Small races, big action: Andrew Hood’s personal highlight reel from 2011

A handful of smaller European races get little or no TV coverage, but that doesn't mean that the racing is any less intense. European correspondent Andrew Hood hit a few of those races this year and found them a return to the days when journalists had to write their dispatches the old-fashioned way, by listening to race radio and standing by the side of the road to see what was going on.

Bike racing is more visible than ever thanks to the proliferation of television and Internet coverage that allows fans to watch in real-time races in every corner of the globe.

While live images are more prevalent than ever, plenty of races are held in a virtual media blackout, at least when it comes to watching live-action footage.

A handful of smaller European races get little or no TV coverage, but that doesn’t mean that the racing is any less intense. I hit a few of those races in 2011, returning to those thrilling days of yesteryear when journalists wrote their dispatches the old-fashioned way, by listening to race radio and standing by the side of the road to see what was going on.

Here are a few of the races that flew well under the media radar in 2011 but made my highlight reel:

Vuelta a Murcia: Contador’s comeback

2011 Vuelta a Murcia, Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador started 2011 strongly with a victory at Murcia.

With his clenbuterol case hanging over his head like an executioner, Alberto Contador endured a roller-coaster season in 2011. The Spanish rider proved he was a fighter on the bike — he capped his season with overall victory at the Giro d’Italia and served up gutsy, down-to-the-wire racing in the Tour de France even though he was handicapped coming out of the gates.

His most emotional win came in Murcia in early March, just weeks after his return to racing following the Spanish cycling federation’s U-turn allowing him to return to racing. The three-day Spanish race saw Contador determined to let his legs do the talking and he earned a dramatic victory against Denis Menchov and Jerome Coppel, winning two stages and the overall.

The real battle came on the narrow, dangerous roads of the Sierra Espuña in southern Spain on the second day. Risking all, Contador attacked on a descent that saw David Plaza break his leg; also crashing was Juan Mauricio Soler, who would later suffer life-threatening injuries at the Tour de Suisse.

“I cannot put into words to describe what I have been through these past few months,” Contador said after the win. “This victory means a lot to me.”

The next day, Contador won a short time trial to cement the overall title and celebrated the victory in front of an exultant crowd in Murcia.

His clenbuterol case is finally to be decided in mid-January, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is expected to reveal its decision. In the balance is the Murcia win, along with all his victories since the 2010 Tour de France.

Tour de Mumbai: Viviani’s history-making sprint

Riding from Nashik to Mumbai. Photo: Andrew Hood

History of sorts was made last year during the one-day Tour of Nashik, when India saw its first-ever international road race on open roads across the rugged hill country of Maharashtra.

It was a bizarre contrast between the high-tech bikes and colors of top European pro teams such as RadioShack and Liquigas and the curious Indian fans lining the route in the out-and-back road race. Incredibly, no cows wandered onto the course and fans seemed delighted to watch the pros duke it out for the spoils.

Viviani scored the win ahead of Robbie McEwen as part of his eight-win season; he would later win two stages at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. Viviani’s last win of the season came at the Tour of Beijing, another international race that saw cycling enter new terrain.

The Tour de Mumbai will be back in 2012 with three one-day races as part of an ambitious plan to create a stage race across India. Last year’s Nashik race proved — despite some major hurdles — that elite, pro-level bike racing is possible, even in places as unlikely as India.

GP Stad Zottegem: Tuft powers alone

Everyone knows how tough Svein Tuft is, one of the hardest men in the pack. The popular Canadian finally got a well-deserved road victory during the GP Stad Zottegem in Belgium in August when he drove home an 18km solo victory.

Tuft rode against a brisk Belgian headwind to win by 36 seconds. Not many people saw it, but it was a huge win for Tuft, for his SpiderTech-C10 team and for Canadian cycling.

The victory was the first by a Canadian national champion to win a European pro race and became SpiderTech’s biggest European win of the year.

That same week, Tuft revealed he was heading back to the WorldTour with a move to GreenEdge for 2012.

Tour of Turkey: Efimkin wins

There actually was some TV coverage of the Tour of Turkey, but there probably weren’t many people were watching. Team Type 1 rode away with its biggest win of its first major racing season in Europe with Aleksandr Efimkin grabbing the overall.

The victory came at the expense of Garmin-Cervélo’s Thomas Peterson, who looked to have a comfortable 27-second lead to Cameron Wurf (Liquigas-Cannondale) and 29 seconds to Efimkin after the decisive fifth stage.

The next day, however, Garmin was outgunned by TT1, who found allies with Astana and FDJ, to break Peterson’s grip on the leader’s jersey. André Greipel won the sprint, but Efimkin and company forced a split in the main pack that allowed the Russian to move permanently in the lead.

The victory was especially sweet for TT1, which saw nearly all of its bikes, equipment, tools and gear stolen while racing the Coppi-Bartali in late March. The team regrouped, often riding with spare bikes and parts, and delivered a season-highlight win at Turkey.

Giro del Trentino: Voeckler outsmarts Italians

Thomas Voeckler made headlines this year by nearly riding away with the yellow jersey, but Tommy V was on a tear all season long. While his victories were not quite of the caliber of those chalked up by Philippe Gilbert, Voeckler racked up eight wins en route to starting the Tour de France.

And those wins came not via sprints or time trials, but thanks to gutsy, attack-laden tactics that have become his trademark. He won two stages at Paris-Nice, but perhaps his biggest “under the radar” win came at the Giro del Trentino in late April.

Voeckler followed the attacking Michele Scarponi after a four-man breakaway was reeled in late in the second stage. Riding in the French champion’s jersey, Voeckler out-kicked Scarponi, who later win the Trentino race before taking second overall at the Giro d’Italia.

That win set the tone for what would be his remarkable ride through the Tour de France.