Like every season, I have been looking out for the kind of road racing that gets me out of my seat, cheering at the TV screen. The reason for this levitating action has a name. It is called panache. For the last three years I’ve been making it my duty to publicise the need for this quality and attitude. And here we are again, with a day or two until the Tour begins – at season’s peak – expecting something to light up the roads of France.
For a reminder of the characteristics we look for when deciding whether an exploit has true panache or is just a show of strength, you might like to read my original plea from 2010:
“This is my call to all pro riders this season: Show some panache. Think for yourself. Assert your own personality on a race, or a moment. Surprise us and give us something to cheer. Stand up for yourself and stand out from the crowd. Honour yourself and honour the sport. Ultimately, you’ll gain more from chancing your arm than from grinding out yet another respectable result. And we will love you all the more for it.”
Looking back over the last three years of racing in particular, has panache been on the rise? Or is it gradually being crushed by the influence of power meters, professionalism and big budget teams?
Despite all the image problems that are fuelled by the relentless doping cases in our sport, road racing is in remarkably good shape. media coverage is increasing, albeit slowly. A core of teams like Rabobank and Sky are committed to the sport for many years. And some riders are still taking races by the scruff of the neck, taking breathtaking chances in the pursuit of glory. The search for panache so far this year has been easier than either of the previous two seasons. Perhaps this is a happy by-product of riders understanding their own image rights better and looking to increase their market value. Still, the lesser-knowns with little to lose [UCI points, that is] and everything to prove can also give the buckles a swash when the opportunity knocks.
Here is my top ten for the 2012 season so far. It includes some familiar names and will no doubt be as contentious as ever:
1 – Jonathan Tiernan Locke / Tour of Haut Var
JTL broke through at the Tour of Britain last year, winning the KOM for Rapha Condor Sharp, so you could say I was biased. But he burst onto the top table of racing in this season’s early French races with dramatic attacks on the short sharp climbs of Provence. After winning the Tour of the Med he was a marked man at Haut Var, but was untouchable again. His effective punchy style of climbing and, especially, his lack of sunglasses show panache and make him stand out.
2 – Thomas De Ghent / Paris-Nice and Giro d’Italia Stage 20
Yet again De Ghent makes it into my list with ease. His attack over the Col de Vence was the highlight of another fascinating Race to the Sun. His solo ride up the Stelvio was easily the best exploit of the Giro and he became a star that day. The Belgian is rapidly becoming my favourite racer to watch.
3 – Tom Boonen / Paris-Roubaix
Beautiful Tom has had the season of his life, winning four prestigious classic races and equalling Roger De Vlaeminck’s Roubaix record. But given that he didn’t start the classics campaign as a major favourite, each win was joyous and not just for the Flemish. At Roubaix he repeated Cancellara’s feat of riding away over 50km from a large, hard-chasing group of contenders, with no suspicion of a motor. Total class and now Belgian National Champ to boot.
4 – Oscar Friere / Amstel Gold
This ride was special not simply because Friere is known as a sprinter and Amstel Gold (as anyone whose ever ridden around the area can testify) is an incredibly hard race. Nor is it the way that he tried to win it, by jumping away 10km from the finish – something other ‘sprinters’ wouldn’t dream of. The reason his ride was so special was that he did it because of his dignity (a very Spanish type of motivation). Having been unceremoniously dumped by Rabobank last year, his desire to rub his old sponsors faces in it drove him to chance everything on a dramatic win. And he almost pulled it off…
5 – Vincenzo Nibali / Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Still no cigar for Vincenzo. He was dominant at Tirreno Adriatico, but has failed to land another major race or stage this year. But it has not been for want of trying and he came very close at La Doyenne, breaking away past the Rapha Mobile Cycle Club over the Cote de la Roche aux faucons and riding for a solo win. He died a thousand deaths coming into Liege on the Saint Nicolas and was passed by Iglinskiy in the last 2km. Nibali may not be the most tactically astute rider, but he always animates races.
6 – Iljo Keisse / Tour of Turkey Stage 7
When he broke away from his 14 breakaway companions, The Omega Pharma rider knew all about the dangerous right hander on the run in to the finish in Izmir. But he still crashed with 1km to go. With his heart no doubt pounding in his ears, the Belgian calmly picked himself up, put his chain back on and remounted. He held off the fast finishing peloton by a second at the finish, with us all screaming at the TV. Grace under pressure.
7 – Mark Cavendish / Giro d’Italia Stage 5
Two days after crashing at 70 kmh in stage three and leaving a large amount of skin on the tarmac, Cavendish showed amazing class by destroying his rivals in a brilliant sprint finish in Fano. I can only imagine how the road rash felt.
8 – Jan Barta / Giro d’Italia Stage 14
Barta, the relatively unknown Czech NetApp rider, went away alone on the first climb and had a five minute gap on the peloton with a small chasing group behind. The chasing group eventually brought him back before the final climb, where three riders broke free; Amador, De Marchi and Barta. As they reached the summit Barta was suffering so much he was hyperventilating! To be riding solo on the first GPM and to then break away with two fresher riders on the last mountain and still manage a sprint to finish second showed remarkable determination.
9 – Matteo Rabottini / Giro d’Italia Stage 15
The efforts of Jan Barta were immediately eclipsed by this stage of the Giro and, for my money, the ride of the year so far. Away in the break all day, Rabottini had crashed when alone on the descent before the final climb. His head hung and he looked cooked. His valiant efforts all day looked to have been for nought when he was caught by Rodriquez with 200m to go. We all assumed Rodriquez would go straight past for victory or, worse, gift the stage to Rabottini. But somehow the Italian got back onto his wheel and came around Purito to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat. I was on my feet cheering. True panache.
10 – Peter Sagan / Tour de Suisse Stage 3
Sagan has been impressive all year, but he showed panache too when he pulled his foot out in the sprint with 300 m to go, clipped back in, caught Baden Cooke and won. Amazing potential and glimpses of class too.
Thanks to Tom Southam, Michael Barry and Rapha staff for help compiling this list.