Sunday, October 18, 2015
The Season To Come
I'm already impatient for the 2016 road-cycling season to start. Reduced to channel surfing in the vain hope of finding something faintly related to cycling, you may even catch me watching one of those dreary NBC Ironman triathlon soap operas where they have to explain the entire sport again every 5 minutes. Around now the average roadie is expected to be going through serious withdrawal symptoms - a week or so after most of the peloton were finally allowed to hang their bikes up for the holidays. But I think that it has been exacerbated in 2015 by the more than a few inklings that we can look forward to performances in 2016 that may become some of contemporary road cycling's defining moments. Though we'll all have our own particular angle on this, I would like to make a few observations, coupled with some predictions of who to watch out for.
I think the recent world championships in Richmond put the blender to the peloton, and what rose to the top was really the cream. I think the era of Peter Sagan is about to start for real, and if only he can find a way to flourish within the court of King Oleg, where I feel he's not in his element, we'll see some breakthrough wins. Vasil Kiryenka surprised everyone except those who have been paying close attention, and though he's not exactly new on the scene, his humility and good nature have so far seen his capabilities used in the team engine room rather than for his own reward. This should change now, though Team Sky are amassing a depth of talent for 2016 that is really quite bewildering.
Lizzie Armitstead, like Sagan, is really the most worthy winner within a stellar field, and women's cycling looks ready to ramp it up yet again in 2016. With the tantalising proposition that Marianne Vos also returns from her year off to injury to add yet more quality to the field, we should be in for some stunning racing in a gradually expanding women's race schedule. Hopefully we can get a bit more coverage out of Eurosport, and if not, then some other sport channel needs to take up the slack. Can't someone make it a bit more distinctive?
I still feel that women's cycling needs to go through a whole identity and PR shift in order to nurture an audience, and maybe another TV channel can help make that identity shift happen. Using the same formats as the men, and in much the same attire, tends to make the female athletes come across as second-tier, and many of the attitudes portrayed even from within the field reflect that. The more lively and distinctive personalities in the peloton really also need to be brought to the fore if we expect an audience to engage with them. Lizzie and Marianne can really help there.
IN THE WINGS
The grand tours have thrown up a few gems this year. If he'd been allowed to, Mikel Landa would have won the Giro by a country mile in my view, and it was dismal management in the end that meant that Astana ended up with only steps 2 and 3 on the podium. Landa will be with Team Sky for 2016, and I'm fairly sure they are aware of what they have. When he's on form he's able to hit it out of the ballpark. He just needs to work on his time trial.
The Vuelta introduced us to the maturing talents of 2 up-and-coming 24-year-old athletes who I believe both have the full package of talents needed to win bike races. Esteban Chavez is physically the distillation of the pure Colombian cyclist with his size, power, climbing ability, and endurance. He's also fast developing all the mental strengths of resilience, determination, and true grit, coupled with a generous and effervescent personality. He also has great support around him in the family-like atmosphere of Orica Greenedge, and they are already chomping at the bit now that they really have a GC contender.
For me though, the revelation of the year was Tom Dumoulin, with a performance significant enough to again completely re-write the competitive agenda of a World Tour team for 2016. He was in fine form in the early season, announcing himself with searing lone-breakaways in the spring classics, but destiny had other ideas, and accidents and injury stopped him short of making any major podiums. In retrospect however this all may have been for the best in the grand scheme of things.
His bounce-back to form coincided with his inclusion in the Vuelta, which catapulted him to global stardom when he suddenly became an overall contender as he out-climbed the climbers, blew the time trials apart, and hung in there even in the 3rd week only to run out of gas on the last 2 climbs. That he did this having come to the race as an extra engine in a sprinter's lead-out train made it all the more remarkable, as any team support he might have hoped for evaporated as soon as the peloton hit the hills. That it took the concerted, and combined efforts of whole teams to topple him made Fabio Aru probably one of history's least popular grand tour champions.
What impresses me more than anything else about this guy is his emotional coolness. His win on stage 9 was perhaps the most gripping moment in the whole season. On the last brutal 3km climb up to the finish line, he shot out of the front bunch and held them off for half the climb before being reeled in by an attack from Chris Froome followed by Joachim Rodriguez. But instead of throwing in the towel after being passed by 2 of the sports top climbers, he jumped on Purito's wheel, and within 100 metres of the line had the strength and tenacity to go round both of them for the win.
In subsequent interviews you got the impression that it was all new to him, but that he was game for every challenge, and though he ultimately succumbed, his ability to keep his cool and hold his pace was a study in composure and emotional balance. We could really now have the next Eddy Merckx on our hands!
SHIFTS OF ALLEGIANCE
I mentioned that Team Sky are developing an incredibly rich vein of talent. This includes their seeming interest in importing and developing a Basque contingent with Landa and Benat Intxausti both coming in to team up with Mikel Nieve. This must be a consequence of the signing of Basque coach Xabier Artetxe last year. He was instrumental during his time at Seguros Bilbao in developing a lot of the new crop of Basque riders, which includes Intxausti and the Izagirre brothers. Once again, Sky have a devious master plan! They also have the 2014 world champ Michal Kwiatkowski joining for 2016. Within their own already stellar cast which has seen the likes of Kirienka and Italian sprinter Elia Viviana growing in stature in 2015, they already have the strongest ever collection of British classics riders, a 2-time - and current - Tour de France champion, plus a growing orchard of GC contenders at varying stages of ripeness. When you factor in this new contingent of pure hard-core climbers, they are really spoilt for choice, and the 9-man limit to the team they can put together for competition will necessarily involve excluding a lot of the world's top riders from the race!
Not sure if Richie Porte is going to find the kind of support he wants from BMC, but he's a force to watch if he's in a good place. Louis Meintjes is moving across to Lampre Merida, which though I'm not at all sure is the right move for him, will definitely push different buttons for him. I'm also hoping that Dan Martin can find himself in a better place, and with a bit more luck, at Etixx Quick-Step. Marcel Kittel will also be on that team, which looks to be going for the complete make-over.
MTN Qhubeka become Team Dimension Data next year, and with a bid for World Tour status backed up by a team that now includes Mark Cavendish, Bernie Eisel, Mark Renshaw and Edvald Boasson Hagen, they look set to complete their African fairy story. I'm hoping to see Daniel Teklehaimanot take it up another notch and go for some major podiums.
I'm personally waiting to see what Canadian Mike Woods does now that he's made the step-up to World Tour level to ride with Cannondale-Garmin. This is a man with immense potential whose story I've followed since he made the shift from track running several years ago to climb his way up to North American cycling prominence, and a great 2015 season with the Pro Continental US team Optum Kelly Benefits. His presence in the European scene should make itself felt within the year if he can get through the baptism of fire of the Spring Classics.
I can't wait!