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The Year That Was: Kinda Sweet, With Lots of Bitter

Doug Pensinger

Zzzzz... whu? Oh, the year in cycling is over? Right! Let's get on this.

First off, this limping to the finish is a lame way to wrap up the season. In what other sport does anyone have to ask "Is the season officially over?" None, that's what. And by the way, I mean men's cycling. The women finish with the Giro dell'Emilia, or maybe the World Championships, depending on how you feel about predominantly Italian fields. In any event, they close out in relative style. The men? The Nationale Sluitingprijs, or the soon-to-be-snuffed out Tour of Beijing. Note to self: ask Ursula to work on closing things out more dramatically when he meets with the UCI to arrange the FSA DS schedule.

So now that it's over... what was it about anyway? I have to tell you, I am struggling to come up with narratives to feel great about. I'm pretty optimistic and happily believe that the younger set is full of talent and exciting prospects, and will carry on the evolution in sporting ethics in... I dunno. It's better than it was.

The year's slate of races? Not sure what to say. The classics gave us another year of overly good weather (I'm still being critical), and as fas as drama it's fair to say they were overshadowed by the Tour de France's mini-imitation of a cobbled race. The Giro was blemished by the doping disqualification of a bright young Italian star and was never terribly compelling, even if the winner is. Paris-Nice was won by a fat kid who hates Europe. I'm sure what I'll remember most about Liege-Bastogne-Liege is Dan Martin's ferocious attack ending on a manhole cover god knows what. Oh, and he crashed in Belfast, as the Giro was about to enter Ireland. Just as Mark Cavendish exited Le Tour before his homeland adventure had gone anywhere.

The Tour de France only took things lower. It started out as a battle for nothing less than total Grand Tour post-Postal Supremacy -- Contador versus Froome, a battle royale, at long last. By stage 7 it was over. And no disrespect to Vincenzo Nibali, who did the kind of dramatic things in the first week that make you stand up and take notice. But the complete lack of drama that ensued made for one forgettable July. Nibali would undoubtedly tell you he exerted far more energy in the final seven days than the previous fourteen, and no doubt that's true. But I don't think I'm required to lie about the lack of storylines in order to show respect for his accomplishments. Chapeau, Vinny. The rest of you: try and stay upright.

The Vuelta does what the Vuelta can, as far as cleaning up the mess of the previous five months. This year's edition was stunningly beautiful, and the battle for victory was the best of the grand tours, by far. I suppose. I mean, it wasn't a blowout. But even there, the elephant in the race recap is the demise of Nairo Quintana, who crashed in the leader's jersey, crashed harder the next day, and was gone. Too many race stories played out this way, by recapping who wasn't there. That's cycling... but I don't have to embrace it.

The worst story, by far, is still unfolding, as team Astana is suddenly in a whole heap o' trouble over the team's faltering ethics. Within about a month three riders turned up positive -- the Iglinsky Brothers and stagiare Ilya Davidenok -- leading to an inquiry into their license for 2015. Astana are home to Nibali, the summer's feel-good story, as well as his countryman Fabio Aru, one of the sport's new shining lights and a legit hope for big things to come. And as I've argued repeatedly over the years, people are innocent until proven guilty. But if the team's growing list of transgressions doesn't make you nervous, well, I'll have what you're having. Unless it's Kool-aid.

OK, I think I've got that out of my system now. Of course there are dozens of accomplishments to celebrate. Tops on the list has to be the wonderful season of Michal Kwiatkowski, the young Polish classics star who began winning in February and finished off the season with a world championship. Ten years Kwiatkowski's senior, Simon Gerrans had a truly memorable campaign, from his TdU to his monumental win in Liege, to a Canadian Double and finally a near-miss at the Worlds, taking the silver medal. Niki Terpstra and Alexander Kristoff celebrated their primes with great victories, the former in Dwars and Roubaix, the latter in San Remo and Le Tour. But no facet of cycling was brimming with quite the energy found in the bunch sprints, where a crop of devastatingly young and talented stars rose up so dramatically that they even pushed Peter Sagan to the margins. Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel and Nacer Bouhanni joined Kristoff, Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel in the Great 2014 Winner's Circle, tallying double-digit wins. I'm sure I am leaving several great performances out -- Aru in the Giro, Pinot in the Tour. Rafal Majka off the bench for the Tour, where he went on to win two stages and the maillot a pois, another first for Poland. Actually, I'm starting to get excited again.

I guess like any sport there's a mix of disappointment and awesomeness every year. Seemed a little heavy, almost comically at times, on the former. Karma is karma. Cycling's karma is always an open question, but that's better than being a dead one. Onward!