What will Mark Cavendish do? It’s a testament to his success that he’s made sprinting look easy but Marcel Kittel’s emergence is a big challenge. In picking which sprinter to watch Mark Cavendish is the more interesting of the two as Marcel Kittel’s story for 2015 seems to revolve around replicating and improving on 2014. There’s the stat floating around that Cavendish has never beaten Kittel in a sprint but this needs some qualification, in that it holds only if you say Cavendish has never won a sprint where he’s come up against Kittel in the finish. For example Marcel Kittel did beat Cavendish for Stage 8 of the Tour of Britain. Cavendish beat Kittel in the Vattenfall Cyclassics race in Hamburg, but they were fifth and sixth respectively while Alexander Kristoff won the race. Cavendish won two stages of Tirreno-Adriatico in 2014 but each time Marcel Kittel wasn’t at the front of the bunch. So it’s advantage Kittel if viewed as a binary duel but there are others course and in fact there are few head to head sprints to make a full comparison. I’ve read others suggesting he goes for a broader role in the classics but I’m not so sure this would mark a reinvention. After all he’s won Milan-Sanremo and the Scheldeprijs already and Gent-Wevelgem is in reach too. So a continued focus on the sprints looks likely all with added track work with the 2016 Olympics in mind; surely Gent-Wevelgem would be waived in a flash for Olympic gold. Indeed it should be a story of quality over quantity, Sanremo ahead of the Scheldeprijs, the Champs Elysées rather than the Tour of Turkey although as a sprinter every win is contested, it’s more about the targets. Frustratingly we rarely get a sprint royal between all the top names, it can take the Tour de France to have them all in the same place.
From an established sprinter to one trying to break into the top tier. Nacer Bouhanni has joined a smaller team for a bigger role on better pay. It’s hard to think of a cycling team that’s undergone such a radical change as Cofidis, several underperforming riders have been ejected and the wage savings parleyed to buy Bouhanni. Bouhanni isn’t the only sprinter hired, they’re recruited Michael Van Staeyen and Kenneth Van Bilsen from Topsport Vlaanderen, Jonas Ahlstrand from Giant-Shimano whole others have been recruited to build a red sprint train for Bouhanni. But will it work? Bouhanni’s often thrived under pressure or against expectations, he won a stage in Paris-Nice after cutting his knee open in a crash earlier in the stage; he stayed upright in the Giro when others fell and fell ill, and for much of the season he was proving to Marc Madiot that he was the equal of Arnaud Démare and long after he’d signed with Cofidis. All the support at his disposal is supposed to help him but what if it meant less to fight against? To help him get out of bed in the morning Bouhanni’s moved with his trainer Jacques Decrion which should ensure his continued progression. He’s more than a sprinter, he was 10th in the Worlds last September despite being stopped from racing by FDJ which suggests Milan-Sanremo is within reach although other sprinters believe the same too, it’s a crowded sprint alongside Alexander Kristoff, Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and John Degenkolb. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the team responds. Time will tell but Cofidis has been in the sport since the 1990s and the team has been reinvented several times, recent rejigs have not worked out.
He didn’t want to start the Tour de France but Rafał Majka was pleased to finish it. Two stage wins and the polka dot jersey too, all this after assuming team leadership in the Giro and finishing sixth overall. He later won his home Tour of Poland too. But all this was achieved without Alberto Contador and now the Spaniard has said he wants the Giro and Tour double. So what’s left for Majka: early season stage race leadership, the Vuelta or playing luxury lieutenant for Contador? On other teams the 25 year old would be labelled a future grand tour winner. He can climb with the best and is erratic in time trials: fourth in the Giro’s Barolo stage; 58th in the Tour’s Périgueux stage. But this suggests he has what it takes. Fate could intervene with the UCI’s prosecution of Roman Kreuziger as a factor for the Majka’s next steps, Kreuziger’s presence or absence from the team will determine roles.
What next for Tejay van Garderen? 2014 was a solid year with fifth place in the Tour de France, a win in the US Pro Challenge and podium places in the Volta Catalunya and the Tour of Oman. BMC have been playing the long game with him, patiently backing him to progress with time. All bike races have a coulda-woulda-shoulda but TvG took a bath on the Tour’s mountain stage to Bagnères-de-Luchon, he forgot to eat enough and finished 37th. Some riders have a jours sans when the legs just won’t work but this was just a mistake, an expensive lesson. So what next? He’s good in the time trials so might he prefer the Giro over the Tour? Or will he try to pick off an early season stage race before building for the Tour? His team will wait, an American grand tour winner is the jackpot many bike sponsors dream of.
This blog’s mocked Pierre Rolland and his Energy Wasting Attacks™ but out of frustration because if he could only could channel his energy and power it could deliver big results. It’s great to see him enliven a race but often he finishes empty handed. Take the 2013 Tour where he wasted energy chasing KoM points right from the start in Corsica when he could have saved himself for more substantial matters. He’s only 28 and can improve but 2015 should be his year as he’s terrible in a time trial and the Tour de France route is almost made for him. He’s twice been touted as the next big thing in French cycling, once after a brief flourish as a neo-pro, then again when he dispatched Alberto Contador on Alpe d’Huez. With Europcar’s future uncertain he’s got a contract to think of but also the future of the team, if he can shine it’ll radiate across the squad. Third time lucky?
The duel between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador on the Col du Béal was a highlight of the year but the memory plays tricks. Many will remember this stage for the fight between two riders but while they were scrapping Wilco Kelderman went up the road. The Dutchman was tipped in a similar piece for the 2013 season and had a respectable year but without big results, call it educational. 2014 saw him in more prominent roles again and with Bauke Mollema’s move to Trek Factory Racing and Robert Gesink relieved to see the burden of leadership fall on others, this will be Kelderman’s year to grab with both hands. Grand tour podiums contenders are a-plenty but he had a great Giro but was so impressive in the Dauphiné too that he can shine when most riders are broken by the strain of a grand tour. On paper at least he seems more suited to the Tour with its steadier climbs.
After a country celebrates a champion there comes a point where people start to search for the replacement. Just look at the list of “new Merckxs” after the irreplaceable Eddy retired or France’s quest for the-first-Tour-winner-since-Hinault. Now some in Belgium look at Tom Boonen and try to spot his successor. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck is often named, in part because the 23 year old is the same height (1.92m) and very similar in build and position on the bike. Facially they look very different off the bike but put on a helmet and sunglasses and suddenly there’s a resemblance. He’s starting to win too. In an episode of The Cycling Podcast journalist Daniel Friebe suggested Mark Cavendish is keen to impose himself as the de facto OPQS team leader, sensing Boonen isn’t all-powerful or at least he won’t be. Office politics or a real transfer of power? Boonen’s supporters await more successes rather than muttering about a season too much but it’ll be interesting to see where GVK fits in all of this given a roster packed with others for the classics.
Edvald Boasson-Hagen was the future. We’ve seen him sprint with the best, climb with the best and time trial with the best. In a game of cycling trump cards he’d arguably beat Peter Sagan in most domains except the sprint and bike handling. But he’s not got the best of results in recent years. It’s said he bought a big house in Norway and was content to collect a giant salary from Sky although that has to be a gross simplification as you can’t just collect pay, he’s been racing on many fronts, helping his team and wasn’t far from a result; his work in Het Nieuwsblad -pictured above – set up Ian Stannard for the win and unlike Niki Terpstra and Sep Vanmarcke above, he’s also won sprint and mountain stages of the Tour de France. Now he’s moved down a division to MTN-Qhubeka but up a level in responsibility and his team mates will be counting on him to deliver. Given Peter Sagan doesn’t need another Tour de France points jersey and Oleg Tinkov’s said he doesn’t want one either, what chance the Norwegian grabs green?
Carlos Betancur was undone in 2014 by the law of gravity but saved by French employment law. Betancur’s weight issues this year have been a problem for Ag2r La Mondiale but not a sackable offence. He’s under contract with the French team for 2015 and overweight. First they’ll be some correction to last year’s problems but crucially he needs a new contract for 2016 so results matter, laying off the arepas will pay. I’m still uneasy about his Italian entourage, he’s coached by Michele Bartoli rather than the team staff. Still he won Paris-Nice when overweight and is arguably Ag2r’s best rider, in top shape he can climb with Romain Bardet and Jean-Christophe Péraud and then outsprint them as he’s got an explosive finish. But we won’t see him in competition with them he’s doing the Giro and Vuelta rather than the Tour and with Domenico Pozzovivo gives Ag2r plenty of firepower. If he stays in shape where are the limits?
Michael Matthews can sprint fast after a hilly race. It’s hardly a unique skill in a sport where Peter Sagan is the reference yet the Australian still manages to win when it matters, notably a stage of the Giro and a spell in the pink jersey or the final stage of the 2013 Vuelta. With Simon Gerrans it makes for a formidable tandem in the opening week of the Tour de France where time bonuses await and sprint stages are mixed with cobbles and uphill finishes. But Matthews seems to be at ease in southern Europe, a rider for the Tour of the Basque Country rather than the Three Days of De Panne so how will he cope with the Tour’s cobbles? Just 24 years old there’s a lot more room for improvement so we’ll see which races he picks and what comes next.
10 riders isn’t enough but like any list, you’re forced to exclude more than you include. In a peloton with hundreds of riders there are so many more names to follow. Some stories are obvious, but still fascinating:
- Nairo Quintana goes into 2015 as the prime pick for the Tour de France so will he stay on track?
- There’s Alberto Contador’s Giro-Tour double but surely he’ll race elsewhere and attack often too?
- What’s next for Astana: collectively how will they fare; what’s next for their existing riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru; how do their new signings do, for example Lars Boom and will Rein Taaramäe re-emerge at Astana?
- Ditto Sky with Froome and Porte and new signings like Leopold König, and is Geraint Thomas a classics contender or stage racer?
- How will Michał Kwiatkowski fare with a rainbow target on his back, especially given so many races seem within his reach?
- Can Thibaut Pinot climb so fast with the French media on his back again?
- Will Rohan Dennis quietly improve at BMC Racing and if so can he pick off a stage race in 2015?
- Will we see Greg Van Avermaet finally go from regular runner-up to prime pick or will Sep Vanmarcke emerge as his nemesis?
- Is Peter Sagan finally going to win a monument and if he does, how will he stay motivated for the rest of the year?
- Fabian Cancellara’s picked a retirement date but can he add to his prodigious palmarès before stopping?
Ten bullet points, even more questions. Amid talk of a season-long narratives and arithmetic contests to decide who is The Best Cyclist there are so many rewarding stories to follow during the year although some stories are more niche than others. As for who to include the list is almost endless, a blank sheet of paper that will become a palimpsest over the next ten months. It shows the breadth of the sport and why cycling can be so refreshing compared to other sports, where only a handful of teams or individuals might share the spoils.
A separate list of neo-pros to watch will appear next week and this will have a bigger focus on names tipped for the future.