Panache in 2011

Last year I wrote an open letter to the sport of cycling, bemoaning the lack of panache in an increasingly professional, mechanised and clinical sport. It acted as a call to arms to see more character and swashbuckling spirit in the pro ranks.

“This is my call to all pro riders this season: Show some panache. Think for yourself. Assert your 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.”

I followed up with a progress report of exploits that had impressed me in the first half of the season. Now that 2011 is over, I have revisited the list and would now like to present my Panache of 2011 shortlist:

1. Thomas Voeckler | Paris – Nice, final stage

We have become used to Voeckler’s attacking style of racing. But his audacious attack on the final descent of Paris Nice (to win his second stage of the race) showed supreme confidence and spirit. He has done the tricolour national jersey proud.

2. Fabian Cancellara | E3 Prijs

Panache and total domination tend not to go hand in hand. But Cancellara’s repeated attacks and lone 18km ride to the finish were so impressive that they gave this performance beauty and character to go with the superhuman power.

3. Johan Van Summeren | Paris-Roubaix

This was a notable exception when I published my first list of exploits last July. Many of you commented that Van Summeren should be included. It’s not uncommon for a solo break to win the Hell of the North but the fact that Van Summeren rode the last few kilometres with a flat tyre and then proposed to his girlfriend from the velodrome added a strong element of panache to his performance.

4. Philippe Gilbert | Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Gilbert nailed his colours to the mast in January. He wanted to win in Liege as the course of ‘La Doyenne’ passes through his home town. Some said such a long, hilly classic was beyond him. But on the day Gilbert was supreme monitoring all the moves before destroying the Schleck brothers on the climb of Saint Nicholas to complete the Fleche/Amstel/Liege treble. Panache personified.

5. Vincenzo Nibali | Giro d’Italia, Stage 15

Stage 15 of the Giro had it all. The greatest day of stage racing this year for my money. You could make a good case for Garzelli getting the prize for panache. His long, lone break was inspiring. But Vincenzo Nibali showed all the character and risk-taking you could want. Dropped on the monstrous Fedaia/Marmolada climb, he threw himself down the other side and made up over three minutes on the descent to catch the group of favourites. Nibali even had the temerity to attack the group as soon as he caught them, before being blown away again on the final climb. Breathtaking.

6. Alex Dowsett | Smithfield Nocturne, London

Dowsett set central London alight at the Nocturne last year, riding away on the first loop and lapping almost the entire field to win. It was exciting, audacious and very impressive. Unfortunately it meant that our team has still not won the event that Rapha Condor created back in 2007.

7. Damiano Cunego | Tour de Suisse, Stage 3

I’ve always had a soft spot for the little prince, but he has disappointed for years. On the stage to Grindlewald this year he fired out of the peloton half way up the final climb, caught and dropped the breakaway group before the summit, then shot down an incredibly technical and dangerous descent to take the race lead at the finish. Cunego stamped his personality onto the race in a way that is all too rare.

8. Edvald Boasson Hagen | Tour de France, Stage 17

Having been outsprinted by the world champ into Gap, Fast Eddie attacked on the final climb and showed amazing bike handling when descending into Pinerolo. That man can go very fast and in great style too.

9. Alberto Contador | Tour de France, Stage 19

Perhaps a more obvious choice would have been Andy Schleck’s solo odyssey on Stage 18 to the Galibier, but to my mind that only just made up for the lack of effective attacking riding from the brothers in the Pyrenees. Those of us who had ridden the Etape du tour over the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez the week before were astonished to see Contador attack after only 15km of the stage. It was crazy, desperate, but also dramatic and hugely impressive. A champion who wouldn’t give in. The noise from the crowds around the Mobile Cycle Club as he rode past us at turn 6 were resounding cheers of support and affection.

10. Team GB | World Champ Road Race

A rare example of an entire team showing panache. Everyone knew the Team GB game plan and this was a harder race to control than Zolder in 2002. But no team could stop GB riding on the front for all 200-plus kilometres before delivering Cavendish to the final kilometre. I’m not especially patriotic but this was stunning: brave, selfless riding and devastating power.

Clearly, this is a personal list and I have no doubt that some people’s favourites are missing. There are moments of panache that simply aren’t documented for most to witness. I’d invite you to comment on my choices and suggest others that may be worthy of another shortlist.

Perhaps, if the pros find themselves re-reading this list, it will inspire the most talented riders the world over to make 2012 a vintage year for panache in our beloved sport. Roll on the start of the season in Adelaide.