Christopher Froome

Uncovering trends at the Laureus World Sport Awards

Established in 1999 by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an organization that aims to use “the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage, and prove that sport has the power to change the world”, the Laureus World Sport Awards are the most renowned annual global recognition of the work of people and teams competing in the multitude of existing sporting disciplines.

Tackling on an undertaking that is both tricky and subjective, as comparing efforts and achievements between athletes that perform such different activities is bound to be, these awards are, nonetheless, an interesting proposition whose function has been successively dwarfed by fundamental biases and incongruences. And since I take this way too seriously, I sought to identify and analyse these tendencies after perusing through the bewildering lineup of contenders for the 2018 awards.

To carry this out, though, we first need to get to know the Laureus’ selection process, which in short, goes like this: first a Nomination Panel “consisting of leading sportswriters, editors and broadcasters from more than 100 countries” is polled, resulting in the group of six nominees in a variety of categories, and then another group of “experts”, the Laureus World Sports Academy, an association of 60+ retired sportspeople who volunteer their time to support the work of the Laureus Foundation, votes to decide the winners who are announced in a glitzy ceremony every February.

The Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony is always held in glamorous settings

This year’s show is scheduled for the 27th of February at the Sporting Club Monte Carlo (Monaco), but the main point to take away is that a lot of important questions about the voting process are left unanswered. For instance, who are, from where and which sports cover the members of the nomination panel? Are votes tallied one per head or do they rank athletes to allocate points and, if yes, how many? Are they allowed to select countryman/woman? Answers to these questions would provide clarity to many of the puzzling nominations and victories we’ve seen over the years, and while we do know the identity of the Academy’s membership, the voting process is similarly unknown and the results kept under wraps.

It’s quite obvious that in any award granted as a result of the opinion of a few dozens of experts, inherent preferences are accentuated by anonymity, and thus we’re left to speculate based on the information available. In this case, that would be a breakdown of the Laureus Academy current membership (list here), a decent jumping off point to shed light on the clear patterns emerging year after year.

While acknowledging that expecting a perfectly balanced group that respects the wide spectrum of sports disciplines contested around the world would be absurd, we can’t help to notice that the Laureus Foundation would be foolish to forecast some semblance of representability, diversity and, above all, sense of appreciation for the achievements in less acclaimed (pretty different from less competitive) sports when 19 of the 64 distinguished constituents are either former track and field athletes (10) or football players (9), almost 10% (6) played a “niche sport” such as cricket (!!), only 5 contended in Winter disciplines (3 in alpine skiiing), more than half (34) were born in Europe and just 14 are women.

Retired cyclists Chris Hoy and Fabian Cancellara as well as former footballer Ruud Gullit were inducted into the Laureus World Sports Academy last year [Photo/VCG]

Consequently, the history of the Laureus Sports Awards is permeated with odd selections and small idiosyncrasies, which I’ll try to underline as we preview the ceremony to come and look into the 2018 nominees in five preeminent categories: Sportsman, Sportswoman, Team, Breakthrough and Comeback of the Year.

Herewith, let’s explore the history of each award, get to know the nominees, identify relevant snubs and anticipate the winners based on past experience.

 

World Sportsman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances”

History

In the 18 previous editions, a total of 13 sports have found their way into the nominations but only 7 different men from 4 sports (tennis, golf, formula one and athletics) have hosted the trophy.

Since 2004, being the ATP World No.1 has merited an automatic spot –  the exception is 2012/13 – and between Roger Federer, who shares the record for most statuettes (4) with Usain Bolt,  Rafael Nadal (1) and Novak Djokovic (3), tennis players have won 8 of last 13 years, with the Jamaican sprinter and German driver Sebastian Vettel (2014) squeezed in between. Unsurprisingly, one track and field star is usually on the ballot (every edition but 2007) and the Formula One Champion is also a fixture (12 of the last 16 years), with the same destiny reserved to football’s FIFA World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or Winner in every instance since Ronaldinho cracked the field in 2006.

Roger Federer and Usain Bolt (pictured) share the record for most Sportsman of the year awards with 4.

Furthermore, if you’re an NBA Champion (contenders in five of the last seven years) or Major Championship-winning golfer (Tiger Woods lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001), you have a great chance of standing out from the pack and barge into the limelight, which, in turn, allows limited space for turnover on the six-man unit.

The 2018 nominees:

Mo Farah (United Kingdom, Athletics)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Chris Froome (United Kingdom, Cycling)
Lewis Hamilton (United Kingdom, Motor Racing)
Rafael Nadal (Spain, Tennis)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Football)

Track and Field Star? Check. Ballon D’Or Winner? Check. Formula One Champion? Check. The two men who split the major tennis competitions in 2017? Check and check. Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal and Lewis Hamilton got summoned to attend the ceremony for a fourth time, Ronaldo for a fifth and Roger Federer for a record-tying seventh, joining Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods. It’s almost like this category is an exclusive country club that decides to admit a new member here and there. In 2018, the honour fell on Chris Froome and the four-time Tour de France winner had to pick up a second Grand Tour (Vuelta a España) on the season just to merit consideration for the first time.

Snubs:

Do the Laureus decision makers care about any team sport other than football and basketball?

If they’re giving away career shoot outs to the likes of Mo Farah, can someone introduce them to three-time World Handball Player of the Year Nikola Karabatić? The man’s incredible résumé includes, among many others, 9 major titles and 13 international medals as a leading man for the French National Team and, at age 33, he carried them to another World title in 2017 on the back of an MVP-worthy performance. Not too shabby, right?

Voted in three occasions as the best handball player in the World, France’s Nikola Karabatić has never been nominated for a Laureus award (Alex Grimm/Bongarts)

Moreover, are Formula One cars so incredibly difficult to drive that pilots from other disciplines, for instance the World Rally Championships, deserve no respect whatsoever? Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time WRC World Champion, was never elected to the Laureus and his heir, Sébastien Ogier, counting five titles already, suffers from the same stigma. In two wheels, Valentino Rossi got the call after his last five Moto GP titles (coinciding with the field’s expansion from five to six slots) but Marc Márquez can’t even secure a second after four Championships?

Alpine Skier Marcel Hirscher racked up his unprecedented sixth consecutive overall World Cup title and added two gold medals at the World Championships, yet he’s still waiting for some global recognition. Ditto for French Martin Fourcade, who upped his stratospheric credentials even more by setting a record of points (1322) and individual victories (14) in the biathlon World Cup, sweeping all five crystal globes to secure a sixth consecutive Total Score victory and seize complete domination of his sport. Still, what’s that compared with the British fella who won a 10,000 meters race in front of his compatriots, right?

Who will win the Laureus: Roger Federer (Tennis)

I reckon Federer and Nadal may split some of the tennis-inclined voters, but the Swiss is an Academy-favourite, boasts a global following that would exult with the news (gotta work those tv ratings!) and his 2017 season at the sprightly age of 35 is one for history books. Bank on Roger getting the trophy for a fifth time and a full decade (2008) after his last.

Darkhorse: Cristiano Ronaldo (Football)

Incredibly, a football player has never won this award and despite the fact that the Portuguese’s individual figures have looked far better in previous instances, he can benefit from a radical dispersal of votes to edge in front by virtue of Real Madrid’s bucket load of silverware in 2017.

Who should win: Martin Fourcade Chris Froome (Cycling)

Chris Froome races during a stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España (ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

Connect recent news with Lance Armstrong’s cautionary tale (the American won in 2003 but was stripped of the trophy years later) and it’s highly unlikely Froome climbs to the stage in Monaco. Nevertheless, for my money – and based on what has transpired, so far, about his positive doping analysis – he should, chiefly because it had been four decades since someone won the Tour and Vuelta in the same season, and many had tried and failed to complete the task since the Spanish Grand Tour moved to the current position in the calendar. Clinching victories in two Grant Tours separated by a handful of weeks is an incredible feat and I don’t see how the others top that (If you’re shouting Roger Federer’s name, please take a look at his calendar from April to June…).

 

World Sportswoman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportswoman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances.”

History: 

If the men have formed a secluded society, what can we say about the women’s distinction? In the same 18 years, only 9 different sports have offered candidates and two thirds of the statuettes were collected either by tennis players (5) or track and field athletes (7). Sensing a theme here?

Last year, gymnast Simone Biles went home with the Laureus figurine, capitalizing on her sport’s first ever nomination, but chances are we’ll be back to square one 12 months later based on the group announced this time, which includes two track athletes for the 13th (!!!!) consecutive year plus a pair of tennis players, notably three-time winner (and child-bearer) Serena Williams.

Serena Williams, the 2017 Australian Open Champion, has won the World Sportswoman of the Year award more times than anyone else (Source: Reuters)

The 2018 nominees:

Allyson Felix (USA, Athletics)
Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)
Garbiñe Muguruza (Spain, Tennis)
Caster Semenya (South Africa, Athletics)
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA, Alpine Skiing)
Serena Williams (USA, Tennis)

When you have an athletics quota to fill no matter what, stupid appointments are bound to happen, and for all Allyson Felix has done throughout her extraordinary career (including her previous Laureus citations in 2013 and 2017), she has no business being on this list. If you fail to collect individual gold medals at your sport’s World Championships, how on Earth are you a top-six World Sportswoman in any given year?

It’s a dismal choice, but it’s not unique in a list born out of the need to invite the same faces and deputies. I love tennis, but c’mon….Serena Williams played two tournaments in 2017, one of those in the early stages of a pregnancy, and somehow got a record fifth nomination, while Garbiñe Muguruza erupted in the summer, claiming Wimbledon and Cincinnati, yet she then failed to hold onto a WTA World No.1 that was there for the taking. None of these women deserve to be here, pure and simple.

Still, the Spaniard, at least, is a newcomer that may return in the future whereas another neophyte, Caster Semenya, gets a pass for conforming to the minimum requirements (the 800m World title), in opposition to Allyson Felix. Katie Ledecky, nominated for a third consecutive year, will someday become the second swimmer to win this award, succeeding Missy Franklin (2014), and I would wager big money that Mikaela Shiffrin, the fifth nomination in six years for a female alpine skier – the men have 0..ever – will write her name alongside Janica Kostelić (2006) and Lindsey Vonn (2011) sooner than later.

Snubs:

Scroll down this page, pick any woman that conquered gold in London and paste her name over Allyson Felix’s. Feeling helpless? I’ll pull four names that added the World title in London to the 2016 Olympic gold and boast both the pedigree and clout for such honour: 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Nafissatou Thiam (Belgium, heptathlon), 2016 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia, 10,000 m), World Record holder Anita Włodarczyk (Poland, hammer throw) and two-time Olympic Champion Sandra Perković (Croatia, discus throw). Any of these ladies would be an infinitely better choice than Felix.

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam added the 2017 World title to her heptathlon Olympic Gold (Getty Images)

Since athletics and tennis have acquired multiple selections in recent times, why not swimming? Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), who collected 3 gold medals and one silver at the FINA World Championships, and American Lilly King (4 titles, 2 of them individual) approximated Ledecky’s tally (5 golds + 1 silver) and managed to break a couple of world records each along the way…

In the winter disciplines, biathlete Laura Dahlmeier got doled out the Fourcade-treatment. Her first World Cup overall title, 2 small globes, 10 individual wins and an outstanding 4 gold medals and one silver from five events at the World Championships are laudable accomplishments that behoved full attention.

Who will win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

I mean…Serena won’t pluck a shiny new toy for her baby girl..right, RIGHT?

The 22-year-old Ledecky was pipped by tennis’ GOAT in 2016, and surrendered the stage to the captivating acrobatics of Simone Biles last year, but her path to victory looks unimpeded this time. That surprising defeat to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini in the 200m freestyle – her first in an individual event internationally – and the lack of new world records are small knocks on her application, yet she put her own marks and expectations at such a preposterous level that it might not really matter. Adding the five golds and one silver amassed in Budapest, the 20-year-old has already broken the World Aquatics Championships’ all-time female gold medal (14) and that really says it all.

All Katie Ledecky does is collect medals at the major swimming meetings. In Budapest, at the 2017 World Championships, she added 6 more to her mantle (SIPA USA)

Underdog: Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing)

Compatriot Lindsey Vonn had to endure two disappointments before earning the award, and Shiffrin might follow a similar path after securing a maiden nomination for her first overall World Cup title in 2016-17. The main difference lies in the fact that, if everything goes according to plan, the Slalom Queen will crush the PyeongChang Olympics next month, bag a whole lot of gold, and stake an early pole-position for the 2019 Laureus.

Who should win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

She’s due. And if it goes any other way – except for a Shiffrin upset -, it’s a joke.

 

World Team of the Year

“Awarded to the team that best demonstrates supreme performance and achievements – such as world, continental, international or national and major championship title.”

History:

Awarded for the first time in 2000 to English football club Manchester United, treble winners (Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup) in 1998-1999, this distinction has been dominated by football teams as both domestic and international sides have collected the award nine of 18 times. As such, the UEFA Champions League winner has been nominated in every occasion since 2001 – except for the 2011-12 Chelsea FC – and the national teams that conquer the UEFA European Championships or the (Men/Women’s) FIFA World Cup are also pencilled in.

With 15 appearances in 17 years since the category was expanded from 3 to 5 (later 6) spots, the F1 Constructors World Champions are also virtual locks every season and possible winners (2x) when their hopes don’t clash with sure-fire victors coming from the Men’s FIFA World Cup (5 wins in 5 opportunities) and Rugby World Cup (3 of 4). With no Championship side spurned since 2008 (the 2007 San Antonio Spurs), NBA representatives are also on a long run of appearances but have yet to collect the statuette.

New Zealand’s All Blacks won the World Team of the Year award in 2016 (Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

France Davis Cup Team (France, Tennis)
Golden State Warriors (USA, Basketball)
Mercedes-AMG Petronas (Germany, Motor Racing)
New England Patriots (USA, American Football)
New Zealand America’s Cup (New Zealand, Sailing)
Real Madrid CF (Spain, Football)

NBA Champions Golden State Warriors, Formula One Champions Mercedes and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, who added the La Liga title to a second consecutive Champions League badge, were the obvious choices, and the rest benefitted from 2017 being neither an Olympic year nor host to a major football or rugby competition.

Therefore, the French tennis team is the fifth Davis Cup-winning squad to merit a call, sailing is represented by the America’s Cup holder for a first time since the Team Alinghy in 2004, and the only true stunner are the Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, the first NFL team to earn a nomination.

Emirates Team New Zealand and helmsman Peter Burling conquered the 35th America’s Cup (ACEA 2017 / Photo Ricardo Pinto)

Snubs:

Since 2006, the Men’s French National handball team has collected three European Championships, two Olympic titles and four World Championships. In 2017, despite being mired in the middle of a generational transition, they cruised to another World title by defeating all their opponents. Evidently, the Laureus Academy thinks winning the Davis Cup, a discredited competition ignored by many of the World’s elite, is a more impressive feat…

With the Patriots inclusion coming one year after the MLB’s Chicago Cubs became the first team from a North American professional league to win a Laureus, time was right to recognize the forgotten NHL (0 nominations), but ice hockey was once again shut out of the awards. Tough break for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions in 19 years.

Who will win: Real Madrid (Football)

Barring a triumph for the Davis Cup winners, any other result would fall short of the “upset” moniker, nonetheless I would say Real Madrid’s time has come.

Spanish side Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League for the second consecutive year in 2016-17 (AFP)

European Champions on five occasions in the XXI century, they’ve always taken a step back to others at the Laureus, but I have a hard time believing their 5-spot combo (Champions League, La Liga, European SuperCup, Spanish SuperCup, FIFA Club World Cup) won’t do the job in similar fashion to FC Barcelona’s haul in 2011. Although Barça’s perfect 2009, six trophies out of six, went unrewarded….

Darkhorse: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Thwarted by New Zealand’s All-Blacks in 2016, the Warriors return two years later with an even more robust body of work. A similar regular season record (67-15) amassed in casual fashion, a fabulous playoff term (16-1) culminated with a dominant performance (4-1) against the team (Cleveland Cavaliers) that spoiled their back-to-back challenge the previous season, and a cadre of pundits pondering whether they had just witnessed the greatest NBA team ever.

If a basketball team is going to steal the show, better be this one.

Who should win: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Going 16-1 in a salary-capped league postseason is ridiculous, though I wouldn’t exactly oppose appreciation for New Zealand America’s Cup team’s history. Exacting revenge in commanding fashion (7-1) from the same US Oracle Team against whom they blew a 8-1 lead four years earlier must have made for a riveting spectacle.

 

World Breakthrough of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team whose performance as a newcomer suggests the greatest potential for an outstanding career or to an established sportsman or sportswoman who produces a significant step-up in class to a considerably higher level of sporting achievement.”

Handed out until 2007 to the newcomer of the year, this distinction features the most distinct range of potential candidates, and that is expressed on both the diversity of origins from the nominees (18 different sports since 2000) and the notion that no one has repeated victory (though some have broken through more than once…).

Fifteen men and only three women have been rewarded for substantial improvements in their performances over the previous 12 months, however a few teams have also made appearances amongst the nominees, for example Leicester City for their English Premier League triumph in 2016-17. Still, in 14 of 18 instances, the winner was a golfer (5), a Formula One driver (5) or a tennis player (4) and those three sports, alongside football (0 wins of 14 nominations!), also monopolize the history of this award, hence we can’t really say it is divorced from the palpable biases of the Academy.

German Formula One driver Nico Rosberg received the Breakthrough of the Year award in 2017 (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece, Basketball)
Caeleb Dressel (USA, Swimming)
Sergio Garcia (Spain, Golf)
Anthony Joshua (United Kingdom, Boxing)
Kylian Mbappé (France, Soccer)
Jelena Ostapenko (Latvia, Tennis)

The very inaugural winner of the award, back in 2000, Sergio García can become the first man to repeat if his much-anticipated, maiden Major Championship victory at The Masters of Augusta is enough to sway the jury. Moreover, the 37-year-old is also the old soul on this group, with Anthony Joshua counting 28 years of age, and the rest hovering in the late teens/early 20’s.

The world heavyweight champion is the third boxer to warrant consideration, following on the footsteps of fellow Brits Amir Khan (2005) and Tyson Fury (2016), while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jelena Ostapenko are the first Greek and Latvian sports people to be nominated for this Laureus award. American Caeleb Dressel, the new face of men’s swimming, can achieve something Michael Phelps never did – Brit Rebecca Adlington is the only swimmer to have won the award – while football’s teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé will try to avoid the same fate of Lionel Messi (2006) and Neymar (2013), both bested by tennis players (Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, respectively).

Jelena Ostapenko’s triumph on the clay of Roland Garros earned her a Laureus nomination (Reuters)

Snubs:

A first-time Grand Tour winner in 2017, Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin wouldn’t look out of place in this category. Particularly because the Giro d’Italia triumph (and the victory at the Worlds individual Time Trial race) may well be a glimpse of more to come from the man many believe to be uniquely qualified to end Chris Froome’s reign in the Tour de France.

As with the other individual classes, it’s quite unusual that the nominations in this category are stripped of a track and field star in the making. We’re not complaining about it, however the World Championships in London could have sanctioned the likes of 21-year-old Karsten Warholm, the Norwegian who stunned the field to take the 400m hurdles title in convincing fashion, or Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, the talented 22-year-old who outlasted reigning Olympic Champion Catherine Ibargüen in an epic South-American duel.

As far as up-and-coming teams, the Dutch Women’s National Football Team, European Champions for the first time to put an end to Germany’s 22-year hegemony, and the NHL’s Nashville Predators, maiden Stanley Cup Finalists in a campaign that showcased their players, city and fans like never before, would have been worthy contenders.

Who will win: Kylian Mbappé (Football)

There’s not a lot on the history of this award that helps underscore many tendencies, but we know Ostapenko, as a woman – albeit a tennis player – may be at a disadvantage, and no Formula One driver made the cut this time, so let’s simply push the cards into Kylian Mbappé’s corner and cross fingers.

Those ten ex-footballers on the Academy board have to be worth for something, and I believe they can rally around the exciting French striker, an 18-year-old superstar that will set football fields ablaze for the next 15 years.

Paris St. Germain forward Kylian Mbappé is recognized for his breakout season in 2017.

Darkhorse: Sergio García (Golf)

I may be terribly wrong, but I struggle to contemplate enough support for a Greek player that hasn’t won a playoff round in the NBA – no matter how freakishly athletic he looks -, a bubbly teenager from a small Baltic nation, a boxer (no disrespect intended) or even a (still) under-the-radar American swimmer (maybe at the ESPY’s, kid). Which leaves us with Sergio García, one of the most beloved golfers of all-time, a veteran primed for a late career accolade after a revered milestone, and a man who will, definitely, earn an invitation to join the Laureus Academy as soon as his playing days are over.

Who should win: Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)

When you thought it would take an entire lifetime to spawn someone that could draw comparisons to Michael Phelps, out of nowhere materializes another arresting combination of slender frame/fulminant turns/amazing underwater shifts that hoards medals at the World Championships to leave swimming fans agape.

Three gold medals in the same session (actually, in a 98-min spam), something never accomplished before, a total of seven World titles in the same meeting (even if 4 of them courtesy of the relay events), tying the World Championships record of Phelps and the merits of another swimming legend, Mark Spitz. This is the breakthrough of 2017.

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning one of his races at the Swimming World Championships in Budapest last July (Patrick B. Kraemer)

 

World Comeback of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team who has overcome injury, illness, adversity, disappointment or failure and risen back to triumph in the sporting arena. The Award may also mark a historic fightback by an individual or a team in a sporting event or series of sports events.”

A category that allows for multiple premises and motivations, this award has contained nominees from a lot of different disciplines (23) over the years, helping to spread the reach of the Laureus “brand” to sports largely ignored for the other prizes (ice hockey, triathlon, equestrian, rowing…) but, in the end, the same dominate as far as most nominations (athletics, golf) and winners (tennis – 6, athletics – 2). Without two-time victors on the board of honour after 18 editions, the first man to receive this award was former cyclist Lance Armstrong by virtue of his recovery from testicular cancer and eventual triumph at the Tour de France yet, as happened with the rest of his laurels, the American’s name has been expunged following his doping admission.

The 2018 nominees:

FC Barcelona (Spain, Football)
Chapecoense (Brazil, Football)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Justin Gatlin (USA, Athletics)
Sally Pearson (Australia, Athletics)
Valentino Rossi (Italy, Motor Racing)

Associação Chapecoense de Futebol’s rehabilitation after a tragic plane crash and the return to football of the only three players (Alan Ruschel, Neto and Jakson Follmann) that survived couldn’t have been forgotten, and neither could Roger Federer’s odyssey back to the top of his game, as the Swiss scored, perhaps, the most breath-taking injury comeback in tennis history.

Chapecoense’s Alan Ruschel waves to the crowd at Camp Nou before a friendly match between the Brazilian team and FC Barcelona (Toni Albir, EFE)

Paula Radcliffe (2008) and Felix Sanchez (2013) were the two track and field athletes to win this award, but it’s unlikely Justin Gatlin, who found public redemption on the track by beating Usain Bolt on the legend’s last individual race, or Sally Pearson, once again the 100m hurdles World Champion after three years marred by multiple injury setbacks, add their names to the list. FC Barcelona’s frantic comeback against PSG in the last minutes of their round of 16 Champions League tie is, arguably, one of the most memorable in football history, while Valentino Rossi is up for a second victory (2011) for taking less than a month to make another swift recovery from displaced fractures on his right leg’s tibia and fibula.

Snubs:

It’s harsh to hold a grudge against any of the six nominees, but I might have bumped out Justin Gatlin (who played a major role in his demise) for Petra Kvitová. Assaulted at home in late 2016 by a knife-wielding robber, the Czech’s left hand tendons and nerves were severely damaged, putting her career at risk, but she was still able to return to the WTA Tour in less than 6 months and eventually collect her first title following the recovery at Birmingham last June.

Petra Kvitová triumphed in Birmingham on her second tournament back from a severe hand injury (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for LTA)

The New England Patriots’ comeback from 28-3 down on Super Bowl LI to claim a fifth title this century could have also featured in this category, but Bil Bellichick and Tom Brady ain’t Roger Federer to get two swings at the piñata in the same year.

Who will win: Chapecoense (Football)

I just can’t anticipate a different scenario.

Darkhorse: Roger Federer (Tennis)

Picks up the record-extending Majors No. 18 (Australian Open) and No. 19 (Wimbledon) to end a four-year Slam drought, and reclaim the throne in his mid-thirties after six months on the shelf for a freak injury? In any other year, this is a slam dunk choice.

Who should win: Chapecoense (Football)

C’mon, what type of person do you think I am?

 

As part of their World Sports Awards, the Laureus Foundation also presents a few discretionary distinctions and three other regular statuettes: for Action Sportsperson of the Year, rewarding who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement in action sports, Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, for those who best demonstrate excellent athletic achievement and strong leadership qualities in a sport in the Paralympic programme, and Best Sporting Moment, introduced last year and voted by the public.

I’ve grandstanded enough already, so I’m not going to opine on awards I know nothing about, but can’t finish this article without praising the Laureus Foundation for calling “alternative” sports stars and disabled athletes to the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the “mainstream” sporting heroes followed by millions around the world.

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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.

Review of 2014 in Cycling (part 1): The World Tour top 10

Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour de France winner

This is the first part of my review of the 2014 cycling season. Here I’ll analyse and recap the seasons of the ten best cyclists in 2014, according to the UCI World Tour rankings that take into account the performances on the most important annual cycling events. In the second part, I’ll focus on other riders, underlining some of the most relevant cyclists who missed this list and pointing out the athletes who underperformed expectations this season.

You can see the detailed distribution of points per racer in every World Tour competition here, along with the list of events that are part of the calendar. In the analysis below, I’ll sometimes refer to results achieved in races that are not part of the World Tour calendar, but that are relevant for the evaluation of the yearly performance of the rider.

  1. Jean-Christophe Peraud (France, AG2R La Mondiale), 300 pts

Despite being a respectable 37 year-old, the road career of Peraud is a short one. He was a cross-country specialist until 2009, when he, unexpectedly, won the French Time Trial Championships and signed his first pro contract with Omega-Pharma QuickStep. His first Grand Tour participation came at the 2010 Vuelta and in the following year he made the top 10 in the Tour, his first and only major result in a three weeks race until this year. Thus, the 2nd overall place at the end of the 2014 Tour was a surprise for everyone, even more if we remember that Romain Bardet, one the best young French riders, was the team’s first choice for a good spot on the general classification. However, when decision time arrived, only he could follow Nibali at the Pla d’Adet, on the 17th stage, before sealing his spot on the Champs-Élysées podium on the final time trial.

Outside the Tour, Peraud also added some great results on the season, winning the Critérium International, and finishing two World Tour races in the top 5, with a fourth place at Tirreno-Adriático, only behind Contador, Quintana and Kreuziger, and a podium on the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, another race won by Contador.

  1. Daniel Martin (Ireland, Garmin-Sharp), 316 pts

Daniel Martin took everyone by surprise at the end of Il Lombardia

The Irish’s 2014 season was one of ups and downs. When the first big goals of Martin’s season rolled around, the Ardennes Classics, he was in great shape, and, despite a withdrawal from the Amstel, he performed admirably in the following races. On the Flèche Wallone only a great Alejandro Valverde could beat him and three days later, on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he was on his way to take the top honours when a crash in the last turn crushed his dreams of repeating last year’s win. Two weeks later, in the inaugural day of the Giro, at his home country, another personal goal was dashed, with a crash on the team time trial leading to his abandon.

After recovering, the lead up to the Vuelta went without incidents, with regular performances at the Tour of Austria and Clasica San Sebastian, and a podium finish at the Tour de L’Ain. On the main Spanish race, Martin performed admirably, delivering his first major Tour Top 10 finish, and the success inspired him for a spectacular end of the season, punctuated with the second win of his career on a Cycling Monument, this time Il Lombardia, and a runner-up classification, plus a stage victory, on the last World Tour race of the season, the Tour of Beijing.

  1. Alexander Kristoff (Norway, Katusha), 321 pts

Alexander Kristoff (center) sprints for the win on the Milan-San Remo

The best year of the Norwegian’s career contributed to alleviate the weight of the unfortunate season delivered by Katusha’s leader Joaquim Rodríguez, who was coming out of two straight wins on the general World Tour classification. Thirteen of Kristoff’s 22 career victories came in 2014 and, even if eight of them arrived on home soil, the 27-year-old sprinter left a big mark on World Tour events too. After a stage win in the Tour of Oman, the Norwegian excelled against an impressive collection of fast racers on the finish line at the Milan-San Remo to gather his first career Cycling Monument.

His presence in Belgium for the local classics wasn’t as impressive, with a single top ten finish, the fifth position on the Tour des Flandres, but he managed to ramp up his form with top performances on the Tour of Norway and the Tour des Fjords, just in time for an outstanding Tour de France, brightened with two stage wins, four other podium finishes and the second place on the final green jersey classification. Another morale-boosting passage for the Artic Race set the table for the triumph in the Vattenfall Cyclassics, with his World Tour tally padded further with the eight place in the GP of Plouay. Kristoff ended the season after discreet presences on the Canadian World Tour races and a top 10 finish at the World Championships.

  1. Christopher Froome (Great Britain, Team Sky), 326 pts

Repeating a memorable 2013 season, in which the British rider won almost every race he participated in until the Tour and the Grand Boucle itself, was always going to be a tough task and the Sky leader wasn’t able to overcome the challenge. He started the season well, repeating the overall classification victory at the Tour of Oman and performing well on a top-notch Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, before withdrawing of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and triumphing for the second straight year on the Tour of Romandie. The problems started in June, when Froome seemed to dominate at the beginning of the Dauphiné, conquering the first two stages, before succumbing due to the effects of a fall on stage 5. The race ended up being far from the best preparation for the title defence at the Tour and the Kenyan-native was already late when he hit the road twice on consecutive days, withdrawing from the Tour de France on the mighty Arenberg stage.

The recovery from the injuries sustained in France took some time, but Froome seemed ready to challenge for the overall classification at the Vuelta. He started slow, losing time for his main rivals, but when the third week arrived, only Contador could keep up with his rhythm. The second position at the podium in Santiago de Compostela and four runner-up finishes in stages weren’t the desired outcome but the Brit was certainly happy to finish the season in good physical and mental conditions.

  1. Nairo Quintana (Colombia, Movistar), 346 pts

Nairo Quintana kisses the trophy of the Giro d’Italia

The diminutive climber was held out of the Tour de France squad as the team opted to focus on Valverde’s chances and instead was tasked with leading Movistar on the other two Grand Tours. The Colombian started the year in style, winning a stage and the overall classification of the Tour of San Luis, in Argentina, and then had his first encounter with some its rivals on the Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing only behind Alberto Contador. A fifth place on the general classification at the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, in the end of March, preceded a long training period for the Giro d’Italia spent on the mountains of his native land. The off-competition time may have contributed for a slow start at the Italian competition, as Quintana looked rusty for the first couple of weeks, but the Colombian took control of the race on stage 16, with a polemic attack on the descent of the Stelvio opening a gap for his main competitors that had escalated to over three minutes at the finish line. Another win three days later, on a climbing time-trial, furthered his grip on the pink jersey and he was at the top of the podium on Trieste, at the end of the Giro, to seal his first Grand Tour win.

Another long period off followed, with the return matching a repeat of the triumph on the Vuelta a Burgos, just a week before the start of the Vuelta a España. Entering the Spanish race as the main favourite, the Colombian wore the red jersey after the ninth stage but a fall on an individual time-trial, two days later, proved fatal to his ambitions, with another incident, early on stage 11, sealing the abandon and an early end of the season.

  1. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy, Astana), 392 pts

After a highly-successful 2013 season, which saw the Sicilian at the top of the classification on the Giro and narrowly missing a second Vuelta title, Nibali set his sights on winning the Tour in 2014 and delivered flawlessly. The season of “The Shark of Messina” started with discreet appearances at the Tour of San Luis, Dubai Tour and Tour of Oman, with the Italian keeping the low profile over March, finishing outside the top 20 overall on the Paris-Nice and failing to reach a top 10 in any of the spring classics he attended. His first good result came at the Tour of Romandie, with a fifth place, two minutes away from winner Chris Froome, and on the beginning of June, at the Critérium du Dauphiné, he was still distant from his elite shape, yielding time to his main rivals on key stages before closing the race ranked seventh.

However, the Tour was still three weeks away and the Italian warned the competition that he was going to show up much better. Still, even after a perfectly timed attack at the end of stage two earned him the win and the yellow jersey, few expected what followed. Nibali, along with his teammates, put on a show on the critical stage 5, saw Froome and Contador withdraw due to injuries, and only relinquished the overall lead for a single day until Paris, exerting a dominance in the race that rivalled the Armstrong years. He closed the Tour with an advantage of more than seven minutes over the closest competition, won three more stages, and almost snatched the mountains jersey too. The Shark was satisfied and he went back to the shadow until the end of the season, appearing only on some small races and the World Championships, where he finished in the 40th position.

  1. Rui Costa (Portugal, Lampre-Merida), 461 pts

Is it possible to finish the season just outside the podium of the World Tour, in the best position of the career, and still have a somewhat disappointing year? The 2013 World Champion carried sky-high hopes entering 2014 but failed to impress in his new colours, fighting to break through the “curse of the rainbow jersey”. Leading his own team for the first time in the career, the Portuguese first goal of the season was the homeland’s Volta ao Algarve, where he started a weird series of second place finishes, ending three stages on that position and the overall classification in third. His first WT event of the year was the Paris-Nice and he barely missed the win in two stages once again, being beaten by Colombian Betancur on the general classification. Following a poor week on the Ardennes Classics, Costa returned to form on a country where he’s usually successful. A third overall place on the Tour of Romandie preceded the third consecutive triumph on the Tour of Suisse, secured after winning the last stage, which would end up being the only victory of his season.

Rui Costa celebrates his only victory as reigning World Champion

The Portuguese entered the Tour de France vying for a top ten overall finish, but he never looked confortable, dropping out of the race due to persistent respiratory problems on the last week. He reappeared in good form on the Canadian WT events, beating everyone but Simon Gerrans at Montreal, and raising expectations for the World Championships, where he lacked the speed to follow the main contenders on the last climb. To end the season, already without the burden of the rainbow jersey, Costa clinched the first podium of his career on a Cycling Monument, at Il Lombardia, and fought for the Tour of Beijing, eventually concluding in fourth.

  1. Simon Gerrans (Australia, Orica GreenEDGE), 478 pts

2014 was an absolutely brilliant season for the Australian veteran. In the first days of January he secured the second Australian championship of his career and kept the pace on the inaugural WT event of the year, the Tour Down Under, collecting top 5 finishes on five of the six race stages, and taking the overall and points classifications. His start on European soil was timid, with abandons in the Paris-Nice and the Volta al Pais Vasco, but he appeared in great shape for the Ardennes Classics, managing a podium in the Amstel Gold Race and winning the second Monument of his career (Milan-San Remo, 2012) in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, benefiting from the last minute disaster of Daniel Martin.

Simon Gerrans completing his double win in Canada

Gerrans then failed to leave his mark at the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Tour de France, where he concluded two stages in fifth before withdrawing, or the Clasica San Sebastian, but apparently he was only getting ready for a blistering end of the season. He finished in third at the Vattenfall Cyclassics and became the first man to win both Canadian World Tour events on the same year, before taking the silver medal on the World Championships, beating the competition on the group that arrived after Kwiatkowski.

  1. Alberto Contador (Spain, Tinkoff-Saxo), 620 pts

After a disappointing 2013 season, Alberto Contador was under pressure at the start of the 2014 season, with his chances of winning another Grand Tour, specially the Tour de France, under dispute. The Spanish cyclist responded exemplarily to the critics right from the beginning, taking the second overall position and the king stage of the Volta ao Algarve, and kick-starting the World Tour season with an impressive general classification win at the Tirreno-Adriatico, carving a two minute difference for Nairo Quintana while collecting two stages victories. His preparation continued in Spain, with the Pinto native narrowly missing the general victory in the Volta a Catalunya, and then conquering his third Vuelta al Pais Vasco. In the tune up for the French Tour, the Spaniard looked like the strongest rider at the Dauphiné, but was let down by his own team, with the victory escaping on the last stage due to the formation of a successful breakaway that involved several high-profile riders.

At the Tour de France, Contador suffered tremendously on the cobbles of Arenberg but seemed to be on his way to the top after a second place classification on stage 8, at Gerardmer, the first mountain finish of the competition. However, two days later, with Nibali holding a 2:30 minutes lead on him, Contador crashed violently and his dreams of winning a third Tour were ruined, at least, until 2015. He then made an almost miraculous recovery to be fit in time for the start of the Vuelta a España, where, given the quality of the field of competitors and the doubts about his physical condition, his real ambitions were unclear. Defying the odds, the 31-year-old inherited the red jersey after the first individual time trial and kept getting better every day, looking in top shape by the final week, when he won two stages and clinched masterfully his third win on the competition (2008, 2012) and sixth Grand Tour. With the World Tour title on the line, Contador also attended Il Lombardia but decided to forego the trip to China, giving up on surpassing the man below.

  1. Alejandro Valverde (Spain, Movistar), 686 pts

For the third straight season, the general classification winner of the World Tour was a Spanish cyclist. Alejandro Valverde succeeded Joaquim Rodríguez and the title landed in deserving hands, since the 34-year-old was extremely regular over the season, adding at least 40 points from every WT event he participated in. Valverde won ten times this season and four of those came in February, at the Vuelta a Andalucia, with three stage wins and the general classification victory. Before the fifth place overall on his first WT event of the year, the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, he also collected the Vuelta a Murcia, the Roma Maxima and the Gran Premio Miguel Indurain. As the end of April arrived, he managed to improve on the excellent results obtained in 2013 on the Ardennes Classics, taking the win on the Flèche Wallone, the second place on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and a fourth on the Amstel Gold Race.

Valverde alone at the end of the Clasica San Sebastian

He continued to have success in June, finishing as the runner-up on the general classification of the Route du Sud and in the Road Spanish Championships, while becoming the national time-trial champion for the first time. Skipping the participation on the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse meant the true physical condition of Valverde was unknown entering the Tour de France, and the Spaniard flew under the radar on the first week, before the abandons of Froome and Contador placed him right after Nibali. He managed to hold onto the second place until the climb of the Hautacam, on the 18th stage, where he failed to follow Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud, thus missing the opportunity to clinch his first Tour de France podium finish. Nevertheless, he rebounded well from the disappointing end and, just a few days later, was smiling again at the finish line of the Clasica San Sebastian.

The short recovery time until the start of the Vuelta did not scare the Spaniard, who usually races both Grand Tours, and Valverde performed admirably well, celebrating victory on the team time trial, winning the sixth stage, and ending the race with eight top four finishes. For the second consecutive year, he beat Joaquim Rodríguez in the battle for the third position overall, and was also a top three on the points and mountains classifications. To cap a truly special season, he led the Spanish National team on the Ponferrada’s World Championships Road Race, terminating, for the third consecutive year, on the lower podium position (sixth podium appearance), and was, once again, in the fight for the win at Il Lombardia, ending in second place for the second consecutive year.