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

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Oct. 25, 2011

… and why the trend toward unpredictable results will continue

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.

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