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

Even though Philippe Gilbert won five major classics in the 2011 road season that just ended, he was the exception rather than the rule in one of the must unpredictable seasons on record. From Matt Goss at Milan-San Remo in March to Oliver Zaugg at the Tour of Lombardy earlier this month, many of this year’s big winners have come from left field.

… and why the trend toward unpredictable results will continue

2011 Eneco Tour, stage 3: Philippe Gilbert wins
Philippe Gilbert won a LOT in 2011, but so did some lesser-known riders. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Even though Philippe Gilbert won five major classics in the 2011 road season that just ended, he was the exception rather than the rule in one of the must unpredictable seasons on record. From Matt Goss at Milan-San Remo in March to Oliver Zaugg at the Tour of Lombardy earlier this month, many of this year’s big winners have come from left field.

Before the season started, no one predicted that Goss, Zaugg, Cameron Meyer (Tour Down Under), Nick Nuyens (Tour of Flanders), Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix), Grega Bole (GP de Plouay), Juanjo Cobo (Vuelta a España) or Rui Costa (GP de Montréal) would win UCI WorldTour races.

Interestingly, Cobo, Nuyens, Vansummeren and Zaugg are all in the latter part of their pro careers and scored their breakthrough wins at age 30, while Bole, 26, Costa, 25, Goss, 24, and Meyer, 23, are still finding their path. But one thing they all have in common is the role in which they began the season: top domestique.

Maybe it was a fluke that these eight lesser-known men came up big in 2011; but their victories along with the losses by odds-on favorites like Fabian Cancellara at the cobblestone classics and Alberto Contador at the Tour de France point to a new trend in pro cycling. That’s not to say that the underdog is going to win every race, but it’s likely to happen more frequently in the years to come.

There are seven reasons for the “underdog wins” trend, starting with what has been the biggest change in racing over recent years: greater equality between racers, especially in terms of fitness and equipment.

1. EQUALITY

2011 Tour of Lombardy, Oliver Zaugg attacks
Zaugg timed his attack perfectly. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com


The recent advances in power-based training methods and computer-aided bike design have greatly leveled the playing field between the team leaders and their back-up riders. This was never better illustrated than at Il Lombardia, where Zaugg of Leopard-Trek took his solo victory in the style of a rider very used to winning — even though he’d never won a race in eight years as a professional. His career had been devoted to others, most notably working for Italian grand tour winners Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali at Liquigas in 2009 and 2010.

In Lombardy, with his team leaders Andy Schleck and Fränk Schleck not starting, the stand-in leader was Jakob Fuglsang. While the Dane made a hard effort to get into what looked like being the winning break with Nibali and two-time defending champion Gilbert, Zaugg remained hidden in the large chase pack. And when Nibali accelerated on the Madonna del Ghisallo climb to leave behind Fuglsang and Gilbert, Zaugg continued his stress-free ride as the Sky, Katusha and Garmin teams pulled the peloton to close a two-minute gap on Nibali just before the new final climb to Villa Vergana.

So when team leaders Fuglsang and Nibali faded (they would finish together seven minutes back), worker-bee Zaugg switched roles. Instead of having to set the uphill pace for Fuglsang or the Schlecks, he followed the pace set by his old boss, Basso, and Garmin’s Peter Stetina and Dan Martin, and then jumped from sixth position for a perfectly timed attack on the steepest part of the climb.

The Swiss veteran said he had doubts about holding his 20-second lead over a chase group headed by Basso, Martin and Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez. His radio wasn’t working so he just pounded the final, mostly downhill 9km into Lecco, where he won by eight seconds. By winning Lombardy, Zaugg showed that the difference in ability between a star and his helpers is no longer the gulf it once was. And when the circumstances are right — as they were on October 15 — we can expect such surprises to become commonplace.


2. MOTIVATION

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.


3. INCENTIVE

2011 Tour de France, stage 8, Rui Da Costa
A motivated Rui Costa took stage 8 of the Tour. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com


At a time when several top riders are continuing to race into their late-30s and early-40s, the task for up-and-coming riders to win major events has become much more difficult. So, besides needing the ability and strength to win, a newcomer also has to have a bigger incentive than his older rivals to win a major race.

That sort of incentive was present in the breakthrough wins that came for two little-known Europeans this summer. Costa, the Portuguese rider who came off a five-month drugs-related suspension after testing positive for methylhexanamine (said to be due to food contamination) in April, needed to prove himself. So the incentive to do just that was a big factor in his winning a stage of the Tour de France in July followed by his aggressive victory at the GP de Montréal last month. And with others sure to run afoul of the stringent WADA regulations, the need to prove their “innocence” will again be a strong incentive.

Another incentive in today’s difficult economic climate — when many teams are having a hard time finding new sponsors, merging with other squads or even folding — is the need to score UCI points or win races to secure a better contract. That was the case with Lampre-ISD’s Bole, who came into the WorldTour last year and won a stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné and placed second at the Tour of Poland. But this year, other than winning the 2011 Slovenian national title, Bole had won nothing of significance. So when he saw an opening in a late breakaway group at the Plouay classic he attacked decisively 3km from the finish and held on to win by a few bike lengths ahead of a charging 70-strong peloton.

4. LEADERSHIP

Goss had no problem stepping in for Cavendish at Milan-San Remo. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

When Mark Cavendish missed the split at Milan-San Remo in March, his HTC team directors put all their eggs in the Goss basket. And the young Aussie showed he was more than ready to step up from his normal domestique role to become a true leader.

After all, in the past two seasons he had won two lesser European classics, Paris-Brussels and the GP de Plouay, and the confidence he took from those wins (along with the stage wins he’d just scored at Paris-Nice, the Tour of Oman and Tour Down Under) gave him added confidence and strength to stay with the winning move on the last climb, the Poggio. But Goss also showed he had a leader’s savvy by biding his time in the run-in while more experienced men reacted to every acceleration; he then he used his great finishing speed to hold off Cancellara and Gilbert to win the Classicissima.


5. TACTICS

2011 Paris-Roubaix
Perhaps the biggest underdog victory of 2011? Johan Van Summeren was elated and emotional after his Paris-Roubaix win. Photo: Ben Delaney © VeloNews

Racing in the modern era has been criticized for its too-familiar pattern of small breakaways being held on an invisible leash until they are brought to heel in the closing kilometers where the team leaders make their bids for victory. That model has been blamed on race radios in the hands of sports directors who are sometimes compared with control freaks. But that predictable tactic has been broken many times this year for various reasons … and that trend is likely to continue.

For instance, Zaugg won his Lombardy victory partly because his radio wasn’t working, but also because he had scouted the final climb again and again in the week before the race, so he knew the best tactic was to follow and wait until he attacked on the 15-percent pitch near the top. The predictable pattern was also broken at Paris-Roubaix (see “Equal opportunity” below), where the “no-hope” breakaway stayed clear and Vansummeren used his great tactical knowledge to make a perfectly timed move.

The one 2011 classic that featured every tactic imaginable was the Ronde van Vlaanderen (see my April 5 analysis), where defending champ Cancellara, with no teammates to help, was the victim of the Quick Step team’s negative tactics and a strong chase by BMC Racing, which led to the opening taken by Saxo Bank’s Nuyens. That interrelated team battle is something we’re bound to see more of in the future — especially with the coalescing of powerful teams, Leopard joining forces with RadioShack and Quick Step with Omega Pharma; the strengthening of BMC; and the formation of GreenEdge Cycling.


6. EQUAL OPPORTUNITY

2011 Paris-Roubaix
Much to Cancellara's dismay, Hushovd was a loyal teammate to Vansummeren at Roubaix. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Seven seasons of racing as the right-hand man for more talented classics riders gave Vansummeren the experience he needed to win a race like Paris-Roubaix. But he would never have gotten that chance if he had remained with a Belgian squad and not moved to U.S.-based Garmin.

There’s a less hierarchical structure at American teams, especially Garmin, which has seen once-upon-a-time team workers like Christian Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal given their chance as leaders in the Tour de France. And that was the case with Vansummeren at this year’s Roubaix …

While reigning world champion Thor Hushovd was Garmin’s designated leader for the Hell of the North classic and he was on great form, the Norwegian went along with his new team’s equal-opportunity policy when Vansummeren remained in a breakaway that formed two hours earlier. Hushovd refused to help hot favorite Cancellara close a minimal half-minute deficit with 30km to go … and so the gap grew and Vansummeren had the experience to know when and where to make the winning move against the other three domestiques he was with.

7. KNOWLEDGE

2011 Tour of Flanders, Nick Nuyens wins
Nuyens came around Cancellara to win at Flanders. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com


One factor that is also playing an increasingly important role in the outcome of major races is riders’ self-knowledge, along with their increased knowledge of courses (from detailed reconnaissance rides) and tactics (from video analysis, pre-race team meetings and constant advice from team directors by radio). Those three aspects of knowing what to do certainly played a part in the classic wins this year by Vansummeren, Nuyens, Goss and Zaugg.

So at the end of this year of the underdog it’s likely that we can look ahead to even more shocks and surprises in 2012.

Editor’s Note: Former editor-at-large John Wilcockson is no longer a staff member at VeloNews, but he will be writing for this website as a guest columnist.


Total 2011 wins for UCI ProTeams
In the final race of its final season, HTC-Highroad put an exclamation point on being the most successful ProTeam in 2011 with Tony Martin’s victory at the Chrono des Nations in France. Coincidentally, Leopard-Trek also won the final race of its one and only season with Oliver Zaugg at the Tour of Lombardy. And the only teams to have more than 10 riders among their final list of winners were the equal-opportunity “Anglo” squads of HTC, Team RadioShack, Team Sky and Garmin-Cervélo.

1. HTC-Highroad 49 (14 riders)
2. Team RadioShack 30 (12 riders)
3. Liquigas-Cannondale 30 (six riders)
4. Team Sky 28 (11 riders)
5. Omega Pharma-Lotto 28 (five riders)
6. Garmin-Cervélo 24 (11 riders)
7. Rabobank 24 (nine riders)
8. Lampre-ISD 23 (nine riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 22 (nine riders)
10. Leopard-Trek 21 (eight riders)
11. Movistar 20 (nine riders)
12. Katusha 19 (four riders)
13. Saxo Bank-SunGard 17 (six riders)
14. BMC Racing 11 (four riders)
15. Euskaltel-Euskadi 10 (five riders)
16. Astana 7 (five riders)
17. Quick Step 6 (four riders)
AG2R-La Mondiale 6 (four riders)

Individual wins in UCI .1 races and higher, including world RR and TT championships and national RR championships of major countries, through October 23.