Riders to Watch for 2016

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.

Geraint Thomas

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.

Ilnur Zakarin

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

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.

Marcel Kittel

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


50 thoughts on “Riders to Watch for 2016”

  1. The Giro GC is looking very interesting and that’s just considering those from the “10 to watch” list with Valverde, Landa, Dumoulin, Zakarin. Add to that all the other contenders and it should be a very exciting battle for GC.

    • This is a really tantalising list from Inner Ring.
      The Giro is looking like ‘La Vuelta 2015 Mr II’ already, isn’t it?
      We can only lick our lips in anticipation and hope GA can offer more support to Dumoulin this time, to stave off the packs of braying Sky and Movistar wolves!
      I’m also predicting Vanmarcke will get one Spring win.

    • Judging from some of the comical finish line pics from the Bay Crits (others aren’t even in the photo), I have a feeling that he’s about to have a ‘Cav’ like breakout season. OGE can’t hold him back any longer.

      • Crits are no true judgement for real road races. Hilton Clarke, Jake Keough, Bahatti, Brooke Miller, Tina Pic, Karl Menzies, Dan Holloway. All Crit Specialists who never turned into real road stage winners. 60 minutes holds nothing on 200k.

    • Really looking forward to seeing him in a straight line drag race with Kittel, Greipel and Cav. Will he be let loose this year, or eased in gently? He looked ready when he won at the Vuelta. Not sure if OGE will move to GC focus at the Tour rather than stage wins this year.

      • OGE have a few options for the season with the Yates brothers, Chaves, Ewan and Matthews but I’m not sure they have the depth in the team to fully support a challenge on different fronts. Should be fun to watch as always.

  2. Standard for P-R now Wiggins has had his last shot at it. It’ll be interesting to see if he can peak later.

    Doesn’t Voekler have a dodgy knee? But with Rolland gone they need someone.

    If Thomas doesn’t lead a Grand Tour I’m not sure how different this season will be to the last one?

    I predict Dumoulin will come fourth and Uran will finally win the Giro.

        • Looks like it and maybe that elusive Monument classic too for the team whether Liége or an outsider in Sanremo too. He’s capable of winning week long stage races too but there not many free spaces when you have Froome, Thomas, Landa and more.

        • Will Kwiato be riding the Tour of Flanders also? I remember him being up there with Cancellara and Sagan a couple of years ago when Cancellara won and he does seem to have the raw power to hang with those guys. Although in his recent pic in Sky colours he seems to have shedded some weight so maybe Ardennes, 1 week races and TdF support?

          • Let’s hope that Sky’s eagerness to win a Monument means his talents are not lessened by him being ‘trained’ – they don’t really need him in that long line at the TdF.

    • Interesting to see, usually these races require an apprenticeship period in order to learn the roads and other tactical considerations, pure power isn’t normally enough but he’s on the specialist team for this and at worst will be invaluable help for Boonen, Terpstra and the fast-improving Lampaert.

      • I wonder if Etixx have drafted him in after some of the recent (relatively-speaking) disasters ; the Omloops, Dwars etc?
        One can’t imagine seeing those respective results had Martin been in the final groups?

      • His apprenticeship was a trial by fire when he was in the brakeway in stage 5 of the 2014 tour de France,he finished 17th. Last year he won stage 4. he is supposed to do some early race and take it from there.

  3. Yates brothers would probably have made my 10 to watch list too, as would Kwiatkovski (sp?)

    But great piece – getting excited already for the spring classics.

  4. I believe the giro isn’t a GC goal for Tom Dumoulin (at least, not openly spoken). He hopes to get the Pink jersey in one of the time trials but it seems like everything he rides is with the Olypmics in mind. He said he will really focus on GC’s the year after the olympics.

    • I’m sure you are right Ron but I don’t think he was targeting the GC at the Vuelta either and we all know what almost happened there. Lots of other riders and teams watching each other might play into his hands although he will be marked closely too.

  5. Will be interested to see what Contador and Cancellara can pull out if this is to be their swansong seasons. Especially the latter… the World and Olympic road titles would be the missing pieces in a flawless palmares.

    The Orica team will be interesting as well – Chaves and the Yates brothers are still very young, but they have been very young and very good for a long time. Will be good to see how they can develop as podium contenders over the next 12 months.

    • I’m looking forward to watching Contador and Cancellara also, they will be missed when they retire. Cancellara has stated that he will not ride the Olympics and I’m not sure about Worlds, but I don’t think that course would suit him anyway. Can’t wait for Paris-Roubaix and Flanders for one last showdown with Boonen et al.

  6. The Stork of Tartarstan? Wow! Did you just coin that or is he actually known by that moniker?

    Nacer Bouhanni could also be added to a list to watch. Will he completely fade from contention or make a comeback.

    Cannot wait for the real season to kick off!

    • Zakarin prefers “Zaka” but the Stork has been used before for his long legs and of course he’s from Tartarstan; it’s a label that’s been used for other riders like Roger Pingeon and L’Equipe sometimes called Bradley Wiggins The Heron of Kilburn for his long legs too, Fausto Coppi was the original airone or heron.

    • Bouhanni’s 2015 season was marred by crashes. Without the crashes he would have delivered the results. Talking about fading away. Bouhanni’s former teammate Arnaud Demare didn’t deliver in 2015, besides his two stage victories in the Tour of Belgium. Will Demare be back to his 2014 level in 2016?

  7. Two (Kittel and Alaphilippe) out of ten riders picked by INRNG are members of ET-QS. Add to this Tony Martin’s interest in P-R, the ambitions of Stybar and Terpstra, Boonen’s final year, the new signings of Dean Martin, Jungels and Gaviria, enough ingredients to make ET-QS the team to watch in 2016.

  8. I’m a bit of a Phil Gil fan boy so I’d love to see him have one more big day at Milan-Sanremo or De Ronde. Failing that Alaphillipe (or anyone) getting the better of Valverde at the Ardennes would be good.
    I think a good battle to watch this year will be Sagan v Degenkolb v Matthews v Kristoff on the not quite hilly not quite flat days!

  9. Big year for BMC’s leaders. Interesting to see how Porte does away from Sky and should be a good contest between him and Froome/Thomas in stage races leading to the Tour..

    I think Cannondale need a big result this year or you feel the team may start to stagnate or go backwards

    Also would like to see Nibali add to his Palmares by trying to win another monument (Milan-San Remo or Liege?) and Olympics..

    • Give me Nibali (with or without Fuglsang) at Flanders and Roubaix – on a cold and rainy day. That would/could be truly epic. I really think Nibali could win those two races its wet.

  10. GVA to finally grab that big classics win. Laws of chance plus his obvious strength and speed mean he must crack one someday. His win out of the drag race against Sagan at the TDF shows that on his day he really is as good or better than any.

    And as a Wodehouse fan I must say it’s unarguable that Jeeves is the talented one, Bertie Wooster’s only talents are attracting trouble and the enmity of his many aunts. And Jeeves wasn’t a “butler” but rather a “gentleman’s gentleman” so not quite sure the analogy to Dawg and G. holds.

  11. Talansky is an interesting pick. Would be interesting if he could eclipse TJV this year and ascend as a legitimate and more dominate US GT racer. Perhaps Cannondale’s new signings may help him accomplish that. TJV is know more fragile as BMC has more choices if he experiences trouble in his key race schedule.

  12. I think Dumoulin should focus on the Giro – infinitely more prestigious than an Olympics win.

    Interested to see how Tony Martin goes in the classics – at last.

    Like many, I’m still not convinced by Geraint Thomas in the high mountains over three weeks – and we’re not going to find out this year, as he’ll be tired by the time the Vuelta comes around. Don’t think he needs to give up on one day races either. He could even be a rider who could go well in all five Monuments.

    Vanmarcke needs luck and tactics – I suspect Zakarin needs the same, except with the testers (I don’t normally cast aspersions, but you look at his sudden rise, his country’s current doping system and his team his previous doping, and you can’t just ignore that).

    Surely, Landa’s TTs can be improved to some extent?

    I think Alaphilippe’s time has come, but I’m not sure having to play second fiddle to Dan Martin will be advantageous.

    I don’t think Gilbert will ever win another Monument – hope I’m wrong. Shame he probably won’t be at the Tour again this year.

    I think Voeckler is in that team more for reasons of PR than anything else and has been for a while.

    I think Kittel has joined an inferior team when it comes to leadouts – top classics riders, but mostly not top leadout men.

    • Agreed on Ilnur Zakarin – it’s tough to judge a rider, but for all the reasons you gave, plus that he’s already had a 2-year ban a few years ago. Let’s see how he performs given the extra scrutiny on Katusha this year.

      • Agreed. Hard to get excited about a GC contender when they were busted at the ripe old age of 19 for steroids.
        To be honest, I expect better from this site.

  13. Each year the season rarely turns out as forecast–except for Froome winning the Tour (as long as he can stay upright). It’s the unexpected that makes it fun. Especially when some lesser known rider has a break out performance. That really is so much more fun than watching the same riders win again and again. It feels like new blood. (Not that I would know what that feels like.) For this year, will Dumoulin come through and meet all of our expectations, or will he disappoint? Based on his recent statements about his goals this season, he doesn’t sound very confident about his new found status as a GC contender. He sounds like he wants that label off his back.

    Likewise, when a sure fire thing goes sour, that’s spectacular too. With Richie and Teejay on the same Tour squad at BMC, the odds look good for them. But, what is Richie Porte’s true role at BMC–to come and rescue Teejay who is stranded on the shores of lost GC Contenders’ would-a, could-a, should-a, or, to the contrary, to fill the void left by Teejay’s disappearance upon those shores?

    One thing is certain: INRNG will have the best wrap up of all the action, and this forum will have the best commentary that is most entertaining and insightful. No amount of caps, socks and jerseys purchased by me can convey my sincere appeciation for the priceless joy and satisfaction of sharing my thoughts on one of the most unpopular sports in the world, cycling, which I love. Thank you INRNG, and bless you.

  14. Dumoulin also has Laurens ten Dam by his side now at Giant for help in the mountains so I’m quite sure the team looks at a GC besides TT success

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