“Cycling isn’t a game, it’s a sport. Tough, hard and unpitying, and it requires great sacrifices. One plays football, or tennis, or hockey. One doesn’t play at cycling.” –Jean de Gribaldy
As always, road cycling season kicked off Down Under, with Caleb Ewan retaining his title at the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic and winning the People’s Choice Classic, with fellow Orica-Greenedge teammate Simon Gerrans reclaiming his place at the top of the Tour Down Under standings. This was to be a precursor for their 2016/17 season, seeing them challenge for Grand Tour podiums and gaining more wins in the process.
Froome’s once-again dominating season began in February at the Jay Herald Sun Tour, with his attack on the final lap taking the final stage win and the jersey from teammate Kennaugh. Not only did Froome claim the mountains classification, but helped Team Sky win the team classification. One team lacking immediate wins were Giant-Alpecin, with six of their riders injured after a horrific head-on collision with a car on the wrong side of the road in Alicante. With Degenkolb almost losing his finger, he couldn’t defend his Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix double, yet came back to take stage 4 at the Artic Race of Norway and the overall at Münsterland Giro. He announced his decision to leave Giant for Trek in August, joining Contador in their new lineup next year. Haga, the most seriously injured, was determined to not let his fractured eye socket and 96 stitches get him down, updating fans through humorous messages on Instagram and Twitter.
“That was a shit season this year. But I am still alive, life goes on.” – John Degenkolb.
March marked the start of the classics season, with Geraint Thomas taking the Paris-Nice jersey from Matthews (OGE) at the end of stage six. He was close to losing it to Contador (Tinkoff) after the next and final stage, yet support from teammate Henao ensured it remained on his shoulders for the overall win. Tirreno–Adriatico was won by Greg Van Avermaet, with Cummings (DDD) winning the longest mountain stage and Cancellara taking the final stage, a 10km time trial to San Benedetto del Tronto. The first monument of Milan-San Remo was well and truly open, with the previous winner Degenkolb out through injury, contenders Dumoulin and Greipel out with flu and broken ribs respectively, and a landslide the morning of the race changing the route. After almost 230km, a last minute crash and a mass sprint, Arnaud Démare came out on top just ahead of Ben Swift (Sky), providing FDJ with their most important win of the season. After a crash-filled 200km in the second monument of the Tour of Flanders, rainbow jersey-wearing Sagan (Tinkoff) was able to see off Cancellara (Trek) and Vanmarcke (LottoNL)
Sometimes in cycling, there are times when a rider defies all odds, from weather, injury or opponents, giving us unexpected moments that for many end up being a highlight of the season. When Mathew Hayman (OGE) was on the team bus before Paris-Roubaix in April, his exact words were “It’ll be my 15th attempt at winning”, and when speaking on the unpredictability of Paris-Roubaix, “You can come back a lot in this race. Keep believing, keep riding, it’s not over until you get to the velodrome.” Strong words from the 37-year-old who had broken his arm 5 weeks previously, and hadn’t been racing until this day. After numerous crashes, most notably his teammate Mitch Bower and a motorbike hitting Team Sky’s Viviani, Hayman tried to break away but was reeled back in while Sagan and Cancellara, two of the main favourites, were caught out from a previous crash. Team Sky were left disjointed after a crash while setting a high pace saw Rowe, Puccio and Moscon hit the ground. While Cancellara crashed again, a group of 10 riders including Boonen (Etixx), Hayman (OGE), Rowe and Stannard (Sky), Vanmarcke (LottoNL) and Boasson Hagen (DDD) broke clear and stayed clear. In the closing kilometers, 10 was brought down to 4 as Hayman, Boonen, Stannard and Vanmarcke battled for the win.
“Hayman has won 2 professional races; Boonen has won 109. The odds are stacked against the Australian”.
Yet he was relentless and refused to give up the perfect position on Boonen’s wheel. On the final lap of the velodrome, he moved up the ramps and took advantage of the dive to build momentum. Hitting the front while Stannard edged ever closer around the top, Hayman surged towards the line, beating the sure-favourite to take his first ever Paris-Roubaix win. His look of disbelief and shock was a picture to remember, and when teammate Durbridge ran to him post-race to say congratulations, we saw just how much it meant to not only Hayman, but the team. With their frequent Backstage Passes, Orica Greenedge-turned-BikeExchange-yet-soon-to-be-Scott have given viewers a new look on cycling, with their strong team emphasis and frequent adopting of their foreign teammates into the Australian culture. (Looking at you, Esteban Chaves.)
The Classics season finished with a triumph for Team Sky, with Wout Poels battling through snow and rain to win Liège–Bastogne–Liège towards the end of April, with previous champion Valverde having “his worst performance in the race since 2012”.
Grand Tour season arrived with the 99th edition of the Giro d’Italia. While winner Nibali (AST) and 3rd placed Valverde (MOV) were pre-race favourites, it was 2nd placed Esteban Chaves and his Orica teammates who deserve the biggest mention.
Whether it’s Boonen against Hayman or Froome and Sagan against sprinters on a sprint stage, everyone loves an underdog. Going into stage 19, Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL) was one of the strongest riders in the entire Giro. He held the pink jersey and had a comfortable 3-minute advantage over his nearest rival of Chaves (OGE), with Nibali trailing by almost 5 minutes. Yet Grand Tours are often unpredictable, as we saw from the 2014 Tour de France which saw Nibali take the win after both his rivals Froome and Contador crashed out. The sunny start to stage 19 was simply false hope, with snow later flanking dangerous roads as riders battled through fog. Chaves kept the jersey fight alive, attacking when he could while Kruijswijk stayed calm and followed, the pair leaving Valverde behind. Yet with just under 50KM to go, he crashed into a snow bank on the Colle dell’Agnello. This led to the jersey passing shoulders onto Esteban Chaves, and Orica thrown into even more of a fierce GC battle, only 40 seconds in front of Nibali. Stage 20 was to prove just as heartbreaking as the day previous, with Nibali attacking on the penultimate climb and Chaves desperately trying to stay with him, to no avail. Help from fellow countryman Uran (Cannondale) was sporting, channeling Richie Porte and Simon Clarke from the Giro the year before, yet proved fruitless. Though his team had tried their hardest to keep the jersey, they had all but lost it on the final day – yet this simply made them determined for more.
The Tour de France. Deemed by many as the greatest bike race on the planet, the 2016 edition proved Team Sky’s dominance once again, as Chris Froome took his 3rd Tour de France win ahead of Bardet (AG2R) and Quintana (Movistar) in July. For those who believe the Sky domination is making the race boring – there was plenty of drama this year. Through Contador’s early crashes on stage 1, 2 and his withdrawal on stage 9, to the sudden deflation of the 1KM to go banner on Adam Yates, causing him to flip over the top at speed in the white jersey, the Tour de France was as dangerous as it was unpredictable.
Who could forget this moment?
The crowd bottleneck, the stopped motorbike, the rider pileup which included the prized Maillot Jaune. Viewers could hardly believe their eyes when the camera cut back to them moments later, with Froome having to run up the mountain in order to keep his jersey hopes alive. How about when Froome also shook things up on a sprint stage, coming second behind Peter Sagan, who he had cleverly worked with to gain a slight physical, yet large physiological advantage over his nearest rivals? Or how about the moment he debuted a new, interesting descending technique, winning the stage and gaining more time over his nearest rivals?
It wasn’t just Froome that provided the Tour with some memorable moments. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx) had already found himself in the spotlight after crashing into a mountain during the stage 13 TT at over 32mph, yet he was unscathed.
Alaphilippe looked ready to take the stage 15 win before a mechanical saw him crash just before the final climb, and the day after he attacked with teammate Tony Martin for 4 hours over 145km, earning them both the combativity prize. Pantano (IAM) was also a Tour-standout, who alongside Majka, was left to battle for the win on stage 15 themselves after Alaphilippe was out of contention. He finished 2nd on the later stages of 17 and 20, before being called up to replace Quintana in the Columbian cycling team for the Olympics.
While the Olympics were wild, dangerous and crash-filled (see full reports of both the men’s and women’s road races here), one man saw opportunity. Fabian Cancellara, the 35-year-old Swiss, nicknamed ‘Spartacus’, hadn’t had the greatest year despite TT success in the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno – Adriatico. He just missed a stage win tailored for him in his hometown during his final Tour de France, before pulling out to prepare for Rio. Earlier in the season, a crash saw him lose all hope of winning another Paris-Roubaix, and to add insult to injury, while holding the Swiss flag he later crashed on his velodrome lap of honour, landing in a puddle at the bottom of the track. But the gold medal at Rio was the perfect end to his final season, when he proved himself head and shoulders above the rest, beating the likes of Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin and Tony Martin.
“It’s pretty special, I still don’t really have the words. After the disappointment in 2012, and many other up and downs that I’ve had, and this is my last season, it’s my Olympic Games and my last chance to do something. I knew that it was going to be a tough day, a challenging one with Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin and all the others. It was an open course for all different characteristics. I have no words. Finishing, after 16 years, with the gold, it’s not bad.”
The Vuelta a España proved Orica were a team to beat once again, with Esteban Chaves not only taking 3rd place overall, but Magnus Cort winning the final stage sprint. He also won stage 18, with teammates Simon Yates and Jens Keukeleire taking stages 6 and 12, respectively. Nairo Quintana took the win by 1’23 over nearest rival Chris Froome, with a fierce fight between Chaves and Contador for the final podium spot. Where Orica prospered, others floundered, and as the race pulled up in Las Rozas for the final stage, Lotto-Soudal, Giant Alpecin, Astana, and most surprisingly, Tinkoff – in their Grand Tour swan song – had yet to win a stage.
From the Vuelta a España 2016: Recap:
[Many teams left out sprinters for extra climbers, meaning the likes of Degenkolb for Giant Alpecin and Bouhanni for Cofidis weren’t to be seen. Gianni Meersman (Etixx) profited from this to take two stages as well as having the chance to wear the Green Jersey (Points Classification) for 6 stages. Valverde fought hard to gain the jersey by Madrid, yet by stage 21 it was on the shoulders on Felline (Trek) – as the only jersey which could change holders by the end of the race. Yet Valverde didn’t contest the final sprint and Felline retained it, Quintana still held the red and white jerseys, Fraile won the polka dot jersey for the 2nd time in 2 years and BMC won the team classification. At La Vuelta, road books that didn’t quite match the profile were an issue, and the Vuelta was dubbed “insanely hard” by many riders, including Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data).]
So there we are. 2016 in a nutshell. Keep an eye out for Caleb Ewan towards the start of the season Down Under, Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet and Stannard/Rowe for the Classics, and another Froome/Quintana battle in the Grand Tours.