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.

(Continues on the next post)

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