on the sport one more time by winning the Olympic Road Race in 2012.
7. Ivan Basso
Ivan Basso was the first rider I was able to follow from Tour de France debut through Giro d’Italia glory and all the way to aging domestique at the Ruta Del Sol. His involvement at Operación Puerto stained his career – and robbed him of his best chance to wear the yellow jersey – but somehow never destroyed his reputation as a good guy and teammate.
Whilst Basso has done a lot off the bike to showcase his personal qualities, on the saddle he was a fiercely competitive Grand Tour competitor. After placing second in La Fleche in 2001, Basso travelled to the Tour de France in Fassa Bortolo colours. He would crash out on debut but returned a year later to win the white jersey.
By 2004 Basso was considered one of the main dangers to Armstrong’s Tour dominance. There appeared to be a mutual respect between the two after Armstrong had got in touch when the Italian’s mother had developed breast cancer. Basso was the only rider able to stay with Armstrong for much of the race and won a fine stage in the Pyrenees.
In 2006 Basso pieced together a commanding three weeks to win the Giro by nearly ten minutes. He was co-favourite for the 2006 Tour when implicated in the Puerto doping storm just weeks before the race. It was the first time – but sadly not the last – that a favourite rider of mine was banned for doping. A clean comeback began in 2009 and the following year saw a second Giro victory and his renowned attack on Monte Zoncolan.
8. Thomas Voeckler
Tongue-wagging, open collar-flapping, not-really-a-climber Thomas Voeckler isn’t necessarily one of my favourite riders but he is responsible for some of the best Grand Tour stories of the last twenty years. He stole the show in two Tours – separated by seven years – and is more than deserving of a place on this list.
Voeckler didn’t necessarily invent ‘holding on to the yellow jersey whilst looking like you’re going to explode’ but he definitely made it cool again.
In 2004, a 25-year old Voeckler got into a break on Stage 5 and stole both twelve minutes and the race lead. A week later he still led Lance Armstrong by over nine minutes and three days after that he defended the jersey defiantly by 22 seconds on the Plateau de Beille. Voeckler was a national hero.
In 2011 Voeckler repeated the feat but on a whole new level. Grabbing just four minutes when second to Luis Leon Sanchez in Saint-flour, the Europcar grafter held his lead throughout the Pyrenees and endured the Alps losing just fragments of his advantage. Aided by guardian angel Pierre Rolland, Voeckler fended off Cadel Evans and even a flying Andy Schleck on the roads to Galibier. Stage 19 and Alpe d’Huez saw him finally edged off the podium and he finished an agonizing fourth.
I was on holiday for most of what was a superb Tour de France and was always late catching up on the results. Every day I expected Voeckler to plummet down the GC but he continued to hold strong. Chapeau.
9. Damiano Cunego
Il Piccolo Principe – unfortunate and underrated or undeniably an underachiever?
Nowadays, the Giro d’Italia is my favourite race but the first edition I followed was in 2004. A 22-year old Damiano Cunego fended off his always outspoken teammate Gilberto Simoni. He was young and bold, reportedly annoying Simoni after winning his fourth stage of the race resulting in the older Italian calling him a ‘bastard’. It was a memorable Giro (if not the hardest) with Pettacchi’s nine stage victories also coming to mind.
After shipping time on the 52km time-trial to Ukrainian duo Yaroslav Popovych and Sergiy Honchar, Cunego wrestled the Maglia Rosa back onto his shoulders on Stage 16 with Simoni lacking any real response other than a sour face. Cunego went on to win the race and propelled himself into the spotlight.
The Little Prince rode a Giro/Tour double in 2006 and snatched the white jersey in France. Going into the final time trial, he led young German Markus Fothen by just five seconds and was expected to lose the jersey. To everybody’s surprise, Cunego bettered the German’s time and defended his position. I remember watching the splits come through on a TV in a bike shop.
A common school of thought is that Cunego did not achieve his potential and after 2006 he never finished in a Grand Tour top five (a gutsy sixth in the 2011 Tour is a rare highlight).
However, his lack of GC success can be counterbalanced by a run of superb one-day results including back-to-back victories at Il Lombardia plus podiums at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Fleche Wallonie. Cunego was surprisingly quick and for a short time he was one of the deadliest riders on rolling terrain. He is one of few active riders who can boast three Monument victories.
10. Andy Schleck
Poor old Andy Schleck. Retired at 29 and handed a Tour de France victory he never got to celebrate. He finished second to Alberto Contador in 2009 & 2010, with a third straight runners-up spot behind Cadel Evans in 2011. Contador was booted from the records in 2010 but Schleck will get limited satisfaction from this deferred glory.
I am sure it is of little consolation but Schleck is responsible for some of my favourite Tour de France stages of all time.
Riding alongside Carlos Sastre and his older brother Frank, Schleck was made to fight for team leadership. Whilst Frank brought the family name to prominence, it was only a matter of time before his fledging and more daring brother came to the fore.
2009 was all about Contador but Schleck developed over the next 12 months and the gap had significantly closed. The 2010 Tour was a wonderful race and if not for a broken chain Schleck could well have been the winner in Paris instead of as the result of Contador’s failed test. Angry at his mechanical, Schleck challenged Contador to a dual on the Col du Tormelet. I won’t repeat all that I’ve said before but the stage is one of my favourites.
Nowadays I can’t help but follow every stage live in close detail but back in 2010 I was committed to blocking out the news and racing home for the ITV highlights. They dedicated the hour long show to the Tourmalet climb with barely any shots of the rest of the peloton.
In 2011 Schleck again found himself in a tactical back-and-fourth for the Maillot Jaune. Many people’s favourite Schleck moment came on Stage 18 where he took a huge chunk of time with a brilliant early attack. Schleck couldn’t time trial and was prepared to use every inch of mountain road to his advantage.
A bad knee would wreck his career and Schleck’s time at the top came to an abrupt end.