2016 season in review: The year of Monument firsts

2016 was the year of Trump, Brexit, Zika, the Rio Olympics, Russians in Syria, terror in Brussles, terror in Nice, Climate change and nuclear deals, Pokemon Go, and Celebrities dying. It was also the year that Peter Sagan won his first monument and retained his world title, and Chris Froome ran up Mont Ventoux on his way to winning a third Tour de France.

I was in tough to pick a name for this years year in review. At first I was going to go with ‘the year of the Brits’. I mean, Froome won the Tour again, he was second at the Vuelta and he won an Olympic medal. The British track team dominated those games with some record breaking and historic moments. Geraint Thomas won the Paris-Nice and Team Sky got their first Monument win by way of a non-British rider. But it was the later that got me thinking of another kind of year this was: The year of first time Monument winners. And given that the majority of my focus is around road cycling, I figured that might be more apt.

Yes, all five monument winners were first time winners and there was some other firsts on top of that. Arnaud Demare won his first at Milan-San Remo. He became the first Frenchman to win a Monument since Laurent Jalabert took the 1997 Giro di Lombardia. Peter Sagan was next to break his Monument duct when he won at the Tour of Flanders. There had been even more pressure on him to win one than the whole of Team Sky and he delivered in style, wearing the rainbow jersey. A week later Matt Hayman got his first in superb fashion, at Paris-Roubaix.  Then, two weeks later, Team Sky finally got theirs when Wout Poels won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He became the first Dutchman to win that race since Adri van der Poel in 1988. Following this, a summer of Grand Tour racing commenced in which the same old faces took home the spoils. Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana all proved victorious. The firsts came back  though at the fifth and final Monument: Il Lombardia. Esteban Chaves became the first Colombian to win a Monument and you don’t expect it will be their last. Likewise for Team Sky and Peter Sagan.

2016 was a monumental year for the world in lots of ways, though not always for good. There was controversy, political shake ups, and the continued threat of terror. The later even hit home to the cycling world with the events in Brussels and Paris. The attacks in Belgium came in the midst of the spring classics season. There was talk of cancelling the E3 Harelbeke as a mark of respect as well as for security reasons. But it went ahead and Michal Kwiatkowski won that day in a two-up sprint with Peter Sagan. Then there was the terrible attack in Nice while the Tour was taking place; hours after Froome was running up Ventoux. The threat and the fear was real and there was talk of cancelling the next days stage. But, cycling is the French sport; the Tour is their showpiece event and a window into the counties culture. By racing on the next day they showed that France itself would keep going.

So while the world was embroiled in political upheaval, the cycling season continued unabated. It wasn’t completely without scandal, of course. There was the Team Sky TUE issue that came off the back of the Fancy Bears hack. That had come in retaliation to the exposure of the depths of cheating within the Russian system…particularly in athletics. That then led to the timing of and type of TUE use by Bradley Wiggins and how that equated to Team Sky’s ethical stance. And from that to the mysterious jiffy bag and what was in it? Some questions remain unanswered and could drag into 2017. At worst Team Sky’s reputation took a dent. At best we got a reminder of how far cycling has come that this is what is now considered a major scandal in cycling.

Of course, there were some awful real and dark moments that hit cycling hard too. The Giant-Alpecin team were in Majorca when a car ploughed into their training ride. The incident injured six riders including John Degenkolb and Warren Barguil. Things got worse a few months later for the sport with the tragic deaths of Antoine Demoitié, 25, and Daan Myngheer, 22 on back-to-back days in March. Demoitié crashed and was then hit by a motorcycle at  Gent–Wevelgem. Myngheer had a heart attack during the first stage of the Critérium International. Then in May, during the Tour of Belgium, a crash caused by motorbikes brought down Stig Broekx. The Belgian suffered severe injuries and was placed into an induced coma. In June his Lotto Soudal team announced that Broeckx was in a vegetative state with severe brain damage. This past week it emerged that Broeckx had come out of his coma, but still faced a long road to recovery.

It was a rough time but the sport rallied around itself as it always does, and the racing continued. From those Monuments to the Grand Tours to the one week and other one day races, there was too much to mention here in any fair detail. As such what follows now are five moments of 2016 that stood out for me. They were the ones I thought of right away when I began to consider the season. So here they are, followed by several annual awards.

TOP 5 MEMORABLE MOMENTS

1. FROOME’S CHANGE OF TACTICS…INCLUDING RUNNING!
Before this past July, had you asked how Chris Froome might win the Tour, I would have resorted to the obvious. You know, attacking on the first summit finish, taking time in the time-trials, and marking his rivals the rest of the way. Froome did all that of course, but what you never would have thought to see was Froome attacking on a descent and attacking in the crossing winds. Then when his crisis moment came, and his Tour seemed in real trouble, we got the single best moment of the season. With his bike broke on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, Froome started running. It was an epic sight and one of the great images in the history of the great race. That picture of Froome running up Ventoux, swarmed by fans, was the moment of the 2016 season. It showed us the character of Froome and the determination that lies within him. At the 2016 Tour, Chris Froome looked less a robot than some perceive him. He attacked when his rivals least expected it and he chased every advantage he could. He animated what was an otherwise quiet Tour; made so, in some ways, by the strength of the team around him. In 2016 Froome became an opportunist as well as a three time Tour de France winner.

2. PETER SAGAN WINS AT FLANDERS
It had been coming. Near misses time after time…all those second places. But you got the feeling that with last years world championship win, Sagan had finally figured it out. You couldn’t imagine a rainbow curse with this man, and you felt 2016 might well belong to him. All that was missing from his already stacked palmares was a Monument. He placed well throughout the spring classics but his win at Gent-Wevelgem the week before hinted at peak form arriving at the perfect time. He rode strong through the race and on the final run up the Oude Kwaremont, he put the hammer down and blew away his final rival Sep Vanmarcke. That day he became a Monument man and you know it’s only the first.

3. THE FINAL WEEKEND OF THE GIRO
The Giro d’Italia looked won and done going into the final weekend. Steven Kruijswijk looked set to do what his fellow Dutchman, Tom Dumoulin fell a day shy of doing the previous September, and win a Grand Tour. He only had one weekend to see out. His nearest rival, Esteban Chaves was three minutes behind him. Pre-race favourite Vincenzo Nibali had been nowhere the whole race. But never count out the Shark, especially an Italian one who has won each Grand Tour before. On the cold, snow lined decent of the Colle dell’Angello, Nibali stepped up. He attacked the descent and on one fast corner, Kruijswijk ran wide and flew into the snow. He cracked completely in the ensuing chase and lost his pink jersey to Chaves as Nibali took the stage. The following day Nibali struck again. He didn’t win on the Sunday but he put time into his rivals and leapfrogged Chaves to take the race lead with a day to go. He had seized victory from the jaws of defeat. Chaves had to settled for second and Kruijswijk fell to forth behind Alejandro Valverde. It was a supreme comeback by Nibali.

4. MAT HAYMAN WINS PARIS-ROUBAIX
It was the race billed as the final showdown between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. If anyone was to spoil the party, it was Peter Sagan. Nobody gave an Australian named Matt Hayman, two weeks shy of his 38th birthday, a second look. Even when he got into the decisive move, nobody considered him. Not when it also contained classic names like Boonen, Stannard, Vanmarcke and Boasson Hagen. Yet when those five exhausted men opened up their final sprint inside that fabled velodrome, it was Hayman who timed it to perfection. With a face of utter shock he took the biggest win of his career.

5. CANCELLARA GOES OUT A CHAMPION
For Fabian Cancelleara 2016 was to be a retirement tour. Not in the typical sense of coasting it and receiving the accolades, but in trying to go out on top. It looked good when he won the Strade Bianche at the beginning of the season in real Cancellara style, but then he began to miss out on targets. He failed to win any of his beloved spring classics, highlighted by his crash at Paris-Roubaix and failure to catch Peter Sagan at Flanders. And he failed to finish both the Giro and the Tour. At both it was others who took the time-trial glory. It seemed like it had been a year too far for the great Swiss rider when he showed up to his final event at the Rio Olympics. Given his time-trial form, the road race seemed his best chance, but write him off at your pearl. In that race of truth, names like Dumoulin, Dennis and Froome were favourites; expected to prevail above Fabian. But Fabian dug deep. He dragged out one last effort from a body that had served him so well over the years. He smashed the course and took the gold by 47 seconds over Dumoulin and 1min 2sec on Froome. It was a brilliant way to go out and into retirement, doing so in a way in which we will all remember him: A champion.

Honorable mentions:

There were other magical moments too. Remember Tyler Farrar borrowing a fans bike and shoes to complete a stage at the Tour Down Under? And who can forget both Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan each finally getting a day in the yellow jersey? And speaking of Cavendish…how about his return to the throne as peloton sprint king? What about Contador and Quintana putting the hammer down on Chris Froome at the Vuelta? Van Avermaet becoming an unlikely Olympic champion on a hilly course? And Peter Sagan retaining his world championship crown in the desert? No doubt some of those will stand out as the best memories to some, while others will have moments I have completely failed to acknowledge. Such is the health and beauty of this sport now in 2016.

AWARDS

Cyclist of the Year: CHRIS FROOME
Some will disagree with this given I’ve overlooked Peter Sagan. But let’s face it, Chris Froome won the Tour de France in dominant fashion, taking two stage wins along the way. He then left France for Rio and took a bronze medal in the individual time-trial with a 12th place finish in the road race. Days later he flew into Spain and started the Vuelta, winning two stages and finishing second overall. Of the six stage races Froome entered in 2016, two of them Grand Tours, he won three and was second in another. If it was in doubt before the season began, there was no doubt when it ended that Froome was the best stage racer on the planet.
Runners up: Peter Sagan, Romain Bardet, Esteban Chaves and Mark Cavendish.
Past winners: 2011 – Philippe Gilbert; 2012 – Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2013 – Vincenzo Nibali; 2014 – Vincenzo Nibali; 2015 – Peter Sagan.

Sprinter: MARK CAVENDISH
The majority of experts had written Cavendish off. Sure people felt he could win a race or two here and there, but his days of sprint dominance, especially at the Tour, were over. But Cavendish always believed. He had turned his training to the track ahead of the Olympics and it appeared to help him find his pure speed again. He won the opening stage of the Tour, at last, to pull on his first yellow jersey and went on to win four stages in all. He won across the season, got an Olympic medal on the track and also took the GC at the Tour of Qatar.
Past winners: 2011 – Mark Cavendish; 2012 – Mark Cavendish; 2013 – Marcel Kittel; 2014 – Marcel Kittel; 2015 – Andre Greipel.

Climber: CHRIS FROOME
I thought hard about this one. I looked back at results because I couldn’t remember anyone completely dominating the mountain stages. And so it proved to be. Quintana was brilliant at the Vuelta, but invisible at the Tour. Froome was untouchable in France but vulnerable at the Vuelta. Niabli only showed up on the final weekend of the Giro and Contador is a shadow of his former climbing self. Esteban Chaves was consistent without being dominant. So who to pick? As push has now come to shove, I’ve gone with Froome. He was above and beyond the rest at Le Tour and was only edged at the Vuelta. Indeed, but for that calamity day when he lost his team as Contador and Quintana stole a march on him, he might well have won that race too despite tired legs.
Past winners: 2011 – David Moncoutie; 2012 – Joaqium Rodriguez; 2013 – Chris Froome; 2014 – Nairo Quintana; 2015 – Chris Froome.

Time-trialist: CHRIS FROOME
This was also a tough one. Nobody dominated the time-trials this season either. Different men won at the Tour, at the Olympics and the World Championships. So I’ve gone with Froome for that reason. The pure time-trialists failed to dominate and Froome even got in on the mix in their races. He won a time-trial at the Tour, the Vuelta and placed third at the Olympics.
Past winners: 2011 – Cadel Evans; 2012 – Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2013 – Tony Martin; 2014 – Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2015 – Rohan Dennis.

Most complete rider: PETER SAGAN
This one required the least thought of all. How could it not be? He won in spring on the cobbles, he won at the Tour and he retained his world championship. In any race that didn’t involve high mountains he was in the mix. He won yet another green jersey at the Tour including three stages with ten top ten finishes along the way. He was brilliant to watch. He is money in the bank.
Past winners: 2014 – Alejandro Valverde; 2015 – Peter Sagan.

Team: IAM CYCLING
This may seem so bizarre given they finished second last in the UCI World Tour team rankings and announced their withdrawal from the sport. But sod those rankings. They’re not well structured as far as I’m concerned. They factor in riders positions in general classifications rather than individual stage results. And the fact they announced their departure from the sport with more than half the season still to go only solidifies my decision. It would have been so easy for moral to sink and heads to drop, yet on they raced and they won stages at each of the three Grand Tours. Few teams achieved that feat. They worked hard and they got involved in races and we will miss them.
Past winners: 2012 – British Olympic track team; 2013 – Orica GreenEdge; 2014 – Tinkoff-Saxo; 2015 – Team Sky.

Hard man: PIERRE ROLLAND
Eyebrows raised when Pierre Rolland moved to Cannondale last winter. Moving away from the comfort of a French team was a brave decision. But the Frenchman wanted to reward his new team for showing faith in him and he wanted to do so at the Tour. But fate wasn’t on his side. He crashed a couple of times, once in a bad way and ought to have abandoned. Indeed speaking recently his team manager Jonathan Vaughters expected him to do so. Yet, on he went and the next day there he was in the break. He crashed again later in the Tour and never got the win he deserved but still came in 16th on GC.
Past winners: 2011 – Johnny Hoogerland; 2012 – Johan Van Summeren; 2013 – Geraint Thomas; 2014 – Alberto Contador; 2015 – Adam Hansen.

Domestique: WOUT POELS
An easy choice as far as I could see. Poels is a fine rider in his own right, highlighted by his victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but he bent himself over backwards for Froome at the Tour. People complain about the dominance of the Sky team and their ability to control mountain stages, but like that or not, you have to admire Poels. He was always the last man with Froome and was never more crucial that on stage 19 when Froome crashed. It was Poels who guided him home that day ensuring a third Tour win would be Froome’s.
Past winners: 2013 – Adam Hansen; 2014 – Tony Martin; 2015 – Geraint Thomas.

King of Spring: PETER SAGAN
Throughout the spring classics season I ran a competition to find the best overall rider. Usaing the 14 major spring clasic races from Omloop through to Liège, including the 4 Monuments, the points format took on that of Formula One with 25pts for 1st down to 1pt for 10th) and each race was equal regardless of status. Needless to say, Sagan walked it with 104 points. Cancellara was second on 67 points and Enrico Gasparotto third on 53 points.
Past winners: 2012 – Tom Boonen; 2013 – Peter Sagan; 2014 – Niki Terpstra; 2015 – Alexander Kristoff.

Retiring: GOOD BYE TO…
Fabian Cancellara, Joaqium Rodriguez, Ryder Hesjedal, Frank Schleck, Johan Vansummeren, and JC Peraud, among others.

Have a happy Christmas and a merry new year. I’ll be back then and within a few weeks of 2017 getting under way, so too will a new cycling season at the Tour Down Under.

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