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Mountain bikers on the road. The WorldTour debut of a future star. Alternative events. Intra-squad rivalry. The return of a world champion. What follows is a 2019 season preview of sorts, exploring 15 different subjects, stories, and subplots of the upcoming mens’s and women’s racing calendars. The list could have been twice as long. I thought about doing a “Top 19 in 2019” list, but that just seemed too cheeky.
A wide-open women’s cyclocross world championship
Mark your calendar for Saturday, February 2, for what will certainly be one of the best races in 2019 — the women’s elite cyclocross world championship.
How many women should be considered legitimate contenders to take the rainbow jersey in the small Danish town of Bogense? A conservative estimate might suggest six, or eight, while realistically that list might be over a dozen.
Two women in the field have been crowned world champion in the past — seven-time rainbow jersey Marianne Vos and current world champ Sanne Cant — but neither has proven dominant this season. While Cant leads the UCI rankings, which encompass a 12-month period, she hasn’t won any of the seven World Cup events held since September, reaching the podium only once, in Zolder.
Vos has won three World Cup races and leads that series, but she’s also shown vulnerabilities, beaten by Lucinda Brand at Namur and Annemarie Worst at the European Championship in Rosmalen. Vos finished an uncharacteristic 12th at Koksijde — a race where Denise Betsema took the biggest win of her career. Brand is a particular threat; she’s finished either first or second in the last seven races she’s started. Any of these five women could pull off the victory in Bogense.
Another rider coming on strong in the build up to worlds is 2017 mountain-bike world champion Jolanda Neff, who won on consecutive days over the New Year’s holiday. Likewise, Loes Sells has finished in the top five of each of her last five races.
And while the Dutch and Belgian teams are heavily favored, Americans Kaitie Keough, Ellen Noble, and Katie Compton have all reached the podium of a World Cup race this season, with Keough winning in Iowa City in September.
That’s 10 riders with a shot at the rainbow jersey. Add in Nikki Brammeier, Maud Kaptheijns, Sophie de Boer, Alice Maria Arzuffi, and Ellen Van Loy, and you’re looking at 15 legitimate contenders. It’s been that kind of season. Game on.
Battle Royale at the Giro d’Italia
This year’s Giro d’Italia is going to be a battle royale, with a list of contenders so deep and varied that it’s impossible to even predict a likely podium.
Based on past performances, Giro winners Tom Dumoulin and Vincenzo Nibali lead the charge, and even between the two men it’s hard to call a favorite. Dumoulin (Sunweb) won the race in 2017 and finished a close second to Chris Froome last year; Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) has won the race twice, most recently in 2016. Dumoulin will be notably supported by super domestique Wilco Kelderman, while Nibali will look to Domenico Pozzovivo, fifth overall last year, in the mountains. But they can hardly base their strategy around one another.
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) will be there; the Brit led the race for 13 days in 2018 before plummeting down the general classification in the final two mountain stages, then went on to win the Vuelta a España in September, his first Grand Tour victory. He’ll be supported by Colombian Esteban Chaves, who finished second to Nibali in 2016 but has struggled with injury and illness over the past two years.
Other Colombians to watch will be Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), third overall last year at both the Giro and Vuelta a España, and Team Sky phenom Egan Bernal, making his Giro debut and his first attempt as a Grand Tour leader after riding superbly in support of Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome at the Tour de France in July. Lopez will be supported by Pello Bilbao and Ion Izagirre, while Bernal will look to Italian Gianni Moscon to shepherd him through the peloton.
Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates) put together an impressive string of Grand Tour results in 2014 and 2015, finishing third and second at the Giro and first and fifth at the Vuelta a España, but his last strong Grand Tour ride was fifth at the 2017 Tour de France; he’s struggled since. Aru will seek victory on home soil on a UAE squad that will also include top sprinter Fernando Gaviria, so he may not have the full support needed to compete against his GC rivals.
Movistar will send a squad that includes Mikel Landa, a podium finisher at the 2015 Giro and fourth overall at the 2017 Tour; Richard Carapaz, fourth overall at the Giro last year in his Grand Tour debut; and world champion Alejandro Valverde, who finished third at the 2016 Giro behind Nibali and Chaves in his only attempt at the Italian Grand Tour. Yes, another version of the Movistar trident returns.
Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), fourth at the Tour last year, will also race for the maglia rosa, supported by Dutch climber Robert Gesink. Other GC contenders include Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Mike Woods (EF Education First), Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-Quick Step), and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The Tour de France may be the biggest race in pro cycling, but this year’s Giro d’Italia looks set up to be the most exciting Grand Tour of the season.
Team Sky’s leadership question at the Tour de France
What became the biggest story of the 2018 Tour de France is poised to be the biggest story of the 2019 Tour de France — which Team Sky rider will be designated as its team leader? Recent statements from Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas shed no light on the situation, other than that both men will be taking the start line with an eye on victory.
That strategy worked in 2018, but the situation was different — Froome had just come off winning the Giro d’Italia, while Thomas had acknowledged his role as a “Plan B” GC contender. They worked it out harmoniously, on the road and in the team bus, but with the clock ticking on Froome’s chances of becoming a five-time Tour winner, Thomas now a proven Grand Tour champion, and Team Sky’s future status up in the air, the dynamics may prove to be very different on the start line in Brussels on July 6.
Let’s review what each rider has said about the Tour de France in recent days.
“It’s been a hard decision to figure out exactly what to do in 2019 and figure out which Grand Tours to focus on, especially having won the Giro last year and having had such an amazing time out there with the team – but for 2019, my number one objective is going to be the Tour de France,” Froome said. “I’m getting to the point in my career now where I’m starting to think about what kind of legacy I want to leave behind and if I am able to win the Tour de France for a fifth time and join that very elite group of bike riders — only four other people have ever done that — it would just be incredible.”
Okay, that’s clear enough. And Thomas?
“The main goal for me will be to go back to the Tour de France for the best result I can,” Thomas said. “Maybe if I hadn’t have won the Tour in 2018 I might have looked at a Giro-Vuelta program but, having won the Tour, I’ll have the number one on my back and it would be sad not to go back, and not to go back at 100% as well.”
Perfectly clear. Nothing like a little intra-squad rivalry at the sport’s biggest stage. Can’t wait.
Mathieu van der Poel makes his debut at the spring classics
Last year it was cyclocross star Wout Van Aert making his spring classics debut at age 23, and the world cyclocross champion did not disappoint, finishing third at Strade Bianche, ninth at the Tour of Flanders, and 13th at Paris-Roubaix. Four months later he finished third at a rainy and windy European Championship behind winner Matteo Trentin and runner-up Mathieu van der Poel, his perennial cyclocross rival.
Van der Poel had a strong road season of his own in 2018, winning the Dutch national title, Ronde van Limburg, and two stages at the Arctic Race of Norway, as well as second at the European Championship. Not bad for a 23-year old who focuses on cyclocross in the fall and winter and mountain-bike in the summer.
This spring, however, van der Poel — who has completely dominated men’s cyclocross, winning 23 of 25 races thus far — will make his debut at Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the Tour of Flanders. He will not race E3 Harelbeke or Paris-Roubaix, but will instead compete at Brabantse Pijl and then the Amstel Gold Race to close out his classics campaign. His final cyclocross weekend will be February 16-17, giving him four weeks before Belgian one-day races Nokere Koerse and the Handzame Classic on March 20 and 22.
“The spring will be an introduction for me, but I will start with ambition,” van der Poel said. “I will not race to be pack fill. I want to be in top condition at the start. The Dutch jersey is too important for the Amstel Gold Race. Paris-Roubaix just does not fit in with the program with the Tour of Flanders, Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race. We have spoken with ASO but they only want me at the start when I go full. I cannot guarantee that, but it will come about in years to come.”
Education First ventures into alternative events
The sands of professional road cycling are shifting, particularly in the United States where sponsors are exiting and events are being cancelled. To that end, American team EF Education First is expanding its race calendar beyond traditional, European-style road racing to what’s being called “alternative, mixed-terrain, multi-discipline events.”
While the team will still aim for success at WorldTour events — let’s not forget Rigoberto Uran finished second at the 2017 Tour de France, and Mike Woods finished second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April — they’ve also committed to sending riders to the Dirty Kanza 200, Leadville Trail 100, Three Peaks cyclocross event, and Taiwan KOM Challenge. New apparel sponsor Rapha will be there along the way, documenting the adventure in an exclusive series of films.
What will be interesting to observe isn’t so much how EF’s riders perform, but rather the publicity that surrounds it — how their participation is received. As team manager Jonathan Vaughters told me last year, “The people that ride bikes are [at these events], and they will be interested in bike racing if you make it something that they can get into. Right now we’ve just put this huge divide in between bike riders and the competitive side of things, and with that divide you just destroy your consumer base. That was the first thing with EF — it was like, this is about riding bikes. This is about becoming synonymous with riding bikes, not winning races.”
Which Marcel Kittel will we see?
There’s perhaps no star of pro cycling who has proven more unpredictable than Marcel Kittel. The German sprinter won four stages of the Tour de France in 2013, a season that saw him take 17 victories. The following year he again took four Tour stages among 14 season wins. But 2015 was an unmitigated disaster, winning just one race, a stage at the Tour of Poland, leading to his departure from the Giant-Alpecin where he’d spent five seasons.
He rebounded in 2016 with Quick-Step Floors, winning 15 races, including stages at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, and dominated the sprints at the 2017 Tour de France, winning five stages in nine days. However the 2018 season was another failure for Kittel; he won only two races, both at Tirreno-Adriatico in March. He missed the time cut at the Tour de France, leaving without a stage win; he ended his season by abandoning his home race, the Deutschland Tour, after one day of racing.
Even Kittel’s Katusha-Alpecin team couldn’t sugarcoat the situation in its team presentation press release, stating that Kittel’s results in 2018 “were not up to the expectations and potential of the team,” and that a “re-grouping and re-dedication to the effort is producing much needed enthusiasm for the new season.”
Now 30, and facing down challenges from young sprinters like Fernando Gaviria, Caleb Ewan, and Dylan Groenewegen, it may be now or never for Kittel.
“When things go wrong, it forces you to look at how you do things and where you focus your energy,” Kittel said in a team press release. “I am at a point where I am focusing 100% on my training and my races. I realize I need to focus on the basics. I started training early now for next season, I am feeling fresh and motivated to win again.”
Stars of mountain-bike circuit racing in the women’s peloton
The women’s peloton will see an increase in horsepower in 2019 as a pair of former world mountain-bike champions — Annika Langvad and Jolanda Neff — will be racing select events throughout the season. Langvad, the 2016 world champ, is joining Dutch super team Boels-Dolmans, while Neff, the 2017 world champ, is racing with Trek Factory Racing.
Langvad has three Danish time trial titles to her name, as well as the 2010 national road title. Her last road race in 2018 was the World Road Championship, where she rode in support of team leader Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. Her role on the team is still undefined, but mountain biking will remain her focus; the transition will be smooth as she’ll be riding on Specialized bikes across both disciplines.
“My personal ambition with this adventure is to get an understanding for and to contribute to successful team work,” Langvad said. “That is what I look forward to the most. I get genuinely excited when I think about being part of something more than just “me racing.” That enthusiasm and process is something I hope to take with me back to the mountain-bike races. And of course, if I can contribute to the team winning, it’ll be a big personal bonus for me.”
Likewise, Neff is no stranger to the women’s peloton. She’s twice been Swiss road champion and finished third at the 2016 Trofeo Alfredo Binda. She also finished eighth at the 2016 Olympic road race.
“Honestly, I was pretty frustrated after that [Olympic] race because I was racing alone without any teammates and you simply can‘t match the strength of the big road nations with five team players,” Neff wrote on Instagram.” I told myself that I don‘t ever want to race on the road again unless I would be part of the best team in the world. And, realistically, this was pie in the sky. So I didn‘t race anymore until Trek reached out to me last summer and asked if I wanted to become part of the best road team in the world… Obviously Trek wants to show up with their very best roster at races, and I will only be selected when I earn my spot.”
As BMC becomes CCC, Van Avermaet becomes the lone star
Over the past decade, BMC Racing has arguably been the peloton’s most star-studded team, boasting names like Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, George Hincapie, Simon Gerrans, Alessandro Ballan, Samuel Sanchez, Rohan Dennis, and Richie Porte.
Those days were numbered, however, with the April 2018 passing of BMC owner Andy Rihs. And while team manager Jim Ochowicz was able to find a replacement sponsor in CCC and thereby retain the team’s WorldTour license, the exodus had already begun. The team’s 2019 roster looks markedly different, with just one definitive star, Greg Van Avermaet, remaining.
The 33-year-old Belgian had a decent 2018 season, marked by eight days in the maillot jaune, but he won just two races, and neither at the WorldTour level. He finished fourth at Paris-Roubaix, the race he’d won a year earlier, and fifth at the Tour of Flanders, the race he most hopes to win. There’s no question Van Avermaet still has what it takes to challenge at the hardest one-day races, but will he have the support needed to be there in the finale?
One of the first hires Ochowicz made last summer was to bring on former Quick-Step rider Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, from Wanty-Groupe Gobert, as well as compatriot Gijs Van Hoecke, from LottoNL-Jumbo, and Polish rider Lukasz Wiznioskwi from Team Sky. They are all are solid classics domestiques, and both Michael Schar and Francisco Ventoso remain with the team, but for Van Avermaet it may not be the same as being protected by riders like Daniel Oss, Stefan Kung, and Manuel Quinziato. How the Olympic champion and Roubaix winner copes with the change will be one of the big stories of the spring classics.
What will happen with Phil Liggett?
With the unexpected death of race commentator Paul Sherwen last month, questions immediately arose around Phil Liggett’s future. Will Liggett, who is 75, continue on without his broadcast partner of 33 years, or will he call it a career after the loss of an irreplaceable half of an iconic duo?
Liggett will be in Adelaide next week providing commentary at the Santos Tour Down Under, but beyond that it’s uncertain. Sources tell me nothing has been decided for the Tour de France. (As this post was published, Liggett briefly replied to an email inquiry I’d sent following his long trip to Australia, and I’m hoping we’ll chat soon.)
Will Liggett close out his long career with a replacement for Sherwen? If so, who will it be? Or will he choose this as the moment to retire — and if so, who will replace the iconic Phil and Paul?
The 2019 season may well mark the end of one era of cycling broadcasts, and the beginning of a new era. At the moment, no one seems to know.
Sprint team shuffle: Gaviria, Ewan, Greipel adapt to new lead-out trains
The offseason saw a bit of shuffling of teams among the big sprinters, with Caleb Ewan leaving Mitchelton-Scott for Lotto-Soudal, replacing Andre Greipel (who moved to Fortuneo Samsic), while Fernando Gaviria left Quick-Step for UAE Emirates to bump Alexander Kristoff into the team’s number-two sprinter role. It’s the second time in two years Kristoff finds himself in the position, leaving Katusha-Alpecin for UAE in 2018 after the team signed Marcel Kittel.
For any sprinter, moving to a new team requires adjusting to the lead-out train that will deliver him to the line. Ewan will get the head start, racing next week at the Santos Tour Down Under riding with Adam Blythe, Thomas De Gendt, and Adam Hansen, though ultimately his lead-out train will also include Jasper De Buyst and Jens Keukeleire.
“This is a multi-year plan of natural progress,” Ewan said. “Building a sprint train with guys who have the capabilities to ride the finale of the most important bike races, forming a team with the riders on and off the bike, and creating important routines by racing together consistently.”
Gaviria will be the lead sprinter at UAE Team Emirates, and in good company alongside compatriots Sergio Henao, Cristian Camilo Muñoz, and Juan Sebastián Molano, but whether or not Kristoff serves as his leadout man — and what happens at Milan-San Remo, where Kristoff won in 2014 — remains to be seen.
“I don’t know if anyone else in the team can help Gaviria more than me,” Kristoff told procycling.no in October, “but of course I would prefer to race for my own chances.”
We’ll know more by the finish on the Via Roma, where Ewan finished an impressive second last year, while Gaviria finished fifth in 2017 after crashing heavily in 2016 while in winning position in the final metres.
Can Richie Porte put together a successful Tour at Trek-Segafredo?
Australian Richie Porte holds significant status as a Tour de France contender considering he’s never reached the podium of a Grand Tour in 13 starts. In fact, Porte has only finished in the top 10 at two Grand Tours — fifth at the 2016 Tour de France, and seventh at the 2010 Giro d’Italia, his Grand Tour debut.
But those numbers don’t tell the full story. After riding four Tours with Team Sky in support of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, Porte had three consecutive frustrating Tours with BMC Racing. He’s exited the past two editions with broken bones after coming in with hot form, winning the 2018 Tour de Suisse and finishing second at the 2017 Critérium du Dauphiné.
And in 2016, time lost due to a puncture on Stage 2 — nearly two minutes — was the difference between second overall and fifth, where he ended up. Crashes and punctures are all part of the game, but when it comes to luck at the Tour de France, it seems Porte’s only luck is bad luck.
Porte returned last season to race the Vuelta a España, but lacked the form to compete for the general classification, and skipped a planned participation at the world championship road race due to illness. It was an unceremonious end to a disappointing season.
In 2019 Porte will race in the new colors of Trek-Segafredo; at the Tour he’ll be supported in the mountains by Bauke Mollema and Jarlinson Pantano. He’ll have his hands full competing against former teammates Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, as well as riders like Vincenzo Nibali, Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana, and Romain Bardet.
But most of all, Porte, 33, will need to shake off the ghosts of Tours past and put together a disaster-free race. He’s got the ability to finish on the podium, but first he’ll need to finish.
Will Team Sky find a new sponsor — and if so, at what level?
The bombshell news that the Sky telecommunications company will end its cycling sponsorship after the 2019 season sent shockwaves across the pro peloton, with repercussions that are expected to be felt on the road and in the boardroom.
The most dominant Tour de France team of the past decade, Team Sky has grown into a budget that dwarfs that of other WorldTour squads, allowing it to monopolize talent and dictate how Grand Tours are raced. Outspending the competition is certainly a formula for success while it lasts, but like all good things, that appears to have come to an end.
Or has it? Team principle Dave Brailsford will spend the first half of 2019 seeking a replacement sponsor — not an easy task. If he can find one that is willing to pony up the estimated US$50M price tag that the team’s roster demands, it could well be business as usual under a different logo in 2020 and beyond.
If not, any number of scenarios could happen. Brailsford could find a sponsor at a reduced level, forcing many of his top riders to seek employment elsewhere, changing the landscape of future Tours de France.
Or he could end up empty handed and simply fold up shop, terminating the program and putting 29 riders into the job market — potentially bringing down the average rider salary while instituting a new degree of parity at the Grand Tours.
Any of those three scenarios is a story within itself, and Brailsford’s progress will be closely watched as the season develops.
The WorldTour debut of Remco Evenpoel
It’s probably unrealistic to expect much from 18-year-old Remco Evenepoel, the youngest WorldTour pro in history and the first rider in the WorldTour peloton to have been born in the 2000s. But at the same time, it’s hard to resist.
Regarded as one of the most promising talents to come along in years — “The next Eddy Merckx! The next Peter Sagan!” — Evenpoel won 23 races as a junior last year, most notably sweeping both the world and European junior road and time trial championships, riding away with the European road title by almost 10 minutes. The former captain of the Belgian U16 football team was reportedly courted by Team Sky but opted for Deceuninck-Quick Step instead, saying the Belgian squad “feels like family.”
It’s hard to predict what type of rider an 18-year-old will become, and the WorldTour is another animal altogether than junior racing. Evenpoel told Belgian media he would not race in any of the cobbled classics in his WorldTour debut season, opting for a light calendar of 55 race days in 2019. He will race the Vuelta a San Juan in January, Volta ao Algarve in February, Volta a Catalunya in March, and Tour of Turkey in April.
Evenpoel turns 19 on January 25; Sagan turned 20 on January 26, 2010, his WorldTour debut season, which included two stage wins at Paris-Nice, a stage at Tour of Romandie, two stages at the Amgen Tour of California, and second at the Grand Prix Cyclist of Montreal. It’s a tall order to fill those footsteps, and Sagan was a year older at the time, but this is the kind of scrutiny the young phenom will face in 2019, and probably for his entire career.
Lizzie Deignan returns with new Trek-Segafredo women’s team
The 2015 and 2016 seasons couldn’t have been much better for British rider Lizzie Deignan, who won the 2015 world title in Richmond, Virginia, and then went on to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen wearing the rainbow jersey. The 2016 Olympic road race didn’t go quite as well as hoped — she finished just out of the medals, in fifth — but it’s fair to say Deignan (née Armitstead) was the rider of reference during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
By that standard, the 2017 season was a bit disappointing, with just three wins, though Deignan did take a fourth British national road title. Instead, former Boels-Dolmans teammate Anna van der Breggen emerged as the rider to beat in one-day races, taking the Olympic gold medal in 2016, sweeping the Ardennes Classics in 2017, and winning the world road title in September.
Meanwhile 2018 was a year of monumental change for Deignan. She announced her pregnancy in March, signed with the nascent Trek-Segafredo women’s program in June, and gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Orla, in September. She’s since acknowledged that during her maternity leave, she realized that she’d fallen out of love with the sport.
Deignan had originally stated her first races back would be in June, though she’s recently suggested that she might be ready to race sooner. Of special interest for her is the world road championship, held on home roads in Yorkshire, followed by one more shot at the Olympic gold medal, in Tokyo in 2020.
“Personally and professionally it’s been a nice year away from the pressures of sport,” Deignan told The Guardian in October. “It’s made me realise how lucky I am to do what I do. I’d got stale and felt I was just going through the motions, so I’m pleased to have a second chance of approaching my career… I have no doubt it will be a serious challenge but I’m excited by that. I wasn’t very happy with my racing before, if you are winning you are expected to be happy but I’d fallen out of love with it. Now I have a second chance to enjoy it.”
Will Peter Sagan win another Monument?
For all his world titles and green jerseys and 110 pro wins, Peter Sagan has ended in frustration more often than not at the sport’s biggest classics. He soloed to victory at the 2016 Ronde van Vlaanderen after three top-five finishes. His Paris-Roubaix win last year was the first time he’d finished in the top-five in seven attempts.
At times he’s been coy about his frustration — at times he has not — but the happiness he demonstrates when he wins the sport’s biggest races speaks volumes.
Sagan been oh-so-close at Milan-San Remo, finishing second twice, most recently in 2017. And in April he’ll take on Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the first time, though it’s hard to imagine him winning that hilly classic with fresh legs, let alone after a demanding cobbled classics season.
Then again, this is Sagan, the most capable one-day racer of his generation. He’ll be supported by domestiques such as Daniel Oss and Maciej Bodnar, while perennial rivals Greg Van Avermaet and Niki Terpstra will be racing with new formations — and fewer options than in years past. Anything is possible. A Milan-San Remo win would do the most to fill in his already illustrious palmares, but it’s perhaps the hardest to win.
“Every year the same question,” Sagan said last year when asked how he intended to win Milan-San Remo. “I haven’t won yet, so I don’t know how to answer.”
Perhaps he’ll have the answer on March 23.