Month: January 2015

A look at the Australian Open draws

Overview of the Rod Laver Arena, the main stadium of Melbourne Park

Welcome to another edition of the Happy Slam, my favourite tennis Grand Slam and a yearly excuse to live on a crazy schedule for two weeks (well.. guess not this time), complain about the organization’s deficient handling of the scorching weather conditions, admire the raucous crowds and pity a boatload of injuries caused by the short off-season.
The Australian Open, held on the marvellous city of Melbourne, is also the Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific and the festive environment usually boasts the region’s best players towards surprising runs. However, the retirement of China’s Li Na, the most successful tennis player in Asia and the reigning female Champion is a tough blow to those ambitions and a big loss for the tournament. Last year’s US Open Champion, Croatian Marin Cilic is also missing in Melbourne due to shoulder injury.
Both single’s draws were completed Friday morning, with a spirited Li Na leading the proceedings, and I used them as a starting point to anticipate some of the most interesting matches the tournament will offer its enthusiasts. As usual, I’ll start with the ladies.

Li Na, recently retired, defeated Dominika Cibulkova in last year’s final

World number one and a five-time winner in Melbourne, Serena Williams got a smooth draw to navigate through the first week. The 33-year-old American debuts against an unknown Belgium player, Alison Van Uytvank, and she could face the injury-plagued Vera Zvonareva in the second, which would have been a tough challenge three to four years ago when the Russian was a top 10 player. Then, her first seeded opponent should be Ukrainian’s Elina Svitolina (26th seed), a 20-year-old still without relevant Grand Slam experience. However, the rest of the first quarter has some tough opposition lurking and Williams will have to ramp up his attention when she faces the likes of emerging Spanish talent Garbine Muguruza (24) or, maybe, Serbian veteran Jelena Jankovic (15). The bottom part of the first quarter is the most interesting of the whole draw. Last year’s runner-up Dominika Cibulkova (11th) is at the top, facing Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens to begin the tournament, and Serena’s best friend forever, Caroline Wozniacki (8th) closes it, confronting Taylor Townsend, one of the members of USA’s new tennis generation.

The Dane should then oppose the winner of the most highly anticipated encounter of the first round. Former world number one and AO’s winner in 2012 and 2013, Viktoria Azarenka, currently in the 41st position, was the player to watch on the draw and the unlucky task fell in the hands of 2013 semi-finalist Sloane Stephens, another player that barely missed the seeded positions. The 21-year-old American hasn’t met the expectations set for her over the last few seasons and that could prove fatal for his ambitions in Australia, the place that watched the biggest win of her career, a beating of Serena Williams on the 2013’s quarter-finals. Azarenka and Stephens clash for the third year in a row at Melbourne Park, with the Belarusian getting through both times.

Can Viktoria Azarenka capture a third Australian Open title?

The second quarter of the draw is headed by Czech Petra Kvitova (4), the Wimbledon Champion who’s yet to reach a final in Australia, and her path towards the semi-final hides some dangers. One of Donna Vekic, an up-and-coming 18-year-old Croatian, or the daring but inconsistent Monna Barthel could cause some troubles on the second round, and later she may have to handle the home support for Casey Dellacqua (29) or Samantha Stosur (20), herself a former Grand Slam Champion (US Open, 2011). German Andrea Petkovic(13), who returned to her best in 2014, is another contender in this part of the draw, while in the books could be a possible quarter-final encounter between Kvitova and the crafty Agnieszka Radwanska (6), fresh of appointing Martina Navratilova as her new coach. In alternative there’s also the older Williams sister, Venus (18), who started the season claiming a title in Auckland and is back on the top 20 for the first time since 2010.
The third quarter of the draw is supposed to result in a battle between Serbian Ana Ivanovic (5) and Romanian Simona Halep (3) for a semi-final spot, but to get there they’ll have to survive a horde of worthy opponents. Ivanovic has a clear path till the third-round where she may need to get the best of Swiss Belinda Bencic (32), a 17-year-old phenomenon who earned WTA Newcomer of the year honours in 2014, or German Julia Goerges, coming off a terrible 2014 season that saw her drop outside of the top 100. Later, the Serbian beauty could meet Czech Fed Cup winner Karolina Pliskova (22), who followed up a breakthrough 2014 with a promising start in 2015, losing to Kvitova at the Sidney Final, or the underrated Ekaterina Makarova (10), a two-time quarter-finalist in Melbourne and a semi-finalist at the 2014 US Open. In turn, Halep, who has been bothered by gastroenteritis at the start of this season, won’t have an easy first-round encounter, battling experienced Italian Karin Knapp, and things can get even dicier if she can’t get her form quickly after that. Probable third round opponent Sabine Lisicki (28) is always a threat and the prospect of facing a warrior like Sara Errani (14) after that isn’t soothing.

How many stuffed animals will Bouchard collect during the fortnight?

The final quarter of the Women’s draw has everyone drooling over a possible quarter-final showdown between Maria Sharapova (2) and Eugenie Bouchard (7), but at least the young Canadian will have to keep focused on taking care of business first. With or without the support of the Genie Army, the 20-year-old may struggle to cope with the pressure of defending last year’s semi-final performance and a veteran like Svetlana Kuznetsova (27) could pose a serious challenge, as well as former Wimbledon semi-finalist Angelique Kerber (9). On the other end, the Russian superstar will probably breeze past the early rounds, with Romanian Sorana Cirstea, on the second round, and Czech Lucie Safarova, on the fourth, appearing as her main competitors.
On the men’s side, like had happened early on the women’s draw, the unseeded player everyone wanted to avoid fell on the first quarter. Juan Martin Del Potro is back after almost a year out battling his recurring wrist injury and the former US Open Champion will face Polish head-case Jerzy Janowicz to start the competition. If the Argentinian is successful, an explosive battle with Gael Monfils (17) is in the cards for the second round, a match that promises to excite a boisterous Rod Laver Arena. Spaniards Feliciano Lopes (12) and Roberto Bautista-Agut (13) are also in this part of the draw, as is American number one John Isner (19), local favorite Lleyton Hewitt, on his record-setting 19th participation in the tournament, and 2009 semi-finalist Fernando Verdasco (31), a player that on his best days can create some havoc in a possible third round matchup against Novak Djokovic (1). Despite this, the world number one and four-time winner in Melbourne should, with more or less difficulties, reach the quarter-finals where Canadian Milos Raonic (8) is expected to be his opponent.

The Aussie Grand Slam hasn’t been kind for Del Potro over the years.

Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka (4), the title holder, leads the second quarter of the draw and hopes to advance all the way to the semi-finals and towards a dreamy third consecutive meeting with Novak Djokovic, after both players split the victories in the previous years. To get there, Wawrinka, who begins the tournament playing Turkish Marsel Ilhan, must confirm his superiority defeating the less than impressive field that stands on his way till the quarter-finals. On the last eight, Stan will probably face the US Open finalist, Japanese Kei Nishikori (5), who has a tricky first round encounter with Spain’s Nicolas Almagro, or the dogged David Ferrer (9), another player that may be bothered on the first round by Brazilian Thomas Bellucci, and later will have to work to see off compatriot Marcel Granollers or Gilles Simon (18), of France.
On the top part of the other side of the draw, Tomas Berdych (7) and Rafael Nadal (3) are clear favourites, but the Czech has some barriers to clear until they meet on the quarter-finals. Two talented players in German Phillip Kohlschreiber (22) or Latvian Ernests Gulbis (11) could confront him on the fourth round, and Australian Bernard Tomic is also in this portion of the draw, even if the 22-year-old has been absent from the best results.

Nadal, returning to the Tour after missing most of the latter part of last season, faces the unpredictable Mikail Youzhny on the first round and should meet Czech Lukas Rosol (28) a few days later, reconnecting with the player that eliminated the perennial Roland Garros Champion at Wimbledon in 2012 and almost repeated the feat in the same venue last year. The gifted Richard Gasquet (24) and big-serving South-African Kevin Anderson (14) complete the list of players that hope to catch the Spanish legend off-guard.

Stan Wawrinka beat Rafa Nadal in the 2014 final

The last quarter of the draw has Roger Federer (2) at the bottom, Andy Murray (6) at the top and a collection of interesting fellows in between. The Scot shouldn’t experience major troubles until the fourth round where Grigor Dimitrov (10) must stand in his way if everything goes according to the plan. However, the Bulgarian faces a dangerous Dustin Brown to start the tournament and the rapidly improving David Goffin (20), who finished 2014 on a tear, may also block his path later on. Meanwhile, Federer’s portion is also packed with fascinating opponents, from the youngest player in the draw, 18-year-old Croatian Borna Coric, to the most recent promise of Australian tennis (and Wimbledon quarter-finalist) Nick Kirgyos. Not to mention the veterans Tommy Robredo (15) and Ivo Karlovic (23), who recently defeated Novak Djokovic in Doha.
The Australian Open starts on Monday, 19th of January, and the Men’s final is scheduled for the 1st of February, with the women’s decisive match taking place a day earlier.

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Review of 2014 in Cycling (part 2.2): Surprises, disappointments and frustrations

Andrew Talansky couldn’t hide the happiness after winning the Critérium du Dauphiné

(This post is a continuation of this one. If you haven’t read the first part of this review, head here)

It’s time for the negatives:

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain, Omega-Pharma Quickstep), 58th

Eleven wins in a season cut short by a crash is a dream scenario for the overwhelming majority of sprinters on the World Tour, but Cavendish is far from the average dude. With 40 Grand Tour stage wins on his résumé, the Brit is one of the most successful finishers of all-time and the truth is that 2014 ended without any major triumph for the former World Champion.

A devastated Mark Cavendish completes the first Tour de France stage after the fall that crushed his ambitions (Source: PA)

The Manx Man season was completely focused on taking the yellow jersey after the opening stage of the Tour de France, one that ended in Harrogate, his grandmother’s town, but an agonizing crash when Cav was beginning the sprint crushed his dreams and tore up his season. However, even if he piled up the victories early in the season, he didn’t exactly impress. He won only once during his opening three stage competitions of the season, on the last day of the Volta ao Algarve, and his performance on the Dubai Tour was particularly poor. His showing on the Tirreno-Adriático was better, wearing the yellow jersey after the team time trial win that opened the event, and taking a stage later on, but he couldn’t beat the competition on the final sprint at the Milan-San Remo. He then went to Turkey, dominating at will an underwhelming field to the tune of four stage wins and 2 podiums in 8 days, and rose up to the challenge at the Tour of California, picking up two stage victories against the likes of Sagan and Degenkolb. A win at the Tour of Suisse, another event where his main rivals, Kittel and Greipel, were absent, was a nice plus, but he then failed to finish the race and added a DNS at the Great Britain Championships, just a week before the summit (and the low point) of his season.

Following the Tour disaster, he returned at the Tour de l’Ain and was fifth at the Vattenfall Cyclassics, proceeding to gain some confidence and a couple of wins on an unheralded Tour du Poitou-Charentes. To close his season, on the Tour of Britain, he couldn’t beat Kittel on the two easiest stages of the competition, leaving 2014 with a sour taste on his mouth unlike some of his key teammates, which hit most of the targets set for the season.

Peter Sagan (Slovakia, Cannondale), 15th

Concealed among the acrobatics spectacles, charismatic personality and unbelievable talent, there was the Slovakian’s sub-par year on his farewell season to Cannondale. For the first time on his, still short, career, Sagan failed to increase the win totals, which is something perfectly acceptable after the 21 of 2013, but more importantly he couldn’t achieve most of his objectives. He picked up only two wins in the first three months of the season, which included stops in Argentina, Dubai and Oman before the beginning of his European obligations in Italy at the Strade Bianchi. Moreover, when the Spring Classics season arrived, the Slovak was once again impotent to come up on top at the Milan San Remo (10th), Tour des Flandres (16th) and Paris-Roubaix (6th), having to settle for a single success in the E3 Harelbeke. He then won once at the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse, while collecting two more green jerseys to add to the one from the Tirreno-Adriatico, but couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was getting beaten more and more by most of his rivals heading into the Tour de France.

Peter Sagan collected point jerseys during the season, but couldn’t break through in the biggest moments (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe)

On the biggest stage, he failed to deliver yet again, accumulating mistakes that burned opportunity after opportunity to pounce on finishes perfectly suited for his characteristics, but using his regularity to ensure a third consecutive points classification victory after nine(!!!) top five placements, four of them seconds.

If the season was being far from perfect until the Tour, the rest was a long slog until the end, with Sagan clearly distracted and disengaged following the announcement of his move to Tinkoff-Saxo in 2015. He struggled at the Vuelta, showing up only in a couple of occasions to fight for the sprint before withdrawing from the race, and later could not make a difference at the World Championships, ending in the seventh position. The Zilina-native suffered on many occasions during the season, isolated due to the lack of support and value on Cannondale’s roster, and that surely softened the critics in 2014, but all excuses are off heading into 2015. The number and quality of his victories is expected to go up significantly, since his new formation has lots of options to help in the pursuit of a maiden Monument victory and a couple of Tour de France successes.

Richie Porte (Australia, Team Sky), 74th

For a Sky team with so many financial and technical resources, the 2014 season was a huge disappointment and no rider summed up better the failure to complete the goals in hand than the tiny Australian climber. The Paris-Nice triumph, the brilliant support of Froome at the Tour de France, and a series of other impressive results during 2013 were still fresh on everyone’s memory, and Porte seemed poised to take the next step in 2014, receiving the task of leading the team on a number of races, the primary being the Giro d’Italia.

Richie Porte never delivered in 2014 (Source: BrakeThrough Media)

The New Year had barely arrived and the Australian was already racing on his home country, finishing the National Championships in third and then winning a stage and ending in fourth at the Tour Down Under. He proceeded to perform well in February at the Vuelta a Andalucia, where only Valverde could beat him, but a bout of gastroenteritis that forced him to abandon the Tirreno-Adriatico kick-started his demise. He couldn’t complete the second stage of the Volta al Catalunya and then failed to finish the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Romandie too, being forced out of Sky’s Giro team due to fitness concerns and assigned to help Froome on the Tour. His poor presence at the Critérium du Dauphiné, coupled with the one of his leader, didn’t anticipate a good showing at the major event and, unfortunately for the Brits, the worse projections come to fruit. Froome left the race early and a darting Porte managed to keep the team in the overall fight until the end of the second week, where the climb to Chamrousse was fatal to the Aussie’s ambitions, as he lost almost nine minutes due to new stomach problems. The 29-year-old concluded the Tour outside the top 20 and that was the last race he managed to finish in 2014, with abandons in Hamburg and Plouay ending a difficult season for the Tasmanian.

OK, just two more to go. An unlucky fellow and a real head-scratcher.

Andrew Talansky (USA, Garmin-Sharp), 38th

The young American GC-rider entered 2014 looking to emerge as one of the top contenders for a major Tour win and everything seem to be going according to the plan until the…unplannable derailed his season.

Talansky set his eyes on improving his 2013 10th overall classification at the Tour de France and he built his form steadily with regular performances at the Tirreno-Adriático (17th), Volta a Catalunya(7th) and Tour of Romandie (11th). With July approaching, he started the Critérium du Dauphiné as one of the outsiders for the win and handled the tough initial stages before pouncing convincingly at the sight of Froome’s problems and Saxo-Bank’s weaknesses. The last stage of the race was an unexpected exercise of boldness from the pack battling Contador and Talansky managed to believe in his chances and fight for them, ending up in Courchevel smiling at the brightest moment of his career. The win skyrocket his profile heading into the Tour and some put his name right at the top of the list of GC contenders, but it wasn’t meant to be. The Miami-native crashed heavily on consecutive days during the first week, fought a respiratory infection and left the race on the 12th stage completely heartbroken. On the previous day, he inspirationally battled alone to finish stage 11 after dropping from the back of the peloton with half of the mileage to go.

The sequels of the injuries sustained were still evident at the Vuelta and he went through the race anonymously to finish outside of the top 50. To wrap up a season that had so much promise, the American participated on the time trial and road race of the World Championships, ending up in 15th on the first event and withdrawing from the second.

Carlos Betancur (Colombia, AJ2R La Mondiale), 46th

Betancur is not only part of the new generation of talented Colombian riders that appears to have flooded the World Tour, but is also the most enigmatic of the group. At his best, the AG2R cyclist is an attacking force that can go head to head with the best in a variety of stage and one-day races, and his first season with the French outfit, in 2013, showed it perfectly, as he finished the Giro in 5th, and shined at the Liège-Bastogne-Liége (4th) and Flèche Wallone (3rd).

The Colombian cyclist won the Paris-Nice and that’s all she wrote (AP Lionel Cironneau)

In 2014, the 25-year-old had to prove that his accomplishments were no fluke and, despite appearing overweight, he was once again one the stars of the first part of the season, claiming top honours at the Tour du Haut Var-matin and then leaving the Paris-Nice with the win. The triumph on the glamorous one-week race was a really impressive accomplishment, with the Colombian winning two consecutive stages to take the race lead and fending off multiple challenges thrown at him by a strong field of competitors. However, much like he did in the previous year, where he disappeared after the end of the Giro, the good results seemed to vanish quickly and the problems with his team director started to leak on the news. He couldn’t finish the Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco, didn’t really contend for the hilly races of the spring, and went missing after the Liège-Bastogne-Liège at the end of April to return only in August, in Burgos. Afterwards, no one noticed him at the Vuelta and he collected DNFs until the end of the season. Once again, a truly puzzling season for a talented rider that his gaining a shifty reputation.

Review of 2014 in Cycling (part 2.1): Surprises, disappointments and frustrations

Michal Kwiatkowski crosses the finish line to become the 2014 World Champion (AFP)

The first part of my review of the 2014 cycling season can be read here. After looking at the World Tour top cyclists, in this article I point out some other riders that shined brightly during the year and some names that failed to reach the level they were expected to perform at.

First, I listed eight of the most positive surprises of the season on an order that is mostly random, although I added the final World Tour ranking classification for each rider. Later, I analysed three names that I definitely thought could have done more during the 2014 season and, at the end, I name two more cyclists that endured seasons of highs and lows.

(Due to the extension of the whole article, I divided the text in two posts)

So, the positives:

Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland, Omega Pharma – Quick Step), 16th place on World Tour Rankings

The young Polish rider is one of the rising superstars of the cycling world and his third season for the wealthy Belgium squad confirmed his enormous potential. The 24-year-old started the year with three wins, first in Spain, at the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana, then in Portugal, edging local favourite Rui Costa and Alberto Contador to take the general classification at the Volta ao Algarve, and finally in Italy, on the traditional Strade Bianchi, outsmarting Peter Sagan. Later, he led the Tirreno-Adriatico for two stages before succumbing on the final climb of stage four and was also one of the protagonists at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, collecting five top three finishes in six stages and being overtaken only by Contador.

His first Spring Classics participation of the year, on the Milan-San Remo, was an abandon, but he managed to keep the spirits high with three solid outings on the hilly classics, placing third at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Flèche-Wallone, and fifth at the Amstel Gold Race. Fatigue seemed to caught up with him soon after, as he couldn’t finish the Tour of Romandie, despite winning the prologue, and the Dauphiné. After exchanging his road race Polish title for the country’s time trial champion jersey, his form entering the Tour was an enigma, and the Chelmza-native proved that he wasn’t at his best, failing to challenge for a top 10 overall position, adding a single third place finish when the race was still on British roads, and finishing far away from the youth jersey leaders. He returned precisely on the Tour of Britain, when the calendar was already in September, barely missing the overall win, taking a stage win and regaining the spotlight just in time to lead the burgeoning Polish team on the World Championships. There, skipping the time trial competition proved a wise decision, with “Kwiatek” converting brilliantly the hard work put on by the team over the day after attacking at the right moment to conquer the Rainbow Jersey.

Even if he’s already one of the best all-around cyclists in the world, the talented Kwiatkowski is still just evolving as a Grand Tour contender and learning the secrets of winning the biggest one day races, which is a scary tough for the competition if we factor in the capital of experience, knowledge and money available to support his efforts on his current team.

Tony Gallopin (France, Lotto Belisol), 35th

Gallopin transferred to Lotto after two seasons riding for Radioshack and the move paid dividends for both sides. The 2013 winner of the Clasica San Sebastian enjoyed more freedom to excel on one day races and provided a mantle of results that placed him right after sprinter André Greipel on the team’s alignment.

Only Tony Gallopin could break Nibali’s thorough domination at the Tour de France (Christophe Ena/AP/Press Association Images)

The top ten overall finish at the Paris-Nice, the sixth position on the E3 Harelbeke, and a podium position on the Brabantse Pijl were nice outcomes but the best moment of his season came on the most important race of the season, the Tour de France. Gallopin was shrewd and lucky to get on the right break on stage 9, and saw the yellow jersey fell on his lap just in time for the traditional French Day. He would lose the lead on the Planche des Belles Filles, the next day, but not before an unforgettable day showered by greetings from his compatriots. If the Tour was already a success by this time, two days later he would be graced once again, taking advantage of the tight marking on Sagan to deliver a decisive attack on Oyonnax. In addition to the stage win and the one-day lead, Gallopin left the competition with two more top five finishes and extremely motivated for the rest of the season.

Even if he couldn’t crack the lead break on his title defence at San Sebastian, ending in a positive fifth position, the 26-year-old appeared well in Canada, taking a ninth place in Quebec and a third position in Montreal, before being surpassed by Greg Van Avermaet in the GP of Wallonie. A sixth place finish at the World Championships capped a breakthrough year for a rider that can challenge the best in one-day races on his brightest days, with the 2015 hilly monuments emerging as great opportunities to prove exactly that.

Wilco Kelderman (Netherlands, Belkin), 33th

Entering 2014, the 23-year-old Kelderman was far from an unknown name, boasting good results at the Tour of Denmark, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Eneco Tour, but it’s fair to speculate if even the Dutch team’s staff was aware of the potential demonstrated by their rider on the new season.

Wilco Kelderman shined at the Giro d’Italia and Critérium du Dauphiné

He started the year with a good showing in Portugal, racking up the fifth place in the Volta ao Algarve, and finished on the top 20 overall classification on both the Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya, a sequence of steady but unspectacular results. Later, with the big guns saved for the French Tour, the talented Dutch was tasked with leading Belkin on his second Grand Tour, building on 2013’s 17th position finale, and shined inside a youthful peloton, jumping to a 7th overall classification on the strength of seven top 10 stage finishes. However, following the Giro, what impressed the most was his short recovery time, since he was, only a week later, at the start of the Citérium du Dauphiné to fight with the best Grand Boucle contenders. He ended in fourth, in front of Vincenzo Nibali, for example, and further increased his profile as an up-and-coming force to be reckoned. Kelderman, following a deserved month off, reappeared in the Tour of Utah to set up his presence at the Vuelta a España, where fatigue finally took its toll. He ended in 14th, unsurprisingly struggling on the second-half of the race, but the experience of doing the Giro-Vuelta double will certainly be valuable in the future, as the “Keldermerckx” may hold to skills necessary to end Netherlands’ 34-years drought of overall Grand Tour conquests.

Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands, Giant-Shimano), 21st

On a team built for success on flat stages and boasting two high-profile figures like Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb, it is tough to excel. However, the Maastricht-native was able to have a breakout year in 2014, pulling away from the notion of a pure time-trial specialist and adding a new dimension to the team’s outlooks.

Tom Dumoulin showed that he can be more than a time-trialist

The 24-year-old won a stage, the first of his career, and finished in third at the Critérium International, in March, but didn’t hit his best form until May, when he was only topped by Tony Martin on the individual time-trial and overall classification of the Tour of Belgium. He was then able to hang with the best on the Tour of Suisse, using the two time-trial runner-up finishes (behind…who else, Tony Martin) to end in fifth, and before the Tour de France he nailed his first Dutch time trial Championship. Two fourth places, a runner-up spot on stage 20’s time-trial, and lots of work on Kittel’s train marked his second presence at the Tour, but his time working for others was running out, as he led the team on his nation’s most important stage race, the Eneco Tour. There, Dumoulin delivered in style, taking the green jersey after four top 10 finishes, conquering the individual time trial and finishing 13 seconds off the overall win.

He followed that result with a trio of thoroughly impressive performances in Canada. First, at the Tour of Alberta, he won the prologue, wore the yellow jersey for the next four days and ended up in 2nd, mercilessly surpassed by a single second due to the time bonuses awarded to Daryl Impey on his penultimate stage win. Then, on the GP of Québec, he got another second place finish, which was followed by a sixth in Montreal two days later. The time trial competition at the World Championships was the last of his season’s goals and he put on another great display to end behind Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin. Dumoulin was named the Dutch male cyclist of the year, beating Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, and has to prove in 2015 that the season was no fluke, continuing to improve has a week-long race contestant and trying to get the best of Martin for the first time.

Nacer Bouhanni (France, FDJ.fr), 45th

The 2014 season marked the arrival of Bouhanni to the highest tier of sprinters on the World Tour peloton. Stuck in the middle of an internal dispute with Arnaud Démare for the right to be the team’s protected sprinter on the Tour de France roster, the 2012 French Champion finished the year with less wins than his colleague and rival, 11 to 15, but undoubtedly shined brighter.

The French celebrated multiple times at Grand Tours in 2014 (Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com)

The main difference between the pair was the success achieved by Bouhanni on the major races, with the Epinal native taking a 5-0 score over his compatriot, which struggled on his Tour debut by pulling out only a pair of third places. On the other end, Bouhanni had an amazing Giro performance, gathering three stage wins after the early withdrawal of Marcel Kittel and taking home the red jersey on his first complete Grand Tour. Later, he added two more wins at the Vuelta during a fierce battle with John Degenkolb. Furthermore, even if it’s true that the competition was smaller than in the Tour and Bouhanni lost the only head-to-head challenge of the year, at the French Championships, it’s also important to note that the 24-year-old sprinter showed tremendous improvements during the season, displaying a versatility to overcome stages with hilly difficulties that his rival couldn’t match, and thus opening a new set of potential victory opportunities for the future, especially in the Classics. The new-found climbing skill set was noticeable, for example, on the top 10 finish at the World Championships, and contributed also for an eclectic set of triumphs on other important races like the Paris-Nice, Eneco Tour and the Critérium International.

The conflict inside the team ultimately went Démare’s way, with Bouhanni moving on to fellow French team Cofidis and setting the stage for a slew of exciting confronts between the pair in 2015.

Rafal Majka (Poland, Saxo-Tinkoff), 20th

If Michal Kwiatkowski is, understandably, the face of Poland’s cycling emergence, Rafal Majka has proven to be its most reliable Grand Tour candidate, with 2014 marking another step on his affirmation inside a prosperous Tinkoff-Saxo team.

The 25-year-old Majka was less than impressive at the start of the season, collecting inconspicuous presences at the Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice, and Tour of Romandie, but managed to ramp up his form in time to attempt an improvement on his 2013’s 7th place on the Giro d’Italia. Even if he failed to really challenge the likes of Quintana, Uran and Aru for the overall triumph, the Polish rider got the job done after battling an illness during the final week and ended in sixth, quickly changing the mental chip towards the preparation for the Vuelta.

However, the late withdrawing of Roman Kreuziger from the Tour de France roster pushed Majka into his debut on the Grand Boucle, where he had the responsibility to be one of Contador’s main lieutenants. With the Spaniard’s abandon, the rest of the team got an unexpected free rein to target individual achievements and the Zegartowice native made the best of the situation. To the surprise of everyone, he picked up two impressive stage wins, another two podium finishes and the polka-dot jersey after breaking through on stage 13, leaving France as one of the stars of the event. The short turnaround for his own Tour of Pologne didn’t bother him, as he rode the wave towards the overall win and two stage victories before heading to North America. A strong showing in the USA Pro Challenge, where he finished fourth, completed his 2014 season when the calendar was only in August and he went on vacation with fresh memories of two unforgettable months of racing.

Niki Terpstra (Netherlands, Omega-Pharma Quickstep), 26th

Stuck for a long time behind the large shadow of a legend like Tom Boonen, and threatened by the brilliance of up-and-coming superstar Michal Kwiatkowski and cyclo-cross World Champion Zdenek Stybar, the 30-year-old Dutch had to step up in 2014 in order to save his place on the team’s future plans and he did just that.

Niki Terpstra lifts the Paris-Roubaix trophy (Fonte: Watson)

After leaving 2013 with no wins and a single flashy moment on the Paris Roubaix, where he managed to hold onto the last place on the podium, the new season was the most successful of Terpstra’s career after he collected four high-profile triumphs. The first one came right on his season’s opener, with the Beverwijk native closing the team’s hard work during the inaugural stage of the Tour of Qatar and earning also the yellow jersey, which he managed to keep through the week to savour his first World Tour general classification win. To follow that up, Terpstra went on to race in Oman and at the Paris-Nice before reaching the main goals of his season, the cobble Classics of the Spring. He started by blowing off the competition on the Dwars door Vlaanderen, repeating the success of 2012, came second on the E3 Harelbeke later, beaten on the final sprint by Peter Sagan, and then finished the Three Days of de Panne in fourth. This meant that he was one of the favourites entering the Tour de Flandres – Paris Roubaix sequence, but he couldn’t follow the Cancellara train on the first weekend, ending a disappointing race for the team in sixth. Seven days later, everything was different as the Dutch launched a decisive attack from the favourites’ group with six kilometres to go and hold on to a 20 seconds lead to clinch the most important win of his career.

The season was already a resounding success and Terpstra didn’t have to stand up for the rest of the year, even if he still added some nice results on the Tour of Belgium, finishing in the top 10 overall, the Netherlands Road Race Championships, in which he was beaten by Sebastian Langeveld, and the Eneco Tour, a race he was disqualified from on the last stage after an elbow fight with Belkin’s Maarten Wynants. Terpstra ended the season upset at missing the prize for best Dutch cyclist of the year, awarded to Tom Dumoulin, but he figures to have another chance to claim the distinction in 2015 since he will be, once again, at the forefront of the potent QuickStep Classics’ team.

Fabio Aru (Italy, Astana), 17th

The Kazak team won the Tour de France with Vincenzo Nibali and that success understandably overshadowed most of what happened with Astana during the rest of the season, but the heroics of the other talented Italian also deserve serious recognition. The 24-year-old Aru had yet to pick up a win on the professional ranks at the start of 2014 and therefore his anonymous start of the season didn’t particularly worried the observers, even more in light of Nibali’s struggles at the time. Like he had done in 2013, Aru’s first noteworthy apparition was at the Giro Del Trentino, where he finished in 7th, with the Italian preferring to train in altitude ahead of the Giro, a race he entered listed as the fall-back option on an Astana team led by former winner Michelle Scarponi.

Fabio Aru picked up his first professional wins in 2014

The Sardinian remained mostly quiet for the first two weeks of the race, building on last year’s 42nd position, but exploded on the final third, initiating his ascension on Plan de Montecapione, taking the 15th stage, and then delighting the home fans on the climbing time-trial of stage 19, when only Nairo Quintana could beat him, to claim the lower spot on the podium in Trieste. Between the Giro and the Vuelta, Aru performed another disappearing act, participating only on the Tour of Pologne, so his real condition heading for the Spanish competition was once again uncertain. Against a stacked field of rivals, the young Italian managed to keep his cool and take advantage of the opportunities that arose while the home trio of Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde, plus Brit Chris Froome, decided to mark each other. He added his second Grand Tour stage of the season on the Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar on the 11th day of the race and punctuated his tremendous season at Monte Castrove en Meis, beating Froome for the victory on the final meters.

With the Vuelta and the fifth overall position put behind his back, he ended the season after his first World Championships participation and two top ten finishes at the Milan-Torino and Il Lombardia.

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