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Best of the Aughts... Smackdown!!

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Welcome to the First Ever And Possibly Last Podium Cafe Smackdown! Yes, it's time to put a wrap on the Best of the Aughts series that trickled out over the last weeks, where we celebrated the best riders, a few curious moments, and contemplated much, much more until reality intervened and the editors drank too much eggnog. But it's time to dredge up some of those loose thread ideas as we say goodbye to the Aughts... and everyone loves a good smackdown. So, here's your bracket. Entries explained further below, in part due to the crappy image quality (sorry bout that little bit of picture breakup).

Smackdown_medium 

First off, let me say that picking 16 Awesome Things from the last ten years was no easy task, so rather than think about it, I skimmed our Best of the Aughts posts and snagged some key items, then just put in things at random. This is, after all, a smackdown!, where using your brain too much can only get in the way.

Here's how we will proceed. On the flip, you can view each of the eight first-round matchups. Use this post to comment on stuff. But! I will set up a poll in Fanposts for each of the 8 matchups today. The poll thread will cut-and-paste the matchup information, so you could just as easily go straight there instead of continuing here, and do your voting. However, the poll threads won't have comments; let's put the chatter in one place. And when voting, remember: the only standard is Awesomeness!

On to the flip...

As to the entrants:

Game 1: Fabian Cancellara vs. Ullrich to COAST

Leading things off in the Geraarsbergen Region is Cancellara, who owns the top seed by virtue of having combined great nicknames, world championships, and some of the most awesome moments the sport has seen in the last decade: stealing MSR, nearly running over the leadout motos in the London prologue course, and winning a sprint while wearing the maillot jaune. Oh, and the Olympic time trial, his complete ownership of the Mendrisio worlds, and many other truly dominant performances.

Cancellara faces off against the unexpectedly low-seeded Ullrich Transfers to Coast saga, where Der Jan left the T-Mob cocoon for 18 months, got in unbelievable condition, nearly crippled Armstrong in the Tour, only to get lured back to his cocoon and the mediocrity that lay within. Pretty awesome! stuff, though admittedly it faces a tough battle. No 16 seed has ever knocked off a #1 seed in a Podium Cafe smackdown, though Jan has upended history before.

Game 2: Lance/Jan vs. Tom Boonen 2005

If somehow Ullrich to COAST upsets Cancellara, it creates the possibility of a delicious second round matchup with Lance vs. Jan. In any event, this duo spanned the range of awesomeness over the years, from the sublime (the Look, the respectfull Ullrich offering a handshake on the line, etc) to the ridiculous (the ditch tumble, Jan's adventures through the windshield glass, etc). It was physical and psychological warfare of the highest order... even if it was a bit one-sided in the end.

Lance/Jan will face a stiff test right away, however, squaring off against Tom Boonen 2005. Beans went pretty much ballistic in his first season as a great cyclist, setting a new precedent with the Ronde/Paris-Roubaix/World Champion triple of victories. He captured the World #1 ranking (held for two years), adding wins in the Tour, Paris-Nice, and other places. In a down cycle for the sport, he towered over Cycling, and Belgium.

Game 3: Paolo Bettini vs. Landis's Epic Gallop

Kicking things off in the San Sebastian regional is an intriguing matchup between Paolo Bettini, the best classics rider of the Aughts, and Floyd Landis's epic/notorious 2006 Tour de France stage 17 escape. Both entrants bring one quality in spades: audacity. Bettini clawed his way to the top, leaving more than a few friends and foes by the wayside, as he became the most decorated one-day rider of the decade with three of the five Monuments, two world titles, and an Olympic gold medal in his pocket. To celebrate himself, he pimped out his kit in ways that would make your average ... er, pimp, proud. But he had soul too: after the tragic death of his brother Sauro, Bettini tearfully won his first race in his rainbow jersey with no competition in sight. One of the truly awesome moments the sport saw in the decade.

Landis's exploits need little retelling. Whether you believe he was clean or accept the findings merely determines which form of unbelievable audacity you assign to the event. Was it the craziest, stupidest, most daring exploit on a bike in the decade of tours? Or was it the craziest, stupidest, most daring exploit in a hotel bathroom? We retort, you decide.

Game 4: Lance Wins 7 Tours vs. Paris-Roubaix Train-Gate

Lance Armstrong's Tour de France exploits would be something of a tired old warhorse in this competition if it were limited to a retelling of his historic run in the Grand Boucle... the ins and outs of which have been virtually banned from retelling for the variety of opinions they spawn. However, the greatest Tour rider in modern times is back at it, chasing a different form of history by taking off four years and assaulting the roads of France a few years' past the ordinary rider's expiration date. Whether he adds to his quarry remains to be seen, but if nothing else he hasn't lost that hard edge of his... or his desire to be #1.

While something of an underdog, Paris-Roubaix Train-Gate threatens to give Lance's 7 Tours a stiff test, if only because of the matchup issue. How does a seven-year run of plodding, chess-like maneuvering outduel one of the more bizarre, instantaneous moments of the decade? Recall, in the 2006 edition of the Queen of the Classics, World Champion Tom Boonen hadn't lost anything of consequence for a while, including the Tour of Flanders a week earlier. But Fabian Cancellara exposed the first-ever-seen cracks in Boonen's armor with a daring solo escape, followed by Boonen losing touch with the Hoste/Van Petegem/Gusev first chase group... all just after George Hincapie fell into a ditch holding his decapitated handlebars. If your head wasn't already spinning, it surely was moments later when a gate dropped down literally on the first chase group at a train crossing. Hoste, Van P and Gusev scampered through (earning a DQ in the process), but Boonen, Ballan and Juan Flecha stopped... all while Cancellara escaped further up the road to certain glory.

Game 5: Podium Cafe Invented! vs. Lance/Alberto

Fittingly, the invention of the Podium Cafe gets a home start in its first round matchup, kicking off the Solvang region. Solvang is the site of one of the Cafe's most triumphant moments, the first ever meatspace gathering, and the first ever sighting of a UCI-level road race by... me. The Cafe doesn't bring any specific Awesomeness to the sport... just a little bit of Awesomeness every day. Or at least that's our agreement with SBN.

Our first taste of competition involves two men steeped in battle, and a tough matchup for the PdC. Pretty much every decade has its Champion vs. Champion signature, but some of the most memorable are those rare moments where the combatants have to dance around the fact that they're teammates. The result is never pretty, and like Roche/Visentini or Hinault/LeMond, it's safe to say Lance and Alberto don't get invited to the same party any more than necessary. This one has some life left, although it might expire for good in late July, 2010.

Game 6: Chicken Gets Cooked vs. Alberto Contador

Two familiar combatants... Michael Rasmussen's dramatic exclusion from the Tour, by his own team while in possession of the Yellow Jersey, was historic stuff. Recall, it wasn't merely the lying about his whereabouts during several missed doping tests; it was the steady drip of new information every day. The shoebox full of doping products. The additional missed test details. The sudden ability to time-trial. Rabo pulled the plug on what would have been an ugly conclusion, though in some senses it was too late.

Their actions, however, were aided by the emergence of the second-placed rider, Alberto Contador, who had gamely attacked the Chicken throughout the race, and looked like a truly worthy winner by the time Paris rolled around. Any doubts to this fact were settled within a couple years, when he had won all three grand tours and a second maillot jaune. This story is still being written.

Game 7: Savoldelli to the Mob vs. Gilbert's Autumn Double

The first game of the Geneva regional features the winner of the T-Mobile Transfers versus another historic week of cycling. Savoldelli was the quintessential T-Mobile signing, winning the Giro d'Italia seconds before joining the mob and seconds after leaving them... with a black hole of performances in between.

Gilbert's Autumn Double will put Savoldelli to the Mob to the test. Fresh in the minds of voters, long-time star-in-waiting Philippe Gilbert finally burst into the sport's top echelon with a feat from another, less specialized era: winning the two main October classics, the flat Paris-Tours and the relentlessly hilly Giro di Lombardia. The Autumn Double had last been accomplished in 1962, but Gilbert left little doubt who was the king of Autumn '09 (aside from maybe his world champion teammate), with four wins in a 10 day span.

Game 8: Erik Zabel vs. Mattan Drafts the Cars

Another curious matchup here... Erik Zabel was the Rider of the Decade by several measures (aside from grand tours). Wins, points, intangibles... Zabel had it all. And this was a guy who peaked in the late 90s.

Mattan Drafts the Cars: one of the most controversial wins of the decade earns a spot in the Smackdown, perhaps against some odds of its own. Still, if you didn't see it, watch below as Nico Mattan closes down Juan Antonio Flecha in the final KM of the 2005 Gent-Wevelgem... flitting from one motorized slipstream to the next like a moth to light. Oddly, the Belgian was not penalized by the Belgian race jurors, and Flecha has been one prickly dude ever since. Ahem. It's blooper material now, but wasn't very funny at the time.