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The Session: A Year in the Rearview

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Over at The Awl, one of my favorite places to wander over for a read, they're writing a series of stories imagining the end of the world, on the premise that 2012 is truly the end of times. My favorite so far: Going To Zero. Would we race bikes in the end of times? No doubt we would, though even the Tour de France paused during the great wars of last century. Me, I think I'd ride my blue bike to the water's edge and watch the world end. Would there be a green flash?

I came here to write a review of the year story, or maybe a resolutions story, or maybe a predictions for the coming year story. Somehow I'm all out of practice with this writing thing. It's not that much different from riding a bike. You never forget how to fall off, but you don't always remember how to go fast. Sometimes even good espresso won't make you smarter.

Every season has its highlight reel. Every year we argue over when the season begins. Is it Tour Down Under? Or, the Omloop, whose name I still can't spell? For me always La Primavera with its promise of Spring ushers in the new cycling year. (Yes, that's 2009's preview, but I liked it better than what I wrote in 2010. Newer is not always better.) The Turchino as the passage from winter to spring, this image remains indelible. This year, Oscar Freire took the win, and wondered afterward why no one had named him as a favorite. Sorry, Oscar, nothing personal, really.

The wheel turns, and it's off to the cobbles. Some of us got to go to Belgium. Some of us stayed home. Maybe some of us had roast beef, but really I can't be sure. The Ronde lived up to its billing with a duel on the muur between favorites Boonen and Cancellara. Cycling's great scriptwriter in the sky had a good espresso that morning, and wrote a perfect day of racing. A one-hit wonder this scriptwriter, it seemed the next week, when Paris-Roubaix fizzled early. It was a race with everything to love for the Cancellara fans and the team Saxo Bank sponsors, but not much for the rest of us. The great races have tension, and the battle between personalities provides one of the main dramas of cycling. Otherwise, we'd all watch marathon or swimming. Cancellara dove into the sea, and swam to the horizon. At the Roubaix, he claimed his second cobble stone after one of the longest solo escapes in the history of the race. (Confession: I was going to link to the story archives throughout this story, but well, we're only in Belgium and I've already cracked. Feel free to link your favorites in the comments, if you like.)

The grass grows greener, and the hills steeper. Philippe Gilbert that wondrous one day talent won his first race in the Ardennes with his victory at the Amstel Gold Race. Oh Ryder! The Canadian finished second in one of his biggest rides yet on the road. Back in the mountain bike days, Roland Green predicted that one day Hesjedal would win the Tour de France. Green's prediction seems a reach, but predicting a big one day win for Hesjedal no longer feels like walking too far out on a limb. Both Gilbert and Cancellara want to win all five of cycling's great monuments. For 2011, Gilbert wants Milano-Sanremo, the Ronde, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Greedy, this Belgian. But none of those ambitions is unrealistic, and a Gilbert-Boonen-Cancellara battle at the Ronde is certainly something for us to anticipate with joy in these dark days of winter.

A Gilbert victory in Ans will no doubt bring more happiness roadside than this year's winner Vinokourov. The crowd at the finish showed their displeasure with boo's and whistles. Too bad Vinokourov proved such an unpopular winner, because it was a lovely bit of bike play that brought him the win. Contador gave Vinokourov the perfect set-up, and off the Kazakh gamboled. A pity about those extra blood cells a few years back, a thing like that has a way of spoiling the party.

Nothing much happened to spoil the May party in Italy. Basso, who also has a History (Oh Birillo!), took home the Pink Shirt, while his team-mate Vincenzo Nibali nipped at his heels. Nibali, he grows into his talent now. Ah, the Giro. A long break over-turned the classification. Cadel Evans won in Montalcino, his rainbow jersey baptised with the mud of Toscana. David Arroyo descended the Mortirolo, the devil on his wheels, in a desperate bid to win the overall. Gilberto Simoni gave his final go on the Passo di Gavia, and celebrated his career's end in Milano. A pink tie? Well, it is Italy. As Simoni took his exit, young rider Richie Porte celebrated his first grand tour with a white jersey win. Sometimes, a grand tour feels like a whole year of racing packed into three weeks.

Really? There was more racing after the Giro? I fell asleep for a time, so perhaps you'll have to fill me in. Some stuff happened in France, maybe. And there was a mountainous race in Switzerland. Somehow, while I love these June races, they rarely stay in mind after they end. Maybe at the end of the world, I'll have a better memory.

Is there a prize for most memorable rider? If there is, we must surely award it to Cadel Evans. He didn't win either the Giro or the Tour, but somehow he was central to the story of both races. Who doesn't remember his défaillance on the col de la Madeleine and the tearful embrace between Evans and Santambrogio at the finish? Also, there were cobbles. Who puts cobbles in a grand tour? Well, the Tour de France does now. Really, they couldn't allow the Giro to have all the fun, could they? Chavanel won two stages, and wore the Yellow Jersey. French fans swooned with joy. Thomas Voeckler flashed his huge smile from the winner's podium, and they swooned again. It was a good July to be a French bike racing fan. It was not so good to be a fan of Mark Renshaw. The commissaires sent him home, after a dodgy bit of sprinting.

The race for the Yellow Jersey soon became a race between two riders, a race that remains unfinished. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck duelled through the Alps and the Pyrénées and arrived in Paris with just 40 seconds separating them. That's a small gap for a three week bike race. Contador won in Paris, but may yet lose in the courts after he tested positive for Clenbuterol. The 2011 Tour de France may begin before last year's ends. Oh cycling, at least we know by now that doping doesn't spell the end of the world.

Did it rain this year at Clásica San Sebastián? Maybe that was last year. The Man in the Yellow Shoes won this year, I do remember that. Rain or shine, Luís Leán Sánchez beat out Vinokourov in the race for the Txapela. Who doesn't want to wear the Txapela? For me, things are always a bit blurry after the Tour. I blame the sunflowers.

Into the heat of the Spanish fall, Nibali rode and the Sicilian emerged with his first ever grand tour win. That's twice on the final podium for Nibali, and two grand tour wins for Liquigas-Domo last season. Quite a haul for the Italian team, next year renamed Liquigas-Cannondale. If the Tour is sunflowers, the Vuelta is heat and dust and olive trees and high mountains. Nibali fought off a heavy challenge from veteran climber Ezequiel Mosquera (suspended? not suspended?). Who knew they had sharks with such sharp teeth in the Mediterranean. This Nibali, he likes to win bike races.

Worlds, Paris-Tours, and the Giro di Lombardia: Cycling hurtles towards its season's end. It'll be a sprint, it won't be a sprint. Well, Paris-Tours, it was a sprint, and Oscar Freire doubled up the sprinters' classics for this year. Worlds, it was also a sprint to the benefit of Thor Hushovd, despite the efforts of Pozzato and Gilbert to spoil the party. The women's race started out slow with only Katheryn Curi Mattis up the road. Nicole Cooke made a late effort to escape, but Marianne Vos led out a long sprint that ended Cooke's hopes. It was a perfect lead-out, but not for Vos. Bronzini, waiting patiently on the wheel, won another for the Azurri.

The rain and the dead leaves fell on the roads of Lombardia. They added a long climb near the finish, and the riders reached Como nearly in the dark as a heavy rain pelted down. Nibali lost his chance in a wet corner. Cornering on wet leaves never works especially well. Gilbert dueled with Michele Scarponi, until the Italian could simply hold the wheel no longer. Gilbert now has two wins at Lombardia, and one fewer monument to collect. He still has Milano-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Paris-Roubaix to go. Paris-Roubaix, now that'll be something.

And then, it's the end, the end of the year, the end of the world. Tomorrow, we say good-bye to the world of 2010. I'll ride my blue bike down to the water's edge and I'll watch the sun drop below the sharp blue line of the sea. Maybe I'll even see the green flash. I've heard tell it's possible. Then, it'll be over, this 2010. And we'll wake up, and do it all over again.

A joyous New Year to you all, my friends!
~Gav.