The 2016 season is just around the corner, with the first race of the WorldTour, the Tour Down Under, beginning on January 19. We have plenty of champions to watch, but what about the riders who need to get a result next year or else?
Cyclingnews looks at five riders with a point to prove in 2016.
The writing was on the wall of the conscious uncoupling between Kittel and Giant-Shimano as far back as October, and the rider’s contract nullified after what can only be described as a horrendous season. It’s unlikely that a year of false starts was down to purely illness and a lack of form but the strained relationship between rider and team became unmanageable - from both sides - during the summer.
Enter Patrick Lefevere, a man with a plan, a ready-made lead-out train and most importantly, a way out. At 27, Kittel has more than enough time to move his career back on track, but the most pressing factor will be whether he can rekindle the hunger and desire that Giant-Shimano believed had vanished. A fresh start, a new bike, and a team that can believe in him could work wonders, but come the beginning of the season all the responsibility will rest on the German’s shoulders.
Fourth in the Tour de France, plus a stage win and a first Tour of Lombardi title would be enough to make almost any rider’s season a success. However Vincenzo Nibali’s star has waned since his Tour winning season of 2014.
The emergence of Fabio Aru as Italy and Astana’s new light, a forlorn defence of his Tour title, and a strained relationship between the rider and his Astana team management have all been destabilizing issues. Now 31, Nibali is out of contact at the end of 2016, and if he is to remain among the elite Grand Tour contenders for what will surely be his final big pay day, then he must perform at the Giro d’Italia. He will likely start as favourite for a race he has already won but should he be beaten on home soil, and Aru perform at the Tour de France, then Nibali’s standing will only weaken. A second Giro win and a run at the Olympics would put Nibali back to where he was in 2014 and arrest any decline seen this year.
The second new Etixx-QuickStep signing on the list, Martin finds himself in a similar position to that of his new German teammate, Marcel Kittel.
On his day, Martin can be nearly unbeatable: a climber with panache and guile to spare. However, those days were few and far between in 2015 with the Irishman crashing in the Ardennes, running close at the Tour de France with two second places, before crashing out of the Vuelta a Espana. It’s been over a year since Martin won a race, but you don’t win a Monument on pure luck, let alone two, and Martin’s new standing Etixx-QuickStep’s pecking order could be just what the Irishman needs. At Cannondale-Garmin he was the go-to guy at most races because he could win, and frankly because winners on that team are few and far between. Perhaps the pressure will dissipate at Etixx, with Martin more able to pick and choose his targets.
If Miguel Indurain was once described as an enigma wrapped in a paradox, then Carlos Betancur is perhaps an enigma, wrapped in a paradox, wrapped in a sausage roll.
Still just 26, it’s two years since the already then-overweight Colombian, rather miraculously found himself on the top step of the podium at Paris-Nice. However, since then Betancur has been virtually invisible – even his AG2R La Mondiale team manager Vincent Lavenu didn’t know where he was during one point. Although the climber managed to raise his game on a couple of occasions during the Giro d’Italia this year, he’s been an almost anonymous presence. Lavenu and the rider tore up their contract for 2016 with Movistar the willing party to provide a second chance. Back in January, he told Cyclingnews “Up to now I haven’t shown anything”. The statement still stands.
Out of all the riders on this list [ed. part two is out tomorrow] Richie Porte arguably had the most successful season. By the start of May he had sewn up the overall in Paris-Nice, the Tour of Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino, not to mention the Australian national time trial championships, a stage in the Tour Down Under and a smattering of wins to accompany his overall titles. When it came to stage racing he owned the first few months of 2015. However, when the chips were down at the Giro – Porte’s major chance to lead a team at a three-week race – he succumbed to illness and injury.
He reverted to a more familiar role in the Tour, helping Chris Froome and Team Sky to another yellow jersey, but with the British team eyeing up Mikel Landa and BMC making a similar bid for the Australian, a move was almost inevitable. Now 30, Porte has almost everything he wanted: a team stacked with riders to support his Tour de France cause, a multiple-year contract, and the distance required between him and Froome’s shadow. There’s the matter of BMC leadership with Tejay van Garderen to navigate and possibly turn into an advantage, but if Porte really believes in his Grand Tour ambitions, then 2016 is the time to show it.