There’s less than three weeks to go until the Tour Down Under gets the 2012 pro cycling season under way, but it will have to be some year to top the season just gone, which was filled with drama and thrilling racing from the start.
Sifting through the year’s races to produce a top ten was some task, and of necessity the races highlighted below (in date order) will omit some that others will feel merit inclusion following such a vintage year.
Mark Cavendish’s world championship win and Geraint Thomas’s breakaway ascent of the Tourmalet during the Tour de France would have been automatic choices, but we’ve already covered those in the Team Sky rider’s own look back at his most memorable races of the year.
The Tour de France alone could have provided a top ten of its own; Stage 9, for example, when Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland were taken out by a France Televisions car was a candidate for inclusion, but has been covered by VecchioJo in his round-up of the year’s best videos.
As ever, the Giro d'Italia produced some exciting stages, but nothing matched the impact of the silent tribute the peloton paid Wouter Weylandt the day after the Belgian's death on Stage 3.
Just missing the cut from my top ten was Philippe Gilbert and his Liege-Bastogne-Liege win that sealed the Ardennes hat-trick, and I’m sure you’ll have other races you feel should be included – let us know your own top ten races of the year in the comments.
Matt Goss wins Milan San Remo
Confession: A little under 20 years ago, I was only vaguely aware of cycling when, spending a year in Italy, I agreed to get up at an unreasonably early hour (at least for a student) on a Saturday morning to watch a bike race go through the town I lived in.
That race was Milan-San Remo and with the route taking it through familiar towns and villages in Lombardy and Liguria, it’s one of the races I most look forward to each season – the fact it kicks off the Classics season just adds to the anticipation.
For me, this year’s edition was a cracker from the moment a crash at Le Manie split the field and a small group of riders managed to get away. As they headed west along the coast, it quickly became apparent that the chasers would have their work cut out to catch them.
By the time the race hit the Poggio, with only Michele Scarponi managing to bridge across, it was clear they weren’t going to get reeled in. Once Greg Van Avermaet’s solo attack had been pulled back, all eyes were on the big names such as Cancellara and Gilbert, but Matt Goss had kept himself hidden and hit the front at just the right time.
With his new team GreenEdge focusing on one-day races and stage wins rather than harbouring any GC ambitions next season, the Australian is likely to give erstwhile team mate Mark Cavendish a run for his money.
Johan Vansummeren a surprise winner of Paris-Roubaix
The pre-race talk had centred around who could stop defending champion Fabian Cancellara, who had shown great form despite narrowly missing out on victory in both Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.
Marked heavily by riders including world champion Thor Hushovd, an attack by Cancellara on the Carrefour de l’Arbre was thwarted by a TV moto in front of him veering across his line, with a second motorbike passing on the outside forcing both the Leopard Trek rider and Hushovd to slam the brakes on (first video below).
Few had mentioned Garmin-Cervelo’s Johan Van Summeren as a potential winner, but with top ten finishes in 2008 and 2009, he’d proven he could go the distance and won in style on a warm, dusty afternoon despite a late charge from Cancellara.
Rounding the bend after crossing the finish line in the Roubaix velodrome alone, the Belgian was greeted by his girlfriend and proposed to her on the spot. To the delight – and relief – of the media scrum around the happy couple, she accepted.
The Giro d’Italia pays tribute to Wouter Weylandt
Some of the most powerful images of the 2011 WorldTour season, and certainly the most emotional ones, came on Stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia, the day after Wouter Weylandt had lost his life in a crash on a descent towards the end of the stage from Reggio Emilia to Rapallo.
Maglia rosa David Millar and Weylandt’s Leopard Trek team helped formulate the peloton’s response to the tragedy, with teams taking it in turns to move to the front as the Giro headed from the outskirts of Genoa to the finish in Livorno.
It was Leopard Trek themselves who took to the head of the race inside the closing kilometres, joined by Weylandt’s close friend and training partner, Garmin-Cervelo’s Tyler Farrar.
Approaching 100 metres to go, the American dropped back slightly, as though to let Weylandt’s team mates cross the line alone, but a gentle touch on the back brought him back to the front on a day when team rivalries were set aside, with the peloton united in its grief.
Damiano Cunego's descent in the Tour of Switzerland
Not content with bridging a two-minute gap to catch the group ahead of him on the road during Stage 3 of the Tour of Switzerland, shown in the first video below, Cunego went then gave a masterclass in the art of descending on treacherous roads on the way to the finish.
Peter Sagan caught him late on to win the stage, but Cunego got the consolation of taking the overall lead. Spectacular scenery, and superb bike handling skills not only from the Italian, but also the TV moto riders.
Andy Schleck attacks in the Alps, Tour de France Stage 18
Featuring the Tour’s highest ever summit finish at 2,645 metres, plus the highest point of the 2011 race, the 2,744 metre Col Agnel, this had been one of the most eagerly anticipated stages of the race ever since the roué had been unveiled in Paris the previous autumn.
A break containing two Leopard Trek riders was ahead on the road when Andy Schleck launched himself off the front of the GC group and put in one of the most thrilling breaks seen from an overall contender in many years.
With his team mates’ help, Schleck was soon at the head of the race on his own with an advantage of nearly five minutes and one arm in the maillot jaune. Behind him, however, his rivals were marshalling themselves.
Schleck would cross the line more than 2 minutes ahead of the second place rider, his brother, Frank, with eventual overall winner Cadel Evans the next man home after leading the chase, and with an individual time trial to come, the Australian held the advantage over the Leopard Trek rider.
Somehow, Thomas Voeckler managed to keep the maillot jaune for what would prove to be the final time, but the big loser on the day was defending champion Alberto Contador, who cracked on the final climb.
Pierre Rolland wins on the Alpe d’Huez, Tour de France, Stage 19
For 10 days in July, Pierre Rolland had been a constant presence at Thomas Voeckler’s side as against the odds the Europcar rider held on to the maillot jaune through the Pyrenees and into the Alps.
On the final day in the mountains, however, Voeckler realised the game was up after Alberto Contador launched an early attack that blew the field apart as the race headed up the Galibier.
Liberated from his duties as a domestique, it was Rolland who ensured that bend 16 of the Alpe d’Huez will forever bear his name, alongside that of 1979 stage winner Joop Zoetemelk.
In powering past Samuel Sanchez and Alberto Contador, Rolland also moved into the lead in the best young rider’s classification, which he would retain after the following day’s time trial to guarantee himself a place on the Champs-Elysées Podium.
Moreover, his victory ensured that France would avoid the ignominy of what would have been only the third ever edition of the Tour in which there was no home stage winner.
No wonder the commentators were so excited.
Mark Cavendish wins the green jersey on the Champs-Elysées, Tour de France, Stage 21
Mark Cavendish has raced on the Champs-Elysées three times, and on each occasion he’s led the Tour de France over cycling’s most famous finish line.
The first time, in 2009, he won by an outrageous margin, but the prize he really wanted, the green jersey, had eluded him, as it would do again 12 months later.
This year, however, it wasn’t Thor Hushovd or Alessandro Petacchi defending the green jersey in Paris, it was Cavendish himself, his 20th Tour de France stage win confirming his points classification victory, fulfilling one of the two big goals he had set himself for 2011. The other, of course, would be achieved in Copenhagen.
Dan Martin wins Stage 9 of the Vuelta on La Covatilla as Wiggins and Froome move up
This was the most memorable day in the mountains for British cycling fans for many years, as Garmin-Cervelo’s Dan Martin, born in Birmingham and a British junior road race champion before electing to ride for his mother’s native Ireland, took his maiden Grand Tour stage win.
Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, fully recovered from the broken collarbone that had seen him depart the Tour de France early, had put in a towering performance on the final climb to tow the small lead group up to the summit, supported by Chris Froome, the pair finishing fourth and fifth resepectively.
The efforts of the two Team Sky riders on La Covatilla provided the launch pad for their move up the GC after the following day’s individual time trial in Salamanca, won by Tony Martin with Froome second, putting him into the race leader’s red jersey, with Wiggins third to move up to the same position overall.
Chris Froome takes the Vuelta’s final mountain stage
Could Chris Froome have won the 2011 Vuelta? We’ll never know the answer to that question, but a monumental performance on the Stage 17 climb to Pena Cabarga in the race’s final mountain stage gave plenty of ammunition to those who insisted Team Sky had made a mistake in having Froome ride for Wiggins on Stage 11, which saw the latter take the red jersey from his team mate.
Juan Jose Cobo of Geox-TMC had taken the red jersey from Wiggins on the Angliru on Stage 14, and crucially the Spaniard was the only rider able to catch Froome after the latter attacked on the ascent to Pena Cabarga, though his lead was slashed to just 13 seconds.
Inside the last kilometre, Froome managed to open up a big gap over the flagging Spaniard and seemed destined to get the red jersey back, but somehow Cobo managed to recover and get back across to the Team Sky rider with the finish almost in sight.
Froome picked up 20 bonus seconds for crossing the line first, but Cobo was just one second behind the Team Sky rider, his 12-second bonus helping to limit his losses.
Those 13 seconds would remain the margin between the pair until the end of the race in Madrid, with Wiggins completing the podium.
Previously, Robert Millar, in the 1985 Vuelta and the 1987 Giro d’Italia, had been the only British rider to secure a GC podium position at a Grand Tour; now there were two in the same race, but the argument over whether one of them could have occupied the top step is one that will never be resolved.
Cav wins Tour of Britain finale in London
The Tour of Britain was already set to boast a star-studded line-up including world champion Thor Hushovd when Mark Cavendish’s early exit for the Vuelta meant that after securing permission from the UCI, he could use his home race as preparation for the world championships.
With the final day of the race returning to Central London after the Pope’s visit had caused it to be moved to Newham 12 months earlier, big crowds were out to enjoy the time trial, won by Team Sky’s Alex Dowsett, but what everyone wanted to see was whether Cav was in top form ahead of Copenhagen.
He didn’t disappoint, on an afternoon that also marked not only his final race before that life-changing victory in Copenhagen, but also the last time he would ride alongside his long-time leadout man at HTC-Highroad, Mark Renshaw – although the helicopter pictures suggest the Aussie had the win in the bag until Cavendish came through with an astonishing burst of speed to pip him on the line.
It may not have been the biggest or the best race of 2011, but as Cavendish's final win at HTC-Highroad ahead of the team being broken up at the end of the season, it did mark the end of an era, and for that reason it makes the list.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.