Blazin' Saddles

Year in Review: When cycling dominated the news

"Not since Winston Churchill in 1944 has an Englishman received such a triumphant welcome on the Champs-Élysées."

So wrote The Independent's John Litchfield with delicious hyperbole on the front page of his newspaper the day after Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton in history to win the Tour de France.

Wiggo's victory was front page news for both the tabloids ("Champ Elysées" punned The Sun) and the broadsheets ("Promenade des Anglais" trumpeted The Times on a special wraparound cover featuring the yellow jersey completing one of the Tour's final bends in front of the Arc de Triomphe).

A first British win in the world's most famous cycling race was one of two cycling stories that made unanimous front-page news for both national and international newspapers this year.

Like a gruelling mountain stage, every peak has its trough – and while Wiggins' exploits (followed by those of Team GB in the Velodrome in the London Olympics) did so much to raise cycling's profile in the UK, the whole world was reminded of cycling's dark side as the Lance Armstrong scandal came to an explosive finale.

Even before the wheels were in motion for Wiggins' triumphant ride through France, Armstrong's ghost was coming back to haunt the race the American had won for seven successive years from 1999 to 2005.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) accused Armstrong and five others (including Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong's team manager for each of his victories) of a series of charges including doping and the trafficking of performance enhancing substances.

While front-page news in the States – where the US Federal Court had thrown out a previous case against Armstrong – the press in the UK were busy focusing on Wiggins' prospects in the Tour, a race he started as favourite following a pulsating start to the season.

Before the Grand Depart in Liege, Wiggins had became only the third rider in history (after the illustrious Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx) to win both Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphine in one season.

Add the Tour of Romandie to the mix and Wiggins had accomplished an unprecedented hat-trick that for most cyclists would be the crowning moment of a career, let alone a single season.

Expectations were high. In Wiggins, could Britain have their first Tour champion in waiting? With reigning champion Cadel Evans out of sorts and super star Alberto Contador sitting out a drugs ban, it looked increasingly likely – but the Team Sky leader still had to see it through to the end.

Avoiding the kind of opening-week spill that did for his chances in 2011, Wiggins seized the yellow jersey after team-mate Chris Froome's victory in the first hilltop finish in stage seven before laying down the foundations for his overall win with a pulsating ride to take the 42km undulating time trial three days later.

But behind the scenes, the Armstrong case rumbled on. Despite being on the verge of making history for all the right reasons, Wiggins found himself thrust into the spotlights for all the wrong reasons, forced to ride through a storm of thinly-veiled accusations of doping and wrongdoing.

As leader of the race Armstrong dominated for so long, Wiggins was forced – much to his ire – to answer questions about the spectre of doping in cycling.

A heartfelt ghost-written piece in The Guardian that appeared on the race's second rest day in Pau (a place usually synonymous with doping bombshells) answered many of Wiggins' critics – and after another convincing win in the Tour's second time trial, Wiggo in yellow led out team-mate Mark Cavendish, the world champion, for a fourth consecutive stage win in Paris.

It was Cavendish's third stage win of a race in which his options were limited because of Sky's dogged pursuit of the yellow jersey. With veteran David Millar also picking up a win, four out of five British riders on the Tour won stages. In fact, a third of all stages in the 2012 race were won by British riders.

So dominant were "Les Rosbifs" that Francois Hollande, the French President, gushed over Wiggins - "the complete rider" - and how "it was the British year".

But as a Union flag-clad Wiggins clambered on top of a car in celebration of his historic Tour win, the British year was only just getting started. The Daily Telegraph captured the national mood perfectly with a picture of Wiggins riding alongside his seven-year-old son, Ben, along the Champs-Elysées. Above read the headline: "OK son, now for the Olympics".

For the Tour was merely Part I of Wiggins' splendid summer; a mere warm up for British sports fans ahead of the main event of 2012: the London Olympics.

It did not start well. Cavendish, earmarked to open Team GB's gold medal account with a win on The Mall, found himself thwarted in the men's road race. Instead victory went to Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov – a much-loved cult figure in the peloton, but one whose mere presence comes as a reminder the dark days of the Armstrong era.

Five days later Wiggins coped with the huge weight of home expectation with a bullish victory in the men's time trial, which culminated in one of the enduring images of the Games: Wiggins, with his shirt unzipped and his famous mutton chops on display, sitting cross-legged on a golden throne outside Hampton Court Palace while making V for victory signs with both hands.

It was a record seventh Olympic medal for Wiggins, who became the only cyclist in history to record a Tour-Olympic double less than a fortnight after becoming the only Olympic track gold medallist to go on and win a Grand Tour.

British riders performing in the awe-inspiring Velodrome in the Olympic Park seemed to use Wiggins' success as a springboard for their own inspirational feats. Soon, Sir Chris Hoy had picked up two gold medals to level Wiggo's total Olympic tally of seven medals – and become the most successful British Olympian of all time in terms of gold medals (six of his seven were gold, the other silver).

Jason Kenny, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott all went on to win gold medals, as did Team GB's men's team sprint and both the men's and women's pursuit teams. Pendleton added a silver and Ed Clancy a bronze as Great Britain became the only nation to hit double figures in the Velodrome. In fact, no other nation won more than a single gold medal in all cycling events combined – compared to Team GB's sumptuous hoard of eight.

The papers were loving it – especially when it emerged that star cyclists Kenny and Trott were actually stepping out together. For the first time in history, David Beckham made the front page of the tabloids by a mistake: the footballer's out-of-focus face half blocking a kissing Kenny and Trott in the crowd at the Beach Volleyball finals.

All of a sudden, two wheels were more popular than one ball, so to speak, as football was put in its place by cycling. Cavendish becoming a father with his page-three-girl wife was further testament to cycling trampling on the laurels of football.

Soon after the Olympics, the focus shifted to the next major stage race of the season: the Vuelta, where Froome was given the Team Sky leadership. With all the focus on Wiggins, Froome's runner-up spot on the Paris podium (which in any previous year would have been a record ride for a Brit) perhaps did not receive the praise it deserved. The same could be said for his bronze medal in the Olympic ITT.

Although an exhausted Froome was unable to improve upon his second-place finish in the 2011 Vuelta, the race received much more coverage in the national press than usual – primarily because of the public's increased fascination in the sport following the giddy heights of the Olympics.

It was a poignant moment, then, that saw Steve Cummings, the only British rider to leave the Tour empty-handed, take a gutsy solo victory in stage 13. Cummings' win brought an emphatic season for British cycling's full circle.

The icing on the cake was provided by Wiggins' Velo d'Or award in October, while the cherry was placed on top when Wiggins picked up British Sports Personality of the Year before Christmas.

With Cavendish winning the SPOTY award last year and Hoy the victor in 2008, Wiggo's' win means cyclists have taken the gong three times in the past five years. If ever there was proof of cycling's meteoric rise – there it is.

And if we needed further proof of Britain's headlining status in cycling's new order it came with the news that Yorkshire will host the Grand Depart of the 2014 Tour de France, with a third stage finishing in the streets of London.

But with every high, a low. While British cyclists were making the front-page in a summer of unprecedented success, so to was Armstrong.

In late August, Armstrong announced he was no longer fighting the doping charges levelled against him. USADA subsequently stripped the Texan of his seven Tour wins and issued him a lifetime ban.

Days before USADA published its detailed and damning report on its doping case against Armstrong, an autobiography written by Tyler Hamilton, one of Armstrong's former team-mates at US Portal, blew the lid on years of systematic doping inside the professional peloton.

As Wiggins' star has risen this year, Armstrong's has burnt out. The UCI – itself subject to ongoing accusations of complicity regarding Armstrong's doping past – upheld USADA's ban and Armstrong's era of dominance has been wiped from the history books.

None of the seven Tours raced from 1999 to 2005 have been re-awarded. The white empty spaces in the annals of cycling will serve to remind everyone of the lowest point in the sports history.

What is remarkable is that the highs of Wiggins and lows of Armstrong can co-exist in one sport in one year. Both are not merely different sides of the same coin – they are two entirely different coins. That is what the sport has to hope for if it can build on the immense progress it has made this year.

Fans want to believe – but they need something to believe in first. Wiggins, Froome and Team GB are doing their best to change the narrative. The future looks bright.