Two victories (an early season one in Croatia, another in Switzerland in August), a few excellent placings and a decent 12th spot in the Giro d'Italia final overall Standings. Too little for a rider's season to be labeled as a good one ? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The rider we are talking of was a debutant after all.
And in a season mainly dominated by veterans (Cipo, Tafi, Museeuw and others) and riders more or less around the age of 30 (Armstrong, Bettini, Savoldelli etc.), such achievements could turn a 22-year-old neopro into a serious contender for the "Rookie of the Year" Award, along with Belgium's Tom Boonen.
All in all a satisfactory season then ? Not that either, as the "rookie" we are talking about is not on ordinary debutant, but Yaroslav Popovych, the "Merckx of the Amateurs", "Yaroslav the Great", or simply the guy that dominated the U23 scene in 2001, setting a new record of race wins (World Road title included), with no Tom Boonen or any other competitor serioulsy challenging his leadership. All this happened last year.
But things have not been the same in 2002. No doubts that, as I mentioned before, the man had some good rides, but the gap between his 2001 achievements and the results he got this year is just another proof of the huge difference between the U23 scene and pro cycling world. There's still a long way to go before the "Merckx of the Amateurs" can become one of the few, biggest names of the professional peloton.
And the first to admit it is Popovych himself. Interviewed by Italian sport newspaper "Gazzetta dello Sport" the Landbouwkrediet-Colnago rider said that "2002 has certainly been the most difficult year so far in my career. I haven't done particularly well, apart from the Giro where finishing in twelfth place overall was a good thing to me. But many other times results somehow didn't live up to expectations".
There must be a reason to such a drop in number of victories, and "Popo" explains it first by "blaming" it on the huge gap between the two worlds (U23 and Pro cycling), a gap having an enormous impact on most riders, and "Yaroslav the Great"being no exception to the rule. A gap featuring "different speeds, different distances, different climbs".
And different strategies too, as some Giro stages proved: "when I was an amateur I was quite used to do what I wanted to, to attack when I wanted to, and make it to the finishing line, either on a solo break or a small bunch along with a few more escapees. But during some Giro stages, when I attacked with 3 or 4 km. to go, I didn't succeed. It was too early: among the pros you should make your move in the last 800 meters, or the last kilometre of racing. And when you make just a single mistake there, your chances are over. So, even if I was feeling good in some stages, I didn't manage to win in the end".
The lack of experience typical of a newcomer to professional cycling was not the only cause though, as Popovych admits that there was something else going wrong. A bit of bad luck ("I was ill twice in the month before
the Giro") but especially his own attitude, in particular the way he behaved after the Italian Grand Tour
"I let myself go a little, and later wasn't able to find back good condition".
But 2002 is over now, with all of its satisfactions and disappointments, victories and mistakes. And, more important, with the experience Popovych gained during his first year as a pro rider, when "Yaroslav the Great", the best amateur of the previous season, turned into "Yaroslav the Wise", a young gun not excessively in a hurry to win, and ready to keep a lower profile and learn from his defeats and mistakes. Should he prove, in the coming season, that he has learned the lesson, fans might see a few more images similar to the ones so frequent in good ol'2001, with the Ukrainian more and more times on
the podium (better if at the top).
A hope expressed by "Popo" himself too: "Next year I'll try to show that the lessons the past season gave me were of help. I don't have any main targets for 2003 anyway, just the desire to be competitive and do well in all terrains, be them Giro or Paris-Roubaix. Landbouwkrediet-Colnago have got new riders such as Tom Steels in the roster, people who bring many UCI points, that allow us to take part in all World Cup races. The squad has got stronger, and I want to play a significative part in the team. Such that I have already started my build-up, as I want to be in good condition when the new cycling season starts".
Words from a well-determined man, words that would just confirm what previously said by Yaroslav's manager (both as amateur with Zoccorinese and pro rider with Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) Olivano Locatelli: "Popovych is first of all a man, and unlike certain Italian riders, a hard working man with work in is mind more than money". Asked to comment upon such words, "Yaroslav the hard-working man" simply answered that "Well, labelling me is up to the others, not myself !". So see you all in twelve months, just to label Popovych after his 2003 season !
Below is an extract from the DP's news-roundup of August 10, 2002, with Mick Knapton writing about the second win of Yaroslav Popovych as apro rider, in the GP Geneva.
Popovych wins GP Geneva: World Under 23 Champion, Ukrainian, Yaroslav Popovych of Landbouwkredit-Colnago won Saturday afternoons Grand Prix Geneva which was run in pouring rain. Popovych beat his team mate Lorenzo Bernucci in a sprint finish on the Quai Gustave Ador on the lake front in Geneva. The race was a triumph for the Belgian based Landbouwkredit team as they placed four riders in the first five places with only Russian Mihkail Timochine of the Italian Elite 2 team Zoccorinese-Vellutex breaking the stranglehold by finishing third. The win is Popovychís second win of the season and his teamís fourth. Popovych had previously won the Porec Trophy 2 race in Croatia in February.
Result: GP Geneva: 170 kms: UCI 1.5
1. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukraine) Landbouwkredit-Colnago
2. Lorenzo Bernucci (Italy) Landbouwkredit-Colnago
3. Mihkail Timochine (Russia) Zoccorinese-Vellutex
4. Serguei Advyeyev (Ukraine) Landbouwkredit-Colnago
5. Oscar Cavagnis (Italy) Landbouwkredit-Colnago