Gilbert tops 2011 cycling season
As Alberto Contador fought back tears during an impassioned plea against doping accusations last February, his rivals were planning for a season which would eventually etch some of their names in cycling's history books.
By the end of 2011, only a few names stood out from the rest – and Contador, despite coasting to his second Giro d'Italia victory in June, wasn't among them.
While Cadel Evans finally triumphed at the Tour de France and sprint king Mark Cavendish ended Britain's 46-year wait for a world road race title, the biggest draw of 2011 was arguably Philippe Gilbert.
The Omega-Pharma rider was a big hit at the Tour de France where he produced a classy uphill finish to win the opening stage and pull on the coveted yellow jersey for the first time.
Even before July rolled around, however, the Belgian had dominated the hilly one-day classics with a determination and panache that prompted Eddy Merckx-like comparisons from weathered cycling observers.
Comparing any modern day cyclist to the Belgian legend is nonsensical. His was an era when racers rode over 150 days a year and Merckx, known as the 'Cannibal' for his voracious appetite, was and remains unrivalled.
Yet many of Gilbert's 18 victories came in tough races, and he raced all year round in a bid to finish as world No 1.
In total he won a total of five one-day classics including the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege – a trilogy known as the Ardennes Classics and achieved only once before, by Italian Davide Rebellin.
Days prior to defending his Amstel crown Gilbert had won the Fleche Brabanconne on April 13, one of several 'semi-classic' victories the 29-year-old also added to his collection.
It was that series that gave Gilbert most pleasure.
"For me, that series (of four wins) was quite phenomenal," said Gilbert. "But it was also the way I won the races as well.
"What I'm also proud of is the fact that from April 13 to July 2, no one beat me in a race."
Gilbert also took stage wins at the Tour of the Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico, as well as overall victory and a stage win at both the Tour of Belgium and Ster ZLM Toer.
And after three runner-up places in the five previous years, he was crowned Belgian champion in June, thus ending four years of Flemish hegemony in the black, orange and yellow jersey.
Still, Quick Step's Tom Boonen, the 2005 world and 2009 Belgian champion, took his biggest win of the year at Ghent-Wevelgem a week after Australian Matt Goss took the biggest win of his career at Milan-San Remo, where Gilbert was third.
Another Flemish, Saxo Bank's Nick Nuyens, proved the wiliest at the Tour of Flanders and a week later fellow Flandrian Johan Van Summeren of Garmin caused a huge upset to win Paris-Roubaix.
While Gilbert got his maiden Tour de France stage in July, Evans was the man of the moment.
Finally, the stars aligned for the Australian who had twice finished runner-up and fallen victim to misfortune in previous yellow jersey attempts.
As three-time champion Contador suffered crashes early in the race, Evans' BMC outfit provided crucial support and he produced a series of remarkable performances to keep his bid alive in the mountains.
On the penultimate stage's time trial, Evans easily overturned a 57sec deficit to Luxembourg's Andy Schleck to secure a historic win.
"It's been years of hard work and there were a lot of moments in these three weeks where our Tour was lost but to get here safely with all my skin... just that alone is a quest in itself," said Evans.
Post-Tour, Gilbert won the hilly San Sebastian Classic and, mid-August, won a stage and the overall at the Eneco Tour.
He then captured the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec to ensure he would finish the year as world No 1.
The season of Contador paled in comparison, only being brightened by his marriage to his girlfriend of 10 years Macarena Pescador.
Heading into 2012, the Spaniard is still awaiting deliberation from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on an appeal by cycling and doping authorities to ban him for a positive test for clenbuterol in 2010.
By Justin Davis, AFP