Month: Jan 2016

World Tour’s most fascinating teams in 2016

Another gruelling cycling season is ahead of us (or already in full swing if you’re stationed on the other hemisphere), so it’s time to unpack what we can anticipate on the New Year. Since previewing every team in the World Tour in excruciating detail would be an incredibly hard task for the reader (yes, you, not me, I’m up for it), I decided to limit it to just a few teams I consider merit the recognition.

Thus, after a thoughtful process, I congregated them in the innocuous tagline of the “most fascinating teams” to watch in 2016. So, by now, you’re definitely asking what makes them “fascinating”? Well, the word can definitely lead to several interpretations, but my reasoning can be summarized on positive answers to these questions:

– Is this team undergoing a radical change of approach in terms of goal setting for the new season?
– Did the roster suffer a fair share of turnover, preferably with a few unexpected additions and subtractions that made experts scratch their heads in confusion and question whether it can all come up together in a successful mix?
– Is the organization undergoing an identity crisis, with questions about the team’s future lingering because they’re long-time star(s) may be leaving soon and amassing wins is already difficult enough?
– Have they added several sought-after names, even if relatively unexperienced at the top level, that make you yearn to follow their progress during the year?

If a WT team fits one or more of the criteria above, it was probably under consideration to appear on this article. But, entrances were at a premium, so I’m sorry if whom you were expecting didn’t make the cut.

Without further delay, read about the “Fascinating Four”, with an overview on why they were selected based on the past and the plausible future, their cyclists of interest, offseason moves, main race targets and talking points to take into account in 2016.

Team Giant – Alpecin

Since the ascension to the top echelon of professional cycling in 2013, the German-registered team has been reliant on stage victories from their finishers. Harbouring the strongest sprinter in the entire peloton naturally pushes the entire squad towards taking full advantage of his talents, and Giant became wildly successful after developing the best lead out train in the World Tour, which boomed Marcel Kittel to several high-end wins.

Marcel Kittel ahead of the pack. An image too rare in 2015

The massive German amassed 13 of the team’s 41 triumphs during 2014 and made the best of the opportunities on the grandest stages, stretching his arms in celebration on a total of eight occasions distributed between the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Tour de France. However, last season was one to forget for the 27-year-old, who went down with an illness early on and never regained his best form throughout the year, missing out on a spot on the Tour roster. The relationship with the team deteriorated following that bold decision, and the common resolution to terminate it precociously ended up not being that surprising.

Covering a loss like Kittel’s is nearly impossible, but Giant had to get used to it for much of 2015 and you couldn’t say the outcome left them in shatters. The team diversified its resources in order to claim other races, got some famous wins and promises more for 2016, aiming to build around two building blocks in John Degenkolb and Tom Dumoulin.

The 25-year-old sprinter can’t match his compatriot’s explosive speed, which partially explains his on-going search for a maiden Tour de France triumph, but he more than makes up for it as an elite classics’ rider, with his standout Milan – San Remo/Paris-Roubaix double in 2015 setting up the stage for many seasons to come. Degenkolb’s support system on his crowns’ defence will be headlined by Bert de Backer and Ramon Sinkeldam, winner of the Binche-Chimay-Binche, while Koen de Kort, Albert Timmers and Roy Curvers drive the well-oiled machine towards the finish line on flat terrain. Besides Kittel, Luka Mezgec, another powerful finisher, was also let go, which opens some opportunities for Nikias Arndt, a well-rounded fast man on the mould of Degenkolb, or Belgian Zico Waeytens, who at age 24 still has a bit of growth to do before becoming a reliable contributor.

Tom Dumoulin’s rolls alone likes few others on the World Tour

As for Dumoulin, one of the World Tour’s breakout stars in 2015, the sky may be the limit for the talented Dutch. His physical attributes turn him into a contender on almost every type of race, from selective time trials or one-day races to week-long stage events, and the Vuelta showed that even a bonafide Grand Tour contender is blossoming in there way earlier than expected. The 25-year-old is entering his prime and the 2016 Giro d’Italia route seems tailor-made for Dumoulin’s ambitions, while leaving ample time to prepare for the Olympics, which will be his main focus on the year. However, should things kick off well at the Italian GT, he will be, once again, a lonely man amidst the wolves, as Giant’s roster doesn’t yet contain enough decent climbers to spread over different platforms.

Thus, the Dutch’s calendar places the general classification’s leadership role at the Tour de France and Vuelta squarely on the shoulders of Warren Barguil, who will be looking to break into the top 10 at his home GT for the first time. Expected to ride in close proximity with the French, the experienced Laurens Ten Dam is a vital acquisition to bolster Giant’s roster on the mountains and provide backup for Barguil, even if way more than a 35-year-old will be needed if the team’s GC ambitions continue to rise in the future. The 24-year-old French also showed some promise on a few bumpy one-day races (San Sebastian, Quebec, Il Lombardia) towards the end of 2015 and may look to meddle in again.

Warren Barguil’s debut at the Tour de France cost him a few bruises

As for the rest of the squad, there’s no shortage of quality domestics, even if Simon Geschke stands out due to his Tour de France stage win last year, consequence of an audacious racing style that is good for more than the truly occasional success. The 23-year-old Lawson Craddock, one of Dumoulin’s main helping hands at the Vuelta, opted to move on to Cannondale before realizing his potential, but the Dutch-based team can take the hit since other diamonds in-a-rough were added to the fold, joining a program known to develop future mainstays.

Norwegian Sindre Skjøstad Lunke, 22 years old, Denmark’s Søren Kragh Andersen, 21, and Sam Oomen, a 20-year-old Dutch, form a new batch of riders the organization hopes to nurture, with Oomen regarded as an extremely consistent GC prospect, and Andersen as a versatile cyclist that can target classics, time trials, selective finishes and breakaway sprints, therefore not far from the Dumoulin model.

There’s a lot to like on Giant-Alpecin’s prospects in 2016, with home-grown, top-notch talents still in evolution mixed with a base of savvy veterans and a few exciting youngsters that can grow in the shadows. This squad is an eclectic bunch that can approach almost every race with funded aspirations to make some noise, be protagonists and, at the same time, enjoy the freedom to risk big without dreading of falling short. Not many other World Tour teams figure to be able to boast the same.

Orica GreenEDGE

The fifth WT season for the Australian outfit promises to be crucial on the swift transition the roster has experienced, as the organization scoops up an increased role on cycling’s landscape by spicing the roster with an international flavour and pointing towards new achievements.

Since debuting on the top-echelon, Orica accumulated a wealth of triumphs every year with a squad geared for accruing stages decided at the line and almost unbeatable on team time trials, but the focus shifted when they were able to recruit a bevy of prospective GC contenders to work with.

In 2014, Colombian Johan Esteban Chavez and British twins Adam and Simon Yeats signed for the team and started the clock towards the moment Orica would hedge their bets on them. The 25-year-old Chávez already did a lot almost by himself at the Vuelta, taking two stages and the fifth overall position – by far the best GC result on the team’s existence -, and 2016 promises to be the time for the 23-year-old Yeats boys to seriously challenge for top ten finishes over three weeks. After all, it is the logical step after Adam shined at the Clasica San Sebastian (1st), Tour of Alberta (2nd) and GP of Montreal (2nd), and Simon hanged with the best on the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (5th), Tour de Romandie (6th) and Critérium du Dauphiné (5th). Thus, this season the Colombian climber will once again tackle the Vuelta-Giro combination hoping to reach the podium, while the twins will focus on creating havoc at the Tour de France and approach contention status for the young riders classification.

Adam (L) and Simon Yates (R) will be looking for a premier role on this year’s edition of the Tour de France

To assist their spearheads on the multiple stage races disputed on European soil, the team snatched up some reinforcements, with 35-year-old Spanish veteran Rubén Plaza leading the way after an inspired season for Lampre saw him claim a couple of Grand Tour stages. His compatriot Amets Txurruka was also acquired to contribute experience, aggressiveness, tactical nous and some climbing punch, while Danish Christopher Juul-Jensen will assume a role of domestique similar to what he had at Tinkoff-Saxo, enjoying sporadic opportunities to try to capture something along the lines of his title at the Tour of Denmark.

Juul-Jensen and Plaza are also accomplished time-triallists that can fill for the exits of the likes of Cameron Meyer, Brett Lancaster and Leigh Howard, long-time Orica affiliates. Meanwhile, Luka Mezgec, the 27-year-old Slovenian sprinter, was recruited to alternate with 21-year-old Caleb Ewan as the team’s go-to-guy on bunch finales, even if they may coincide on the Giro (and probably Vuelta lineup) as neither should be an option for the Tour.

The bright Australian youngster (11 wins as a neo-pro in 2015) someday will fight for sprints on the Grand Boucle, but for now the stage hunting will be reserved for Michael Matthews, who will look to pick up his first Tour triumph and conquer a maiden victory on a famous one-day race, such as the Milan-San Remo or one of the Ardennes Classics, after having barely missed out last year on a few occasions.

Caleb Ewan edged John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan to claim his maiden Grand Tour stage win at the Vuelta a Espana

Matthews’s consistency will be tested in 2016, but he’s also looking to shake off the emerging feud with compatriot Simon Gerrans, Orica’s leader since the team’s inception and a former Milan-San Remo and Liége-Bastogne-Liége winner. The 35-year-old had a 2015 season to forget, and saw Matthews rise up the charts to challenge for the team’s backing in selected races, generating questions about how the two stars will cohabit over the season. The first half should see them attack different targets, but if Gerrans achieves important results, Orica’s management will have a hard time leaving him off the Tour de France roster, where Matthews will have high expectations.

Michael Albasini, another veteran, is also a puncher that regularly leaves his mark, especially in events held on his homeland, such as the Tour de Suisse or Tour of Romandie, while the cobbles races will be the main focus of Belgian Jens Keukelaire, who will try to build on the sixth position at last year’s Parix-Roubaix. Denmark’s Magnus Cort Nielsen, just 23-years-old, is another adaptable man the team is hoping to develop into a regular contender for sprints and one-day races.

The irreverent Simon Clarke was the most relevant exit on the offseason, leaving a trail of courageous riding that delivered a trio of GT stage successes’, but Orica GreeEdge’s steady work on the peloton will remain, with the main grinders on the roster returning for another season.

On this matter, Mathew Hayman (37-years-old) and Svein Tuft (38) tower over their teammates due to their road leadership and know-how, while, on the other side of the spectrum, the team added three Australian newbies in Robert Power (20), Jack Haig (22) and Alexander Edmondson (22). The first two claimed several noteworthy results in the most important under-23 events in Europe, namely on the general classification of the Tour de L’Avenir, whilst Edmondson established his credentials with the U-23 Tour de Flandres triumph last spring.

Cannondale Pro Cycling Team

The first season for the structure that resulted from the merger between Cannondale and Garmin-Sharp was one to forget, with the team picking up the first win as the end of March approached, and collecting a single triumph at the World Tour level, by David Formolo at the Giro d’Italia. The season total of 11 was embarrassing and it’s no surprise that the new Cannondale Pro Cycling Team oversaw the biggest roster turnover on the peloton.

The changes started right at the top of the heap, with two of the team’s lynchpins leaving. Daniel Martin’s gutsy riding led to prominent conquests at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia in years past, but the Irish was always marred by inconsistency, more times than not coming up close to superlative performances only to fall just short in dramatic fashion. 2015 was no different, with the 29-year-old crashing twice during the Ardennes Classics’ week, and finishing as the runner-up on three Grand Tour stages to ultimately come out empty-handed on the season.

Daniel Martin tried hard but he couldn’t score a win for Cannondale-Garmin in 2015

Martin will wear the jersey of another organization for the first time on his 9-year professional career, and Ryder Hejsedal will come close, ceasing a connection that lasted since 2007. The Canadian carried the team to its highest point, the Giro title in 2012, and still stokes something on the tank at age 35. The spirited effort on last year’s Italian GT was a clear demonstration, as Hesjedal fought to clinch the fifth overall position.

Hejsedal, Martin and Andrew Talansky tallied one combined win during 2015 (Talansky’s ITT National Championship), the entire team only 11 and, consequently, team director Jonathan Vaughters had to change the mix, replacing experience and slackness with a lot of hunger and youthful enthusiasm. However, the most surprising addiction is neither young nor fits the usual pattern of the squad’s acquisition, especially since the Garmin days, where it was always viewed as a hipster’s paradise.

Colombian Rigoberto Uran is an established, rather consistent Grand Tour contender that Cannondale can count on to climb and race the clock on time trials with the best. Moreover, a Giro route that suits his characteristics can prompt a serious podium challenge in 2016, with the Tour de France overall pursuit left for another veteran reinforcement. Pierre Rolland stepped out of the comfort zone to ride for a foreign team for the first time, and will be eyeing a fourth career top ten placement at home.

Will Rigoberto Uran wear the Giro’s pink jersey as a Cannondale rider?

Thus, the dependable Uran and Rolland pretty much wash up the losses of Martin and Hejsedal, and lead the unit that will try to aim for mountain feats, which should also feature Portuguese André Cardoso and Australian recruit Simon Clarke, a wild card to throw into breakaways. Additionally, the squad hopes that Andrew Talansky can regain the form that put him on the lookout for a top five finish at a GT as recently as May 2014, when he triumphed on the Dauphiné, and a lot is also expected from two of his six countrymen on the roster. Joe Dombrowski impressed at the latest Tour of Utah (1st overall) and Tour of California (4th) and should translate his qualities into European soil, while Lawson Craddock was wrestled from Giant-Alpecin’s ranks following strong showings at the Tour de Pologne and Vuelta a Espana.

Dombrowski is 24-years-old and Craddock just 23, but they’re not even close to being the infants on the youngest roster in the WT peloton, which features just 5 riders above 30-years-old. That being said, the team has suffered in the past from the lack of a road captain and options continue to be scarce, with Matti Breschel, added to team up with Sebastian Langeveld on the tougher one-day classics, seemingly one of the better candidates to assume that burden.

But, getting back to what really drives this roster, the team’s brass will retain a close look on the evolution of talented 23-year-old Italian Davide Formolo, which besides the Giro also turned heads in Poland and Alberta, and compatriot Davide Villela, 10th on a star-studded Milano-Torino. The management group certainly hopes their development doesn’t flat line like happened to some teammates expected to deliver wins.

The promising David Formolo is one of Cannondale’s young riders to watch in 2016

A group that includes Tom-Jelte Slagter (26), that nonetheless conveyed some positive signs at Alberta and Quebec late last season, Moreno Moser (25), and Ramunas Navardauskas (27), the Lithuanian who should use the bronze medal obtained at the World Championships to jump up his performances and confidence on one-day races. Furthermore, Dylan Van Baarle (23), the out-of-nowhere winner of the 2014 Tour of Britain, passed through last season almost incognito, failing to capitalize on a sturdy frame that can be filled to pack a nice cobbles rider.

As for the new addictions, Vaughters mined some pearls from lower levels, especially on the North American circuit. There’s Canadian Michael Woods (29), a late-bloomer who featured in the top 10 of the Tour of Utah and Tour of Alberta, and neo-pro Toms Skujins (24), the Latvian-born winner of the Americas Tour after excelling at California, Alberta and the USA Pro Challenge, plus someone to keep an eye on in one-day events like the Tour de Flanders or Amstel Gold Race. To fill a clear need on the roster, Dutch sprinter Wouter Wippert was recruited after fighting tough and nails with Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan at the Tour of California, while New Zealander Patrick Bevin (24) racked up podiums on off-grid races like the Tour of Taiwan and Tour of Korea.

In short, the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team is a society of Nations, with 16 countries represented on the 30-man group, and probably an unpredictable, diverse bunch like any other on the World Tour. Whether that is the receipt for unexpected successes all over the cycling world, or a discombobulated unit that will struggle to coalesce and find their stride, it’s anybody’s guess.

Trek-Segafredo

Back in 2011, when the Schleck brothers worked backstage to form the then named Leopard-Trek cycling team, the project seemed to have solid foundations. After all, Andy Schleck was a burgeoning Tour de France candidate, his brother Frank an extremely solid partner in crime on the mountains, and Fabian Cancellara was on top of his game and hoarding time trials and cobbles monuments for fun.

Since then, however, despite joining forces with the Radioshack structure (former Discovery), things have continually gone downhill: the career of the younger Schleck span out of control due to injuries and ended prematurely, Frank’s decline hit swiftly when he approached the mid-30’s, and the Swiss saw his triumphs become less frequent due to bad luck, injuries and stiffer competition on the ITT events. Entering 2016, which his bound to be Cancellara’s last season, the team is at a crossroads, staring into the uncertainty about what type of formation they want to become, and which individuals will lead them moving forward.

Fabian Cancellara and the crashes have crossed paths consecutively over the last few years

The 2015 season was a difficult one for Trek, punctuated by wins few and far between, and with Spartacus, their inspirational leader, unable to deliver on his goals due to significant bad luck. Cancellara crashed badly at the E3 Harelbeke and couldn’t take part in the Tour de Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, competitions he has won 3 times each. After returning, he assumed the yellow jersey at the Tour de France on the second day, only to get caught on a massive collective fall one day later, being forced to dejectedly pull out.

Bauke Mollema assumed the team’s lead during the rest of the calendar’s top race and finished 7th overall, but not even the Dutch could fill the cavernous void left open during his debut season for Trek. Although he did his best by taking top honours at the Tour of Alberta and coming out 2nd in the general classification at the Tirreno-Adriatico. As for the rest of the team, a trio of stage wins at the Vuelta a Espana concealed some of the fragilities displayed throughout the season by a roster bereft of top-level talent, but including human capital to produce more.

The American-based team needed an injection of quality and added some interesting pieces in the offseason, starting with Rider Hejsedal, who despite being no young chicken showed last season that he can still contend for honourable GC positions. He will be the team’s captain at the Giro, guaranteeing that Trek will, at least, hold some presence on the overall contention, before supporting Bauke Mollema on the French Tour.

Beyond the pair, Trek hopes other names on the roster can step up their game when the road leans in, with 27-year-old Julian Arredondo on the spot after being a complete non-factor last year, which followed a debut season brightened by a stage win and the mountains jersey at the 2014 Giro d’Italia. New recruit Peter Stetina also hopes to rejuvenate his career after an injury-riddled season for BMC, and both Frank Schleck (35) and Haimar Zubeldia (38) are back for another year, with the Luxembourger having shown at the Vuelta that the tank isn’t yet completely empty, and the Spaniard “just” two years removed from a top 10 finish at the Tour de France.

Frank Schleck gave Trek a hard-fought triumph on stage 16 of the Vuelta a Espana

This isn’t exactly a sparkling unit but will have to suffice in the near future, as TJ Van Garderen, an American star they’ve coveted for years, has already decided to remain with BMC until 2017, and Vincenzo Nibali, whose contract with Astana will expire at the end of 2016, is, by now, nothing more than a pipe dream. However, a full on charm offensive for the 3-time GT Champion is already underway, as Trek secured an important sponsorship deal with Italian coffee giant Segafredo, and the country’s influence on the team has been steadily improving, the 2016 roster containing five Azzuri, the higher national count.

Amongst those, 22-year-old Niccolo Bonifazio is a new face and an under-the-radar acquisition that can prove fruitful for the team in the long run. The former Lampre sprinter impressed in several World Tour races over 2015, including the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Pologne and the Milan-San Remo, where he was right up there with the favourites at the finish line. Bonifazio would probably have to defer to Sacha Modolo had he stayed on the Italian outfit, but at Trek he can expect to challenge fellow compatriot Giacomo Nizzolo for the sprint authority, as the 26-year-old is developing a reputation of always being in contention but never delivering the win, something the measly three triumphs over the last two seasons corroborate. Meanwhile, Fabio Felline will attack more selective finishes and one-day races, hoping to build on some eye-catching appearances at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Eneco Tour, Strade Bianchi or Critérium Internacional.

Also projected to deliver some triumphs are two Belgian speedsters. The 23-year-old Jasper Stuvyen carries some expectations regarding an evolution into a cobbles specialist capable of mustering explosive power compatible with stage wins like the one he got at the Vuelta. Meanwhile, the promising Edward Theuns – pried from TopSport-Vlandeeren after amassing a wealth of imposing results on several one-day races – isn’t as quick, but may become one of Belgium’s best hopes of regaining supremacy at the Tour de Flanders a bit down the road, with the chance to ride this season in support of Cancellara functioning as a crucial learning experience.

Niccolo Bonifazio will exchange the pink and blue of Lampre for the black and white of Trek-Segafredo

Another acquisition made by Trek that can pan out well is Kiel Reijnen, a 29-year-old American with a good track record on home soil, especially in mountainous races like the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge, where he’s shown an ability to climb and finish on small groups.

As for the cyclists moving to other addresses, two losses in particular may prove costly. After several years of nurturing on the Trek organization, 23-year-old Bob Jungels was seduced by Etixx-Quick Step just as he was displaying signs of coming into his own, not only as a burgeoning time trial list but also as prospective general classification contestant, like happened at the Tour de Suisse (6th overall). As for Danny Van Poppel, which signed for Team Sky, reports indicate that the team wasn’t keen on offering him an extension, with the 22-year-old Dutch sprinter rising his profile later on the season after triumphs at the Vuelta (stage 12) and Tour of Wallonie, apparently in time to parlay the success into a deal with the British powerhouse.

Trek-Segafredo seemed to take some positive steps heading into 2016, augmenting the number of riders that are capable of delivering wins at the highest level while providing more support for their leaders, but the roster is still far from impressive. With the post-Cancellara era on the horizon, what they’ll be able to achieve this season can influence greatly the decisions taken in the near future, and even put in peril the existence of the team.

Bonus pick:

Team Sky

You probably noticed that every formation analysed before is on the latter part of the World Tour club list ordered by budget. Thus, I didn’t want to let you go without touching on one of cycling’s giants, which happens to also be the richest cycling squad on the planet.

So, why do I believe Team Sky’s fortunes in 2016 are worth monitoring closely?
They’ll naturally go all-in for a fourth Tour de France overall title in five seasons, but the British outfit will also gun for other goals that have eluded them consecutively. In order to do that, they constructed a roster of unparalleled quality and depth that is fascinating to dissect.

Front and centre is the quest for a success on the other two Grand Tours on the calendar, with the Giro roster already set to include two of the team’s glittering acquisitions. Mikel Landa, which took last season’s Giro by storm on his way to a breakthrough podium finale, left a tumultuous situation at Astana and fell on a perfect spot in Sky’s pecking order, where he’ ll benefit from a supporting cast that is the envy of GT contenders with many more races under their belts.

Mikel Landa (R) and Mikel Nieve (L) will be teammates in 2016

Thereby, the group will include Beñat Intxausti, a critical blow landed on rivals Movistar, fellow compatriot Mikel Nieve and maybe Nicholas Roche, which means they’ll enter the race with four riders that have managed to secure top ten finishes on the general classification of Grand Tours. Later, to attack the Vuelta, much of the same can be expected, with Landa, Intxausti and Nieve guaranteed and Sergio Henao and/or Leopold Konig also tipped to participate.

If you’ve been counting, that’s six top ten racers named on those lines, and the seventh is Christopher Froome, who will handpick the roster for the Tour. Richie Porte, his first lieutenant during the two Tour wins, will be wearing different colours in 2016, but Geraint Thomas, Wout Poels and even Peter Kennaugh are ready to climb the ladder and assume more of a load. Were they on a more modest formation, Thomas and Poels would be, by now, more accomplished performers, which speaks for the sheer depth of Sky’s roster.

However, the team is also starving for a maiden triumph on one of cycling’s monuments, with the acquisition of 2014 World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski meant to address that. The Polish has shown flashes of brilliance on one-day races before, and both the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia are right up his alley, with Colombian Sergio Henao and Norwegian Lars Petter Nordhaug as backup options. Meanwhile, on the cobbles, Geraint Thomas will be one of the main competitors for the Tour de Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, with Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe completing a British trio that seems to have amassed the necessary quantities of physical strength, know-how and smarts to outwit other candidates.

I’ve already listed half of Sky’s roster and made it this far without a reference to the novel individual time trial World Champion, Belarus Vasyl Kiryenka, who may be so buried on the team’s chart that he’ll be handed limited opportunities to go full throttle in order to showcase his rainbow jersey.

Team Sky’s constelation of stars will be asked to take victory in (almost) every race of the WT calendar

The fact is, even with a calendar that stretches for ten months, such affluence of talent is bound to leave frustrated some gifted riders, obliged to work intensively for others without enjoying their own chance to shine. Take, for example, the case of 28-year-old Czech Leopold Konig, 7th in the 2014 Tour and 6th in the Giro last season, which will spend one of his prime years as the third or fourth option at the Grand Tours. Or Sergio Henao, whose versatility on one-day races and weeklong events has never been fully explored by Sky.

On the other hand, Ben Swift, Italian Elia Viviani, and Dutch newcomer Danny Van Poppel will receive ample leash to search for stage wins on bunch finales, even if the work won’t be cut out as the team lacks the structure to put them in perfect positions to succeed. Sky’s allergy to involve resources on the sprints mayhem drove Mark Cavendish out a few seasons ago, and doesn’t seem likely to change shortly, as the youngest faces on the roster are promising GC prospects in 21-year-old Brit Alex Peters, and Italian Gianni Moscon, who also dabbles in one-day classics.

Sir Dave Brailsford, the team’s architect, put in place a tremendous collection of talent and the expectations are as high as they can possibly be. Every move, every victory and every failure will be scrutinized, and capturing the Tour de France for the second consecutive time may already be considered insufficient if the rest of the results don’t follow suit. Thus, 2016 has to be considered an enthralling challenge for Team Sky.

Advertisements

Seven (err…twelve) indelible sports moments in 2015

Another year has gone, which means we can now snoop over a bin full of sports memories to cherish and remember. The turn of the calendar is as good a time as any other, so I decided to empty my brain and select what sports fans will take with them from 2015, including instances when athletes overcame their physical and mental limitations, superstars were born or regained some of the respect lost along the way, history books were re-written, or stunning upsets left fans agape.

The screening process was, obviously, enormously dictated by my own preferences (read more about it on the “About” page linked above), and the reader will disagree with a lot of my choices, but I tried to instil as much diversity as possible on the final list. I touched base on a variety of sports, even if, naturally, can’t recognize them all, and searched for a balance between individual and team-based achievements (or failures). An assortment of time frames was also pursued, with the action that enveloped the “moment” being reviewed ranging from a matter of few seconds, to entire matches or even week-long struggles.

I wrote about the seven moments of 2015 that left a deeper mark on my memory and – I believe – in that of the many fans which follow the sports world on a daily basis. In addition, I later appointed five more which also stood out among the numerous monitored live throughout the year.

(By the way, absent is any reference to the heroics of a racing horse on some posh trio of events held in the Spring, or a famous defensive play that occurred with forty something seconds to go on a Championship match that enjoys an unparalleled television audience)

So, without further delay, my breakdown of the main sports moments of the year in no particular order of appearance.

Usain Bolt dodges Justin Gatlin’s challenge

There’s just no way around it. Every time Usain Bolt steps on the track for a major final, the World stops and waits to be amazed. However, before Beijing’s 2015 World Athletics Championships kicked off, the question marks surrounding the Jamaican were at an all-time high since Bolt was unable to surpass a really average (for his standards) 9.87 seconds showing obtained earlier in the year. He was definitely harassed, listening to the same type of discussion produced in 2011 and 2012, when his compatriot Yohan Blake posed a major threat, and rival Justin Gatlin, enjoying a third chance after two suspensions for doping, had been simply outstanding, putting together a 28 races unbeaten streak highlighted by a time of 9.74 seconds and several 9.8 postings.

On the Birds Nest, the American further increased is favouritism with a smashing triumph on his semi-final heat while Bolt had to cover ground on the end just to go through. However, with the stakes at the highest point, the pressure proved too much for Gatlin to handle. Bolt exited the blocks better than expected, and kept the rival in check throughout the race to narrowly defeat a stumbling Gatlin, crossing the finish line in 9.79 seconds. The winning margin was just 0.01 seconds, the tighter victory since Bolt broke through, and more than 0.2 ticks off his World Record (9.58).

Usain Bolt’s patented celebration emerged again in Beijing

The same stadium and city that 7 years ago saw the emergence of a myth wouldn’t see the start of his downfall like many expected, and some days later the 29-year-old doubled down, comfortably sweeping off the speed events with the titles on the 200-meters (with a “normal advantage” over Gatlin) and 4X100 relay. Bolt was ran over by a Segway-ridding cameraman as he was celebrating the double hectometre triumph but, just like during the competition, was able to walk away unscathed.

We’ll see if he can say the same after the Rio Olympics next year, where he’ll fight for a preposterous triple/double collection of gold medals, looking to cap off his legendary career with a third consecutive Olympic triumph on the 100m and 200m events.

Robert Lewandowski nets five goals in nine minutes

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, since I wasn’t actually watching the act as it occurred, but following on twitter is close enough, right? A middle-of-the-week league tie, even if contested between the German Champions and the runner-up, can’t be considered appointment viewing, and there was a reason Bayern’s spearhead was on the bench to start the match. However, the half-time disadvantage for the hosts convinced Pep Guardiola that Lewandowski had to go in and the rest is history. Actually, four fresh entries on the Guinness World Records book were added after that night on the Allianz Arena.

The Polish striker needed just five minutes to tie the contest with an opportunistic tip after a superb assist by (former) teammate Dante, and off he was. Two minutes later, and just five touches on the ball in, a creeping shot from distance gave him a brace, and the hat-trick goal soon followed after he buried an attempt that initially found the post. By this time, social media was already exploding with an incredible achievement on a top-level competition, and no one really understood what was happening after the fourth strike in seven minutes!

Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Robert Lewandowski’s wonder night was one of the images of 2015

The fifth, exactly 8:59 min after the ball first found the back of the net, came on a marvellous acrobatic volley from just inside the edge of the box, and became the cherry on top of a remarkable moment for the forward and the sport. Certainly, the type of performance for the ages football fans are lucky to watch once in a lifetime, and an impact substitution not even a master like Guardiola will be able to repeat. Eventually, his face on camera told it all.

As for the poor Wolfsburg side that was on the wrong side of the achievement, well…why did you sign Dante? (Sorry…but not really).

Roberta Vinci shocks Serena Williams at the US Open

Many, if not all, of the events on this list will linger on fans’ minds for a long time, but very few are in the running for the recognition as the greatest upset of all-time on its sport. This one happened because an “undistinguished” 32-year-old Italian decided “to play literally out of her mind” on the biggest stage and moment of them all, and thus spoil part of the legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of tennis.

So many superlatives? Yes, it was that relevant, that unexpected and, so, so baffling. Serena Williams had already secured three quarters of a lifetime achievement, the calendar Grand Slam, adding her sixth Australian Open, third Roland Garros and sixth Wimbledon to stand on the verge of becoming the sixth human to manage something last seen in 1988. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that only Serena could stop Serena from lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight on the Artur Ashe Stadium. Eventually, even the top players that could remotely hang on with her were on the other side of the draw (Muguruza, Kvitova, Azarenka, Halep) and dropping like flies.

Roberta Vinci reacts after the match of her life

The American was tested by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister on the early rounds, but was never actually close to losing, and absolutely no one believed Roberta Vinci, the No 43 in the World, could go further than every other Grand Slam adversary in 2015. Serena breezed to take hold of the first set with a 6-2 score line and then the astonishing outcome took form. The crafty, experienced, yet Grand Slam semi-final debutant taking the 2nd set? No reason to panic, Serena had been there countless times before.

Vinci serving for the match? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? Can’t, won’t happen, right?

The crowd stood in disbelief as the Italian reached the 40-0 lead and the legend eyed the abyss. Serve, cross-court attack, half-volley…Veni, Vidi, Vinci. The unthinkable had materialized. The pressure weighted too much. A career dream was crushed on the finish line. Forever?

Vinci would lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta the next day, on another emotional encounter, but the story was Serena’s choke. The 34-year-old undisputed Queen of women’s tennis came oh so close and blew it. She didn’t took the court again for a WTA match in 2015, and, even for someone like her, it’s tough to muster the strength to come back and push for the same feat again. If it happens, it would probably be as remarkable as whatever occurred in New York on that September evening.

Katie Ledecky obliterates the competition at the Swimming World Championships

An American dominating an edition of Swimming World Championships is far from a unique circumstance. Michael Phelps took five gold medals from the 2009 meet in Rome and Ryan Lochte equalled the feat in Shanghai 2011, while Missy Franklin stepped it up a notch in Barcelona 2013, gathering six titles. Thus, Katie Ledecky’s performance in Kazan, Russia, last August might be a bit undervalued. Don’t be fooled though.

None of her compatriots had to swim as much as the 18-year-old freestyler on a frenetic week of competitions. No less than 6.2 km, 124 laps, and 63 minutes of racing as she navigated the heats, semi-finals, and finals of four individual events, including the gruelling 800m and 1500m, with the final of the last race, the longest on the calendar, preceding by just 20 minutes a close, highly-competitive 200m semi-final.

Katie Ledecky, the podium, trophies and medals. An acquaintance process in full swing

The Washington DC native kicked off her campaign with the triumph on the 400 meters, with a 3.89-seconds advantage never seen before, but was just getting started, showing clear signs of disappointment at the end after missing out on breaking the World Record. Lauren Boyle, the runner-up on the 1500m, touched the wall almost 15(!) seconds after Ledecky set her second World Record on consecutive days at the distance, and she also smashed the 800m mark by 3.61 seconds and her competitors to the tune of a 10-second gap. Because savouring triumphs on longer events is getting boring, Ledecky has added the 200 meters to her repertoire, and she was also successful despite all the miles on her body, gathering the speed to beat the last two world champions on the race. She, thereby, finished up a sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 15000 meters free events, or the now called “Ledecky Slam”. Amid all this, anchoring the USA’s 4×200 meters relay win was just icing on the cake.

The four individual gold medals represent a unique feat for a female swimmer on the history of the World Championships, and only trail Phelps’ record of five in Montreal 2007. Back in 2012, Ledecky caught the World by surprise winning London’s 800m as a 15-year-old, and the youngest member of the entire US Olympic squad composed of more than 500 athletes. In 2016, she may well be the singular face of the entire Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Carly Lloyd erupts to take down Japan in 16 minutes

With no FIFA men’s international competition on the calendar in 2015, football’s brightest eyeballs shifted attention to the Women’s World Cup. Another stepping-stone tournament for the sport on the female side saw the USA and Japan clash for the third consecutive time in major competitions’ finals, four years after a dramatic World Cup final in Frankfurt, and three following Wembley’s Olympic decider. On the BC Place of Vancouver, the story ended up being way different from 2011, when the four goals were scored on the latter half of regulation and overtime, before the penalty shootout separated the parts.

Carly Lloyd carried out one of greatest World Cup performances ever against Japan

This time, inside just 16-minutes, the heavily-supported Americans were well on their way to victory after mounting a four-goal blitz that stunned the reigning Champions. Carly Lloyd deflected in a low corner three minutes into the game, and one hundred seconds later found the ball inside the box to chip it past the Japanese goalkeeper for the second time. With the Nadeshiko dazed, Lauren Holiday took advantage of a terrible clear on the 14th minute to dash with an over the top, classy finish, while Lloyd completed the hat-trick with an astonishing strike from the halfway line that beat a reeling Kaihori. Things slowed down a bit after that, with the final result settled at 5-2 because a brave Japanese team never gave up on the match, but the day undoubtedly belonged to the Americans and to Lloyd.

The USA’s #10 midfielder propelled his side to a magnificent start, one rarely watched before at this level of competition, and completely decimated the opposition, leaving her mark on a major final like she had done in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Her inspired performance throughout the tournament merited the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament, and she will surely welcome another individual accolade in a few days, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Fabio Aru and the improbable Tom Dumoulin go head-to-head at the Vuelta

Selecting just a moment from a whole cycling season comprised of numerous races can be a monumental task. Others may answer with Alberto Contador’s epic recovery on the Mortirollo ascent during the Giro, Chris Froome’s irresistible (and much discussed) attack on the climb to La Pierre Saint Martin during the 10th stage of his second Tour de France triumph, or even Peter Sagan’s coup d’état, with the Slovak finally getting the best of an entire peloton to punch a signature victory on the World Championships.

However, I believe no other battle symbolized what cycling racing is about like the up-and-down affair between Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta, which culminated on the Dutch clinging to the dream until the last day, only to see it vanish through the fingers. The Giant-Alpecin rider was the talk of the first half of the competition alongside Colombian Esteban Chavez, with the pair alternating the ownership of the red jersey while in discussion of the plethora of stages culminating on steep terrain, but not many predicted the 25-year-old could keep up with the best as the difficulties accumulated. Not even after a superb victory over Froome at the end of stage nine.

Fabio Aru (white jersey) and Tom Dumoulin (in red) excelled at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Dumoulin would lose ground on a diabolic stage 11 at the Pyrenees, but his feverish fighting spirit provided for terrific moments of cycling as he almost strapped himself to the Vuelta GC contenders over the next few days on the mountains, managing to stay within striking distance while all his teammates lagged way behind unable to support him. Fabio Aru would command the race lead until Dumoulin shattered the opposition on the individual time trial at Burgos, turning the overall classification into a 3-second stranglehold between Dutch and Italian.

Despite Astana’s push over the next two days, Dumoulin resisted stoically, even showing his muscles on the cobbled end at Ávila, before finally succumbing in dramatic fashion on stage 20, at the Puerto de la Moncuera, as Aru and friends were getting antsy and frustrated. The Maastricht-native, on his own, completely empty and defeated, sank further on the final kilometres to finish the Vuelta in sixth, but the fortitude and drive he displayed by leaving it all on the road against the odds impressed every observer. And were well worth of a reference here.

Stan Wawrinka ends Novak Djokovic’s Roland Garros bid

A truly significant season for tennis saw two players end the year with three Grand Slam titles on their bags, and it could have been even more incredible had Novak Djokovic joined Serena Williams on the quest to complete the calendar Slam at the US Open. He couldn’t because the only stain on a brilliant 2015 season came in June, at the final of the only big tournament that still eludes the Serbian.

The 27-year-old entered the Court Phillipe Cartier still riding the wave of a drubbing over Rafael Nadal on the quarter-finals, only the second time (and first when healthy) that the King of Clay got beaten at Roland Garros, but also feeling the effects of a nervous five-setter against Andy Murray on the semi-finals. A match where the pressure of clinching the trophy that is missing on his curriculum started opening some cracks on the armour.

Stan Wawrinka came out ahead of Novakj Djokovic at Roland Garros

Like happened to Roger Federer until 2009 – and to other tennis greats that never grasped success at the French Open – Djokovic may have shrunk with the tension and indomitable desire to win he had to cope with, but the final was much more than a favourite throwing out a golden opportunity. Stan Wawrinka had already backed up his candidacy to a second Grand Slam title with a straight sets victory over Federer, and was completely “in the zone” on that afternoon, unleashing his patented one-handed backhand with devastating precision left and right after “Nole” took the inaugural set.

Djokovic had to settle for the finalist’s plaque and a deserved rising ovation from the crowd after a crushing defeat, but snapped out of it pretty quickly. Wimbledon and the US Open would later join his other nine titles amassed in 2015, and that loss to the Swiss was the only in 28 matches at Majors and one of just six during the best season of the Serbian’s career. The setback in Paris just fuelled his hunger for more, and he figures to come back in 2016 even more prepared to complete his own career Slam and equal Nadal and Federer, his contemporaries that figure on a shortlist of just seven names.

And, on a quicker sequence, five more moments that just missed the main cut:

Lionel Messi gets back to marvelling the world

Football fans around the world blessed 2014-15 for the return of the best Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard used the motivation after a crushing World Cup Final defeat to power Barcelona to a second treble in four seasons, as the Blaugrana hoarded the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League. Messi’s brilliance was at its peak on two key moments.

First, on a monumental goal against Bayern Munich on the 1st leg of the European Cup semi-final, turning Jerome Boateng into a bowling pin before chipping the ball beautifully over Manuel Neuer. A few weeks later, he embarrassed Athletic Bilbao’s defence on the Copa Del Rey decider with a preposterous slalom which started near the convergence of the sideline and center circle and ended with him slotting the ball home.

The Ski Flying World Record falls twice on a weekend

Slovenia’s Peter Prevc flew like never before at Vikersund

Humanity’s enduring fascination with flying finds resonance on ski jumping and especially its more risky offshoot, ski flying, where athletes really push the limits of audacity. 2015 brought the first jump over the 250 meters barrier, as Peter Prevc flew exactly that in February, 14th, during a World Cup event held in Vikersund, Norway.

The Slovenian broke by 4 meters the mark set on the same venue, in 2011, by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen, but his reign would be really short. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Anders Fannemel soared 251.5 meters the following evening under perfect conditions and stole the record back. The next few years promise new heights, since Vikersund and the “rival” infrastructure in Planica, Slovenia, have suffered renovations and extensions, so expect more superlative images of sportsman gliding on air for what appears like an eternity. After all, the 300m may be just around the corner.

The Golden State Warriors complete a fairytale season with first NBA title in 40 years

The gang of Stephen Curry had shown flashes of domination in years past, but only after Steve Kerr took over the bench everything clicked into perfection. The Golden State Warriors won 67 games on the NBA Regular Season led by an unique sharpshooter enjoying an MVP-worthy performance, an incredible sidekick (or should I say Splash Brother?) in Klay Thompson, and Mr. Everything Draymond Green, and then weaved through the minefield that are the Western Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the most exciting team in basketball conquered the ultimate prize in six fascinating games, undoubtedly benefitting from an opponent that was weakened by substantial injuries to star actors, and had to place too much of a burden on the planet’s best player over the last decade. Nevertheless, with or without the injury bug, no team lighted out arenas all over North America throughout the season like the Warriors, and the series may well be reminisced before long by the passing of the torch from James to Curry as the world’s finest player.

Japan stuns South Africa at the Rugby World Cup

England welcomed what can probably be considered the biggest sports competition of 2015, and beyond the hosts’ lacklustre performance, and New Zealand’s uncontested supremacy towards reclaiming the spot at the top of the mountain, there was time for a completely unexpected result. Rugby’s history places the sport amongst those where the minnows stand lower changes of humbling the giants, whereby Japan’s courage and faith belied the norm and they were deservedly rewarded for it.

The moment Japan dreamed with

On that afternoon at Brighton, the “Brave Blossoms” did justice to their name, deciding to press for the winning try as the final whistle approached instead of settling for a potential equalising kick. The Springboks had already sweated way beyond their expectations to conjure a narrow lead, were left to crawl in order to protect it, but they probably never realized a team with only one World Cup triumph could pull off the tournament’s greatest shock ever.

That is, obviously, until New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh finalised the 34-32 score in injury time, with what looked like a bunch of folks helping launch him forward so the ball could touch South Africa’s area. It was goosebumps-inducing stuff. In 2019, at home, can Japan do an encore, please?

Jamie Benn clinches NHL’s Art Ross Trophy at the buzzer

You really thought I would go away without a hockey reference? At the end of 2014, I had two moments lined up for the “would be” review list of the year, but this season was leaner in worthwhile memories. The Chicago Blackhawks collecting a third Stanley Cup in six seasons was kind of boring (for neutral fans), and the playoffs lacked striking scenes, even if the Hawks and Ducks on the West, and the Rangers and Caps on the East, weren’t far from the level of excitement provided by that Hawks-LA Kings matchup of a year ago.

Thus, my choice was the theatrical and improbable late charge that delivered Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn his scoring title. With his team out of the playoff race, he put up 15 points in the last 6 games to leap John Tavares on the 82th and final contest, grabbing 4 points, including an assist with just 8.5 seconds remaining, to reach 87 on the season. On a game with no implications table-wise, the buzz, voltage and elation on the American Airline Center, as time ticked away and the team pushed for the tally that Cody Eakin ultimately delivered, made for a stunning sports instant that few won’t relish.

***********
And that’s all I have for you from 2015. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for even better in 2016!