The 2016 season proved to be an exceptionally open year in the pro peloton, with numerous riders having opportunities to show themselves on the world stage. Cyclingnews has picked out 11 riders who stepped up their game to a new level this season with breakthrough performances.
Two years ago, Romain Bardet and compatriot Thibaut Pinot battled each other in the Tour de France for the final podium spot and honour of best young rider, but the AG2R La Mondiale rider was on the losing end of fight in Luchon, when he came unglued. Pinot went on to finish third behind Vincenzo Nibali, while Bardet faded to sixth.
Fast forward to this year, and Bardet has found his stride as a general classification leader, consistently chasing overall victories from the second place in Tour of Oman, top 10s in Paris-Nice, Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino, before coming just 12 seconds from victory over Chris Froome in the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Bardet showed his fighting spirit in the Tour de France, bravely attacking Froome in the mountains. Though time trials remain his weak point, the 26-year-old made great strides in the discipline - taking important time from Nairo Quintana and then soloing away to take the stage victory on Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc to finish second overall.
A second place in the Giro dell'Emilia and fourth in Lombardy bookended a stellar season for the Frenchman and bodes well for his future as a Grand Tour champion.
His future as a Grand Tour contender was presaged by his second place in the Tour de l'Avenir in 2013, but Adam Yates took a few seasons to get fully up to speed with Orica-BikeExchange. At the end of last season, Yates showed the depths of his promise by taking a win in the Clásica San Sebastián — although it should have belonged to Greg Van Avermaet had a motorcycle not run into the Belgian in the finale — and second overall at Tour of Alberta.
Yates survived his own round of race organisation drama this season when, on the attack to take the best young rider's jersey in Tour de France on stage 7 to Lac de Payolle, the 1km-to-go banner collapsed suddenly and fell directly in front of him. Fortunately, he wasn't seriously hurt and the team lodged a successful protest to have his time gap reinstated. He went on to finish fourth overall in the Tour, just 21 seconds off the podium, and as best young rider. We expect Yates to continue to fulfill his promise as a Grand Tour contender in 2017.
Two years after leaving the WorldTour behind to rediscover his love of cycling, Morton enjoyed a career year riding for Continental squad Jelly Belly. Six years after scoring a Tour of Utah top 10 at just 18 years of age, Morton won two stages and the overall there this August, with the race sitting at a higher categorization to boot.
He also won a stage and the general classification at May's Tour of the Gila, along with taking other strong results in a season relatively light on high-level racing to claim the overall UCI Americas Tour. A return to the WorldTour with Dimension Data in 2017 should give him opportunities to put his all-around talents to the test at the top tier.
Mathew Hayman, 38 (Orica-BikeExchange)
Hayman proved this season that it's never too late for a breakthrough performance. The Australian veteran out-sprinted Tom Boonen himself in the Roubaix velodrome to take the biggest victory of his career, in one of the sport's marquee events, less than two weeks before his 38th birthday.
His Paris-Roubaix win may have been the biggest surprise of this Classics season, but don't expect anyone to underestimate him next year. Having garnered a wealth of experience over the course of more than a dozen Roubaix starts, and apparently with plenty still left in the tank, Hayman will be one to watch even going up against riders only a little more than half his age.
Esteban Chaves, 26 (Orica-BikeExchange)
A top 5 at the Vuelta a España and the overall win in Abu Dhabi marked Esteban Chaves as a stage racer worth watching in 2015, but he took a huge step forward and confirmed himself as one of cycling's top climbing talents in 2016. He proved that he's here to stay as a Grand Tour contender with a runner-up performance in a hard-fought Giro d'Italia and and another podium at the Vuelta.
He wouldn't rest on those laurels, however, finding a new gear in the Italian one-days that followed the Vuelta. A Giro dell'Emilia win hinted at the as-of-yet hidden Classics talent he had under-the-hood, and then Chaves scored a career win on October 1: The diminutive climber stunned in a three-man sprint at Il Lombardia to take Colombia's first-ever Monument title. After such a strong year, he can expect to be considered a race favourite any time he clips in for a climber-friendly event going forward.
Miguel Angel Lopez, 22 (Astana)
Colombian Miguel Ángel López rocketed straight into the WorldTour after winning the Tour de l'Avenir in 2014 at 20, signing with Astana. His introductory year had some strong performances, including second on the queen stage of the Tour of Turkey and a top 10 in the Tour de Suisse before he racked up his first win in the Vuelta a Burgos in August. Not at all lacking in confidence, he declared at the end of the year that he wanted to win all three Grand Tours one day.
A stage win and best young rider in the Tour de San Luis and a stage win and third overall in the Tour de Langkawi quickly followed that audacious declaration in 2016. His real breakthrough came in the Tour de Suisse, where he had an impressive ride to Sölden on stage 7. He finished second to Tejay van Garderen (BMC), and then stunned everyone by coming second in the Davos time trial, even beating Fabian Cancellara by one second, to win the overall.
After being named to his country's team for the Olympic Games, Lopez crashed out of the Vuelta a España, breaking his teeth, but rebounded to win Milano-Torino over Michael Woods. With the departure of Vincenzo Nibali to Bahrain-Merida, expect to see López as Astana's next GC leader with Fabio Aru in 2017.
Ion Izagirre, 27 (Movistar)
At 27, Izagirre can be considered a bit of a late bloomer on the GC leader front, possibly due in large part to the strength and depth of his Movistar team, which relegated him largely to a support role before this season.
A stage winner in the Giro d'Italia stage in 2012, Izagirre was signed to Movistar after having a strong 2013 season in the last incarnation of Euskaltel-Euskadi. Izagirre had some good results for Movistar in 2014 and 2015 - he finally managed to win the Tour de Pologne after being second twice in a row, and finished on the podium of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco last year - but it wasn't until he inserted himself between Geraint Thomas and Alberto Contador on the podium of the Volta ao Algarve that people stood up and took notice.
A stage win in the Tour de Romandie led to a third place overall, the time trial victory in the Tour de Suisse put him second overall, but it was a stage win in the Tour de France that put Izagirre in the position of most wanted rider. With so many valuable WorldTour points to his name, he was lured into breaking his contract with Movistar to take a deal with Bahrain Merida, showing how lucrative a breakthrough year can really be.
After several seasons spent hunting breakaways and collecting the occasional top 10, Jarlinson Pantano finally proved a winner in the middle of 2016. Stepping in as IAM Cycling's team leader at the Tour de Suisse after Mathias Frank fell ill, he delivered in a major way, showing off both climbing chops and speed when he won the final stage in a reduced sprint en route to fourth overall.
He wasn't finished. At the Tour de France the following month, Pantano was a constant fixture in the breaks, animating multiple stages in the final week. His efforts were rewarded on stage 15 in Culoz, where he out-kicked eventual king of the mountains Rafal Majka to take a convincing stage win. With IAM folding, Pantano will put his punchy climbing legs to work for Trek-Segafredo in 2017.
23-year-old Groenewegen did not disappoint in his first season at WorldTour level with LottoNL-Jumbo. The Dutch sprinter continued where he left off in 2015 collecting impressive results in Europe Tour events, opening his account early at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and then scoring wins left and right through the spring and summer, with a Dutch road title among his collection of victories.
He then nabbed his first ever WorldTour win in September on home turf at the Eneco Tour, ahead of some very impressive company. Without much competition for sprinting opportunities in at LottoNL, he should have plenty of chances to continue to progress in the coming season.
Before 2016, Gianluca Brambilla was simply a solid domestique for his Etixx-Quickstep team, doing the thankless job of protecting team leaders or going with futile breakaways. But a 10th place in Il Lombardia last year hinted there was more to this diminutive Italian.
The 29-year-old came out of the gates in January of this year with a win in Mallorca, and parlayed that momentum to his best season to date. In Strade Bianche, he slayed himself for teammate Zdenek Stybar and still ended up on the podium. Then, in the Giro d'Italia, Brambilla attacked his breakaway companions on the Alpe di Poti and soloed for some 15km to his first Grand Tour stage win, tearfully donning the maglia rosa in disbelief. He held it for two days before giving it up to teammate Bob Jungels, who ended the race as best young rider. Brambilla then helped teammate Matteo Trentin to a stage win in Pinerolo from a breakaway.
Another breakaway netted Brambilla his second Grand Tour stage win, this time in the Vuelta, where he was the only one to hold on as Nairo Quintana swept past on the ascent to Formigal on stage 15. We expect to see more aggressive riding from Brambilla in 2017 after such a successful breakthrough season.
A former junior world champion as well as Paris-Roubaix juniors winner, Jasper Stuyven took a big step forward with a Vuelta stage victory in 2015, but confirmed his talents in the one-days this spring. The Belgian denied the sprinters with a stellar solo victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and then mixed it up at the WorldTour level with a fifth place at E3 Harelbeke.
Stuyven flashed his soloing skills again during the Tour de France, jumping clear of the main breakaway in stage 2 a daring attempt at a solo win that only just fell short, with the bunch sweeping up the move inside the final kilometer.
Stuyven's emergence comes at just the right time for Trek-Segafredo, whose long-time Classics leader Fabian Cancellara retired this season. It won't be easy to replace Spartacus, but in established contender John Degenkolb and up-and-comers like Stuyven and fellow rising star Edward Theuns, the team has much to look forward to in the coming years.