Emerging from the glow of Christmas lights and New Year fireworks, the 2016 Pro Cycling season has rumbled into January and racing ‘down under’ starts this month. The off season has ended and rider schedules would have long been decided with fitness plans well under way. With just a short lull in competition you would not expect a lot to have changed as cycling resumes but the break always bookends previous results and rider mind-sets can be completely reset. Here are ten riders I’ll be looking out for in 2016.
Having ridden for leading Belgian teams since turning pro, Debusschere should not be fazed by the competition within Lotto Soudal for protected status. More thought worthy, perhaps, is finding what a big Jens Debuscherre win should really look like. This isn’t to say Debusschere has been on a baron run – picking up four victories in 2015 – but 2016 could be the year the 26 year old twins his versatility with a killer instinct at the biggest races. Whilst often brilliant in the autumn, Debusschere had his best spring campaign in 2015 challenging first in Gent-Wevelgem and involved again at Paris-Roubaix. He can sprint too, defeating World Champion Peter Sagan in the rain at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Long thought of as huge a talent, any whisper that Ulissi is a lost cause is way off the mark. A disappointing 2015 Ardennes campaign can be entirely mitigated by the fact the Italian was on the comeback trail having scarcely competed since June of the previous year following a suspension. It didn’t take him long to get up to speed landing a fourth Giro stage in May. A solid second half of the season contained plenty of encouraging performances and 2016 could be the year we see Ulissi top major podiums. He is a more than capable climber on his day and Lampre have good reason to put their faith in the explosive all-rounder.
Kung’s neo-pro year was highly impressive and it looks as though BMC can add another talented strongman to their already impressive roster. Kung lit races up in the spring, finishing second to Bradley Wiggins in the Driedaagse De Panne TT before winning the Volta Limburg Classic and a stage of the Tour de Romandie. Hailing from Switzerland he won’t avoid Fabian Cancellara comparisons but at just 22 he has years to craft his own image. Kung is young enough to have another pressure-free year and BMC should give him the right chances to shine. Reported ill last week, Kung will spend time recovering before starting his season.
Before you let out a groan, I won’t be talking up Pierre Rolland as a Grand Tour challenger as some did during his time at Europcar. He seems to have hit a ceiling with regards to his climbing – albeit at an impressive level – and can lose chunks of time against the clock. But in Rolland we have a rider who has finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France on three occasions whilst, with all respect to Jean-René Bernaudeau’s well-run team, receiving very little support. He also doubled up to finish 11th at the Tour after narrowly missing out on a podium at the Giro. Now at Cannondale, Rolland will find himself in a vastly changed environment where emphasis could shift from simply animating races to going out and winning them.
After the year he just had it’s difficult to not be excited about Tiesj Benoot. Some have been convinced by Benoot since the youth ranks but it would have been some call to predict he would transition to the World Tour so comfortably. His results in a selection of the early spring classics were impressive before he dug deep for a magnificent fifth place at the Tour of Flanders, crossing the line ahead of talented team-mate Jurgen Roelandts. He backed up this stellar performance later in the season with solid displays at the Eneco Tour and the quite different San Sebastian. Benoot will be looking to kick on in 2016 as a weapon in Lotto Soudal’s impressive arsenal.
Orica’s Caleb Ewan is the real deal and last year looked far too good for the 2.1 category races he swept up in. He looked a class apart in a host of his 2015 wins and whilst the opposition at the Tour de Korea were not on his level he showed remarkable consistency and an eye for following the right wheels. The hustle and bustle of a World Tour bunch sprint is completely different but Ewan can tick that off the list too – he got close to a win in Poland before nailing a Vuelta stage. By the end of the year Ewan had crammed what should have been a steady rise up the ranks into an excellent six month period. Wasting absolutely no time, he has already won in 2016 and Orica will release him on the World Tour later this month.
Another obvious man to keep your eyes on in 2016 is Julian Alaphilippe following his brilliant breakout year and superb Ardennes results. A pair of runner-up spots in Wallonia’s finest classics cemented the Frenchman’s talent and had it not been for Alejandro Valverde he could have been 22 and on top of the cycling world. He got the best of many big names in Liege largely thanks to his fast finish. As often said about Peter Sagan, if Alaphilipe is not dropped by the final stretch he will be serious threat in the sprint. Getting rid of him is certainly no mean feat – he destroyed last year’s Tour of California field on Mt.Baldy in what was a sensational stage win. Michal Kwiatkowski’s move away from Etixx should hand Alaphilippe a bumper role in 2016.
Forget what happened in 2015, Etixx will facilitate Marcel Kittel’s return to the front of bunch sprints. The mysterious virus he picked up nearly 12 months ago sideswiped the German and he missed practically all of the campaign. His bad year will not have helped the thought that Kittel struggles when things don’t go to plan. The fastest man of 2014 has always preferred sprint lead-outs to be as immaculate as his spiked hair but must now learn to take the rough with the smooth. Kittel might not be one for the lumpier Grand Tour stages but he is the man who knocked a comfortably sat Mark Cavendish off the sprinters throne. He cut a despondent figure for most of last season and it is important manager Patrick Lefévère shows Kittel a little more love than he had for the departing Cavendish.
Since winning the U23 World Championships back in 2010 Michael Matthews has edged closer each year to landing a huge win. His progression has been steady and it seems he is never too far away from his next victory. When routes get announced it’s possible to spot ‘Michael Matthews stages’ such as in Saint-Amand-Montrondat at last year’s Paris-Nice and again at Sestri Levante at the Giro – he delivered the goods on both occasions. In recent years Matthews has transitioned into a rider who is beginning to tread on the toes of teammate Simon Gerrans, utilizing his tremendous toughness alongside his explosiveness. I’m predicting a win in the classics – or the even the World Championships – in 2016.
Quintana finished 2015 on equal footing with Grand Tour winners Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. Despite a costly time loss in the opening week of the Tour, Quintana answered any doubters to show he is on same level as cycling’s premier stage racers. Froome and Contador will undoubtedly mount serious attempts at Tour hat-tricks but the Colombian is the most likely to have improved over the twelve months and this could finally be the year of Quintana. At the Vuelta he showed he has little to worry about regarding his time-trialling and his yearlong aggression confirmed his coming of age. On paper last year’s Tour looked a showdown for the ages but it is the 2016 edition which may prove the real battle royal.