The moment happened in late March, in Santa Croce on the Arno River, near Pisa. At the end of a moderate day in the saddle, the Cervelo Test Team, feeling confident and on form, put five guys on the front of a large pack of sprinters, hopeful that Thor Hushovd could finish off the fourth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico and send a message heading into Milano-Sanremo. Their move went unchallenged, but the pack split into two columns with 300 meters to go as a few Cervelo riders rotated off the front. With the column drifting left went Mark Cavendish, and locked on his wheel was one Tyler Farrar. Cav wound up his sprint, but so too did Farrar, who came past the Manxman's left to win the stage.
This was not Farrar's first win, or his first in Europe, or his first as a pro. The American sprinter had been winning the odd race overseas since 2004 as a U23 rider. He won occasionally for Cofidis after turning pro in 2006. He won in his first year with Garmin in 2008. But never had he won like this: in the limelight of Cycling's top echelon. "That was my first ever Pro Tour win," Farrar told me, in an interview last week. "That alone is a big deal, but in one day to beat all the big sprinters is great for your morale or your confidence. I think that was the first time I realized that I was out there and competitive with these guys and as fast as them."
The Cycling world noticed, but things didn't change overnight. From there the Race of the Two Seas went inland and uphill, putting an end to the stage sprints. Barely a week later, Farrar was on the floor holding his shoulder, in a crash during the early stages of Milano-Sanremo. He made his return five weeks later in the Tour de Romandie, quickly rounding into form and taking second behind Oscar Freire in Geneva. Liking what they were seeing and needing Farrar fully fit for his first Tour de France, Garmin sent Farrar to the Giro d'Italia to battle with Cavendish, Alessandro Petacchi and others. He wouldn't get the best of Cavendish again in 2009, but a string of seconds and thirds through the Giro and the Tour de France steadily built up the needed fitness and confidence.
Then, in August, Farrar launched the greatest streak of European success by an American sprinter ever: victory in the Vattenfall Cyclassic. Three wins and a second in the prologue of the Eneco Tour of Benelux, and four days in the leader's white jersey. Then another first, a stage win in the Vuelta a Espana, with luminaries like Freire, Bennati and Greipel left choking on his exhaust in the low late afternoon sun. And finally, two stages and overall victory in the Circuit Franco-Belge, leaving one Tom Boonen searching for answers. The biggest prize left, the season-ending Paris-Tours, eluded him with Farrar held up behind a late crash, but by then he made his point. Ninth in the world. Fourth in victories (behind Columbians Cav, Greipel and Edvald Boasson Hagen). First in every conversation about who can stop the Manx Express.
While the history books suggest otherwise, nowadays great cyclists are born wherever great genes coincide with some decent roads and a drive to work hard and succeed. It's no stranger that a top sprinter can come from a tiny island in the Irish Sea than from the sun-baked Columbian Plateau, just downhill from the central Cascade Mountains. Farrar caught the bug during his teenage years in Wenatchee, Washington, and fed his craft around the Pacific Northwest, including "a lot of laps around Seward Park over the years" as his family alternated between home and Seattle. As if Farrar weren't interesting enough to me, this was the clincher: a guy from the same streets I can be seen huffing and puffing over on any given weekend. A guy who came from the hills and the rain and the Washington BARR competition of my own experience, catapulting all the way to the top. Needless to say, I had to talk to the guy. Following are some excerpts from our conversation of last week, over the phone from Farrar's home in Gent, Belgium. If you have enough time, you can read the full transcript here.
On the Classics:
PdC: [long, rambling explanation about how much I love the classics...]
Tyler Farrar: I think as a rider I fall into the same category, I’ve always had a fascination with the classics. The first race that really caught my attention was the Tour of Flanders. I kinda got into riding bikes and got into this mad hunt for any magazines about bike racing, and for whatever reason the first one I found was a classics edition. I was just studying any magazine I could get my hands on.
The unfortunate thing this year is that I separated my shoulder in Milan-San Remo and I missed all the classics, and I was really focused, my number one objective of the season was the classics, and 100k into MSR I crashed. But if everything goes to plan I’ll be targeting the races in April, that’s the first big goal.
PdC: Of the classics are there some you’re focused on? Are you targeting the same races as Maaskant or do you trade off?
Tyler Farrar: Obviously having a guy like Martijn and now Johan Van Summeren we have two guys who are really proven in Flanders and Roubaix, so I think those two races I’ll be in more of a support role for those guys. And then for maybe Milan San Remo and Gent – Wevelgem will be something where I can make it a goal for me to get a result.
PdC: Is there a big difference physically between winning a classic or a stage of a stage race?
Tyler Farrar: It depends, which is not a very satisfying answer, but you know sometimes you get into a stage race and your eight days, ten days in, and everyone’s a little tired, it’s a flat day, everyone knows it’s going to be a sprint, and you get the right break up the road and you just kind of cruise along at 35kph all day and it’s pretty easy, you just sprint at the end. Other times it’s full gas all day, but you can get either. Whereas in a classic you’re pretty much guaranteed it’s going to be full gas, there’s no tomorrow, nobody’s trying to save their legs or recover for the mountains. Typically I find it’s harder at the end of one day races as opposed to stage races.
PdC: Where do you like to train around Gent?
Tyler Farrar: Generally if I want to do hard training, that’s when I would go down to the Vlaamse Ardennes and ride all the climbs from the Tour of Flanders. From Gent it takes about an hour, hour and fifteen of flat riding on little farm roads to get there, and once you’re there you can do as many of the climbs as you want, zig-zagging around in the hills, get your training in and then you have another hour and fifteen to get home. If I’m just out cruising on a base ride, then I go every direction you can from Gent. I have some friends that live up north, sometimes I’ll go meet them and we’ll just go out and make big loops through the farms. But the majority of my real serious training is on the roads from Flanders.
PdC: Are there a lot of pros near Gent that you typically train with?
Tyler Farrar: There’s a handful that live within a reasonable distance from Gent. I train with them occasionally, but for the most part I like to train alone. I kind of grew up training alone so I mostly like to do my training alone. But I have a few guys like Wouter Weylandt from Quick Step, he’s one of my really good friends so we go out sometimes. Steven Caethoven who rode this year for Agritubel, he and I go out a few times.
On Columbia, Cavendish, and Leadouts
PdC: Is Robbie Hunter coming on board to help you at the end of the race?
Tyler Farrar: Yeah, Robbie’s a really experienced rider, he’s quick, he knows how to ride sprints, how to do leadout. This year in a lot of races I would have either Julian Dean or Chris Sutton with me in the end, which is great, but when you’re going up against Columbia when they have five guys, six guys totally dedicated to the leadout, it’s difficult. If I bring Robbie in and have Robbie and Julian Dean together, that’ll be a pretty good train to take care of me in the last km.
PdC: So the plan is if you have enough of a competing train you can wrest control from Columbia?
Tyler Farrar: I hope so, yeah. There’s not really an argument this year that Columbia was the best team in the world in leading out sprints, they don’t make mistakes often, but next year’s a new season, and I think you can see with my team as the season went on they started to get confidence in me and believe in me more, and that always helps guys commit to riding the sprints. Actually a lot of the guys had never really tried to lead anyone out before, so it was really a learning experience for a lot of the guys on our team. Looking to next year now the guys have a bit more experience, they have confidence in me, and we brought in some more guys with experience already, so I think we’ll have a strong team for next year.
The problem this year was (Columbia) is so committed and so well organized, with a couple guys you can’t get on the front with 4k to go. So we have to play off Columbia with Julian. Then either Cav or Greipel is sitting on the back of that train getting a free ride to the finish, not wasting any energy fighting for position, and Julian and I are back there with all the other sprinters fighting for Cav’s wheel or Greipel’s wheel and we’re wasting energy. So if we can get our own train up there instead of fighting with Columbia, that always helps.
PdC: So the difference between jumping their train and having your own is you don’t have the luxury of positioning with their train that you would if it were yours?
Tyler Farrar: Exactly. You’re not the only sprinter trying to be behind that train. If I could just say, ok they lead Cavendish out and I’m behind Cavendish and then we sprint, that’s a good deal. But when I’m back there, Hushovd wants his wheel, Freire wants his wheel, Boonen wants his wheel, that’s what a field sprint is. It’s all fighting for position. If I’m not going to waste energy fighting to be behind him, we’re going to hit the front with 2k to go, I’ll just sprint from the front hopefully. Because I think you could see there was a few days in the Tour and the Giro, I think speed-wise I was going the same speed as Cavendish, but I would start one or two guys behind him and I would finish on his hip, and it’s like, OK, I covered the ground in the same speed or faster than him but I was starting from too far behind him to win.
PdC: Cavendish dominating… when you race against him do you think about him or concentrate on your own plan?
Tyler Farrar: Mostly I try to ride my own race. Obviously when he’s in the race you have to take account of him, he was the best in the world this year. You’re always paying attention to what the other teams are doing, what teams are strong and what teams are going to ride for a sprint. But you can’t become too myopic and say “I’m racing to beat Cavendish today” because there’s plenty of guys in the race who are fast enough to win. You have to focus on putting yourself where you need to be to win and hoping you have big legs to win.
My impression of Farrar is that despite what happened in the cycling world this year, he harbors no doubt about his ability to beat Cavendish. Sure, Cav is fast, but Farrar was side by side with him enough to know that he can conjure up the same speed... or more. If it only happened once that it all came together for Farrar, much of that he attributes to positioning, and changes to both teams this offseason may result in Garmin getting to the front alongside or instead of Columbia next season. Time will tell. But what seemed one-sided only a year ago is suddenly one of the great emerging subplots to 2010: Can Columbia sustain their winning ways? Or is there suddenly room at the top for another American team, with a homegrown sprinter and a squad that found new confidence and new talent in time for a major challenge to the status quo? If all goes to plan, the kid from Wenatchee will be making a hard run after the World Number One and some of Cycling's most precious hardware.