Podcast 2016 Episode 35 – So Many Great Riders

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 Our friends at VeloVoices are preparing their end of year voting and asked Sarah to help them come up with a short list of nominees in a whole raft of categories, from Rider of the Year to Best Race Finish of the Year to Breakout Performance of the Year (and a whole bunch more). Of course, to make it challenging the inimitable @kittyfondue told Sarah she needed to keep it to a list of 5 finalists per category.

Sarah dutifully stuck to that requirement (and simply invented new categories when she needed to go over 😉 – no really) and so here we are with the first instalment where we discuss our nominees for Rider of the Year, including a couple of honourable mentions and a couple of riders we considered, but ultimately couldn’t include. We review their seasons, the highs, the lows and the reasons for and against. Will our top pick be the same as yours? (1:01:11 MIN / 56.02 MB)

Part 2, with all the other categories (Best race finish, Unsung heroes, Breakthrough riders and Step-up riders) can be heard and read here.

Rider of the year

This is probably the most open competition in years, with all kinds of riders taking steps up, or consolidating their positions.  But some have stood head and shoulders above the rest.  In chronological order of their achievements….

Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) (GBr) Boels-Dolmans

 As Lizzie Armitstead, she had a fantastic 2015, winning the last ever Road World Cup series, and finishing the year taking the 2015 Road World Championships win to add to her Team Pursuit rainbows on the track.  She’d proven herself, for sure, but that rainbow jersey gave her a new confidence, and she won her first race in rainbows, the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, in fine solo style, following it up with first ever Women’s WorldTour race, the glorious Strade Bianche, and two more WWT wins, the hilly Italian Classic, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and then one of the biggest prizes in women’s racing, and one of her career goals, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, in a thrilling endgame with Emma Johansson.
 After the Classics, she raced her third Aviva Women’s Tour – the first time she’s completed the race, proving third time lucky as she took the overall and two stage wins, and everything looked on track for preparation of her biggest goal, Olympic gold.  But then, we all know what happened next – that secret ban, as she fought suspension over three missed drugs tests, getting one discounted by CAS over the testing procedures.  It was a bad build-up to Rio, but realistically, coming 5th on that very hilly course was the best she could have done.  Post-Rio, she raced the Vårgårda and GP Plouay WorldTour races, and the Boels Rental Ladies Tour, playing super-domestique to team-mates and winning another World Championships title as part of Boels-Dolmans Team Time Trial squad.

Megan Guarnier (USA) Boels-Dolmans

 Boels-Dolmans is so famously packed full of stars that it’s one of the hardest team to get to ride the top races in, let alone shine, so they end up with superstar riders working as ultra-domestiques – with the reward of getting the team to work for them later in the season, with Megan Guarnier as the classic example.
She’s a rider who can easily go under the radar.  Super-intelligent (she has an MSc in Neuroscience, and wants to get a PhD and an MD after her cycling), and very thoughtful, she’s a worker, and while she has a fun social media, it’s a perpetual puzzle to fans why she’s not better known, or more celebrated by the USA cycling media.
One reason is that rather than be USA-based like most of the top American riders, who tend to stick to English-speaking teams, she chose to work in Europe, and take a more difficult path – learning from Marianne Vos in Rabo-liv, and really identifying her weaknesses, and working solidly on them.  USA riders tend to struggle with positioning when they come to Europe, so Guarnier made sure she did everything she could about that. Like a lot of climbers, descending was a problem for her, so she spent the 2014/5 off-season pushing herself to improve.  It paid off last year, with her Strade Bianche win, and her 2nd ever USA National Champion’s title, that gave her an automatic spot in the Olympic squad, but she didn’t rest on her laurels, and this year improved even more.
Her Spring was spent working her heart out for her Boels team-mates, launching attacks, getting into breaks and chasing down rivals or sitting in chases while Deignan, Chantal Blaak and Evelyn Stevens were out ahead, playing fantastic mind-games.  And then, when the peloton moved to stage racing, and in particular, North America, her time to shine came.
She won the Durango-Durango day race, and the final stage at the Emakumeen Bira in the basque mountains, the two USA WorldTour races, the Amgen Tour of California and the Philadelphia Classic, and the USA Champ’s title again, then came back to Europe to achieve on of the biggest goals – winning the only women’s Grand Tour, the Giro Rosa.  She’d come so close last year, coming third, so this was all the sweeter, and won with climbing, descending, and above all, relentless tenacity.
She’d had her eye on the Olympic Road Race, for some reason had a bad day – but coming back to Europe, she’d already won the first ever Women’s World Tour with three races still to ride.  The final WorldTour, the Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta, was a course for the sprinters, not a mountain goat and Classics star like Guarnier, but she was still there, working for her team-mates and honouring the WWT jersey – finishing the season in true Guarnier style.


Chloe Hosking (Aus) Wiggle-High5

 It’s hard to believe Hosking is only 26.  She famously paid her way to Europe at age 19, getting rides with clubs and small teams, that morphed into a stagiare role and then a pro contract with HTC-Highroad, where she was part of Ina-Yoko Teutenberg’s unstoppable sprint train, and looked to follow Teute’s footsteps into sprint superstardom.
But for one reason or another, Hosking never seemed to live up to that early potential.  In recent years, she’d become more known for her excellent blogging, tweeting, and of course that infamous moment calling Pat McQuaid “a bit of a dick”, and in Wiggle-High5, she joined former World Champion Giorgia Bronzini and Belgian cobbles star Jolien D’hoore as the sprinters who’d take turns riding lead-out and getting their chances for the win.…   which ironically seems to have done Hosking a lot more good than her roles in other teams as lead sprinter!
She started the season in Australia, and in the Ladies Tour of Qatar was featured in the Wiggle team videos showing the team’s frustrations at not being able to get a win…. until the final stage, when it all came together gloriously.
She’s taken some of the big sprint prizes this season: winning the overall and a stage at the first Stage Race of the Women’s World Tour, the pancake flat Tour of ChongMing Island, and then something every sprinter dreams of, a sprint stage at the Giro Rosa, something Hosking said she thought would never happen to her.   The confidence that gave her took her to La Course, the crit-like women’s race at the Tour de France, on the Champs Elysées cobbles, where the team raced perfectly, despite a late attack from Boels’ Ellen van Dijk, and Hosking made bunch sprinting look easy.
Hosking is getting married over the off-season, and has taken a surprising career move, deciding to spend more time in her home of Australia, with only a couple of 2017 racing blocks with Italian squad Alé-Cipollini.  How will this work for her?  One thing we know, it’ll be a lot of fun to watch.


Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) ORICA-AIS

It seems strange, having Van Vleuten on the list, because in terms of races, it’s going to be a year that she looks back on with a huge frustration.
AvV came relatively late to cycling, after an injury stopped her football (soccer) career, and she was part of a devastating pairing with Marianne Vos, with her 2011 Ronde van Vlaanderen win the classic example of how having both Vos and AvV in a break made every other rider suffer than prisoner’s dilemma – chase, when AvV attacks in the endgame, and give Vos an easy ride to outsprint you, or watch AvV ride off to win?  That team work gave AvV the overall Road World Cup win that season, and gained her fans all over the world.
But that football injury plagued her cycling career, with scar tissue in her iliac artery causing her problems with blood flow to her leg muscles, so it felt like she was riding with only 1 leg.  Over the years she had a number of operations to try to fix it, and after her last one, in 2015, it felt like this would be her final season.
She suffered from ORICA-AIS’ single focus on the Australian Olympic success, and alleged money troubles, which fans feel kept them from big races like the Giro Rosa.  She had some good results – second overall in the first European stage race of the season, the brutal Dutch Energiewacht Tour, and more big race podiums in the Festival Elsy Jacobs, the Boels Rental Hills Classic and Thüringen Rundfahrt, but it counted as a quieter year.
But not racing as much as normal seemed to have helped Van Vleuten, and it seemed like she would end her career with Olympic gold.  With the Netherlands riding a perfect Olympic road race, with by far the strongest squad, she was the only rider left with mountain goat Mara Abbott at the end of the Vista Chinesa climb, breaking Abbott’s spirit to overtake her and hit the summit first, then attack the descent.  Abbott is a notoriously bad descender, and AvV one of the strongest Time Trialists in the women’s peloton, so she was on her way to Olympic gold, until a mistake on one of the corners caused her to crash out.
It was a horrible moment – commentators and fans everywhere thought there was a real chance she would have life-altering injuries at the very least, with real fears for her life – but miraculously, she “only” had cracked vertebrae and concussion, and was back racing a month later, to win the Prologue of the Lotto-Belgium Tour, the final Geraardsbergen stage, and the overall GC.
It’s how she talked about the crash and it’s aftermath that cements her as a “rider of the year” contender – she was so open about what happened, including how the impact on her emotional and mental health was worse than on her body.  She is so obviously gutted at coming so close to this huge achievement, and then one mistake taking it away from her – but she says that it’s made her rethink retiring, and see what else she can achieve.  Watch out for her next season!


Anna van der Breggen (Ned) Rabo-liv

 Last year, Anna van der Breggen won the Giro Rosa, the only women’s Grand Tour, and the biggest stage race on the calendar – this year she won the Olympic Games Road Race, making her one of the all-time greats of the sport.
She’d started the Spring with some frustrations, doing a lot of attacking, but without it paying off.  Her attack on the vicious cobbles of the Ronde van Drenthe WorldTour race was the one that caused her final break of four to go – but she was frustrated to end fourth.  She animated the Classics, and did that Van der Breggen speciality, taking a race with a clear “script” and ripping it up.
Last year’s AvdB moment was attacking in the last 3k of La Course – the women’s Tour de France kermesse on the Champs Elysées cobbles – and stealing the “inevitable” bunch sprint with a solo win.  This year she won her second Flèche Wallonne, ricocheting off an attack from team-mate Kasia Niewiadoma on the penultimate climb, to get away with only Evie Stevens for company.  “We all know” how Fléche ends, with a bunch dash up the Mur de Huy… except this year no one could catch the pair, who took it together, Stevens barely holding on to AvdB’s wheel.
She couldn’t repeat her Giro victory, coming third overall, but that Olympic gold will more than make up for it.  It had looked like AvdB’s Dutch team-mate Annemiek van Vleuten had victory in the bag, until her horror-crash took her out, and left the USA’s Mara Abbott in solo lead.  AvdB crossed the top X seconds after Abbott, with Emma Johansson of Sweden and Italian Elisa Longo Borghini – three of the top riders in the world.  AvdB had thought her job was to go for a Dutch 1-2, until she passed AvV lying motionless by the side of the road, in what looked like a horrific injury.
Van der Breggen has spoken about how awful that moment was – and how Johansson helped her re-focus on the race, telling her to “ride for Annemiek”.  At this point, we’d expect AvdB to be in the least strong position of the trio, as Johansson is tactically brilliant, with a very fast finish, and Longo Borghini also very clever, while VdB doesn’t have a strong sprint, and one of those riders who attacks in the “wrong” place, but is strong enough to make it work.  But she rode those last kilometres beautifully – Abbott may only have been caught in the last 500m, but she was always going to be pulled back – and then AvdB kept her head, and when Longo Borghini started her sprint early, was there to overhaul her.
After the finish, AvdB didn’t get her classic Olympic Champion’s moment, as all three podium riders were clearly still upset about Van Vleuten – but there’s a gorgeous video (one of the ones here) where Van der Breggen is told AvV was OK, and she just glows.
Van der Breggen followed up the Olympic Road Race win with Olympic ITT bronze, and went on to become European Road race Champion – and while she wasn’t on top form for ITT Worlds, another career goal, it doesn’t matter, because becoming Olympic Champion is a huge deal in women’s cycling, on a par with winning Worlds, or the Tour de France, for the men.

Sarah edit:
I was wrong!  I had originally put Chantal Blaak into the “step up” rider category, but I was completely wrong, she should be considered as Rider of the Year – here’s why…

Chantal Blaak (Ned) Boels-Dolmans

After becoming U23 European Champion back in 2011, Blaak has always been a great rider to watch, with tons of attacks, stage wins at the vicious Dutch stage race Energiewacht Tour and at the mountainous, Basque Emakumeen Bira, and a podium at the 2009 Ronde van Drenthe Road World Cup, known for its brutal cobbles and man-made hill, but a lot of fans worried about her, signing for Boels-Dolmans, as with their roster packed with superstars, would there be room for her to get rides in all the big races?

2016 showed us yes, absolutely, not only would she get to ride at Boels, but she’d shine!  Starting the Classics season coming second behind team-mate Lizzie Deignan at the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, she then won Le Samyn, and got into the break of four at the second WorldTour, the Ronde van Drenthe, and easily outsprinted her rivals.  One WorldTour win wasn’t enough, and she attacked out of the final break at Gent-Wevelgem, for a solo win – and was third behind Deignan’s win at the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

A stage win at Energiewacht Tour and third place at the Crescent Vårgårda World Tour Road Race punctuated her year supporting her team-mates’ many, many wins – and then in September, she won her first UCI stage race, the Boels Rental Ladies Tour.  On top of that she was part of the Boels Team Time Trial squads that took the win at the Vårgårda WorldTour TTT, and of course, the 2016 TTT World Championships.  She very definitely lived up to all that potential, and has arrived as a superstar.

Honourable mention:  

Kirsten Wild (Ned) Hitec Products

 Kirsten Wild is head and shoulders the top power sprinter in the women’s peloton, known for completely destroying bunch sprints, and being a ferocious breakaway rider.  On paper, she should be a contender for Rider of the Year, but while she had some great wins – including sprinting to win the Tour de Yorkshire and the WorldTour Prudential Ride London kermesse in the classic Wild POWER!!! style:
However, her focus for 2016 was the Olympic track, where she came 6th in the omnium, so she missed a lot of the big races that are the grand prizes for the top sprinters – the Giro Rosa, the WorldTour sprints at ChongMing Island, La Course and Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta, and while she won her 10th stage of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, she had a bad race for her, “only” having 1 win
We should still celebrate her achievements, but with such a light programme, and she’s not in the running for Rider of the Year – had she won Worlds, it might have been different, but I’m betting Wild won’t count this as her favourite season.
We’ll be back with the rest of the categories very, very soon!

10 thoughts on “Podcast 2016 Episode 35 – So Many Great Riders

  1. I have already tweeted my delight that Annemiek is on the short list. I am also delighted with the reasons given for her inclusion. Her brave, attacking ride in Rio, her openness, dignity and grace in the way she conducted herself after her accident and her stunning comeback in Belgium all brought nothing but credit to her and her sport. She has done more for the public image and profile of women’s pro cycling this year than anyone else. And actually, given the fact that Orica didn’t enter the Giro or Bira, and that Annemiek rode selflessly for her teammates on many other occasions (such as for Gracie Elvin’s win in GGG), her results this year are a lot better than they may at first appear.

    And one other thing. She clearly loves her sport and loves to compete, she is in the best form of her career now, and she’s only 34. Why would she retire? She herself has mentioned Tokyo once or twice: she’ll be 37 then, but she’s just seen the Olympic ITT won by a 43 year old from a 36 year old, and the world ITT won by a 41 year old with a 35 year old in 3rd. And I believe she can achieve incredible things in 2017…the Giro, the World Championships (the road race and the ITT both involve mountains, and she is the best climber around now Mara Abbott has retired).

    As for the rest of the short list – Anna and Megan are no brainers, and Chloe is clearly the sprinter most deserving of inclusion. I’d have had Kasia Niewiadoma on my list rather than Chantal Blaak, personally. I have to disagree with one other selection though. I know this rider is extremely talented, I know that she was in outstanding form in the spring, and I know that she rode superbly on a completely unsuitable course to finish 4th in the World Championships. But at the one time every four years when women’s pro cycling gains a world wide audience, Lizzie Deignan brought doubt and suspicion onto her sport with her missed tests. One, I can understand. But three? Being world champion is about more than wearing the stripes. You need to set the standard too. Deignan failed to do that. I don’t care how good a cyclist she is, that alone disqualifies her from consideration for Rider of the Year in my book.

    • I love Kasia Niewiadoma, but Chantal Blaak won 2 WorldTour races, with podiums in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Vårgårda WorldTour races, AND won her first stage race, AND was part of the TTT World Champs & WorldTour Vårgårda winning squads. Plus tons of work for team-mates too, and 2nd behind Deignan in Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Kasia Niewiadoma, while she had a fantastic year, can’t meet that – it’s no shame to her, and she was one of the most entertaining riders, would definitely be in my top 8, but was edged out. Blaak’s big step up, and dominance of the Classics, got her in there for me.

      I do know what you mean with Deignan, but her results were wonderful, and her racing was great. But this is why I love lists like this, and I can’t wait until VeloVoices open their voting to see what happens.

    • I think the Kasia/Chantal debate is a great one that could go on for ages. But in terms of rider of the year, I think it’s got to go to the rider who won a couple of world tour races, ttt world champs etc. But this is why these sorts of discussions are so fun, they’re wildly subjective and there are so many strong cases to be made.

      I totally take your point about Lizzie, but for mine I have to trust in the process (which worked as it was designed in the sense that it caught her mistakes/wrongdoing/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, evaluated them, levelled a punishment and allowed for a right of appeal), which accepted that at least one of those wasn’t her fault and therefore not enough infringements occurred to warrant a ban. As distasteful as that may be, that’s the system.

      And on that basis, her results for the year are valid, and in my opinion are more than worthy of the nomination. I’m certainly not going to lose any sleep over it when she doesn’t win the vote though. 😉

    • She only had one year contract at ORICA, and she’d said that if the leg problems continued, she wasn’t going to have another season, IIRC. The way she talked after the crash also made it sound like she’d planned to stop after Rio – but of course, I could be wrong.

    • I don’t remember reading that she was thinking about retiring after Rio 2016, either.
      But after the Olympics, when asked in an interview about her future plans, she said that she is taking it year by year and she doesn’t want to only focus on the Olympics because she doesn’t feel like she has to make anything up or do it again and she is proud of the way she rode in Rio.

      As for the list, I agree with it but yeah, it will be nice if Kasia Niewiadoma was there too. She had a great season.

      • Yeah, Kasia Niewiadoma and Emma Johansson are pretty much 7th and 8th on my list – but I couldn’t leave one of the top 6 off to have them in, because wow, so many amazing riders with so many amazing achievements. I’d absolutely love to see Kasia win the giro next year, and something like Strade and Flèche, because she was one of the great riders to watch this year.

  2. Interesting choices, most of which I have to say I agree with. Only wrinkle for me is the inclusuion of Lizzie, cycling doesn’t happen in a vacuum and Dave’s point about staining the reputation of cycling while wearing the stripes is something I agree with. Great results, but those alone do not make a great rider, there are no stains on the stripes earned by Vos, PFP, Georgia, et al. Other than that good choices and even some sensible reasoning – it will never catch on! 🙂

    • I do see where people are coming from, re Lizzie, but I couldn’t not shortlist her, because her riding was exceptional this year, and she achieved tons. Totally agree re damaging the reputation of the sport – and I’ll be surprised if she wins the vote, but I really, really loved her racing this season. (And for what it’s worth, I’m still on the sign of missing 3 tests was really, really stupid, but I don’t think she was doping… but obvs that’s just my opinion! 🙂 )

    • I get what you mean. I guess for me it’s more that that’s the reason I wouldn’t vote for her, but like I said below I do think her results more than justify her being included in the list.

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