By now you’ve heard the news, most likely, that Tyler Farrar, who we sometimes called the Wenatchee Wonder, is stepping off the bike for the final time as a pro. A short piece at the Peloton Brief is all we have to go on regarding the doggedly social-media-averse sprinter, where he chatted for a moment about how he is ready to move on to another chapter in life, which apparently begins with skiing. I’ll keep my eye out for some flowing locks out the back of an aero helmet bombing past me down the slopes of Crystal Mountain, or maybe he’s more of a Mount Baker guy. Wouldn’t shock me. More likely what he really means is that he’s settling down to life in the US, probably Seattle, he seems very close to his family, but he doesn’t put a lot of personal stuff out there. In any case, Farrar is hanging up the bike.
Every year guys with enviable palmares bow out, some with the pomp and circumstance afforded to Tom Boonen or Alberto Contador, and others the quiet slip out the back door as executed most recently by Haimar Zubeldia. Farrar, a highly decorated rider from his era and discipline, falls into the latter category. This miserable shoestring of a sport that drives us all so crazy is still rich beyond reason in athletic excellence, to the point where one of America’s all-time greatest male cyclists can disappear from the peloton with just a few ripples across the English media.
Yeah, I said it: one of America’s all-time greatest male cyclists, and sure, it’s predictable, I’ve been a steady supporter of my near-neighbor through his classics-heavy adventures which began right around when this website did. So I’m a homer. But here’s the case.
First, this is America, and the bar here just isn’t that high. Until the 1980s there was Jonathan Boyer and a bunch of track stars (serious ones) from the past century. In the 80s we met the first great wave of star cyclists emerging from the 1984 Olympics, or even the 1980 winter games, and coalescing around an actual American team, the 7-Eleven squad, but they were a sidebar to the exploits of Greg LeMond.
We all know the answer to our greatest cyclist ever. A lot of cycling countries would be proud to line up behind as talented and successful a rider as LeMond, and as time passes and American cycling can barely scrape together a credible World Championships team, LeMond’s story becomes all the more remarkable. If someone from the States makes a similar impact on the sport again in my lifetime, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Who’s the #2 greatest star in modern American cycling history, on the men’s side* at least? Most people would say Andy Hampsten, the sole American to win the Giro d’Italia, along with a stage of the Tour de France, a few Giro stages, two Tours de Suisse and the maillot blanc at the Tour as he rode by LeMond’s side.
[* Kristin Armstrong says hi.]
From there, one might start talking of recent stars, but unfortunately it’s hard to find one without the doping asterisk next to their name. You could go to Chris Horner, America’s only Vuelta a España winner, and on the face of things you’d have a strong case. Horner is a likable character and his Vuelta win, at age 41, is an incredible story if you believe it. But he raced for Lance and co., and whether or not it’s fair, those associations make it hard for people to accept his accomplishments. And his bio passport, which he released to quiet the skeptics, did little to help his case.
Next might be George Hincapie, who won Gent-Wevelgem and came close to winning Paris-Roubaix, a potentially iconic achievement, to go along with all his Tour de France exploits. But there again, doping has subtracted several items from his resume, and hangs like a cloud over the remaining ones.
So if your ranking of US cycling greats is to be a clean one, that third step is probably Farrar’s. Tyler Farrar is the only American to win stages of all three grand tours. The 2010 Scheldeprijs winner shares the distinction of winning a Belgian classic with only Hincapie, whose issues I covered already. Farrar won a couple Vattenfall classics, took fifth in the Tour of Flanders, and finished on the podium of Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen (twice), and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. In 2010 he was a top-ten rider by every calculation, from the Podium Cafe’s system (fourth overall) to the UCI’s (10th). In 2011 he wasn’t far off, hanging in the top ten on CQRanking’s tabulation and 23rd on ours. All of this was in the colors of America’s most American team, Garmin/Slipstream/etc., Jonathan Vaughters’ clean-branded upstart squad.
His 29 wins at the top level of cycling (using ProCyclingStats’ calculations) is basically #1 all time, assuming you discount Levi Leipheimer’s slightly greater win total after his doping ban. [For pure wins, Davis Phinney’s total of 328 might be a lasting record, but very few happened in circumstances comparable to Europe.] And for the two guys I rate ahead of Farrar’s palmares, LeMond and Hampsten, their grand tour successes are arguably apples to oranges compared to Farrar’s sprinting and classics exploits, but even there, they are united in their grand tour glory. So yes, at this point, I think he belongs on the all-time (clean) (men’s) podium of American cycling.
Farrar’s peak years were pretty notable but didn’t last long. Some will speculate that the death of his friend Wouter Weylandt was the moment his cycling career changed. I find that overly dramatic; from his comments it’s safe to say that on a personal level this was almost certainly true, but his racing career followed a common trajectory of slowly flowing into his peak years and ebbing out of them. In 2011, after the tragedy in Italy, he rebounded to win his only Tour de France stage. However heavy his heart, Farrar’s racing career continued on.
But by the following spring a more portentous event happened: he lost the Scheldeprijs to Marcel Kittel, a sign that another generation was creeping up on him as he approached his thirtieth year. That event coincided with Farrar going all-in for the classics, maybe to the detriment of his sprinting, but in hindsight where Kittel was headed, Farrar wasn’t destined to follow. Or was, as in just behind. However the metaphor should have worked, it basically boils down to faster kids coming up and Farrar having to accept the eventual fate of all cyclists, ever. Especially sprinters. The latter years, with the switch to Dimension Data, were lean in terms of successes. This year he has generally finished in the back half of the race after his domestique work is done.
Is he already done? Again, information is hard to come by, but he just completed the Canadian GP races and isn’t on the start list of anything upcoming, though it’s not hard to imagine him turning up at Paris-Tours or one of the sprinty stage races left on the World Tour calendar in October. Again, pomp and circumstance has never been his thing, so if he climbs off after doing teamwork on a forgettable stage of the Tour of Turkey, well... that’s cycling.
If he is actually finished, I can only say congratulations to him on an improbable and amazing career. He gets my vote for “cyclist who will probably adjust very well to life after the peloton” and I look forward to bumping into him at the Woodland Park cyclocross race in 20 years when his kids are cleaning up the cat-1 races. It was quite a ride and it was a privilege for me, and I think for a lot of us, to get to know him a bit, and to see the sport from his inside perspective along the way.