The Schlecks are off form, so is Gilbert, and Fleche Wallonne as currently structured is doomed to three minutes of sincere action. Among other things, that’s what the 2012 Ardennes classics revealed, though none of that was really news. But what the three Ardennes winners and their teams did highlight is just how much one aspect of cycling, driven by external political and economic forces, has reversed itself in the last two decades or so.
At the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a wave of riders old and young poured out of Soviet-controlled eastern Europe and central Asia through an increasing number of holes in the iron curtain. They experienced a great deal of success, mostly on Italian teams, though there were notable exceptions. In Italy, the red-and-white striped Alfa Lum team was the tip of the spear. Faced with the wholesale departure of its Italian riders after the 1988 season, which ended with Maurizio Fondriest winning the world title and leaving for Del Tongo, Alfa Lum management rebuilt for 1989 by importing a cadre of 15 Soviet riders.
Among those Alfa Lum Soviets were aging legend Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, winner of the 1980 Olympic road race, and four men who would define the new crop of eastern professionals in western European cycling. Dimitri Konyshev, a Russian, exploded onto the scene by taking a couple of Italian classics and finishing second (behind Greg Lemond and ahead of Sean Kelly) in the 1989 world road championship at Chambéry, France. He delivered the team a Tour de France stage the next year and went on to race professionally until he was 40.
Moldovan Andre Tchmil didn’t linger in Italy after two winless years with Alfa Lum. He headed northward to ride for Belgian squads, where he ultimately ended up at Lotto. In his eight years there, he won two editions of the E3-Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, two Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Paris-Tours, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, and a World Cup. In 1998, he traded honorary Belgian citizenship for the real thing.
Uzbek Djamolodine Abduojaparov arrived at Alfa Lum a year after Konychev and Tchmil, fresh out of the Soviet national program. He went on to become known as the Tashkent Terror for both the ferocity and pure recklessness of his sprint. In a seven year pro career cut short by a positive test at the 1997 Tour, he amassed three Tour green jerseys with 9 stage wins, points classification wins and stages at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta, and a Gent-Wevelgem victory.
Piotr Ugrumov, a Latvian, was the lone general classification threat of the group. At Alfa Lum, he won the Vuelta Asturias, which may have led to a brief stint with the Seur team in Spain before he returned to Italy for Mercair-Ballan, predecessor to the mighty (and notorious) Gewiss-Ballan. He had his best years there, finishing second in the 1993 Giro d’Italia, second in the 1994 Tour de France, and third in the 1995 Giro. But maybe more importantly, at Gewiss, he would help guide the next generation of eastern bloc homesteaders. In 1994, blonde-haired Russian Evgeni Berzin would win both the Giro and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and contribute to the team’s infamous sweep of Fleche Wallonne, while teammate and countryman Vladislav Bobrik would close out the team’s EPO-fuelled 1994 rampage with a win at the Giro di Lombardia.
Doped or not, riders from the former Soviet Union were now firmly implanted in the European professional peloton, both in Italy and beyond. And they’d continue to come – a young Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov turned up on Casino’s doorstep 1998 with Andre Kivilev not far behind; after a few years with the Polish Mroz team Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas would hit the big time with Fassa Bortolo in 2000. Former East Germans like Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich fuelled the success of Telekom and T-Mobile for a decade.
Released from the confines of state-supported “amateur” racing by the snowballing effects of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the products of the USSR’s extended sports machine were freed to pursue careers that went beyond Olympic success and inside-the-curtain events like the Peace Race. The partnership was a good deal for both sides. The west got riders who worked hard, delivered results, and asked for little. The riders got the better salaries, bigger opportunities, and higher standards of living that the free-market, private capital-fuelled western system offered.
But a look at Ardennes races this year shows how things have changed since the borders of the USSR and its satellites first cracked.
In 2012, two teams accounted for wins at Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Astana, the Kazakh team financed largely by Kazahkstan's substantial natural resources wealth through quasi-state entities like Samruk-Kaznya, won both Amstel and Liege. For all intents and purposes, the squad is a state team, a vanity project designed to advance the image of the nation, much like those old Soviet systems but with a more progressive face.
In Liege, Astana won with home-grown Kazakh talent Maxim Iglinsky, allegedly inspired by an encouraging phone call from team godfather Vinokourov. For a team with nationalist objectives, it was perfect, much like the Russian Katusha squad’s 2009 Amstel win with native son Sergei Ivanov. What’s far more telling is that Astana won Amstel with Enrico Gasparotto, a 30-year old Italian from the Friuli region who began his career with Liquigas. Along with teammates from Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Croatia, Gasparotto was aided by two other Italians – Francesco Gavazzi and Simone Ponzi.
On the Wednesday following Gasparotto’s Amstel win, the Russian Katusha team, also running on a state-sponsored sports model with a 21st century facelift, carried off Fleche Wallonne. It did so with 32-year-old Joachin Rodriguez, a diminutive but explosive Spaniard from Barcelona who's a threat in any uphill finish. For a rider of his kind, Fleche is one of the ultimate prizes, and for a squad like Katusha its age and prestige make it a substantial scalp, even if they have to achieve it with a little foreign help.
For much of the spring, Katusha's other prime attention getter has been Oscar Freire, the Spanish three-time world champion who gave the Amstel Gold it’s best moments of suspense with a late-race break. All told, the team counts seven Spaniards, along with a smattering of Italians, a Belgian, and a Norwegian to bolster its eastern core. Under the influence of former director Tchmil, the team has also tried its luck with western standouts like Leif Hoste, Gert Steegmans, and Pippo Pozzato. To hear most tell it, the cultural differences between Tchmil and the riders were just too much to handle.
While today’s top teams' compositions are more diverse across the board than they were in the 1980s, one implication is clear. The great east-west rider migration that began in the late 80s has reached a certain equilibrium, or even reversed. Where former eastern bloc riders once fled crumbling Soviet economies to seek their fortunes with western trade teams, riders from traditional cycling countries like Italy, Spain and Belgium are jumping at chances to go to eastern, quasi-state run programs. They aren’t packing suitcases like the Alfa Lum recruits did and moving to Moscow or Astana, of course, but the principle is the same. They’re seeking good salaries, relative stability, and better opportunities to ride the biggest races. It’s just that, with corporate sponsorship suffering in the current economy, all those selling points are being offered by teams with government backing, and the governments that are willing to spend money on sports are in the east. It’s in their genes, and they appear to be passing those genes on. Western, “non-traditional cycling nations” like Great Britain and Australia are adopting the state-backed systems that looked like endangered species at the dawn of the 1990s. For riders like Konychev, Tchmil, Abdoujaparov, and Ugromov, who burst through the door the second they heard the key turn, the change must be astounding.
- Yes, Astana has also notably won the Tour with Alberto Contador and employed Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Johan Bruyneel’s other standard cast of characters. I’m more-or-less disregarding that above, as that came at a time of such dope and funding related upheaval that it makes little sense in any greater context. With those collaborations behind it, the current Astana is much more true to the vision of its owners.
- Exciting news seems to be brewing for the Service Course on the writing-about-cycling front. Being superstitious, I’ll make sure everything’s locked down before I say more.