At the start of the year 10 riders were picked to see how they’d get on, not necessarily because they were going to come, see and conquer 2016 but because there were interesting stories around them. How did they get on?
Tom Dumoulin finished 2015 as one of the hottest prospects in the sport having confirmed his ability as a time trial specialist and then parleyed this into a grand tour contender status at the Vuelta. Could he keep up this momentum? No because he changed goals with the Rio Olympics in mind. 2016 was a very solid year but just lacked some flair needed to keep his name up there with the other stage race stars as he heads in 2017 and genuine stage race bids. The time trial was the big goal but, unlike several others who aimed for this too, he scored big before. He was beaten in the Paris-Nice prologue and then in Romandie too but came good in the Giro’s opening stage to take the maglia rosa in front of a home crowd. Was he going to win the Giro outright? “No” insisted the rider and his entourage but the question remained until finally pulled out of the race as if the Vuelta ride was branded into some people’s minds. The Tour de France saw him take two stage wins, first the mountain stage to Andorra and second the Ardèche gorge time trial where he was a minute clear of everyone else. The Rio time trial began to look like a formality.
Then an innocuous fall on a flat section of a mountain stage saw him crack his wrist. He was out of the Tour and now worried about the Rio Olympics just three weeks away; the state of his wrist became a news item and he still salvaged a silver medal.
Geraint Thomas sharpened his focus on stage racing at the expense of the spring classics and it seemed to pay off with a win in Paris-Nice, his win enhanced after a big battle with Alberto Contador on the final day. But that was it for the year in terms of personal glory. He still rode the Tour of Flanders and finished a creditable 12th. Does he have to choose between stage races and classics? Perhaps if he wants a podium finish in the Tour but combining Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix is still feasible. Once again in July he became an invaluable helper to Chris Froome but said watching his weight too much had become detrimental to his form.
Sep Vanmarcke started the year with the “nearly man” label and finished with it too: second in Gent-Wevelgem, third in the Tour of Flanders and fourth in Paris-Roubaix. So close but stepping up the podium is proving hard. He’s visibly strong in the finish of a cobbled race but perhaps this is part of the problem? He burns matches like a bored boy scout sometimes when he could be saving something for the finishing straight. Another way to improve would be joining a bigger team but he’s signed with Cannondale for 2017 where he can at least be certain of full support. By the law of averages he’s due a big win soon.
Ilnur Zakarin had a successful 2016 season that confirms he’s no “meteor”, a rider who briefly rises and sinks without trace. The Stork of Tatarstan took a stage win at the Madonne d’Utelle in Paris-Nice after making the cut on the summit finish and then was the only rider who could follow Nairo Quintana in the Tour de Romandie and they tussled for the stage win. He rode the Giro and was rising up the rankings during the third week to sit fifth overall before a horror crash saw him out of the race before the final weekend. Despite broken bones he was back for the Tour de France, saved himself for stage hunting and duly took a win after cracking Rafał Majka and Jarlinson Pantano on the steep climb to the the Emosson dam in Switzerland. There’d been talk that Katusha was going to stop but he’s been a factor behind the desire to keep the show on the road.
Mikel Landa was going to win the Giro, right? There was the arithmetic of a podium finish in 2015 plus a talent on the up added to a move to Sky and many thought it’d add up to the win this time. Only this blog was a bit more cautious, warning his abilities in a time trial were a real issue and that has yet to be fixed, his best performance in a TT stage was 20th in the Giro’s Chianti stage, although on an odd day weather-wise. Still he abandoned the race sick and came back to help Chris Froome again. He’s still a contender for the 2017 Giro again but Sky will want some reassurance in the time trials before.
Julian Alaphilippe‘s challenge was to convert those second places into wins. He started the season with a first… he contracted mononucleosis over the winter and for the first time in his career he had to sit out some early target races. Once he resumed he had a promising season but struggled to convert this into wins. He did take the Tour of California, a big win but out of a small field. He started the Tour de France and impressed many with his riding but not legendary team manager Cyrille Guimard who used his punditry pulpit to preach that Alaphilippe was racing badly, expending too much energy for no return. It was harsh but you could see where Guimard was coming from. Alaphilippe came close in the Olympics until crashing out and salvaging fourth place.
Are Philippe Gilbert‘s best days behind him? He turned 34 this year and took four wins this year but none in the World Tour and found his boots at BMC confidently filled by Greg Van Avermaet. 2017 will be an interesting one as he’s moved to Quick Step and wants to target the Tour of Flanders, an objective where he won’t be stepping on the toes of new team mates Alaphilippe and Dan Martin. De Ronde is missing from his packed palmarès and a way to seal the deal with the Belgian public because he’s never been as popular as Tom Boonen; the Flemish/Walloon split has been part of this but winning De Ronde would be a good way to resolve this.
Thomas Voeckler was supposed to start his final season and the question was whether he could still sniff out a breakaway and outfox his rivals for the win. Yes was the emphatic answer in the Tour of Yorkshire where he won the final stage and served up what the French call a bowl of “grimace soup” to Team Sky’s Nicolas Roche. Here was the plucky Pro Conti team beating the Sky millionaires on their home soil. Voeckler cut a more discreet figure for the rest of the year and if he used to be one of the (gurning) faces of French cycling that baton’s been passed to the likes of Bardet, Pinot, Bouhanni, Démare et al. He’s riding on into 2017 and plans to retire after the Tour de France. That sharp eye for a breakaway is likely to earn him a job in the team car, a media booth and quite possibly the new French national selector. Or even all three.
Marcel Kittel was back to winning ways after a switch to Quick Step when he stated the Dubai Tour with two stages and the overall win. It’s forgotten now but he was MIA in 2015. His peak power came in May when he seemed unbeatable in the Giro’s opening stages only to struggle after the hilly stages once the race reached Italy. He rode the Tour and seemed less imposing and his team less coherent around him. He won a stage in Limoges, a big wide road but up a long and significant slope but was beaten again and again by Mark Cavendish on the flat finishes. Later on in the season he was a key part of Quick Step’s team time trial squad. It makes him hard to label, a dragstrip sprinter in the Giro but more versatile at other times. He’s still a bankable star and after a blank season in 2015 he’s back as part of sprinting’s royalty but is not the king. Perhaps it’s best there’s no dominant sprinter, we can look forward to varied sprint finishes rather than a coronation ceremony.
Those were the ten for 2016 but it’s always restrictive. Another 10 names were cited: Fabio Aru had a bad year and missed all his targets and his downhill stage win in the Dauphiné was proof of his struggles as he couldn’t compete on the climbs; Richie Porte was a highly consistent and valuable rider but a rare winner and undone by a moment’s inattention at the Tour de France from his team and 2017 looks like more of the same as he aims for the Tour de France podium; Esteban Chaves had a great season and now has to go better in 2017; Michael Matthews took some quality wins as usual but the quantity was down; Rui Costa is often close but still struggles to land wins; Warren Barguil was caught in that training crash but recovered; Arnaud Démare won Sanremo but not much else; Michał Kwiatkowski took the E3 and went missing; Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara didn’t reignite their rivalry but both had seasons to savour.