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Cycling: Full cycle but little fanfare

If there was ever a quest to find New Zealand's most underrated sportsperson, look no further than Julian Dean.

There are other contenders: NBA basketballer Sean Marks, Superbowl-winning NFL player Riki Ellison, footballer Wynton Rufer at Werder Bremen and tennis player Brett Steven each deserved greater recognition. Dean trumps them.

Regardless of the toxicity enveloping professional cycling in the wake of systematic cheating by Dean's former US Postal team-mate Lance Armstrong, the 37-year-old from Waihi has had an extraordinary career - yet minimal fanfare.

Dean has never been tainted by doping rumours, claiming it was not something he came across as a rookie on the European cycling scene and, as a sprinter, he was of little use to Armstrong, who needed more support on mountain stages.

He is without peer as a New Zealand road cyclist. No Kiwi has come within drafting distance of him when competing at the pinnacle of the sport, the Tour de France. Dean has gone the full - around 3500km - distance seven times in the heart of the European summer. Eric Mackenzie and Tino Tabak are next best among the 10 New Zealanders who have raced Le Tour - Mackenzie and Tabak both entered four times but didn't always finish.

Dean's career has entered uncharted territory for New Zealand riders, the coup de grace being his 2009 endurance. He was the only cyclist in the world to complete each of the three grand tours through Italy, France and Spain. Dean pedalled more than 10,000km in less than 70 days. His ride in the penultimate 167km stage up the gruelling gradient of Le Tour's Mont Ventoux - where British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967 - was special viewing. Dean even completed the tour with a pellet in his thumb after getting shot by an air rifle on stage 13.

Incredibly, the Halberg Awards have never recognised Dean with so much as a nomination. It smacks of myopia. It could be argued his three grand tours of 2009 exemplified endurance rather than excellence - fair enough.

However, in 2010 he produced a New Zealand precedent of three Tour de France podium finishes after crashing on stage two, being headbutted on stage 11 and then tackled by a member of the gendarmerie before stage 16. With a wrist injury to team-mate Tyler Farrar, lead-out man Dean became the key sprinter and did the role justice.

How much recognition did he get for a Halberg gong? Zilch. Ryan Nelsen, Richie McCaw, Benji Marshall and Jossi Wells were the only candidates for sportsman of the year.

Still, at least Dean secured a Tour de France stage win in 2011, in the team time trial. Standing on the Champs-Elysees podium that year after winning the teams classification (with Garmin Cervelo) is, he says, his most memorable moment in cycling.

Dean was respected among fellow riders. Credit Agricole team-mate Thor Hushovd described him as "the best lead-out man in the world". At his final competitive race - the national championships last Sunday in Christchurch - the first few hundred metres were treated as largely ceremonial.

In his honour, Dean rode alongside his sons Tanner and Val. Dean, wife Carole and the boys will return to Spain with Australian-based team Orica GreenEDGE, where he is assistant sporting director.

Cycling could do worse than Julian Dean. That's never been more graphically illustrated than this week.

- Herald on Sunday

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