Introducing 2009's UCI Continental Champions

The International Cycling Union (UCI) operates five continental series per year, which have just finished their fifth season: Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Like taking honours in a Grand Tour, winning the series is not about race victories as much as it is about just being there.

In some cases, it only takes a solid finish at one race to claim the title, due to the small number of races in the series. Others, like the European and American series, depend both on frequency and performance due to the large volume of races run sparsely over a wide geographical area.

The five jerseys are rarely a target for professional riders. Rather, they’re a reward for consistency throughout the year which draws increasing attention from competitors as the year’s end looms and opportunities to win something worth talking about grow fewer.

Cyclingnews takes a look at the five winners of the 2008-2009 series and how they got there.

UCI Asia Tour champion: Ghader Mizbani Iranagh (Iran)

Iranian stalwart Ghader Mizbani Iranagh was victorious once again in the UCI Asia Tour, as his Tabriz Petrochemical Cycling Team dominated the region’s races. The 34-year-old waged a close battle for the title with team-mate Andrey Mizourov, the Kazakh rider finishing just 16 points behind in second place.

Tabriz Petrochemical didn’t contest the season-ending Tour de Hokkaido this month, but its riders’ leads in the UCI Asia Tour were unassailable: the previous year’s champion, Russian Boris Shpilevsky, was more than 100 points behind in third. Mizbani’s victory at the Tour of Indonesia in late 2008 got his title off to a great start, with the rider adding overall victories at Iran’s Tour of President and Indonesia’s Tour of Singkarak this year.

Mizbani also finished second to Mizourov at July’s Tour of Qinghai Lake in China. It was Mizbani’s third second place at the Hors Category race, having finished runner-up in the early years of his professional career in 2003 and 2004.

Before turning professional in 2002, Mizbani had already been successful in the Asian region. He won gold in the individual time trial at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, Thailand, and was runner-up at Tour of Mevlana in Turkey two years earlier.

Mizbani started a five year stint with Taiwan’s Giant Asia Racing Team in 2003, which set the stage for his performance throughout Asia. His stage wins by far outnumber his overall wins, yet Mizbani’s general classification wins through this period are impressive: Tour of Taiwan, Azerbaïjan Tour (twice), Kerman Tour, International Presidency Turkey Tour, Tour of East Java and Tour of Milad du Nour (twice).

Since joining Tabriz Petrochemical at the start of 2008, Mizbani has won Kerman Tour and East Java again, in addition to those three overall victories that helped him secure the UCI Asia Tour jersey. The UCI Asia Tour win is Mizbani’s second, having won the 2005-2006 series.

UCI Oceania Tour champion: Peter McDonald (Australia)

While his season ended with a broken collarbone at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, his comfortable UCI Oceania championship victory is more indicative of Peter McDonald’s season. McDonald sealed the title with his performance at the Tour of Wellington in New Zealand, in January.

McDonald claimed victory on Wellington’s second stage in Masterton and finished runner-up the following day in Admiral Hill and again on stage six in Wellington. The results netted McDonald the race’s overall victory, which in turn dropped him in the UCI Oceania Tour’s lead.

With only five events contributing to the Oceania series – Herald Sun Tour, Tour of Southland, Wellington and Oceania Time Trial and Road Racing championships – dominance in any one race plays a huge role. While Wellington may have bagged McDonald the title, his win there came off the back of a much greater accomplishment. Earlier that month the Drapac-Porsche rider stormed the Australian Open Road Championship course in Buninyong, Victoria, to win the Australian champion’s jersey ahead of Columbia-HTC professionals Michael Rogers and Adam Hansen.

Known as a strong workhorse, the Coonabarabran rider has been a regular on the Australian circuit for the past five years. In addition to victories at Grafton – Invernell, Tour of Bright victories and a Tour of Murray River, he’s won stages at races like the Tour of Tasmania.

In recent years McDonald has shown his hand abroad, winning stages at Tour de Taiwan and Tour de Hokkaido as well as running second at Melle, Belgium, to Nico Sijmens in 2008.

UCI America Tour champion: Gregorio Ladino Vega (Colombia)

Jose Rujano may be the better known South American, but the Giro d’Italia stage winner played second fiddle to Colombia’s Gregorio Ladino Vega in the UCI America Tour. Ladino took a comfortable 40 point victory over Rujano in the series, where Kelly Benefits Strategies rider Scott Zwizanski was the top North American rider in sixth place.

Like Mizbani and McDonald, Ladino is somewhat of a fixture in predominately South American racing with his Tecos de la Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara team. Despite winning the Vuelta a Costa Rica way back in 1997, Ladino didn’t contest a UCI race again until 2001, when he again won in Costa Rica, then the Vuelta a Guatemala, plus a stage of Vuelta a Columbia. He raced a similar program in 2002 before increasing his appearances in 2003 to the level he maintains today.

Ladino, the current Pan-American Road Champion, hasn’t only enjoyed success in America’s south. In North America this year Ladino won the Vuelta a Bisbee’s prologue before finishing fourth overall. Just one year earlier, Ladino won Bisbee overall and the Tour of the Gila.

Ladino’s 2008-2009 UCI America Tour campaign started on a high note last year with his Vuelta a Chiapas victory, the 36-round series’ sixth event. The 36-year-old won stages at Bisbee, Doble Sucre Potosí GP Cemento Fancesa and Vuelta Mazatlán to add to his tally this year, plus the Pan-American title which also contributes to the series’ standings.

UCI Europe Tour champion: Giovanni Visconti (Italy)

Italian Giovanni Visconti won this year’s UCI Europe Tour, but it was a tight battle. The 26-year-old snatched the lead in the final week of the series to win by 37.2 points.

At the start of October - with 13 races left in the, wait for it, 289 race series - Kenny Robert Van Hummel was leading the series and cautious of the proximity of Jimmy Casper to him, given there were four races on French soil still to run. But instead, Casper gained negligible ground on the Dutchman while Visconti, riding for team ISD - Neri, made the most of the five Italian events left and snatched the series victory.

Visconti, now 26, burst onto the international scene as an Under 23 rider in 2003. His successes that year included wins at GP Kranj, Trofeo G. Bianchin, GP Inda-Trofeo Aras Frattini and the European Under 23 Championship but most importantly the super-competitive Under 23 Italian Road Championship.

The following year Visconti added the Under 23 Ronde van Vlaanderen win to his resume, further adding weight to his abilities on the bike. The following two years however were largely fruitless, despite moving to ProTour team Milram in 2006.

After joining Quick Step in 2007 Visconti scored his next big victory: the Italian National Road Championship. Now riding as an elite rider, Visconti outpaced Paolo Vossoni and Davide Rebellin to claim the tricolor jersey.

Visconti spent another season with Quick Step in 2008, where he lead the Giro d’Italia for six stages and finished fourth at Giro di Lombardia. Despite that exposure, Visconti dropped back to a Professional Continental squad this year where he won the Giro’s TV classification, the UCI’s Europe Tour and claimed three victories – all of which were rounds of the European series.

UCI Africa Tour champion: Dan Craven (Namibia)

Namibian cyclist Dan Craven claimed the closest of continental championships, with officials forced to search the rule book to split him and Jamie Ball tied on 123 points. Craven rode most of the season with British squad Rapha Condor, but his efforts at home during the off-season netted him the Africa jersey.

Craven claimed the African Championship’s road race late last year, one day after finishing second in the Moroccan event’s time trial. Craven had already secured a swag of points from his sixth place at Amashova National Classic in South Africa, which he added to at the Giro del Capo in March.

That was enough to secure the title over South African Road Champion Ball. In one of his busiest racing seasons Ball won a stage of La Tropicale Amissa Bongo before finishing seventh overall at the Gabon race. He added more points to his tally later in the year at the Giro del Capo IV.

Despite taking out his first Namibian championship in 2005, Craven is still relatively new on the international scene. He finished second at GP Demy-Cars in 2006, was again runner up at Giro della Valli Aretine a year later then started adding European wins in 2008. First he claimed victory in Switzerland at Lancy, then beat Guillaume Bonnafond to the GP Cristal Energie win in France.

Craven was hoping to defend his African title this month but broke his collarbone while racing last weekend.

Other champions

UCI America Tour Champions
Serramenti Pvc Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli
Nation: Colombia

UCI Asia Tour Champions
Team: Petrochemical Tabriz Cycling Team
Nation: Kazakhstan

UCI Africa Tour Champions
Team: Barloworld
Nation: South Africa

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