Blazin' Saddles: 10 underachieving riders from 2016
From Tejay Van Garderen to Fabio Aru and even Alberto Contador: a flurry of riders underachieved in 2016. Felix Lowe takes a look at the question marks and must-do-betters of the past season.
Now it's time to cast a critical eye on the riders who flattered to deceive, the riders with huge question marks hanging over them going into 2017. They may not all be in the last chance saloon – although some clearly are, drinking on the dregs of a barrel long-since drained of all its hoppy goodness – but they have a lot to answer for after failing to hit the expected heights last season.
1. Fabio Aru (Astana)
Fabio Aru - Tour de France 2016AFP
The Sardinian's Tour de France debut hardly went to plan – characterised in extraordinary fashion when Aru bonked spectacularly on the Joux Plane during the penultimate stage to Morzine just as he was finally putting together a decent run and knocking on the door of the top five.
Aru and his wobbly jaw dropped from sixth to 13th in the Alps and the 26-year-old didn't have the stomach to take on Messrs Froome, Quintana and Contador again in Spain, opting out of the defence of his Vuelta crown.
After some pretty underwhelming early races, the omens still didn't look shipshape come June's Dauphine: although Aru picked up his solitary win of the season with a daredevil downhill attack, the rubber-faced Italian was clearly struggling on the steep stuff.
Next year Aru will try and regurgitate the larger bite that he struggled to chew by sensibly foregoing the Tour and targeting a win in the 100th Giro d'Italia – which starts in his native Sardinia – before focusing once again on the Vuelta, hoping that he's fresher than all those who lost to Chris Froome in France.
Astana team manager Giuseppe Martinelli is adamant that Aru's "bad year will help him in the future" and that in 2017 we're "going to see Aru racing and winning more". With Vincenzo Nibali gone he'll certainly be top dog at Astana but with it comes added pressure and expectation. Can Aru prove that 2016 was merely a blip or was it in fact a sign of things to come for the the talented, but fragile, young star?
2. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC)
BMC Racing rider Tejay van GarderenReuters
Beyond a chiselled American specimen with a Desperate Dan-style jaw, just what is Tejay Van Garderen exactly: a Grand Tour contender, a shorter stage race specialist, or a jack of all trades, master of none?
Starting the season on equal footing with new BMC arrival Richie Porte, the American impressed early on before cracking and withdrawing during stage 17 in both the Tour and the Vuelta. Van Garderen has now has failed to finish three of his past four Grand Tours and hasn't remotely close to improving on the fifth places he took in the 2014 and 2012 editions of the Grande Boucle.
There's no denying his talent: he came runner-up to Chris Froome in the 2015 Dauphine, has won the Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge, and taken mountain-top wins in both the Volta Cyclista a Catalunya and Tour de Suisse. But with no Grand Tour stage scalps to his name, perhaps Van Garderen should start focusing on one-week stage races instead?
With Porte given leadership status for the Tour after his fifth place finish last July, Van Garderen will ride a maiden Giro in May. This change in schedule is already a positive. But more is needed to be done. Different training and perhaps time with a sports psychologist would be a start. It also can't help that the 28-year-old is based in Nice while his family are back home in Colorado.
Given the stellar nature of the field for the 100th edition of the Corsa Rosa, Van Garderen hasn't exactly chosen the best time to dip his toe into the Giro. But if it shakes things up, helps him reassess, gets him out of a self-fulfilling prophetic rut and provides some answers to the numerous questions dogging his increasingly shaky stature, it can only be a good thing. Right?
3. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff/Trek-Segafredo)
Tinkoff rider Alberto Contador of Spain reacts on the finish line.Reuters
There's no denying that something isn't quite right chez Contador. The Spaniard has lost that once impenetrable cloak of invincibility that used to cover him even when he wasn't wearing a pink, yellow or red jersey. It's now been two years since Contador last won a stage in a Grand Tour, and while he rode the maglia rosa home in 2015 he's clearly no longer a match for the big guns in major races.
Whether it's his alarming tendency to crash in the opening week, a breakdown in relations on his team (clearly evident in his last months at Tinkoff), a lack of his trademark explosiveness in the mountains, or simply age catching up with him, Contador's star is on the wane – and there are many who believe he should have stuck to his plan of retiring this summer.
But a DNF in the Tour and a first ever non-winning performance in the Vuelta was not how Contador wished to bow out of the sport – although he did at least remind the world of his former powers by being the architect of the moment of the season, that all-out attack and "Ambush of Formigal" which all but ended Froome's Vuelta hopes.
The 33-year-old now heads to Trek-Segafredo in a two-year deal in which he hopes to revive his fortunes. It's unlikely he has another Grand Tour victory in him, but if he can stay on the bike, keep fit and gel with his new team-mates, then perhaps we'll see him back on a podium again. Just probably not at the top.
4. Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
Dubbed as a "vanity signing" when he joined Team Sky as world champion, the Pole notched just one win in a debut season which saw more yo-yoing than a summit meeting between Bush and Blair. Billed as the rider who could deliver Sky their first Monument, Kwiatkowski failed to deliver in Flanders and was eclipsed from within during Liege-Bastogne-Liege (won by team-mate Wout Poels).
Illness, injury and poor form were largely to blame as Kwiatkowski struggled to find his place in a Sky team where the 26-year-old never looked very comfortable. Overlooked for the Tour squad after a poor showing in the Dauphine, Kwiatkowski enjoyed one day in red before quitting the Vuelta at the end of the opening week with back pain and a saddle sore following a crash.
Kwiatkowski is not the first rider to struggle in a new environment and suffer from small fish/big pond syndrome when taking a step up. And if the results return in 2017 he won't be the last rider to turn things round after challenging beginnings. That said, the man who finished 11th in his maiden Tour in 2013 may well regret joining a team that could well shackle his talent and turn him into a domestique de luxe.
5. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana/Bahrain-Merida)
Vincenzo Nibali of ItalyReuters
It's perhaps unfair to include in list of underachievers a man who pulled a pink rabbit from his casquette in May to win a second Giro d'Italia crown. But his very struggles in his home tour, plus his failure to shine or help an out-of-sorts Fabio Aru two months later in France, suggests that Nibali's fourth Grand Tour win could well be his last.
No longer in the same league as the likes of Froome and Quintana, Nibali nevertheless remains one of the stand-out riders of his generation and should be among the favourites in the centenary edition of the Giro, which visits his native Sicily with a mountain-top finish on Etna and a stage to his home town of Messina.
But Nibali will be without his key domestique Michele Scarponi – whose heroics practically secured his countryman the maglia rosa last May – while it remains to be seen how things crystallise with a new Bahrain Merida outfit that is more hodgepodge than a thick mutton soup.
The truth remains that, until the final two days, Nibali looked extremely ordinary throughout the Giro, while his histrionics during the uphill time trial showed that he was as psychologically brittle as Wiggo in his TUE-fuelled heyday.
After all, the rider Nibali eventually beat was Steven Kruijswijk and no Froome or Quintana. Add to that the fact that it's Nibali – and not Greg van Avermaet – who really should be the one riding around on a gold bike next season and you get a more balanced view of a season which could well have ended in Olympic glory but instead culminated more of less in a heap on the side of a Rio road.
6. Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) ahead of stage 17 of the 2016 Vuelta a EspanaEurosport
Like those of the Shark above, fans of Nairo Quintana will take issue with the Colombian's inclusion in a list of the season's must-do-betters. After all, the 26-year-old did beat rival Chris Froome to win the Vuelta. And he did, earlier in the season, win the Route de Sud, the Tour of Romandie and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya.
So you could actually say that Quintana has arguably had his best season yet – especially if you throw in an unlikely podium finish in Paris.
But it hides the simple truth that Quintana judges himself in his performances against Froome not so much in Spain or Switzerland, but in France. The Tour remains the one major race that eludes Quintana and the Colombian looks further away then ever from derailing Froome.
Suffering breathing difficulties in July and lacking the uphill explosiveness we once associated with the leather-faced tyro, Quintana was less pocket rocket and more sprocket locket in the Tour. Forget Froome and look at the two riders either side of Quintana on GC to get a better picture: Romain Bardet and Adam Yates are obvious talents but no one would have put them in the same bracket as the Colombian ahead of the race, not least Quintana himself.
7. Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida/Project TJ Sport)
The former world champion experienced his first winless season since 2008 and struggled to impress throughout the year. Finishing behind Tom Dumoulin in the sodden stage to Andorra in the Tour was perhaps the highlight for the 30-year-old. Once a leading light, Costa now finds himself eclipsed by the likes of Darwin Atapuma and Diego Ulissi in a watered-down team that could well struggle to make an impact in 2017.
8. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha/Bahrain-Merida)
Katusha rider Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain celebrates on the podium after winning the 195-km (121.16 miles) 12th stage of the 102nd Tour de FranceReuters
In his first winless season for over a decade, Purito's been clearly listening to The Clash. Having seemingly decided to go at the end of the season, Rodriguez was forced out of retirement for Katusha, threw in the towel again at the end of the season, then surprised everyone besides his accountant in opting to stay in cycling for another year while effectively selling his WorldTour points to Bahrain Merida.
Purito rode a light programme in what was meant to be his final year at the top, his only notable result being a top ten in Liege-Bastogne-Liege before twice coming close to a Tour stage win en route to a seventh-place finish in Paris. There's still a chance that Rodriguez will reverse his decision to retire once again – outdoing even Bradley Wiggins in the wavering stakes – but as it is, the idea is to return for some early season races and weigh up a tilt at the Giro.
Whether or not the 37-year-old actually rides a major race for his new outfit remains to be seen. The prospect of Rodriguez dovetailing with Vincenzo Nibali is certainly an appealing one – although more so were we capable of turning the clocks back a few years. As it is, the whole thing could be a complete shambles. One that should be fun to watch, mind.
9. Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
Geraint Thomas cycles during RideLondon 2016AFP
A rip-roaring start to the season saw the Welshman win both the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice but things went downhill quickly for Thomas, who struggled to replicate the form that saw him flirt with the podium in the Tour de France 12 months previously. He's fallen down the pecking order at Sky, where it doesn't look like he'll ever get the chance to lead a team in a Grand Tour. At 30 years of age, it may be time for Thomas to look elsewhere – or concentrate on continuing his promising run in week-long stage races.
10. Mikel Landa (Team Sky)
Mikel Landa, Team SkyAFP
Another Sky rider who struggled to make an impact in his first year on the team, the Basque climber had a year to forget after hitting the heights at Astana. Like Thomas, Landa started well – taking the overall win in the Giro del Trentino – before crashes and injuries stalled his season. A DNF at the Giro was followed by a heavy-legged turn as a domestique in the Tour. The 26-year-old was then meant to support Froome in the Vuelta but was ruled out through injury.
According to his old boss at Astana, Landa "paid the price for totally changing his training and his way of interpreting cycling". Unable to resist a pop at Sky, Alexandre Vinokourov added: "We work on the physical characteristics and the rider's sensations, not on watts. We are interested in men, not robots."
Landa himself has been more philosophical about his troubled year, telling the Spanish press that "sometimes you learn more from the seasons in which you do not win than those that come with wins". Next year the centenary Giro d'Italia will provide Landa the platform to return to form as the Spaniard reverts to a familiar programme that should also include the Vuelta.
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Any more for any more? Are there any glaring omissions from our must-do-better list – one rider who springs to mind is Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) – or did we get it about right? Have your say below...
Next week we look at the high-profile retirements and the biggest transfers of the off-season.