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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Why 2011 was the year of the underdog


Cobo enjoyed the support of his local fans on the way to his underdog victory at the Vuelta. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Another factor that can make for a more level playing field in today’s racing is an individual’s motivation. Traditionally, riders try harder when they are racing in front of their own fans, but they rarely win big races.

Take the Tour de France. You would expect French riders to be super-motivated to succeed, but none of them has won the Tour in a quarter-century. They have been satisfied with shooting for stage wins or easier goals like the King of the Mountains title or the Most Combative award. Even when Frenchman Thomas Voeckler wore the yellow jersey into the final stages of this year’s Tour, he said that his chances of winning in Paris were “zero.” He felt that he wasn’t in the same league as the “true” contenders like Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck.

That was not the mentality of Geox-TMC’s Juanjo Cobo at last month’s Vuelta a España. After his team leaders Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre dropped out of contention, Cobo drew strength from his supporters in the Cantabria region of Spain to make the two blistering attacks that earned him the leader’s red jersey — and then helped him race above his usual level to defend a narrow lead against Team Sky’s Chris Froome on the final mountaintop finish.

That same motivation from local fans helped Australian youngster Meyer push himself that little extra at the Tour Down Under, especially when he stayed with his main challengers on the penultimate stage’s Old Wilunga Hill. And home support was also a factor in Belgian veteran Nuyens’ late attack and eventual sprint win over Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel and Swiss megastar Cancellara in the Tour of Flanders.

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