How to choose a fifth highlight from the year? Easy, pick several instead. There are plenty of exciting moments during the year and if it feels reductive to limit it to five, then even sticking with 10 means leaving out plenty of good times. We might find overlapping races incongruous but this can mean twice the action. Here are some more of the joyous moments from 2016.
Giro d’Italia: Vincenzo Nibali cut a sorry figure going into the third week of the Giro as he sat in third place overall and there seemed to no way to overhaul his rivals. Steven Kruijswijk looked indestructible and Esteban Chaves was floating up the climbs. It left the Sicilian shrugging and shy, constantly having to explain himself to a home audience used to him winning yet now trailing a Dutchman with name they struggled to pronounce. But in the space of a weekend Nibali turned things around. First Kruijswijk rode into a snowbank, crashed and then found himself without much team support (a sorry moment rather than a highlight but Dutch fans have plenty to look forward to for next year’s race). Chaves took over the race lead going into the final mountain stage but had fallen ill and could not withstand Nibali’s attacks. The collapses of Kruijswijk and Chaves were not highlights but they marked the only grand tour to have a surprise ending and see the leader’s jersey change shoulders so regularly which makes the whole race as a whole a highlight rather than narrowing it down to a single moment but if you wanted to view a stage again then the 132km sprint from Bressanone to Andalo was gripping; Nibali was on the rack that day. Chaves was a highlight, for example congratulating Nibali when others might have sulked and recently won a media award from journalists for his politeness and availability.
Vuelta a España: sometimes the stage battle can be so gripping that you lose sight of everything else. On Stage 20 Pierre Latour and Darwin Atapuma were trading punch-drunk attacks on the Alto de Aitana while the battle between Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana lower down the mountain didn’t matter. Sure Quintana looked secure in the red jersey but the action was so good at front as Latour surged again and again with the kind of demented energy you normally see in the first hour of a junior race rather than the final mountain stage of a grand tour late in the season. Ironically Latour was yoyo-ing Atapuma whose trademark climbing style is his darting accelerations and disruptive unpredictability. The duel raged while Mathias Frank was nearby and Fabio Felline began to close in. With the finish line in sight the Spanish TV commentators gave the win to Atapuma only for Latour to churn a huge gear and overtake Atapuma.
The Vuelta also supplied plenty of other moments. The “Froomigal” stage was exciting but one of those moments where the drama is high at the start and then fades, the longer the stage went on the clearer the scenario became. Robert Gesink’s stage win on the Aubisque was enjoyable because a breakaway stuck and because Gesink finally had the stars align after suffering from rotten luck time and again while. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana recreated Aesop’s fable of The Tortoise and The Hare with Froome pacing himself up the climb and losing 30 seconds early on the slopes of to the Lagos de Covadonga only to get back into contention.
Tim Wellens took a huge win in the Tour of Poland only nobody noticed. Or at least few did as the Polish race was moved to July to avoid a clash with the Olympics only it coincided with the Tour de France. While Mark Cavendish won his third stage of the Tour in Villars-les-Dombes, Wellens took a solo win in Zakopane. Wellens finished solo, some 3m48 ahead of Davide Formolo and on a day of diluvian downpours where they needed the fire brigade to pump water to keep the roads open and 86 riders riders abandoned the race, a day that merited the E-word. Wellens was strong but benefited from Tiesj Benoot’s marking behind and overall this was a big win that didn’t get the coverage it deserved.
The Tour de France was boring, right? Actually it had plenty of good moments. Froome’s Ventoux run was memorable but hardly a racing highlight. Instead his breakaway into Montpellier with Peter Sagan and a team mate each in Geraint Thomas and Maciej Bodnar was a thrilling end to what was supposed to be a sprint stage. Jarlinson Pantano had a great Tour de Suisse and turned this into a better Tour de France. The sprints were exciting and if Mark Cavendish was the best his wins weren’t the formality they once were, there was suspense right up until the final metres.
Romain Bardet’s raid to Le Bettex was great. He attacked on a descent and had team mate and good friend Mikaël Cherel to pace him on the valley before tackling the awkward summit finish via the nasty Amerands road. On paper this was a wild move: pull out a few seconds on the descent and then stew on flat approach roads before being gobbled up and spat out by Team Sky’s mountain train. We might not want it so but we can at least understand why few dare to challenge Sky’s tractor beam. Bardet dared and won. He was helped by Froome’s crash but was up the road when that happened and the dicey Domancy descent was a good place to be away from a bunch of chasing riders. Bardet held on the win and through this ride climbed onto the podium of the Tour de France.
What about Peter Sagan? In some ways he’s a highlight alone for the way he carries himself in a race, he seems to be able to do things that others can’t. He helped enliven the Tour de France and provided a thrill in the E3 Harelbeke where he ultimately lost to Michał Kwiatkowski but perhaps his Tour de Suisse stage win (pictured) was the masterpiece, attacking late in the finish while a break was up the road looked like showboating but he rode across to the escapees and then beat them in the finish. He’s also growing into a more interesting personality as he’s able to express himself better in English and reach a larger audience.
Talking of the Tour de Suisse we got a good contest between riders and the podium wasn’t certain until the last moments of the last stage. Miguel Angel Lopez showed panache by attacking in the yellow jersey to defend his race lead.
The Olympics offered two good road races but neither made the cut as one of the prime highlights because with hindsight the results were too impacted by the crashes. This doesn’t negate the victories, simply that these accidents marred the moment. Especially in the women’s race it great to see Anna van der Breggen win but hard to enjoy it because as she punched the air many of us had our fingers crossed after seeing Annemiek van Vleuten pivot into the gutter.
The Eneco Tour was good. It’s underrated, the corporate brand name means it’s not obvious to give the race a sense of place but think of it as a “greatest hits” of the spring classics revisited in September. Season-fatigue can set in for riders and fans alike but this delivers action. Similarly the GP de Wallonie always has a lively finish when the race storm’s Namur’s citadel. Another late season special is the Schaal Sels, the best race most have never heard of. Wout Van Aert won this year, deploying his skills on the farm track sections but also showing his form ahead of the cyclocross season while many road riders are turning stale and all on an unrestricted livestream.
Among the race courses Paris-Nice tried some gravel which was new but wasn’t decisive by itself on the day, instead the best use of gravel remains the Strade Bianche as it’s real rather than contrived. ASO’s best innovation might have been the Dauphiné “Donkey Kong” prologue: usually time trials these don’t make for good TV but this was an unusual format up a ski slope, or at least a road that had been freshly paved to serve the ski lifts. Tony Martin railed against it but the format supplied a bit more suspense with Alberto Contador winning ahead of Richie Porte and Chris Froome. Briefly it looked like Contador was going to be a force in the summer.
Any tech highlights? I wanted to pick one but it’s hard to think of a new product that’s hit the market and made everyone go “wow” or open their wallets. Amid the broadcasts data telemetry and onboard videos are still in their infancy and for the most part just add noise. Perhaps online cycling training software Zwift made a name for itself with Mathew Hayman’s Paris-Roubaix win. Yes Hayman needed it because he could not ride outdoors with a broken wrist but as a method it also allows for sustained quality during training as there are no pauses for junctions and traffic lights and so an hour’s riding is an hour’s riding.
Any more highlights from the year? A race, a rider, a course, a moment or some tech? If so please share in the comments below.