Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The year in cycling, from A to Z

From Angliru to Zaugg and everything in between.

It’s generally been a good year for cycling. Exciting races, brilliant winners, emerging heroes, historic breakthroughs and no new doping scandals. Here are my alphabetic highlights of a season to remember.

ANGLIRU The Vuelta’s gnarliest climb produced one of its most decisive verdicts in September, when Team Sky’s race leader Brad Wiggins cracked on the steepest, 23-percent pitch and his teammate Chris Froome just failed to rein in the unexpectedly strong and aggressive attack from Juanjo Cobo — who held on to win the stage and ran out the overall champion by just 11 seconds over the equally unexpected Froome. Dramatic stuff!

2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, stage 2
Cadel Evans and BMC in the peloton at the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, stage 2. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

BMC RACING Cadel Evans won the Tour de France, but it was his Swiss-sponsored, U.S.-registered, multinational team that allowed him to pull it off. Together with sponsor Andy Rihs, team manger Jim Ochowicz and sports director John Lelangue, Evans helped transform BMC Racing from a small start-up organization into one of the slickest ProTeams out there. Some of the original riders, notably American domestique Brent Bookwalter, have grown with the team, while others, including veterans George Hincapie, Marcus Burghardt and Manuel Quinziato, were judicious signings that brought Evans the solid base he needed. All the factors came together at the Tour, especially in the stage 2 team time trial when BMC came within four seconds of defeating the favored Garmin-Cervélo and put 20 seconds into what were regarded as more powerful squads: Sky, Leopard-Trek, HTC-Highroad and Team RadioShack.

CAVENDISH At 26, the Manx Missile showed great maturity in navigating his year to overcome two early-season crashes, win a semi-classic in April, take another two Giro stages, win some unexpected (as well as predicted) stages at the Tour, get HTC-Highroad’s help to win his first green jersey, and overcome poor health at the Vuelta with fighting form in the Tour of Britain before crowning his career with the rainbow jersey — 46 years after Tom Simpson. And like Simpson, Cav’s achievements were recognized at home by the media (the Sports Writers Association’s Sportsman of the Year) and the public (who voted for him as BBC Sport Personality of the Year). Massive achievements!

DOWNHILLERS A new generation of English-speaking downhillers took over the world scene. American Aaron Gwin of Trek dominated the World Cup with a record five victories, topping the GC ahead of a South African, two Brits, a Canadian, two New Zealanders and an Australian. The top European was 14th! And then Giant’s 19-year-old British phenom Danny Hart scorched the worlds with a fearless, faultless ride in pouring rain as Gwin and the other favorites crashed or slid out trying to match him. Spectacular!

EVANS They said Cadel couldn’t win the Tour in a mountainous edition that favored climbers like Alberto Contador and the Schlecks. They said Evans was too old, he couldn’t match the best in the mountains and his team wasn’t strong enough. And yet the 34-year-old Aussie’s famous determination won through. He developed loyalty and solidarity from his BMC Racing teammates by winning Tirreno-Adriatico in March, overcame a training crash to win the Tour de Romandie in May and raced judiciously to take second at the Dauphiné in June. And he arrived at the start of the Tour in superb form. His overall victory, the first by a rider from the Southern Hemisphere, was earned with flair (beating Contador in the stage 4 summit finish), doggedness (controlling his rivals in the Pyrénées), horsepower (pulling back time on Andy Schleck on the Galibier) and brilliance (in the Grenoble time trial). The stuff of legends!

FLANDERS The final edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen on the course that climbed the Mur de Grammont (Muur van Geraardsbergen) and finished at Meerbeke produced the most dramatic one-day race of the year. Fabian Cancellara did another heroic ride (after dominating the earlier E3 Grand Prix) to place third; Sylvain Chavanel rode his strongest classic ever to come within inches of becoming the first French winner in 20 years; and Nick Nuyens overcame his demons to use every tactical nuance he’s ever learned to enter the history books at age 30. Brilliant!

GILBERT What can we say? World No. 1 Philippe Gilbert’s performances in 2011 defy description. He won classic after classic, was prominent from February to October, wore the Tour de France yellow jersey for the first time, won both his national road and time trial titles, and ended up overall winner of the UCI WorldTour by the widest-ever margin. And he did it with breathtaking uphill accelerations that his rivals knew were coming — but they couldn’t do anything about it. Top performances? His four-in-row spring win streak of Flèche Brabançonne, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège; his stage 1 victory at the Tour over Evans; and his not-so-easy and gusty wins in San Sebastian and Québec. What’s he gonna do for an encore?

HORNER His season was cut short a week into the Tour de France by a pileup that sent him flying headfirst into a ditch when he was enjoying the best form of his long career. Chris Horner opened his campaign with fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya in March, continued with second behind RadioShack teammate Andreas Klöden at the Tour of the Basque Country, and then astonished all (except himself) by dominating the Amgen Tour of California, ahead of teammate Levi Leipheimer. And who knows what he would have done in the Tour? Newly married, at 40, Horner goes into 2012 still full of ambition.

IZOARD It was fitting that one of cycling’s legendary climbs, the Col d’Izoard, saw the start of an old-fashioned, long-distance solo break that transformed the Tour de France. The man making the bold move, with two hours still to race on stage 18, was Andy Schleck. And other than an initial reaction from defending champion Alberto Contador, the Luxembourg rider’s attack went unopposed. Schleck established a lead of 4:24 with 11km to go — where Cadel Evans took up the chase, dropped Contador and closed to within 2:15 of the winner by the finish atop the Col du Galibier. It was an epic breakaway that earned Schleck his most famous victory, and a brilliant pursuit that put Evans in position to win the Tour. Thank you Monsieur Izoard.

JULY 4 In the 30 years that Americans have been riding the Tour de France, none of them had won a stage on the Fourth of July. That anomaly was finally put to bed on stage 3 of the Tour by Team Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, who won a clear sprint victory in Redon after a famous lead-out from his teammate (and race leader!) Thor Hushovd.

KELLY He ended his racing career 17 years ago, but Sean Kelly is still winning in his role as color commentator for Eurosport. Whether discussing tactics in a spring classic, predicting what will happen in a stage of the Tour, or quietly correcting one of his less-knowledgeable colleagues, the sagacious Irishman proved himself the best cycling commentator on television in 2011. He’s still the king!

LEVI Like his American teammate Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer just gets better with age. At 37, he had his best-ever European victory, taking back two minutes in the final-day time trial, to overcome Damiano Cunego at the Tour of Switzerland. At home, he was a close second to Horner at the Tour of California and went on to score famous wins at the Tour of Utah and first USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado.

MARTIN People said that Fabian Cancellara was unbeatable in time trials, but HTC-Highroad’s German Tony Martin proved them wrong in 2011. He won nine time trials, notably defeating Cancellara in Denmark to win the world championship, while also capitalizing on his TT successes to take GC wins in Portugal (Tour of the Algarve), France (Paris-Nice) and China (the inaugural Tour of Beijing). And an honorable mention has to go to Ireland’s and Garmin’s Dan Martin, whose break-through year saw him win Italy’s Tour of Tuscany, score stage wins at the Tour of Poland (finishing second overall) and Vuelta a España (taking 13th overall), and place a brilliant second in the season-ending Tour of Lombardy (now called Il Lombardia).

2011 Tour de France stage 10
Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen at the 2011 Tour de France stage 10. Photo: Graham Watson |

NORWAY There were only two Norwegians at the Tour de France, but Garmin’s Thor Hushovd and Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen each scored two remarkable stage wins. EBH took his first in Lisieux on top of a nasty little climb that saw off the other sprinters; TH upstaged that by catching back to a breakaway on the scary descent of the Col d’Aubisque and ditching two Frenchmen to win solo in Lourdes; and then the two of them were in the winning breakaway on the dramatic stage into Gap, where Hushovd had teammate Ryder Hesjedal to help him take the three-man sprint. But Boasson Hagen made it two stages apiece by winning solo the very next day with a brilliant attack over the ultra-narrow Colle Pramartino into Pinerolo. Winners don’t get much better than these two!

OUTSIDERS While Gilbert fulfilled his favorite status at five of the hillier UCI WorldTour classics (Amstel, Flèche, Liège, San Sebastian and Québec), all the other major single-day races had surprising, even shocking winners. HTC’s Matt Goss raced a superb Milan-San Remo to out-speed Cancellara and Gilbert for the win; Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens won Flanders (see above); Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren earned a dramatic solo victory in Paris-Roubaix; and Leopard-Trek’s Oliver Zaugg caused a total upset at Il Lombardia (see below). But the biggest surprise of all was Juanjo Cobo’s Vuelta victory for the upstart Geox-TMC team that his since disbanded. Let’s hope the upsets keep coming in 2012!

PASSPORT Now in its fourth year as an added weapon in the war against doping, the biological passport — which is an electronic record of the blood and other parameters of every rider in ProTeams and Pro Continental squads — has proved its worth. More than half a dozen riders have been suspended on the evidence in their bio passports or from targeted tests after anti-doping officials saw suspicious numbers in their passport. None of the suspended riders’ appeals have been upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

QUOTABLE QUOTES Like other pro sports, cycling has become “over-quoted.” A lot of times, media people don’t even ask true questions; they just say: “Talk about this or talk about that.” The result is too many bland comments from riders, but smart quotes sometimes surface to give greater insight to what remains one of the more complex sports to analyze. This past year, world champ Mark Cavendish often came through, especially his view that “cycling is the cleanest sport around.” Another quotable individual is Frenchman Thomas Voeckler; his popularity zoomed during his 10-day reign in the Tour’s yellow jersey, leading him to say, “The one thing I can’t understand: Why does the public want to tap us on the back? That 100th tap of the day is really painful.”

RICHMOND Shockingly, the United States didn’t win a single medal at the Copenhagen road worlds; but at the UCI Congress held that week, the City of Richmond won its bid to host the world road championships in 2015. This is only the second time that the worlds will be held in this country, three decades after Colorado Springs was the first. And, with better focus, home turf should help produce some U.S. medals!

SIERRA ROAD The Amgen Tour of California organizers had been talking about a mountaintop stage finish for years. It finally came this past May … and it was a humdinger! With careful planning and the blessing of host city San Jose, the finish was set up atop the 5.6km, 9.4-percent Sierra Road, where eventual race champion Chris Horner simply rode away from his opposition to win solo, 1:15 ahead of runner-up Andy Schleck. Keep those summit finishes coming!

TRACK Bit by bit, track racing is making a comeback. It has been booming in Britain for almost a decade, with sold-out crowds at Revolution meets in Manchester and elsewhere; and there’s talk of a six-day race returning to London, now that the $150 million Olympic velodrome has been built for next year’s games, and there’s a continued synergy between Sky’s road and track teams. The re-branded UCI Track World Cup series, sponsored by Samsung, has taken off this winter: there were packed crowds at the recent round in Cali, Colombia, and the finale scheduled for London’s new track in February is certain to be a huge success.

USAPCC When part-time Aspen resident Lance Armstrong chatted with the governor of Colorado less than two years ago to discuss bringing a Coors Classic-style stage race to the state, neither could have expected that it would be so successful, so fast. Not only did the inaugural edition of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge feature the 1-2-3 finishers from the Tour de France but it also attracted more than a million spectators to the weeklong event. Roll on next August!

VOECKLER At 32, Thomas Voeckler’s career appeared to be set: He was a good one-day racer, with the ability to win stage races of less than a week; but he wasn’t built for the grand tours. And then, on stage 9 of this year’s Tour, the Frenchman made it into a solid breakaway that was given its freedom when a nasty crash put several team leaders out of the race. The break gained four minutes by the end of the day, Voeckler pulled on the yellow jersey and he impressively defended his GC lead through the Pyrénées and the Alps before finally losing it two days from the finish. But taking fourth overall has given him a new image and a new incentive for the next part of his career.

WOUTER Everyone on the Leopard-Trek team was excited to be competing in their first grand tour … and then, on the third day of the Giro d’Italia, near the foot of the long but not too technical descent of the Passo del Bocco, their Belgian sprinter Wouter Weylandt lost control of his bike. It appeared that the left side of his handlebar clipped a retaining wall, causing him to somersault through the air and land on his head some 100 feet down the road. Weylandt, 26, never regained consciousness and died in the hospital. It was cycling’s most public death since Fabio Casartelli crashed on the first Pyrenean descent of the 1995 Tour de France.

XBOX Cycling video games have been around for a while, but none have truly replicated the skills necessary to win a grand tour; but that changed in 2011 when the Tour de France came to Xbox. Gamers don’t particularly like the experience because when you make your rider go fast he usually goes anaerobic and gets passed by the peloton. But cycling fans can have fun by using the tactics and timing needed in the sport itself.

YOUTUBE The popularity of cycling has been greatly enhanced by the number and frequency of race videos and interviews that have been posted on YouTube. Some of the more outrageous ones — like the world downhill championship ride of Danny Hart — have gone viral; but now even “mundane” cycling action has a chance to be seen at any time, throughout the world, by anyone with a laptop, tablet of smart phone.

ZAUGG Probably for the first time in the history of cycling, a rider who had never won a race in eight years as a professional came out of nowhere to win one of the toughest monuments, the Tour of Lombardy. Leopard-Trek’s Swiss rider Oliver Zaugg soloed to victory in Lecco after a well-timed uphill attack on the last climb, 10km from the line, catching all the favorites (including Philippe Gilbert) by surprise. Zaugg’s win helped him get a contract with the squad that has now merged with Team RadioShack. Can he win another monument in 2012?