Posted by: mdegeorge | May 19, 2010

Tyler Farrar: A new generation of American cycling

Remember the days when it was easy to be an American cycling fan?

All it took was a quick glance for a handful of names: Hamilton, Julich, Armstrong, Hincapie, Landis. The Grand Tours were all that mattered in the American media, and if there was an outstanding performer—like Bobby Julich in the 1998 Tour or Tyler Hamilton in the 2002 Giro—it became national news in short order.

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Soon, others emerged from what was a fledgling program and became vital cogs among the big European teams, first as super domestiques and then challengers for glory in their own rights.

But the one thing that was missing (with all due respect to Freddie Rodriguez) was a man who could win races year round. For all the time trials and mountaintop finishes Lance Armstrong counts among his 22 career Tour de France stage victories, he never kept the race calendar to consistently accumulate wins across the continent.

Enter Tyler Farrar, the American sprinter from Wenatchee, Washington who is quickly emerging as one of the premier fast men in the world. At 25, he’s already won three Grand Tour stages (Stage 11 of the 2009 Vuelta a Espana and Stages 2 and 10 of this year’s Giro d’Italia), and currently holds the Maglia Rosso Passione (or the Maglia Ciclamino, as it was formerly and more sensibly known) as the sprint points classification leader.

His rise to this point hasn’t been without adversity. On than 13 occasions(!), Farrar finished in the top five of a Grand Tour stage before finally tasting victory in Caravaca de la Cruz last September. He finished second sprint five times, and in eight instances, came across the line fractions of a second after winner Mark Cavendish, widely regarded as the world’s fastest sprinter.

Anyone who saw the dominant performance put down this morning by Farrar and his Garmin-Transitions teammates in manhandling the sprint finish into Bitonto had to be reminded of the dominant run by Cavendish last year. Watching the Manx sprinter and his HTC-Columbia team own last year’s Tour to the tune of six stage victories, you got the impression that no one in the world could muster a turn of speed capable of overtaking Cavendish in a bunch sprint.

The same now looks to be true of Farrar. His team, highlighted by lead-out man extraordinaire Julian Dean, is one of the few that has the tactical manpower and gumption to control the peloton and lead out a bunch sprint that suits Farrar. It must be easier to motivate a team to hammer themselves into the ground for 50 kilometers when they know they’re working for the fastest man in the peloton.

It’s clear that a shift is underway in the world of cycling, a changing of the guard in the ranks of the sports’ premier sprinters. Erik Zabel’s retirement after the 2008 season signaled the first departure of a great generation of sprinters.

Alessandro Petacchi (44 career Grand Tour stage wins) is now 36 and a recent rebound of form was ended with an early withdrawal from this year’s Giro. Stuart O’Grady is no longer considered a sprint option in Grand Tours, as the six years since his last win attest, and has refocused on the spring classics and domestique duty. At 37, Robbie McEwen has failed to add to his total of 24 Grand Tour stage wins since 2007. Oscar Friere, now 34, was also shut out in 2009 and has long lacked the necessary help on a climber-heavy Rabobank squad. Even Tom Boonen and Daniele Bennati, both 29, endured rocky 2009 seasons and look as though their best days may also have passed. Thor Hushovd, fresh off a Green Jersey in the ’09 Tour at age 32, has been the only senior member of the sprinters’ peloton still capable of tallying victories.

Enter the current crop of sprinting talent, which numbers Cavendish as its standard-bearer. Of the 15 sprinters under the age of 30 to have a Grand Tour stage win to their credit, Farrar three triumphs ranks fifth (and two of the men ahead of him are Boonen and Bennati, who have had issues with the form recently). And with the strength of the Maglia Rosso Passione on his shoulders, he might just be able to survive the mountains and add to that total.

The true test of Farrar’s newfound confidence will come in this year’s Tour. The sprinting depth in the Giro is average at best (Andre Griepel, Petacchi for eight stages, Matthew Goss, Robert Forster, Pippo Pozzato, and Greg Henderson), and will pale in comparison to the pantheon of sprinters starting in Rotterdam.

Only time will tell if Farrar becomes a regular in ascending the podium at Europe’s biggest races. Right now, all signs point to yes.

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