Winners and Losers of the 2015 Season

The Pro Cycling season is drawing to a close and I’ve been looking back at the performances of (pretty much) every rider over the last ten months. I’ve been looking for winners and losers, those whose status in the cycling world has changed for better or worse this past season. Excluded are riders such as Alejandro Valverde who romped home to another UCI World Tour title (whatever this title actually means) by showcasing his brilliant versatility and apparent inability to fall out of form. Apart from his Tour de France podium, there was not much that he hadn’t done multiple times before; La Fleche, Liege, Vuelta stage wins. There was also big wins for established riders Chris Froome and Peter Sagan, the latter experiencing a rollercoaster campaign with a fantastic World Championship climax.

Another honourable mention goes to 2014 ‘loser’ Edvald Boasson Hagen. The Norwegian found his feet for MTN-Qhubeka and looked to be back to his early Team Sky form. He was competitive in the sprints and the classics plus victorious overall in a hilly Tour of Britain. However, for me there were five big winners in 2015- riders who have added great success to their career collection. I’ve also picked five losers who will want to forget 2015 as soon as possible. Whilst some were blighted by injury and bad luck, others just failed to meet their goals.

Winners

Fabio Aru

On Stage 16 of the Giro and the slopes of the Mortirolo Fabio Aru was in trouble. Astana had put all their faith in the young Italian- watching him find form in Catalunya before providing strong support for the Giro- and Alberto Contador was about to blow him away. To make matters worse, a few kilometres earlier Astana had taken the fight to Contador, distancing him on a descent capitalizing brutally on his mechanical. Contador then gave a masterclass on the climb, caught Aru, attacked and broke him. A pained Aru lost time to a handful of riders and landed over four minutes behind Contador in the GC. Race over? Not quite. Aru dug deep for a few days before dancing away for redemption on Stage 19. He was strong again in Finestre on Stage 20, waiting for the right moment before leaving his rivals and taking a second win. Returning to his best in the final week of the race, Aru steered his season back on course and finished second at just +1.53. His next aim was the Vuelta and he departed Spain’s premium race a Grand Tour champion. As damaging as his attack in Andorra was, Aru won the Vuelta with subtler touches. His measured riding in the first week was impressive and he did not feel the need to respond to each kick from the likes of Froome, Esteban Chaves and Joaquim Rodriguez. He also adopted a far more aerodynamic time trialling position than Rodriguez, his GC rival. If last year’s performances introduced Aru then this years announced him as a serious force.

Prediction for 2016: Aru won’t automatically win another Grand Tour, but the likeable Italian is established, talented and with a big team. He should debut at the Tour next year.

Fabio Aru


John Degenkolb

For the second successive year I’m picking John Degenkolb as a winner and it’s not just because I really like him (honest). The German was Giant-Alpecin’s main man this campaign and whilst he has not gone without struggles, you cannot look past two Monument wins. The first was Milan-San Remo in a fantastic finish with Alexander Kristoff and Michael Matthews. Degenkolb had been in unspectacular form going into the race but everything clicked in Via Roma and he was able to come round the usually faster Kristoff. His recognisable sprinting style- legs pumping efficiently whilst the head nods frantically- helped make for an exciting finish and he was clearly delighted to land his first Monument. He didn’t wait long for his second, triumphing over more rivals at Paris-Roubaix. The German must now be considered a cobbles specialist with this year’s win following last year’s second place. He bridged a gap to a group of escapees before that same sprint brought him the win inside the Velodrome. Emulating his hero Sean Kelly, Degenkolb had first got his tactics right before letting his ability take over. Despite being frustrated in the Tour and (until the last stage of) the Vuelta, Degenkolb’s two Monuments will make 2015 a very special year.

Prediction for 2016: To once again contest the spring classics, this time as one of the most marked men in the peloton.


Mikel Landa

Astana rose out of a valley of Iglinsky-controversy to have a pretty good season. Alongside Aru and Vincenzo Nibali was Mikel Landa whose performances have earned him a contract with Team Sky. A three time Grand Tour stage winner this year, Landa often seemed an outsider on the Astana team not least as a Spaniard amongst Italians. He often played the role of willing domestique but at times looked far too strong and itching to push on. Whilst there was no Froome/Wiggins moment on the road, Landa certainly asked questions to Astana with his climbing. He arguably out-climbed Contador at the Giro when finishing third, though a battle between the two was complicated by the presence of Aru. Astana never appeared to give him the cold shoulder but there was a sense of ‘we wish it was Aru’ on both occasions Landa burst to Giro stages. Astana’s faith in Aru was justified (Landa is greatly inferior at time-trialling) but the Spaniard will welcome the opportunities he gets at Sky. Landa looks at home in the mountains and added his third Grand Tour stage at the harder-than-hard Vuelta Stage 12. Away in the break all day, Landa left his crumbling escapees behind and held a useful gap right to the finish line. It seems unlikely he was asked to wait for Aru (who finished second) despite appearing to take an earphone out in the closing stages. Over the last 12 months, Landa has emerged as one of the best on the slopes.

Prediction for 2016: To work for Froome when asked and to lead the British team at the Vuelta a Espana.


Rohan Dennis

Dennis was arguably the fastest starting rider this past season, chalking up two big successes before the middle of February. First up was the Tour Down Under where Dennis edged out compatriot (and 2016 team mate) Richie Porte. The two had tussled a week earlier at their National Time Trial and though an impressive Porte had beaten Dennis into second that day, positions were reversed at the World Tour’s opening race. Switching to the track, Dennis then comfortably broke Matthias Brandle’s Hour Record.  Breaking the 52km mark, his record withstood attempts from Thomas Dekker and Gustav Larsson before Alex Dowsett usurped him in May. Dennis’ next goal was the Tour de France prologue but he did not head the impressive list of favourites. Winning by a margin of five seconds (a comprehensive gap over a short course) Dennis flew round Utrecht upsetting both Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara and ceasing the Maillot Jaune. A late season trip to America brought Dennis more success, dominating the USA Pro Challenge and proving too strong for team-mate Brent Bookwalter. Dennis had previously shown promise at the Dauphine (2013) and in California (2014) but now looks one of the star riders of BMC.

 Prediction for 2016: To target Grand Tour stages and to podium at the World Time Trial championships.

Rohan Dennis


Alexander Kristoff

I spent time searching for a lesser-name for this fifth slot but could not look beyond Alexander Kristoff. It’s easy to say a lot of his 20 victories were against second tier riders but in Paris-Nice alone he claimed the scalps of Nacer Bouhanni, Bryan Coquard, Giacomo Nizzolo, John Degenkolb and an off-colour Andre Greipel. With his three stage wins at the Tour of Qatar you can add to that list Peter Sagan and Andrea Guardini. However, it was Kristoff’s dazzling performances in the classics that made him a real star. Second in San Remo, Kristoff became a fully-fledged cobbles rider with a dominant Tour of Flanders win. He, alongside Nicki Terpstra, broke the field and was a heavy favourite in the final sprint. In the week leading up to Flanders Kristoff had won all three road stages and the overall at Driedaagse De Panne, three days after the Monument he won Scheldeprijs. His rampant spring continued through May before showing his first signs of fatigue in an underwhelming Tour de France. He bounced back in August; narrowly defeated by Greipel at Vattenfall Cyclassics before another World Tour win at GP Ouest France – Plouay. Like Degenkolb, Kristoff will enter 2016 as a marked man and with good reason. Katusha will be delighted to have a rider so strong and consistent in their ranks.

Prediction for 2016: Kristoff guarantees wins but another 20 is unlikely. He is the fastest of the classics specialists and could land a second San Remo victory.


Losers

Simon Gerrans

Orica’s Simon Gerrans is a rider whose season’s shortcomings can be attributed to a succession of injuries and crashes. Breaking his collarbone in the off-season, Gerrans returned to racing in Strade Bianche (a hard course to return on) but crashed out and fractured his elbow. After another period of recovery Gerrans returned to defend his Liege-Bastogne-Liege title but was once again a crash casualty and did not finish the race. With no lasting damage, he was selected for the Giro d’Italia and took the Maglia Rosa for a day as first wheel in Orica’s TTT victory. Still short of form, Gerrans rode on until a wet Stage 12, crashing out on a dangerous descent of the Crosara. There was still time for more bumps and Gerrans was caught up in the horrible high-speed pile up on the third day of the Tour de France. A month later he lined up for his third Grand Tour of the season but cut a quiet figure throughout. Superb for the last few years, Gerrans saw his string of successful seasons has come to an abrupt end.

Prediction for 2016: Turning 36 next May, Gerrans may struggle to rediscover his Monument winning form but sixth place in the recent World Championships showed all is not lost.

Simon Gerrans


Julian Arredondo

After making his move to Trek Factory Racing, Arredondo seemed to be entering his prime years as one of the pure climbers in the peloton but this year his progress has stalled. Unable to repeat his fast start of 2014, Arredondo was an anonymous figure through to March, though a disappointing Tirreno-Adriatico was followed by eighth place at the lesser Criterium International. His Ardennes campaign ended in two DNF’s, again greatly inferior to last season, before his Tour de Suisse ambitions ended on the only summit finish, finishing 43rd on the day. All of the above could be forgiven if Arredondo attacked the Tour de France in similar fashion to his former Giro exploits but at La Grande Boucle he was far from his best. Though last year’s Giro d’Italia KoM winner, Arredondo rolled in with the groupetto on back-to-back Pyrenean stages and was just 30 seconds ahead of the likes of Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel atop Alpe d’huez. Last year was a great season for Arredondo, this one much worse.

Prediction for 2016: I’m unsure if Arredondo will ever win a Grand Tour stage again but at least expect the Colombian to get involved in more breaks in 2016. 


Marcel Kittel

Except for a flash in the Tour of Poland, the fastest man of the last two seasons was nowhere to be seen in 2015 and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. We do know that Marcel Kittel picked up an illness following Australia’s People’s Choice Classic and carried no fitness into the springtime. What’s weirder, however, is how this mystery virus side-lined the big German for so long. It felt like headlines for Kittel’s big return were thrown out falsely on a number of occasions; Scheldeprijs, Tirreno-Adriatico and later the Tour de France. After dismal trips to Australia and Qatar, Kittel climbed off the bike until May where he started, but did not finish, the first stage of the Tour de Yorkshire. He was ultimately unable to convince Giant-Alpecin he was fit and healthy for the Tour de France and a glance at his pre-Tour races suggests most teams would not have picked him. It did, however, foreshadow the end of Kittel’s time with Giant and perhaps they should have taken him as a ‘thank you’ for his former successes which almost singlehandedly put Argos-Shimano on the World Tour map. In August Kittel won the first stage of the Tour of Poland, teaching a lesson in sprinting to a lively Caleb Ewan, but this was to be his last victory for the team with his late season as gloomy as the start. Next year, he’ll be found virus-free at Etixx Quick-Step.

Prediction for 2016: This one should be straight forward. Etixx will facilitate Kittel’s return to the top but it may take a few months.

Marcel Kittel


Sep Vanmarcke

A rider of Vanmarcke’s ability should not be going a whole season without a victory. In defence of the Belgian, riders such as he have a short window to target every year and things can get quite messy on the cobbles. Nevertheless, the last two years he has finished the spring with a set of impressive and consistent results which, though often near-misses, made Vanmarcke a man to be feared. This year shaped up in a similar way (5th in E3-Harelbeke, 6th in Wevelgem) but when entering Flanders as a favourite Vanmarcke blew up. If in recent years his tactics have let him down, then this year his legs well and truly played a part as he was dropped on the Taaienberg before the real racing had begun. He attempted a doomed solo chase but eventually finished 53rd. The following weekend Vanmarcke headed to Roubaix and, though finishing 11th, never looked a likely winner. The second half of the season is always strange for the cobbled classics riders but Vanmarcke in particular struggles to show himself. He will do well to find a post-springtime niche and lacks some of the punchy explosiveness of compatriot and Roubaix runner-up Greg Van Avermaet.

Prediction for 2016: Despite having a season to forget, Vanmarcke will once again lead Lotto-NL Jumbo in the cobbles classics. A lot needs addressing but I wouldn’t rule him out just yet.


Jelle Vanendert

For a while a spot here was saved for Giro disappointment Rigoberto Uran who subsequently improved, took out GP Quebec and (almost) saved his season. Similarly, Andrew Talansky did enough on Stage 17 of the Tour de France to convince me he is still capable of challenging on the World Tour. Instead I’ve opted for Jelle Vanendert. Despite a fifth place to end his season at the Grand Prix de Wallonie, Vanendert’s campaign has been flat and he struggled to impose himself in his World Tour opportunities. After building fitness in the early stage races Vanendert once again targeted the Ardennes where he was unable to repeat his bright rides from the last few seasons. Whilst not entirely disgracing himself, Vanendert was unable to make the final selection in either of Amstel Gold or Liege-Bastogne-Liege and abandoned Fleche Wallonne. He was short of sparkle for the rest of the season, failing to really contest stages at the Vuelta. With riders such as Tim Wellens and Jens Debuscherre at their disposal, competition for leadership in the one day races is fierce at Lotto-Soudal and Vanendert’s 2015 campaign may not make him first choice.

Prediction for 2016: A new contract and proven record in the Ardennes should buy Vanendert another season as a protected rider. 


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