Have you heard the rumblings?
Two stage wins at the Tour of Poland, beating the likes of Mark Renshaw and Taylor Phinney……. two more stage wins, the points jersey and overall victory at the inaugural Arctic Race of Norway…….the God of Thunder is on the comeback trail.
Having lost 2012 to illness – a virus restricted him to just 28 days racing – Thor Hushovd is suddenly back on the top step of the podium and looks to have a taste for it. Even for a rider of his stature, professional cycling waits for no man, and in his words there were those who thought his ‘time was over’.
The recent wins in Poland and Norway suggest the fortunes of the Norwegian road race champion may be on the up, and he appears to have fire in his belly – keen to make up for lost time. With the renaissance apparently gathering pace it seems like a good time to remind ourselves just how good Hushovd was, how much he won, and the style in which he did it.
Thor Hushovd is far and away Norway’s most decorated cyclist and has won stages at all three grand tours, most successfully at the Tour de France where, not including two team time trial victories, he has 10 stage wins to his name. He claimed the points jersey at the Tour in 2005 and 2009, and at the Vuelta Espana in 2006.
Away from the Grand Tours his other significant results include victory at Gent-Wevelgem, the Flandrian ‘sprinters classic’ in 2006, Omloop het Nieuwsblad in 2009, and top three finishes at Paris-Roubaix (twice) and Milan-San Remo. In 2010 Hushovd claimed the UCI World Road Race title in Geelong, Australia, on a tough, hilly course, and spent the following season showing off the rainbow jersey with style, as tradition dictates; most notably at the 2011 Tour de France where he claimed two individual stage wins and held the leaders yellow jersey for a memorable week.
He started out as a pure sprinter, but as Hushovd’s career progressed he acknowledged that he didn’t have the top end speed to compete consistently with the likes of Mark Cavendish (although he’s not alone there. He pipped Cavendish to the 2009 green jersey through consistent points scoring, and a little help from the race commissar, rather than explosive stage wins). By changing the way he raced, and working on his climbing, he developed the ability to hold his own – sometimes even thrive – in the mountains. This change of focus was to serve him well in a golden few years from 2009.
On Stage 15 of the 2009 Tour de France Hushovd surprised many by riding solo through the high mountains in order to mop up the points in that day’s intermediate sprints, a significant day that ultimately led to him finishing in green, ahead of Cavendish the pure sprinter. Although he was eventually caught that day and swallowed up by the field he had claimed the points and it was job done – a powerful demonstration of his new-found form in the mountains.
With this versatility at his disposal he targeted the UCI World Championship Road Race the following year, which took place on a course favouring a sprinter who could climb rather than a pure speed merchant. Hushovd was clearly a contender from the outset, although the nature of the climbs had Belgian super-star Philippe Gilbert marked down as the favourite. After attack and counter attack – including a near decisive 22 second lead for Gilbert in the closing stages – Hushovd played a key role in bringing the race together for an uphill sprint of 500m. Coming after 260km of tough racing, and with around 25 riders still in contention, Hushovd found a clear run along the spectator barrier and made his strength tell by powering home.
More of that determination and tactical nous was in evidence on Stage 13 of the 2011 Tour which led to a dramatic win in Lourdes. On a punishing day in the Pyrenees, Hushovd got himself in the breakaway and stayed clear of the main field over the mighty Col d’Aubisque (shades of 2009). Although he then had time to make up on his breakaway companions –Jeremy Roy and David Moncoutie – he continued to hold the rest of the field at bay and descended the Aubisque like a runaway train, catching Moncoutie on the way down, before pushing on with the Frenchman in tow on the flat run in to the finish. This is where Hushovd’s power really told and, despite his adventure in the mountains, he still had one big effort left in his legs. In a thrilling final attack he left Moncoutie trailing, reeled in Roy and carried the rainbow jersey to a spine tingling victory.
So over the years Hushovd’s determination to win and willingness to adapt saw him develop into a genuine all-rounder; a big beast of the world tour and one of the most feared racers on the circuit whenever the terrain gave him a chance.
But what now? Now he’s fit, healthy and motivated can he once again find a way to win the big races? In his own words, ‘Paris-Roubaix is the major goal and that’s the one I dream of winning before I retire’, and it is of course the ultimate addition to the CV of any cycling hard man. But in the Norweigan’s absence Peter Sagan has arrived, the new kid on the block very much in the Hushovd mould – a quick finishing sprinter who can handle a mountain or two. So has the baton been passed? You suspect Hushovd might have a few tricks up his sleeve yet.
There certainly won’t be wheelies, green beards or dubious antics with podium girls from Hushovd – Sagan has that side of things well and truly sewn up – but who knows, the highly motivated God of Thunder might finally tame the cobbles of northern France in 2014.