Spending more time than I might wish on my home trainer the past week has given me ample opportunity to reflect on the 2011 road racing season. As you know, I often find it difficult to restrict myself to just one favourite moment, rider, team, race or indeed anything. Indecisive or greedy – you decide. Given my preference for live sport, my recollections tend to be coloured by the races I’ve watched in person. So here goes.
It’s hard to argue against the collective wisdom of the Velo d’Or jury, so I won’t. With his 18 wins, it just has to be Phil Gil. Though it just wasn’t the quantity, it was also the quality of those wins, his majestic presence and aggressive, attacking style of riding which thrilled us all.
Although in my mind, Phil Gil was head and shoulders above all the other contenders, making it onto the podium in second place is Britain’s own Manx missile: Mark Cavendish. The Grand Tour wins, the green jersey (finally) and that magnificent win in the World Championships. Says it all really.
I was in a quandary about third place, should it be Thor Hushovd who so magnificently honoured the rainbow jersey, particularly during the Tour de France or should it be Tony Martin for his emphatic dethronement of Fabian Cancellara, a man who last year looked unbeatable. It’s a tricky one isn’t it? So, I’m going to squash them both on the podium in joint third place. Honourable mentions should go to Edvald Boassen Hagen and France’s chouchou, Tommy Voeckler, both largely for their Tour de France performances.
Best One-Day Race of the Year
I was there, so it has to be Paris-Roubaix. The race had everything. Fine weather, fantastic atmosphere, favourites desperate to win beaten by an unfancied rider who, to add to the drama, proposed to his long-term girlfriend on the podium. I just love it when a non-contender, albeit hardworking and long-deserving, takes a really big win in one of the Monuments. Congratulations to Mr (and Mrs) Johan Vansummeren and commiserations to the mighty Thor.
In second place, it’s the Men’s Road Race at the World Championships in Copenhagen. While the course was made for Cavendish, the planning and preparation to get him there allied to GB’s phenomenal display of teamwork on the day, controlling the race from start to finish, was truly impressive and hugely exciting.
Had I been there, I suspect that Milan San Remo might well have been my third choice on account of Matt Goss’s uber-intelligent ride. For similar reasons, I could also have plumped for Nick Nuyen’s win in the Tour of Flanders, but I haven’t. No, I’m going for Clasica San Sebastian, a delightfully fun race with a terrific party atmosphere thanks to the Basques enduring love of cycling. This race demonstrated Phil Gil’s dominance over the peloton in hilly Classics. You could almost see the collective drooping of shoulders and the “Well that’s it then” attitude as he raced to victory after some token Basque resistance.
Best Stage Race of the Year
When the touch paper was lit in the third week in the Alps I was there to see the old-style heroics, epic defence of the yellow jersey, stages full of suspense, a French stage winner and, most importantly, some great racing culminating in a worthy winner. The Tour had it all in spades. While, we might have deplored the loss to injury in the first week of a number of favourites, that’s bike racing.
In second place, the Vuelta, the wonderful Tour of Spain which this year I was fortunate to attend albeit only for a couple of days. Unlike the Tour the atmosphere is much more relaxed, for all concerned, and the race much more accessible. The result was also wildly unpredictable and was all the better for it. It also provided my “Best Moment” of the year when Basque rider Igor Anton won the first Vuelta stage to finish in the Basque country for 33 years. The fever pitch excitement and wall of sound as he approached the finish line had to be heard and seen to be believed.
In third place, the Criterium du Dauphine, won by one Bradley Wiggins, which left us all wondering what might have been when Brad crashed out of the Tour. While it probably wasn’t his avowed intention to win the race, once in the leader’s jersey, he and team Sky rode intelligently. Opinion seems to be divided on which race provides the best preparation for the Tour. But, if you wanted to win this year’s Tour, then this race won easily as it allowed you to ride the decisive Grenoble time-trial. To be honest it’s a bit of a no brainer. Which organisation owns both the Dauphine and the Tour de France? Exactly, nuff said.
What about the Giro, I hear you ask. Well, it was over almost before it started thanks to a master coup by Bert and Riis on Nibali’s home turf. In short, it was too hard and too predictable. Also way down the list for consideration, in fact in absolute bottom place, The Tour of Beijing. No need to explain why.
Team of the Year
Who won the most races (again)? Exactly, it was HTC-High Road who have promoted young talent (including both current road race and time-trial World Champions) and bestrode the peloton like a colossus for the past few years racking up around 500 wins. Their reward – disbandment due to lack of sponsorship. Hard to believe and very worrying for the sport.
Tactical Coup of the Year
It just has to be Bjarne Riis and Nick Nuyens in the Tour of Flanders. The latter didn’t figure as one of the favourites despite his credentials and recent win in Dwars Door Vlaanderen. He was invisible until the final break. Having lost touch with the favourites on the Kwaremount, he regained contact, kept out of trouble and popped up in the right place at the right time. First over the finish line to hand Riis back-to-back wins. Who’s LeOghing now?
Surprise of the Year
There’s a couple of contenders here. Should it be Thomas Voeckler’s fourth place in the Tour, team mate Pierre Roland’s win atop iconic L’Alpe d’Huez or Vuelta runner-up Chris Froome? To everyone’s total surprise, Kenyan borne adopted Brit Chris Froome finished the Vuelta ahead of Sky’s team leader Bradley Wiggins in third and might have won were it not for Cobo’s bonus seconds. Wisely he’d postponed contract negotiations with Sky until after the Vuelta so maybe it wasn’t an unexpected result for Chris who seized his opportunity with both hands while still playing the role of loyal team mate. He won’t be flying under the radar next year.
Disappointment(s) of the Year
Where shall I start? Here’s my list, in no particular order:-
It would be wholly inappropriate to call this event a disappointment. Instead it was for me the real low point of the cycling year. I am, of course, talking about Wouter Weylandt’s death from a high speed fall during the Giro. It reminded us in the strongest possible terms that cycling is a very dangerous sport. If I close my eyes I can still see that short cameo shot of the medics trying to revive his lifeless body.
The point was further underlined with Juan Mauricio Soler’s fall in the Tour of Switzerland for which he is still undergoing rehabilitation. Many more of us watched with horror during this year’s Tour de France as 1) a motorbike deprived Nicki Sorenson of his bike, depositing him at a roadside picnic and 2) an official car from France TV, driven with scant regard for rider safety, sent Messrs Flecha and Hoogerland flying, the latter into barbed wire.
Unsung Hero(s) of the Year
These are legion in the peloton and the UCI pays them little regard. Many have that Eurovision chilling score of “nul points” and therefore little negotiable value in the transfer market. There’s not enough space (or time) to list them all but let’s have a round of applause for all the teams’ hard working, selfless domestiques. Also, hats off to those team leaders who always recognise the invaluable contribution of their team mates.
My Best Bits of the Year
Again, these are in no particular order:-
You see, too much thinking time results in my longest blog ever!