Here at Velo Voices we love to talk about cycling, and nothing delights us more than the opportunity to talk to each other and to fellow fans about the sport. In the first of a four-part series to kick off 2012, we take a look back at the past year.
2011 in review
What was your favourite race or moment of 2011?
Tim: 2011 was a great year, wasn’t it? So many amazing moments.
My favourite races were back-to-back stages at the Tour de France involving the two passages over the Galibier. First there was Andy Schleck’s do-or-die solo attack to win stage 18. It might well have won him the entire Tour had Cadel Evans not taken on sole responsibility for driving the yellow jersey group to close the gap.
It was a magnificently dogged ride by the Aussie, and he had to do it again the following day after Contador’s early attack. Again Evans had to dig deep and chase over the Galibier. Again he had virtually no help. And again he shut down the threat. Those two huge efforts set up his eventual victory. The rider whose toughness under pressure many of us had questioned proved us all wrong in his typically bloody-minded style.
On those two days I suddenly grew to love a rider who I had previously only respected. The fact I had had a pre-Tour punt on him to win at 22/1 didn’t hurt either!
Sheree: 2011 was my maiden outing to the Vuelta and it didn’t disappoint. While it’s a far more parochial and intimate affair than the Tour, it’s much easier to get up close and personal with the riders. The crowds might not be as large but they’re both fanatical and knowledgeable.
Stage 19 started in the charming Cantabrian coastal town of Noja before heading to the finish in Bilbao, the Vuelta’s first visit to the Basque country in 33 years. After watching the peloton sign on and depart, we headed back into Bilbao to watch the action unfold on the big screen in the finishing straight. It was 39°C in the shade and the action on the road was equally scorching.
With two Basques in the breakaway, the excitement among the crowd was electric, the atmosphere fantastic. What could be better than a Basque winner in the Basque country? As Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Anton pulled clear of the breakaway group and set off with intent toward the finish, every man, woman and child was willing him to win.
The wall of sound as he crossed the finish line, arms aloft, had to be heard to be believed. His joy at winning the stage was evident on his face. Igor had single-handedly rescued his team’s Vuelta, in his home region.
Kathi: I have two – although they were so hard to choose from because you’re right Tim, it was a fantastic year!
My first one was Fabian Cancellara’s balls-to-the-wall chase back in the E3 to bridge from group to group after numerous punctures and a bike change until he forced himself into the lead and away. So so strong and just an astonishing piece of riding – it must have felt like there was a locomotive bearing down on those groups when he was chasing. No wonder they all marked him so heavily in the other classics – they must have been terrified of him after they saw that performance!
My second is Andy Schleck’s attack on stage 18 as well. For the first time, his riding convinced me that he actually wanted to win and so wasn’t afraid to lose by making an audacious attack. He didn’t look back, he just went for it and it was so thrilling – and considering his usual MO of constantly looking around for Frank, totally unexpected and absolutely exhilarating.
The sight of Eddy Merckx rising out of the sunroof of the commissaire’s car to spur Andy on (and God, Andy looked about ready to drop dead by the end of that stage) was just icing on the cake. Although from the look that Andy gave him, I think he thought he was hallucinating! Every bit of that stage was why I love cycling so passionately.
Jack: My favourite moment of 2011 comes from the same stage as yours, Tim – stage 18 of the Tour de France. However, it’s not for the same reason. This was my favourite moment because of the extraordinary fighting from Thomas Voeckler, to stay in the maillot jaune.
As Schleck raced towards the finish it was agonising watching the clock tick down to see whether Voeckler had stayed in yellow for at least another day. Thanks to incredible determination from himself and teammate Pierre Rolland, he did. By mere seconds.
A long-time admirer of Voeckler, it was an incredible Tour for me. Like most of the cycling world, I was caught up in ‘Voecklermania’, and it was fantastic that a rider with such panache was at the business end of the racing. For just a moment, we could dream about a Frenchman winning the Tour again, and it was extremely exciting.
Tim: Good choices, all. It was great to see Anton at least win a stage after the disappointment of crashing out of the lead in 2010. Cancellara is a beast of a rider, and it says so much that it took orchestrated efforts by entire groups of riders to beat him in the classics. And it’s hard not to love Voeckler, isn’t it? Some riders are dominating, others are calculating – Tommy is one of those rare beasts you would define as ‘swashbuckling’.
Kathi: Thomas’ ride to stay in the maillot jaune reminded me so much of the first time he did it against Armstrong, just gritting his teeth and riding out of his skin. It was great to see that he still has that tenacity after all these years!
Sheree: It’s certainly cemented his reputation as the French public’s chouchou (favourite).
What were your other personal highlights of 2011?
Kathi: I was able to go to the final time trial of the Tour de Suisse in June and see Cancellara come flying out of the start-house into this tunnel of energy and sound from the crowd. It was in Schauffhausen, the start was a little cobbled descent so it was a tight squeeze for the crowd and every inch of it was taken up. I’d climbed onto a window ledge about four feet above the crowd, hanging by my fingertips for about an hour, and when he was announced everyone just went nuts. The noise was deafening and you could light an entire city on the energy that was being pumped out by everyone. It was such an incredible moment … and then he was gone …
Jack: At the Tour, one of my favourite riders Jeremy Roy went on an incredible streak of attacking on nigh on every single stage! Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, and he went the whole Tour without winning a stage – heartbreakingly losing out in the final few kilometres to Thor Hushovd on stage 13. A consolation it may be, but I was pleased to see him awarded the Prix de la combativité at the end of the Tour.
Of course, being a big Philippe Gilbert fan, it was nice to see him in the yellow jersey for a period, and also seeing him win the Belgian national championships. It was good to see the Belgian flag at the front end for once, rather than dropping off the back of the peloton which is what we became accustomed to when worn by Stijn Devolder!
Sheree: For me there are two other stand-out moments in 2011. First, Sammy Sanchez bagging his maiden Tour win (at long last) at Luz Ardiden and winning the polka dot jersey. My second was Team GB’s magnificent and wholly commanding performance in Copenhagen to secure gold for Mark Cavendish in the Men’s Road Race. The cherry on the icing was the opportunity to congratulate Mark in person when I bumped into him in my hotel the following morning.
Tim: The road race at the Worlds is a great shout, Sheree. If ever there was an example of how cycling is a team sport, that was it. Every member of the team had a specific job to do, and as Cav himself would say he was just the one whose job it was to get to the line first.
As for my highlights, if there’s one thing I love more than a great sprint, it’s seeing a sprint won by a burgeoning new talent. Three youngsters caught my eye last season. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano, now 1t4i) has real speed, Peter Sagan is hugely powerful (and, like Thor Hushovd, he can get over the climbs) and John Degenkolb is a junior Greipel. The first two won stages at the Vuelta, and I think Sagan in particular will prove to be a real handful for Cavendish, Greipel et al in 2012.
Your personal lowlight?
Tim: There have been too many to name this season: the elongated Contador scandal, Xavier Tondo’s death, Mauricio Soler’s crash and subsequent coma. But the image which will live with me forever is that of Wouter Weylandt lying stricken in the road on stage three of the Giro, surrounded by medics but clearly gravely – and as it soon turned out, fatally – injured.
I watched the whole thing unfold live. I really wish I hadn’t. It was horrific, truly horrific.
Jack: Agreed, racing pales into insignificance when something like what happened to Wouter Weylandt occurs. Xavier Tondo of course shouldn’t be forgotten. He was one of the good guys in cycling – helping police bust a doping ring in Girona was a tremendous achievement.
Sheree: I can only echo both your comments. I was profoundly saddened by Wouter’s tragic death and also wished I hadn’t been privy to those images.
Kathi: Yes, that’s mine too. There’s really not much to say about something like that, words just aren’t adequate, but it weighs heavy on the heart. And it still does.
Who did we say goodbye to in 2011 that we’ll really miss?
Sheree: I’m going to miss Basque ‘Txente’ aka Jose Vincente Garcia Acosta who has spent his entire professional career with the same team throughout its various incarnations and has ridden in support of riders such as Indurain. His palmares, while modest for someone with 17 seasons under his belt, included stage wins at both the Tour (2000) and Vuelta (1997 and 2002). In my mind he typifies the unsung heroes of the peloton and I wish him every success and happiness in his well-earned retirement.
Tim: The individual riders remain but the team which bound them together is now gone. HTC-Highroad won 500-odd races in four years, many of them with arguably the best sprint train the sport has ever seen riding for arguably the best finisher the sport has ever seen. Mark Cavendish was often first across the line, but he is not the only sprint talent the team fostered – just look at Matt Goss, Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb to name but three. Add to that the best lead-out man in the business in Mark Renshaw, the reigning world time trial champion in Tony Martin, and superior road captains such as George Hincapie and Bernhard Eisel, and the sport has lost a very special team.
Jack: I agree, Tim. I’m far from a massive HTC-Highroad fan, more of a begrudging admirer. What they achieved in their relatively short lifespan was immense, and I do wonder whether we’ll ever see anything like it again. Seeing their lead-out train was always an incredible sight, and stage three of the 2009 Tour, when they splintered the peloton in crosswinds, will live long in the memory.
An honourable mention goes to Cyril Dessel, who has retired after eleven years of professional cycling. His achievements include finishing an impressive sixth in the 2006 Tour, holding the yellow jersey for a day in the process, and winning a stage in the 2008 edition.
Kathi: I’m disappointed that Leopard Trek has gone. Because I liked the name, I liked the team, and I loved their kit. But other than that, there wasn’t anyone that’s left that I’m going to think “oh, what a shame”.
Tim: Great stuff, folks. I think that’s 2011 in the can. See you back here for more of the same in a couple of days’ time? We can start looking forward to an exciting 2012 then.
If you would like to add your voice to the discussion, please feel free to add a comment below. And look out for part two of our round-table on Wednesday, where we discuss some of the key movers and shakers for the upcoming season.