Cycling review 2011
After one of the most exciting cycling seasons in recent memory we take a look at who hit the heights in 2011.
Last Updated: 22/12/11 12:41pm
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Rider of the Year - Philippe Gilbert (OmegaPharma-Lotto)
Superlatives ran out long ago when it came to describing the 2011 season of Philippe Gilbert. 18 wins tells its own story, yet that number cannot convey the dominant manner in which the Belgian went about his business. Not blessed with the strongest sprint finish, Gilbert (who claimed both national titles in 2011) was forced to attack his rivals in the closing stages, leading to some simply sensational victories. Oozing panache, nowhere was he more in his element than the Ardennes classics. The 29-year-old won all three convincingly, seemingly having his rivals beaten before a pedal had been turned. A stage one victory and early spell in the Tour de France yellow jersey was impressive, not to mention wins at Strade Bianche, Brabantse Pijl, Clasica San Sebastian and GP de Montreal to name a few. Gilbert will take on an all-new challenge in 2012 as he joins the American-Swiss superteam BMC. Surely he can't be as dominant again?
Worthy champion - Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad)
The sprinter has reduced winning Grand Tour stages to an art form and a near certainty - so much so that it is sometimes easy to overlook the Brit's achievements. The truth is that for a rider to remain at the top of his game year after year with such a sizeable target on his back is nothing short of extraordinary. Try as they might teams have not been able to formulate a gameplan to halt the 'Manx Missile' on a regular basis. What makes matters worse for his rivals is that Cavendish seemingly bounces back stronger from each defeat. Cavendish's season would be impressive enough as it stood heading into the World Championships, yet the prospect of donning the rainbow jersey for 12 months resonated so deeply with the rider and his British team-mates they were simply unbeatable in Copenhagen. Now an expectant father, the world champion Tour de France green jersey winner embarks on a new adventure as he joins Team Sky for 2012. The return to a British squad to race alongside a host of former team-mates and training partners has given Cavendish a feeling of 'going home'.
Most improved rider - Chris Froome (Team Sky)
The Vuelta a Espana saw a transformation take place. Team Sky's Chris Froome lined up at the start of his race aiming to do his best to help team-leader Bradley Wiggins in the mountains. Little did he know he would have raced himself into the race lead by the first rest day. That rise was built on an impressive climbing performance on stage nine up to La Covatilla. Froome set a devastating tempo with Wiggins in tow, placing the duo in striking distance ahead of the stage 10 time trial. Despite burying himself the previous day, the Kenyan-born Brit surprised everybody with the second fastest time over the 47-kilometre course which gave him the race lead. And while he slipped back and lost the red jersey to Wiggins 'Froomey' remained in touch and proved stronger on the epic climb of the Angrilu. The only man stronger was Juan Jose Cobo, the same rider Froome narrowly pipped to win a stunning mountaintop finish on Pena Cabarga. An unselective final run-in left Froome with barely any chance of a win, but a fine second on the podium in Madrid with Wiggins third represented a meteoric rise and a landmark moment for British cycling.
Rising star - Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano)
Beating the debut pro season record of a certain Mark Cavendish, sprint powerhouse Marcel Kittel notched up an incredible 17 victories, second only to Gilbert in 2011. A potent combination of raw power and self-belief saw Kittel pull off some of the most audacious sprint victories seen in recent years. The big German repeatedly raised his arms metres before the line for three stages in succession at the Tour of Poland - his rivals seemingly powerless to stop him. The 23-year-old gave no inclination that these were his first wins at the prestigious WorldTour level. With just a single victory coming in his final year in the under-23 ranks Kittel was actually best known for his fearsome time trialling abilities. In addition to Kittel 2011 was a good year for emerging talent. Honourable mentions for the year also go to fellow fast men John Degenkolb (Kittel's team-mate next year at 14ti) and young Italian Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini).
Moment of the season - Tour de France stage 19 (Modane to Alpe-d'Huez)
The final mountain test of the Tour was a short 109.5km stage designed by organisers the ASO to produce exciting racing and that's exactly what happened. Humbled just a day earlier when he blew on the Col du Galibier, Alberto Contador wasted little time in detonating the race in the Alps. The Spaniard attacked after just 15km, causing the favourites to react on the Col du Telegraphe in a titanic struggle which saw Andy Schleck take over the lead and Thomas Voeckler's dreams of winning fade. Contador couldn't quite sustain his effort and came home third, clearly still paying for his exploits at the Giro d'Italia in May. Cadel Evans was exposed and forced to do the bulk of the chase work, gritting his teeth to move within striking distance of Schleck heading into the next day's time trial. The stage went down to the wire and produced a worthy winner atop L'Alpe d'Huez in young climbing star Pierre Rolland, the first Frenchman to win at the top of the prestigious climb for 25 years. What a classic!
Best performance - Thomas Voeckler (Europcar)
When it comes to a display of guts and sheer bloody-minded determination, no one comes close to Thomas Voeckler at this year's Tour de France. On paper the Frenchman should not have been able to ascend with the world's elite climbers at the Tour de France but there he was, plugging away day after day with his trademark grimace. The 32-year-old moved into the fabled malliot jaune after a breakaway attempt stayed clear on stage nine. Voeckler came within fractions of being taken out in the accident which saw Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha wiped out by a TV car. He continued to ride his luck, spending 10 days in yellow to the adoration of the French public en route to an eventual fourth place overall. And all of that after his French-based Europcar team almost disbanded at the end of 2010. Voeckler's determination was instrumental in the Vendee squad's survival and he repaid his new sponsor's faith in spades with the best season of his career.
Team of the season - Team Sky
A tough category with a number of contenders. Let's take a look. OmegaPharma-Lotto ended the year as the UCI's number one ranked team, largely due to the achievements of Gilbert. Garmin-Cervelo had a superb Tour de France and punched well above their weight. A largely disappointing Classics campaign was salvaged by Johan Van Summeren who took a solo win at Paris-Roubaix. HTC-Highroad continued their trend of winning races by the bucket-load - a whopping 56 in all! In Mark Cavendish and Tony Martin the disbanding squad came away from the World Championships in September with both rainbow jerseys - a bitter sweet exit from the sport. Team Sky made a sound case after a vastly improved second season in the pro peloton. The team looked a more cohesive unit and the wins began to flow in big races. Overall victory at the Criterium du Dauphine courtesy of Bradley Wiggins, not to mention second and third at the Vuelta (Wiggins and Froome) saw the team step up to the plate in stage races. Comfortable winners of the year-end CQ Rankings, it is hard to look past the British squad for their 2011 achievements.
Low point - Contador saga
17 months after his 2010 Tour de France victory and 15 months after he was announced as testing positive for Clenbuterol, the Alberto Contador affair is still rumbling on. The Spaniard has switched teams in that time, joining SaxoBank-Sungard at the start of 2011 and winning nine races including the Giro d'Italia - his sixth Grand Tour success. Contador's victory in one of the toughest Giro's in recent memory saw his rivals scratching their heads, yet left him feeling fatigued two months later when it came to the Tour de France where he could only manage fifth. With his CAS hearing now over the cycling world waits for a verdict, expected sometime in January. Despite the on-going saga things are actually much brighter within the sport, with a greatly reduced number of positive cases in 2011.
Controversy - Radio gaga
An early-season race radio ban created many headlines but hinted at larger problems as a number of teams expressed their displeasure with the sport's governance under the UCI. Things came to a head at the early-season Trofeo Palma de Mallorca at the beginning of February. The race went ahead but the results and Tyler Farrar's victory were not recognised by the UCI. A proposed blanket ban on radios starting in 2012 has been pushed back as the decision is again reviewed. The anger of the teams stemmed from a perceived lack of consultation in decision-making and the future direction of the sport.
Year to remember - Cadel Evans (BMC Racing)
After a successful season in the rainbow jersey in 2010 Cadel Evans kicked off his 2011 campaign with one aim - to win the Tour de France. At 34 the Australian was under no illusions that his window of opportunity was quickly closing. The rider often referred to as the nearly-man of cycling had to strike now. Two years into his time with BMC Evans finally had the team around him to help take victory on the grandest stage of them all. Despite that the Australian was still left exposed on a number of occasions, refusing to give in and remaining in touch heading into the final time trial. Evans took over two and a half minutes out of his rival Andy Schleck across the 42.5km to secure a momentous race victory. 2012 will provide challenges as both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd arrive with lofty ambitions of their own. While those two will carve up the Classics calendar between them, Evans will demand the team's full attention when it comes to the Tour.
Year to forget - The Schlecks
After a much-publicised move to the Luxembourg-based Leopard Trek team over the winter the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank again headed into 2011 full of optimism. The nearly man of the Tour de France in recent years, Andy spent the early season honing his form with the sole purpose of peaking in three weeks in July. That meant seemingly lacklustre performances at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, as well as a trip to California which, two months out and against reduced competition, could only yield eighth overall. Older brother Frank was at least able to salvage something from his early season with a win at Criterium International. Second and third places overall at Liege-Bastogne-Liege looked like a good result on paper, yet the Schlecks were humbled and shown to be tactically lacking as Philippe Gilbert won the three-way fight. The Tour produced a similar result, with the two brothers standing on the podium together for the first time in Paris. Yet the Achilles heel of the pair had been exposed yet again in the penultimate stage time trial as winner Cadel Evans put two and a half minutes into Andy, snatching the yellow jersey from his shoulders at the last possible moment. Stage 18 on the Col du Galibier had shown the brothers at their best, taking a 1-2 after a defiant breakaway from Andy yet it was not enough. With close to 100km of time trialling confirmed for the 2012 edition the brothers will be up against it once again.
Fond farewell - HTC-Highroad
Despite the threat lingering in the background no one really believed it would happen. Surely the world's best and most winning cycling team would be able to find a new sponsor to replace the departing HTC? Unfortunately that didn't turn out to be the case for Bob Stapleton and Highroad Sports as 2011 marked the final season for HTC-Highroad. Despite the exploits of Cavendish garnering most of the headlines, no fewer than 15 of the team's male roster secured victories in 2011 (more than any other team). All that success is before you even take into account an equally successful women's squad - thankfully saved ahead of the off-season. The team which grew out of the ashes of T-Mobile tore through the sport with a new outlook and a giant-killing spirit. In its various incarnations Highroad changed the face of sprinting and put many stars on the map. The peloton will be a poorer place without them.
Cycling also tragically lost two of its brightest talents in 2011. Belgian Wouter Weylandt was killed after a crash on the descent of the Passo del Bocco during of stage three of the Giro d'Italia. In the same month Spanish climber Xavier Tondo was the victim of a tragic accident while preparing to head out on a training ride.