2015 season in review: The year of motorbikes knocking over cyclists

2015 was the year terror struck Paris, twice; a Syrian child refugee washed up dead on a Turkish beach; the VW emissions scandal hit; an Iranian nuclear deal was struck; a new Canadian Prime Minister was elected; and Marty & Doc arrived in the future. But it was also the year that John Degenkolb done a Kelly; Contador, Froome and Aru won Grand Tours; Tom Dumoulin became a GC rider; and Mr. Everything, Peter Sagan, shook up the Worlds.

It was a busy year for me, reflected by the fact I wrote so little. Virtually nothing before the Tour, a little on the Vuelta, and a report of my trip to watch the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal. Not a word was typed on the Giro, and even the World Championships and Peter Sagan’s stunning victory came and went without note. Such is life. But that didn’t mean I didn’t watch as much as I could, though I didn’t watch the Giro and was left resorting to live minute-by-minute text updates. Still I seen enough to know it was a fine year of cycling and while it’s much too late to go back now and rehash it all race by un-documented race, what would the end of one season and the start of another be if I didn’t pause briefly to look back in broad terms at the year that was so I can at least get something about it down on record…and hand out some awards.

There were some memorable moments in 2015, as there are in every cycling season, I suppose, and those deserve a mention. Consider for a moment the following magical moments in rough chronological order, just to remind yourself how much you seen, heard, took in, and enjoyed: Riders refusing to race at the Tour of Oman; the wind at Ghent-Wevelgem; Wiggins attacking at Paris-Roubaix; John Degenkolb winning Paris-Rouabix; Alex Dowsett’s Hour Record pre-Wiggins; Richie Porte recieving a time penalty for taking a wheel from Simon Clarke at the Giro; Contador blitzing Aru across the Mortirolo; Romain Bardet’s descent at the Dauphine; that huge crash at the Tour which all but eliminated Cancellara in Yellow, days before Tony Martin also crashed out in Yellow; Tony Martin winning the cobble stage at the Tour and taking the Yellow jersey after so many near misses; Chris Froome on the Col de Soudet; Chris Froome having piss thrown at him and then defending himself against former French professionals; Peter Sagan descending off the Col de Manse; Vincenzo Nibali holding onto his team car and getting DQ’d at the Vuelta; Tom Dumoulin fighting to retain Red at the Vuelta, but falling short; Fabio Aru redeeming his 2nd at the Giro with his first GT win at the Vuelta; Vincenzo Nibali redeeming himself by winning Il Lombardia solo in front of his adoring home fans; and motorbikes running into riders countless times.

An unbelievable year in the sport, so many talking points, and not a single doping scandal (though there was the release of the CIRC report back in early March). And yet I’ve left five other special moments off that long list. Those five are the ones that, for me at least, rose above the rest and jumped to my mind first when I initially cast my mind back on the cycling year that was. Here are those, followed thereafter by a number of other awards…

TOP 5 MEMORABLE MOMENTS

1. ENTIRE FIRST WEEK OF THE TOUR
I grew up watching a Tour in which a flat and simple first week belonged to the sprinters while the overall contenders stayed out of the way and out of trouble. Not so in 2015. What the race organisers laid down was, I believe, the most difficult and chaotic first week in memory. We had a record breaking time-trial, cross-winds, muurs, cobbles, crashes, men riding wounded, panic, time splits, multiple changes in Yellow, multiple Yellow abandonments, a team-time-trial, riders exhausted and some teams severely depleated. It was a week that the likes of Vincenzo Nibali was expected to shine and Chris Froome to struggle, and yet by the time it was all said and done, with the high mountains still to come, it was Froome in Yellow with his rivals lagging behind. If the Tour had finished after that first week rather than simply entering its first rest day, we couldn’t have said we were sold short.

2. SAGAN WINS THE WORLD ROAD RACE CHAMPIONSHIP
It was something special, wasn’t it? And it was almost inevitable, despite the many second place finishes he had throughout the season. We barely seen him the entire race, his small national team not expected to do the work expected of the big nations, and while others took their turn to go up the road and the laps ticked down, you just got this feeling that Sagan had finally learned from all the mistakes that had cost him so many additional wins before, and that this time he was going to get it right. And there he was on the last run up that sharp little climb, kicking hard, not giving the rest a chance, opening a gap of maybe ten metres by the top. Not enough by anyones ability, anyone that is beyond the unlimited talents of Sagan. There was a descent to come with some tight corners, and that was what he was banking on. He swept through them and the gap grew. And then he was gone. He began to fade near the end but by then it was too late for the rest, and he even had time to sit up and naunclantly take in the moment as he rolled across the line, celebrating the biggest win of his career in a manor that only Sagan can. And everyone in the cycling world to a man was delighted.

3. STEVE CUMMINGS OUTDUELS FRENCH DUO TO WIN STAGE 14 OF THE TOUR FOR AN AFRICAN TEAM ON MANDELA DAY
It was an amazing come from behind victory by the British rider, against two French favourites, while riding for an African team on Mandela Day. Cummings was part of a large break that reached the final short but steep climb, the Côte de la Croix Neuve, well ahead of the peloton, and while the young French hopes of Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot went on the attack, Cummings went into time-trial mode and switched off from the rest. By the summit he was still close, and as the Frenchmen began to play a game of cat and mouse to see who would lead out the sprint, the lion Cummings put his head down and moved in for the kill. He built up speed and, to the shock of the cautious French pair looking st one another, roared past and immediately opened a gap; a gap they wouldn’t close. The French cannot have enjoyed watcing the British dominate their race in recent years, from Wiggo to Froome to Cav, and this one must have stung more than most, but who could complain, for like Jalabert winning for the French on Bastille Day 1995 at the same finish, Cummings won for his African team on Mandela Day. It was a beautiful ride full of courage, grit and determination.

4. IAN STANNARD OUTDUELS ETTIX TRIO TO WIN 2ND OMLOOP
The theory of it may sound much like the moment above; it even contained a British rider, but the difference lay in the fact that Ian Stannard couldn’t take advantage of the element of surprise. In this one, he came into the final kilometres surrounded by three Ettix Quick Step riders, Tom Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra. The odds were stacked against him, especially given the experience of the opposition, but still, towards the run in, Stannard sat in while the Ettix boys tried to keep a chasing Stijn Vandenbergh at bay, so by the time the duel for the win began, Stannard had relitively fresh legs. When the first Ettix attack came, by their sprinter, Boonen—the first mistake—Stannard didn’t panic and slowly reeled him in. When the next attack came, this time by Terpstra, it lacked power and it was an Ettix rider that bright him back—the second mistake. That moment of uncertainty among his rivals signalled an opportunity for Stannard; he kicked hard and broke the back of Boonen and Vandenbergh leaving only Terpstra as his remaining competition. The final Ettix mistake came when Terpstra opted to lead out the sprint and the big man Stannard roared around him inside the final few hundred metres to win his secont Omloop on the trot. Ettix were rightly criticised post-race, but Stannard deserved the praise for such a gutsy ride.

5. WIGGINS SETS NEW WORLD HOUR STANDARD
I watched this on my phone in a pub near my house with a friend who was over from the UK visiting. He wasn’t a big cycling fan and so I explained the relavance of the World Hour record within the sport, the history, and the respect with which it is afforded, and how a tweaking to the rules in the past year had seen several riders go for, and break, the standard. Wiggins however was a different kattle of fish, and he was expected to set a distance that would put the record out of reach and end these quick succession attempts by others. While the atmospheric conditions weren’t entirely favourable, Wiggins still lived up to expectations with a distance of 54.526. His track craft was obvious, his position flawless—you know, that steady position that makes you believe you could place a full glass of wine on his back and not spill a drop—and nodody has since tried to better it, and may not for some time.

AWARDS

Cyclist of the Year: PETER SAGAN
In the early season, Peter Sagan couldn’t buy himself a big victory as the likes of John Degenklob became the first man since Sean Kelly to win the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in the same year and Alexander Kristoff won 5 races in the first 9 days of April including the Tour of Flanders. Even into the Tour Sagan struggled to pick up an actual victory, but then there was the remarkable fact that he finished in the top five in 11 of 21 stages in that Tour to go with top results in a number of the spring classics. He was always on the attack in France, featuring on all kinds of terrain and cementing his forth straight Green jersey prize. And while others faded as the season went on, Sagan got stronger. There was that superb overall victory at the Tour of Califnoria with his climb up Mt. Baldy, and then finally, he put those big-race second place finishes behind him once and for all at the Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia with a memorable solo win. Sagan proved himself beyond doubt to be the most versatile, aggressive and charasmatic rider in the sport.
Runners up: John Degenklob, Alexander Kristoff, Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin.
Past winners: 2011 Philippe Gilbert; 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2013 Vincenzo Nibali; 2014 Vincenzo Nibali.

Sprinter: ANDRE GREIPEL
Hard to look beyond his four stage wins at the Tour de France to go with his 15 total race wins for the season. He got the better of Cavendish more than anyone thought he could and with Marcel Kittle having an off season he took full advantage. He even pressed Peter Sagan further than anyone felt possible for the Green jersey before finally relenting when the Slovak turned on the style on the hilly roads. Can he repeat in 2016 or will Kittel and Cavendish, both on new teams, bounce back?
Past winners: 2011 Mark Cavendish; 2012 Mark Cavendish; 2013 Marcel Kittel; 2014 Marcel Kittel.

Climber: CHRIS FROOME
Say what you like about the climbing style of Nairo Quintana and the punishment he laid out on a sick Chris Froome on Alpe d’Huez, the fact remains when push came to shove on that first big climb of the Tour on stage 10 it was Froome who threw down the gauntlet and left his rivals for dead. Only illness on those final few stages exposed a weakness that Quintana tried to take advantage of but when all was said and done and all mountains were passed, it was still Froome who rolled into Paris not just in Yellow, but also as the winner of the King of the Mountains competition. It’s just a shame we couldn’t get to see how either would do in a head-to-head at the Vuelta, as both left early, against a Fabio Aru who had his work cut out against the impressive, but unhearlded, Tom Dumoulin.
Past winners: 2011 David Moncoutie; 2012 Joaqium Rodriguez; 2013 Chris Froome; 2014 Nairo Quintana.

Time-trialist: ROHAN DENNIS
It was Vasil Kiryienka who won the World Championship time-trial and Tom Dumoulin who almost used the time-trial to his advantage to win the Vuelta, but the sit-up-and-take-note time-trial of 2015 was Rohan Dennis on stage 1 of the Tour. It was only 13.8km in length, but in it he set down the fastest time-trial in Tour history at 55.446km/h, beating the record set by Chris Boardman at the 1994 Tour, in a prologue. It was a time-trial that also came at the start of the Tour when everyone was fresh and prepared and it featured heavy hitters like Tony Martin, Fabian Cancellara and Dumoulin. Dennis beat them all.
Past winners: 2011 Cadel Evans; 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2013 Tony Martin; 2014 Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Classics rider: JOHN DEGENKOLB
This was a tough one to pick. Alejandro Valverde won both the La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the space of four days, but there was something magical about seeing John Degenkolb become the first man since Sean Kelly in 1986 and Eddy Merckx before him, to win the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in the same year. It’s set a new standard by which we will now judge Degenkolb but he’s a class act both on and off the bike and there’s no reason he cannot be at the forefront to win one, or both, of those races again.
Past winners: 2011 Philippe Gilbert; 2012 Tom Boonen; 2013 Fabian Cancellara; 2014 Simon Gerrans.

Most complete rider: PETER SAGAN
Hard to argue this. He can sprint (evident by his forth Green jersey title), he can climb (see the Tour of California and efforts on various degrees of hills at the Tour), he can time-trial (see again the Tour of California), he can descend (see him drop off the Col de Manse at the Tour) and his ability to handle a bike is beyond anyone else in the peloton. And now he is World Champion. All that remains is for him to start adding monument glories to his palmares and you get the feeling that the World Championship win might just see him move to another level still in terms of results, fulfilling a talent that seems almost boundless.
Past winners: 2014 Alejandro Valverde.

Team: SKY
Sky were consistant throughout 2015. Geraint Thomas won the Volta ao Algarve, Richie Porte won Paris-Nice, Lars Petter Nordhaug won the Tour of Yorkshire and Chris Froome the Critérium du Dauphiné, all before the Tour. In the classics Ian Stannard won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Thomas the E3 Harelbeke. And there were other stage wins too, including multiple wins by Elia Viviani, a Nicolas Roche stage win at the Vuelta, and Bradley Wiggins’ final victory for the team in a stage at the Three Days of De Panne. Then at the Tour, Froome took a stage win on his way to winning the Yellow jersey and the King of the Mountains, while as a collective they took home the team prize. And yet, for me, the standout performance of them as a team was their ability to control the race through that brutal first week of the Tour and then to continue protecting Froome in the mountains. The balance was superb and managed with perfection.
Past winners: 2012 British Olympic track team; 2013 Orica GreenEdge; 2014 Tinkoff-Saxo.

Breakthrough young rider: JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE
A fine spring for the young Frenchman who was 2nd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2nd at La Flèche Wallonne and 7th at the Amstel Gold. In short Tours he had three top 5 stage finishes at the Tour de Romandie while at the Tour of California he had a stage win and was 2nd overall to Peter Sagan while taking the young rider classification. His season was quieter over the summer but we can’t be surprised given he’s only 23. Big things will be expected of him in spring 2016.
Past winners: 2011 Pierre Rolland; 2012 Peter Sagan; 2013 Nairo Quintana; 2014 Fabio Aru.

Hard man: ADAM HANSEN
Michael Matthews could stake a claim for this award meaning that the Aussies were without doubt the toughest nation on the professional tour, but I’ve gone with Hansen for his wounded ride through the Tour de France. Not only was the Tour Hansens 12th Grand Tour in a row (the streak since extended to 13 when he completed the Vuelta, a new all-time record), but he did so in abject agony. A big crash on just the second stage left Hansen with a badly dislocated shoulder and that night he took to Twitter to say the following: “AC dislocation. Same shoulder as three weeks ago. Was told its going to be the most painful three weeks four me. I eat pain for breakfast. Bring it on!” It would have been easier to walk away and accept his consecutive Grand Tour completion streak was over but, with that surely in the back of his mind, as well as the desire to help his team, Hansen soldiered on in pain. There is no doubt that Adam Hansen is a hard man and, like all those who factor in this category, he is one of the sports most likeable characters.
Past winners: 2011 Johnny Hoogerland; 2012 Johan Van Summeren; 2013 Geraint Thomas; 2014 Alberto Contador.

Domestique: GERAINT THOMAS
Super domestique Geraint Thomas came into his own in 2015, especially in aid of his team-leader, Chris Froome, at the Tour de France. He won the E3 Harelbeke and was competitive in numerous other races throughout the spring and then showed up at the Tour as one of the key men guiding Froome across the cobbles and keeping him near the front in the cross winds only to keep him form high in the high mountains as he maintained a top five place overall until the final few days. But for so much work in that first week, who knows how high he could have soared, and no doubt he now has that question in the back of his mind. What that changes in his approach to the 2016 Tour remains to be seen, but in 2015 there’s little doubt this was the best man for any team leader to have by their side on almost any terrain.
Past winners: 2013 Adam Hansen; 2014 Tony Martin.

Retiring: GOODBYE TO
Ivan Basso, Thomas Dekker, Cadel Evans, Gert Steegmans, John Gadret, Ted King, Alexander Kolobnev, Brett Lancaster and Alessandro Petacci, among others.

It’s on this line I should be saying have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year, but that has all come and gone now, so with the old season in the history books and the new one just days away, let’s turn to 2016 and enjoy what will surely be another brilliant cycling season full of stories, talking points and memorable moments.

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