The 2016 CT Awards: Recognising the season’s best riders

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The professional road cycling season is over for another year and it’s time to look back on the season that was. In the 2016 CT Awards we pay tribute to the year’s best performers, highlighting some of our favourite moments, favourite races, and the riders that kept us entertained.

In this post we focus on the elite men’s peloton – be sure to check out the 2016 Ella Awards to see who impressed us most in the women’s peloton.

Sprinter of the year

Winner: Mark Cavendish

On the list of riders with the most wins in 2016, Mark Cavendish slots in in eighth place. Above him are many of the sport’s best sprinters — Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, Marcel Kittel, Nacer Bouhanni and Dylan Groenwegen. And yet, Mark Cavendish was the best sprinter of the 2016 season.

The Manxman won a stage and the overall at the Tour of Qatar in February, a stage of the Tour of California in May, two stages of the Abu Dhabi Tour in October and was second at the Road World Championships. But it was in July that he put himself back atop the list of the world’s best fastmen.

Coming into the Tour de France, many favoured sprinters like Kittel and Andre Greipel ahead of Cavendish. The former world champion got straight to work proving people wrong, winning the opening stage and taking the maillot jaune for the first time ever. He then went on to win another three stages. On the strength of his four wins at the Tour de France — the world’s biggest bike race — Cavendish gets the nod as the season’s best sprinter.

Classics rider of the year

Winner: Peter Sagan

It seems strange to think it now but little more than a year ago Peter Sagan had a reputation for not being able to deliver in the big one-day races. That’s all changed, in a big way.

The world champion assembled an outstanding Classics campaign in 2016 which included victories at Gent-Wevelgem (his first win in the rainbow jersey) and the Tour of Flanders (his first Monument). He was also second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke, fourth at Strade Bianche and seventh at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

He’s arguably the best rider of his generation and his strength in the Classics is only one string to an impressive bow. It’s hard not to see Peter Sagan being among the favourites in any Classics race he lines up for in the years to come.

Time-trialist of the year

Winner: Fabian Cancellara

Germany’s Tony Martin ended the season in magnificent form, winning a TT at the Tour of Britain before victories in both the individual and teams time trial at the world championships in Doha. His Worlds ITT win gave Martin four such titles – the equal record.

But as good as Martin was in the latter stages of the year, it was the man he shares the ITT titles record with that takes out this award.

In his final season as a professional, Fabian Cancellara won time trials at the Volta ao Algarve, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Suisse. And then, in what would be his final UCI-recognised professional race, the Swiss maestro took one of the biggest wins of his career.

On a lumpy course west of Rio de Janeiro, Fabian Cancellara wound the clock back to win gold in the Rio Olympic time trial, adding to the gold he earned in Beijing eight years earlier. It was a stellar ride from one of the strongest riders in recent memory and a fitting way to end a truly illustrious career.

Climber of the year

Winner: Chris Froome

Froome vs Quintana, Quintana vs Froome: that was the anticipated battle heading into the Tour de France, and also the major rivalry in the Vuelta a España. It’s also the shakeup for our Climber of the Year award.

Both riders have excelled in 2016, with Froome winning the Herald Sun Tour, the Criterium du Dauphine, plus two stages and the overall in the Tour de France. Quintana also flew, landing the Volta a Catalunya, the Tour de Romandie, the Route du Sud and the Vuelta a España.

So who is the climber of the year? It’s a close battle between the two but, on the basis of the Tour-Vuelta combination, Froome edges it. Quintana was clearly below his best in the Tour, with suggestions of both allergies and pressure possible explanations for his drop in form. He did manage to battle to third overall though, one step below his runner-up slots in 2013 and 2015.

And while Quintana bounced back to win the Vuelta, his advantage over Froome there was less convincing than the latter’s dominance in the Tour de France. Because of that, we believe the Briton takes out the award.

Puncheur of the Year

Winner: Greg Van Avermaet

Lying on the ground with a broken collarbone at the Tour of Flanders — a race where he was a big favourite after winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad — Greg Van Avermaet wouldn’t have guessed that 2016 would be his best year yet. No, Flanders and Roubaix weren’t on the cards for the Belgian puncheur, but just about everything else was, including a Tour de France stage win (and three days in yellow); a stage win, and the overall, at Tirreno-Adriatico; an uphill victory ahead of Peter Sagan at GP Montreal; and yes, an Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.

It was the Olympic road race that was Van Avermaet’s most impressive win of the year, on a course so hilly that Sagan, a rider, with similar characteristics, opted for the mountain-bike race instead. With 15km to go it looked like Vincenzo Nibali or Sergio Henao was poised to win the sprint for gold, however they did not safely navigate the treacherous final descent of Vista Chinesa.

Van Avermaet did, and after he and Jakob Fuglsang jumped clear of a small chase group with 5km to go, and then caught Rafal Majka with 1,400m left, Van Avermaet took the biggest win of his career in what turned out to be the best season his career, a puncheur winning Olympic gold on a climber’s course. In that moment, lying on the ground at the Tour of Flanders was a distant memory.

Team of the year

Winner: Movistar

Team Sky won the Tour de France, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and several other events, while Etixx-QuickStep clocked up a staggering 55 victories across a wide range of events. But, in terms of dominance, Movistar is the strongest contender for team of the year.

The Spanish squad landed stage wins in all three Grand Tours, with Alejandro Valverde netting his first-ever stage in the Giro d’Italia. Ion Izagirre stepped up in the Tour de France while Nairo Quintana was victorious on stage 10 in the Vuelta. The latter also took first overall in the race and third in the Tour, while Valverde was third in GC in the Giro.

Away from the three week races, successes included overall wins in the Tour de San Luis, Vuelta Andalucia, the Volta a Catalunya, the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, the Tour de Romandie and the Route du Sud. Movistar also triumphed in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège with Valverde, and landed its fourth consecutive WorldTour teams ranking.

Best ride of the Year

Winner: Mat Hayman at Paris-Roubaix

It was a fast and frenetic start to the 2016 Paris-Roubaix with 75km passing by before the day’s break was formed. Mat Hayman (Orica-BikeExchange) was there, and would remain at the head of the race for much of the remaining 175km.

“Much” because Hayman got dropped in the closing kilometres when the pace increased in the elite lead group, but the then-37-year-old was able to battle his way back to the front. He put in a couple of attacks in the closing kilometres, too, and then had enough in the tank to outsprint four-time winner Tom Boonen and three others to take a remarkable win.

Hayman’s Paris-Roubaix win was a lesson in perserverance and great reward for a man who was in his 15th outing at a race he loves so much. It was Australia’s second victory at the ‘Hell of the North’ after Stuart O’Grady’s 2007 success, and one of the most rousing moments in Australian cycling history.

Most improved rider

Winner: Wout Poels

Wout Poels (Sky) was far from a terrible rider coming into 2016 — he’d won stages at Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of Britain and many other races besides. But in 2016 the Dutchman took his racing to another level.

He won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana stage race in February, won a stage of the infamously difficult Volta a Catalunya, won a stage of the Tour of Britain and, most impressively of all, won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, finally breaking Team Sky’s Monuments drought.

And it wasn’t just when riding for himself that Poels shone. The 29-year-old was monstrous at the Tour de France as a super-domestique for team leader Chris Froome, often proving stronger than other teams’ general classification prospects.

Who knows just how far Wout Poels will go in the sport.

Most Dramatic Day of Racing

Winner: Stage 19, Giro d’Italia

“Oh, the drama!” our headline read after Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia, where four men in the top 10 of the classification ended the day in tears for varying reasons.

There were tears from former race leader Steven Kruijswijk, who crashed heavily into a snow bank on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello; though he was able to remount, Kruijswijk watched his dream of becoming the first Dutchman to win the Giro evaporate. There were tears from Russian Ilnur Zakarin, who crashed further down the Colle dell’Agnello, and abandoned his fifth-place on the classification due to a broken collarbone.

There were tears from new race leader Esteban Chaves, who at age 26, became only the third Colombian in history to wear the maglia rosa. And there were tears from stage winner Vincenzo Nibali, who had struggled throughout the Giro, but found form in the final week to take the stage win and ride his way into second overall; the following day he would take the magia rosa, winning his second Giro title.

In bike racing, drama comes in many forms — victory, defeat, injury, surprise, and disappointment — and Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia delivered them all.

Most Versatile Rider

Winner: Peter Sagan

He sprints. He crushes cobblestones. He rides away from the peloton in the wind. He’s pretty handy on a mountain bike, too. Peter Sagan won his first race of 2016, Gent-Wevelgem, in cold and windy Belgium, in March, and won his last race of the season, the world road championship, in hot and windy Qatar in October.

In all, he won 14 races, including three stages at the Tour de France, where he wore yellow, green, and of course the rainbow stripes of world champion. And for the first 15 minutes of the Olympic mountain-bike race in Rio de Janeiro, it appeared he might just take an off-road medal, riding into the front group of five riders before flatting; two of that group took gold and silver.

There may be faster sprinters and more powerful riders than Sagan, but in 2016 there was no rider who was more versatile.

U23 rider of the Year

Winner: Adrien Costa

His first race in Etixx-QuickStep colors didn’t go as planned — he hit the deck on Stage 2 of Tour of Britain, and had to abandon — but just about everything else 19-year-old Adrien Costa did in 2016 blew people’s minds.

In April, the Axeon-Hagens Berman rider became the first American to win the seven-stage Le Tour de Bretagne, soloing to victory on the hilly stage to Lannion, moving into the race lead. In August, he finished second overall at the mountainous Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, ahead of WorldTour riders like Andrew Talansky and Darwin Atapuma. Three weeks later, he finished third at the prestigious Tour de l’Avenir, with a time-trial stage win.

Even on a development team stacked with U23 talent such as Neilson Powless, Greg Daniel, Logan Owen, and Colin Joyce, Costa gave the cycling world a glimpse of what’s to come. Just wait to see what he can do when he’s no longer a teenager.

Breakthrough rider of the year

Winner: Adam Yates

When Orica-BikeExchange was founded, team management said that investing in young talent rather than buying established Grand Tour contenders was its pathway to eventual success in three-week races. Years later, that is paying off.

Adam Yates had a superb showing in the Tour de France, wearing the white jersey of best young rider from stage seven right until Paris. He sat second overall in the race for almost a week and ultimately finished fourth overall.

Teammate Esteban Chaves also shone, winning a stage and wearing pink in the Giro d’Italia before finally netting second in the general classification. He placed third in the Vuelta a España and won both Il Lombardia and the Giro dell’Emilia.

Looking at overall results, Chaves had the better season. However, in terms of breakthrough rider, we feel Yates has made the bigger improvement when compared to 2015. Two years younger than his teammate, he is our pick for breakthrough rider of the season.

Most surreal moment

Winner: Chris Froome’s Ventoux run

In the space of 30 seconds, things went from dramatic to utterly bizarre on Mont Ventoux on stage 12 of the Tour de France.

The first hint of the unfolding farce was the TV pictures of Richie Porte suddenly stopped by the side of the road. The second, moments later, was images of Chris Froome running up the road, minus his bike. Cue gasps and incredulity from all those watching, as well as a complete sense of mystery as to what had just happened.

It was, frankly, something that had never been seen before at the race. Riders all know that it is crucial to finish with their bikes, even if they are dragged across the line. In the moments after a motorbike stalled and caused the crash, Froome panicked and started running. He dragged his damaged bike at first, then abandoned it by the side of the road.

It was surreal, bizarre and one of the standout images of the year.

Upset of the Year

Winner: Mat Hayman at Paris-Roubaix

Mat Hayman’s reaction after winning Paris-Roubaix said it all — the Australian wandered around in a disbelieving daze, unable to process what had just happened.

“If someone had told me this morning I’d win Paris-Roubaix, I wouldn’t have believed them, no way,” Hayman said at the time. And fair enough. Just five weeks earlier he’d broken his arm at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and was confined to training on his home trainer. Even getting to the startline was impressive.

Hayman did everything right throughout the race but was still the underdog when his lead group of five began the final lap of the famous Roubaix velodrome. With four-time winner Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), Ian Stannard (Sky) and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) for company, Hayman was right up against it. And yet, in his 15th appearance at the great race, Hayman found a way.

It was an unlikely victory but one that few begrudged, even Tom Boonen who would have taken a record-breaking victory if he’d been able to get around the Australian.

“He played it very well,” Boonen said afterwards. “In the end, I think a guy like him really deserves a victory like this after a career of helping people out and being in the final of Classics a lot but not really getting the big wins.”

Road Cyclist of the Year

Winner: Peter Sagan

No WorldTour rider took more victories in 2016 than Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) but it wasn’t the number of victories that made the Slovakian stand out, but his consistency across the season.

Victory at the Tour of Flanders and the Road World Championships (his second in a row) would have been enough to put Sagan in the running for Cyclist of the Year, but they were just two of the Slovakian’s big results. He won three stages of the Tour de France and a fifth-straight green jersey, the European championships, the GP de Quebec, two stages at the Tour of California, two stages at the Tour de Suisse — it truly was a masterclass from the most entertaining and exciting rider in the pro peloton.

The scary thing: Sagan’s just 26. Who knows what else he will be capable of as he starts to reach his peak.

Mountain Bike Racer of the Year

Winner: Nino Schurter

What more can be said about Nino Schurter? Heading into 2016, the answer would have been simple — an Olympic gold medal. But Schurter, 30, took that in Rio de Janeiro, to match his silver in London and bronze in Beijing, capping off a season that included three World Cup wins (out of six events) and a fifth world championship title.

A rider seemingly without weakness — he climbs and descends as well, or better, than anyone cross-country mountain biking has ever seen — Schurter skipped the fifth round of the World Cup, at Mont-Sainte-Anne, to prepare for the Olympics, ceding the World Cup title and number-one ranking to longtime rival Julien Absalon. And while a fifth World Cup title would have made for a dream season, Schurter will have to take comfort in his gold medal and rainbow jersey.

Cyclocross rider of the year

Winner: Wout van Aert

With a season that begins in September and ends in February, it’s always tricky applying a “rider of the year” award to cyclocross riders — do you base it on last season, the current season, or results accrued across a calendar year? For Belgian Wout van Aert, it really doesn’t matter; you can take your pick. Van Aert was the strongest cyclocross rider of the 2015-16 season, winning the world championship, Belgian national championship, all three major series titles — the UCI World Cup, Hansgrohe Superprestige, and bpost bank trofee series — and finishing the season atop the UCI world ranking.

And his 2016-17 has started in similar fashion, with World Cup wins in Las Vegas and Iowa City, and the top spot on the UCI ranking. Van Aert is not invincible — Mathieu van der Poel bested him at the Valkenburg World Cup on October 23, and a week later he could only muster third at the European Championships in Pontchâteau, France — but as he showed at the Koppenbergcross on November 1, soloing away from the rest of the field halfway through the race, when he’s on a good day, Van Aert is the best cyclocross rider in the world.

So, how did we do? Do you agree with the awards we’ve given? What would you have done differently?

Matt de Neef, Neal Rogers and Shane Stokes contributed to this post.

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