Here’s a selection of ten established riders to watch in the coming season. Some stand on the cusp of a big win, some face challenges on the road and others face new challenges like leadership and cohabitation with new team mates.
Tom Dumoulin is up first. His ride in the Vuelta was impressive for the results and the means by which he achieved them, often riding the latter part of a mountain stage without help from his team and his was one of the few tales of revenge or redemption for a missed Tour de France that worked out. Dumoulin is now on the radar as a potential grand tour contender and the Vuelta wasn’t a freak result. He made the podium in the Tour de Suisse last year and a year before that he was fifth there too. So if can keep up the linear progression 2016 looks set to be a great year. There are two declared goals: the Giro d’Italia and the Rio Olympics Time Trial. The Giro looks suitable, this year’s route tones down the mountains and adds the chronos, it even starts in the Netherlands. Can he win? Maybe but he’s turned 25 over the winter so merely repeating what we saw in the Vuelta would be a decent result. The Rio time trial looks perfect for him with a lot of climbing, all while Tony Martin says he’ll have a go at the spring classics suggesting the German won’t be at his leanest this year.
The story goes that Geraint Thomas is switching to stage racing. Only 2015 saw him do plenty of that already with the spring classics a mere parenthesis during season of stage racing that saw him finish the Tour and Vuelta, win the Volta ao Algarve, thrive in Paris-Nice and more. Now the spring classics will be reduced further as Thomas sets his sights on stage race success with the plan to be active in the early season stage races before riding shotgun for Chris Froome in July. If anything the Tour will be the comfort zone, playing second fiddle once again but it’s the solo act that’s of interest. If Team Sky call their soigneurs “carers” do they call their domestiques “butlers”? If so then this mean “G” could be Jeeves, Wodehouse’s fictional valet who is efficient, witty and possibly more talented than his master.
Sep Vanmarcke’s best race in 2015 turned out to be the Tour du Poitou-Charentes in August where he had two third places and finished fourth overall. Solid and sadly superior to his spring classics which were the real goal. He was thereabouts with some top ten finishes but often unlucky at just the wrong moment: a puncture here, a broken shoe there but it kept happening and he must have finished April on first name terms with Sporza’s Moto 2 crew. At times he looked too strong, surging across the cobbles in a show of force that often helped to split the race only for him to crack in the final moments of the race. He probably doesn’t need to change much and if Moreno Hofland can be back in full form then it’ll boost the team.
The revelation of 2015? Ilnur Zakarin. He won the Tour de Romandie after outclimbing Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana and beating Tony Martin in the final time trial and it wasn’t a freak result, Romandie is regularly targeted by top riders as a test. The Stork of Tartarstan then took a tough hilly stage of the Giro and collected other placings during the year. So what’s next for Zaka in 2016? Fatherhood according to a tweeted ultrasound scan. On the road the Giro will be his big test and the course suits with its reduced climbing and more time trials.
One rider who won’t like the Giro route so much is Mikel Landa. Not so much a revelation, more a confirmation, the Spaniard had a superb Giro and rode an excellent Vuelta too. Team Sky duly made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and he’ll be a designated leader for the Giro and Vuelta. So far so good but he’s a proven climber who, even when he has to, simply can’t turn out a good time trial. He lost over four minutes in the Valdobbiadene time trial in last year’s Giro to Alberto Contador and gave up over two minutes to the likes of Leopold König and Ryder Hesjedal despite being in the best form of his life and the course was hilly too. So before winning the Giro let’s see how he fares in time trials.
Julian Alaphilippe had enough second places in 2015 to make Raymond Poulidor jealous. Second to Sagan in the Tour of California, twice second to Alejandro Valverde in the Ardennes. This promises plenty but delivery will be hard work. For starters he’s no longer the neo-pro and Etixx-Quickstep will expect results. It’s one thing to be among the best at the end of the race when you surge out of the shadows but another when you’re in the limelight and carrying the burdens of leadership and expectation. The arrival of Dan Martin should help, the Irishman will also have to carry some of the burden in hilly races and it’ll be interesting to see if Etixx-Quickstep’s pressure works for him too. However, a gentle start seems likely as he finished 2015 with mononucleosis diagnosed after the Worlds and has had winter training interrupted. At today’s team press conference he was too tired to leave his hotel room and sent an apologetic SMS to the waiting journalists.
Many say they want to “shine in the Ardennes races” and it often seems a forlorn idea given these are some of the most selective races around and they attract proven specialists and GC champions alike so the chance of some second fiddle delivering a virtuoso solo performance is tiny. Of the specialists there’s none better than Philippe Gilbert who can have riders queuing on his wheel but still blast them off. Now it’s contract time for Gilbert. He signed with BMC Racing off the back of a superb spring classics campaign after winning all four “Ardennes” classics and the results haven’t come as fast; but they can’t as he set the bar so high. We’ve seen big wins with the World Championship title in 2012 and the Amstel Gold Race. There have been stages in the Giro and Vuelta, in part because of unease about taking him to the Tour: he wants to win stages rather than carry waterbottles. He’ll be 34 this year and still packs a knock-out punch late in a race that’s been his trademark. Can he strike again on home soil?
Thomas Voeckler starts his final year. If you’re new to the sport you might think “who?” but even if you’ve been following for longer the memory might be jogged by the mention of his name as a rider who used to be very visible but now rides below the radar. In times past he was almost a certainty for a stage of the Tour de France and has won the mountains jersey and of course finished fourth in the 2011 Tour de France, à la Walkowiak. Love him or loathe him, “Francis” has a bloodhound-like nose for the right breakaway and the ability to game any move to his advantage only he hasn’t won a race since 2013 and the danger is we’re already talking about him in the past tense. One more for the road?
Remember Andrew Talansky? On a good day he can climb with the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador which puts him in a rare club. He won the Dauphiné in 2014 and gifted Richie Porte Paris-Nice in 2013 but 2015 was a quiet one with the US time trial championships title as the only win. Yet the results were quietly there, tenth in the Dauphiné and 11th in the Tour de France. Now Cannondale have recruited Rigoberto Uran and Pierre Rolland so is The Pitbull still top dog? Uran is set for the Giro leaving Talansky to cohabit with Rolland in races leading and including the Tour de France. Perhaps the question is not one of hierarchy in the team but what he can do along the way, is he set for grand tours or is a tilt at Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné or the Tour of California a better intermediate goal.
In picking a sprinter it was a tough call between Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish but the German looks to be the more interesting story compared to Cavendish’s gentle downwards trajectory. Kittel was set to be the sprint king of 2015 but the season was one big DNF. He’s moved teams and talk of a fresh start brings hope and promise but it also means discomforting change for someone who’d been on the same team since they’d turned pro and perhaps more consequential, a new leadout team. Kittel inherits a few wagons from Cavendish’s old sprint train but there was often a sense of trial and error in the Quickstep sprint train. If Kittel doesn’t deliver then Fernando Gaviria may well surprise.
Why 10? It’s enough. Picking the 10 above meant leaving out Fabio Aru, Richie Porte, Esteban Chaves, Michael Matthews, Rui Costa, Warren Barguil, Arnaud Démare, Michał Kwiatkowski, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara to cite ten more. The season is long, the terrain varied and this enables a broad cast of actors. If the cycling season ended with credits they’d roll for ages.
Next week, 10 neo-pros to watch