Almost four years after he stepped off the Champs Elysées podium and into retirement, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong's return to three-week stage racing in the Giro D'Italia next Saturday is rightly grabbing most of the headlines. But the 2009 Giro will also see another notable landmark in professional cycling. Never before have so many British professionals – eight – taken part in a major Tour.
Compare that figure with a decade ago, when 1992 Olympic champion Chris Boardman was the UK's only regular representative in top-flight stage racing. Now British cycling has hit a boomtime abroad, with 23-year-old Manxman Mark Cavendish, widely recognised as the fastest sprinter in the business, spearheading the British contingent in the Giro.
Cavendish and others taking part such as 20-year-old Ben Swift and 21-year-old Ian Stannard form part of a younger generation, forged by British Cycling's recent and successful talent-spotting and support programmes. However, as major Tour specialist David Millar points out, four of the eight in Italy will be "older riders at the peak of their powers".
Millar, 32, is referring to himself, Charlie Wegelius and Jeremy Hunt – riders whose paths to pro success, prior to British Cycling's programmes, were largely a lone game.
"I just wish the BC support structures in place for younger British pros were there 10 years ago," Millar reflects. "My professional and personal career would have been different, maybe I wouldn't have made the mistakes I made. In any case, this new wave of British pros is really indicative of what's on the horizon, it's starting now and in a couple of years' time there will be a real surge."
As for his predictions for British achievements in the three-week Giro, Millar says his squad, Garmin, are gunning for victory in the opening team time-trial in Venice, "and maybe we'll get [team-mate] Bradley [Wiggins] into the leader's jersey".
"Long term, our overall options are limited but Brad will be looking for a stage victory himself, and [Columbia-Highroad rider] Cavendish will no doubt be a multiple winner. I don't see why a rider like Swifty [riding for the Russian squad Katusha] couldn't do well."
Sussex-born Sean Yates, a former Tour de France leader and since his retirement a sports director with Armstrong's Astana team, adds: "It's definitely looking up abroad, and it's nice to see."
Referring to increasingly stringent anti-doping controls, Yates points out: "I think we all know why it's more of a level playing field now. At the end of the day everybody's got two arms and two legs."
As for Armstrong, back in the Giro after three and a half years, Yates predicts that "it would be unrealistic to say that he's going to win it.
"He's looking towards being in top condition for the Tour de France. But if he feels able to contribute by getting in a break in Italy, or by winning a road stage or the time-trial, then he definitely will."Reuse content