Arguably, the most shocking part of the 2016 UCI World Tour season was how predictable it was at the end of the day. Vincenzo Nibali was the favorite heading into the Giro d’Italia and he emerged the champ. Chris Froome took his third Tour de France with ease. And Nairo Quintana took advantage of a fatigued Froome and mountainous route to win his first Vuelta a Espana.
Other less-than-shocking results: Peter Sagan won another TDF Green Jersey (his sixth) and repeated as road race world champion, and Tony Martin is back in rainbow colors as the individual time trial world champ.
Not all of those results went exactly according to script. Nibali needed an epic crash from Steven Kruijswijk to win the Giro. Martin, meanwhile, looked like his best TT days were behind him all year until the World Championships.
The biggest surprise of the year was the apparent decline of Alberto Contador. The man labeled “the best Grand Tour rider of his generation” crashed out of the TDF and couldn’t crack the top-three at the Vuelta. He’ll be out to prove that injuries were to blame next year.
If you want real shockers, though, look no further than the burgeoning sport of cyclocross. At the 2015-16 World Championships, both the men and the women authored some serious drama. On the men’s side, 22-year-old Wout van Aert came out of nowhere to best a star-studded field filled with more experienced competitors.
On the women’s side, the U23 race will live on in infamy as it featured the first confirmed case of “mechanical doping.” Belgian youngster Femke Van den Driessche was found to have a small motor in the seat post of one of her bikes and received a six-year suspension as a result.
What does the future hold for the sports biggest names and most notorious cheat?
UCI Cycling Predictions
It’s a safe bet that Froome will be targetting the Tour de France as his main goal for 2017. He hasn’t ruled out riding the Giro, a race he has yet to tackle, and 2017 will be the 100th anniversary of Italy’s Grand Tour. Now would be a great time to try his hand at the Dolomites, especially since the 2017 TDF route doesn’t play to his strengths, featuring much less time trialing and fewer summit finishes than years past.
That said, we all know how much Froome covets the Tour. The fact that this year’s route has, ostensibly, been designed to challenge him/benefit others is only going to p*** him off (in my view). He also knows full-well how hard the Giro/Tour double is. (No one’s won both races since a drugged-up Marco Pantani in 1999.)
Prediction: Froome nets another TDF win in 2017
The meticulous Froome will forego the Giro to focus on conquering a TDF terrain that was designed to test him. He and his Sky teammates will craft the perfect game plan and walk away with another Yellow Jersey. After all, Froome proved last year that he can do more than climb and time trial. He took time on his rivals in daring descents and flat-land breakaways.
Quintana won his first Grand Tour at the Giro and the race clearly holds a special place in his heart. He hasn’t been able to keep up with Froome at the TDF the last two years and, with the lack of summit finishes on this year’s route (three), this doesn’t look like the year for the diminutive Colombian to win his first Yellow Jersey.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t be aiming for multiple Grand Tour wins in 2017. Quintana will be the defending champ at the Vuelta, and the race is almost always uber-friendly for climbers.
Prediction: Nairo pulls of the rare Giro/Vuelta double in 2017
I see Nairo targeting both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, while sitting out the Tour. With a strong Movistar team (featuring the likes of Alejandro Valverde) supporting him, he’ll accomplish the rare feat of two Grand Tour wins in the same season.
With a new team at his back (Trek-Segafredo), Contador likes his chances to get back to the top of the sport in 2017. If he’s going to do so, he’ll have to best Froome in Froome’s haven – the TDF; Alberto has already said that it will be his main goal for next year.
Yes, the lack of time trials will benefit Contador in relation to Froome, as will the reduction in summit finishes. But he’ll still have to get time on the Sky man somewhere, and Froome/Sky proved to be master tacticians on all types of terrain last year.
If I were a betting man (oh wait, I am!), I’d have a tough time betting on Trek to outfox Sky.
Prediction: Contador gets blanked at the Grand Tours in 2017
Since I’ve already allotted the other three Grand Tour titles, you could see where this was going. I see Contador getting shutout at the Grand Tours again and beginning to fade from the top of the sport.
In reality, he didn’t just lose to Froome and Quintana because of injuries, crashes, or a weaker crop of teammates last year. Froome and Quintana were just better; they’re also younger (31 and 26, respectively, versus 33 for Contador) and still have their great teams around them. If I’m wrong about Quintana targeting the Giro and Vuelta, Contador could challenge for the overall in Spain. But, since we already know he’s targetting the 2017 Tour, getting himself in winning form for the Vuelta just a month or so later will be incredibly hard.
Sagan’s 2016 season was one for the ages. With the rainbow jersey on his back, he put together the most successful season for the reigning world champ in recent memory, winning yet another Green Jersey at the TDF and his first monument (Tour of Flanders), while also repeating as World Champion, the first man to do so since Paolo Bettini in 2006-07. His team (Tinkoff) shuttered after last season, and he’s now riding for Bora-Hansgrohe (formerly Bora-Argon), a pro-continental team making the jump to the World Tour.
Sagan might not have the same caliber of teammates that he did last year, but he’s not targetting Grand Tour GCs; he won’t need to be protected for three weeks at a time. Sagan is a breakaway master, where individual talent shines through and teamwork counts for less. (He sure didn’t win back-to-back world championships because he was surrounded by a dominant crew of Slovakians!)
No one has ever won three straight World Championships. Sagan will enter next year looking to etch his name in the history books.
Prediction: Sagan makes history with a third-straight World Championship
The road race had become a bit of a lottery before Sagan took the last two. He’s still a longshot to three-peat when you consider the number of talented riders that will be in the field, but he has so much going for him: he never misses a breakaway; he can keep up with all but the very best climbers on hills; and he is one of the strongest sprinters in the sport. (Only the true fast-men, like Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel, can best him at the line consistently. And at the end of a 250-mile race, even they struggle to do so.)
Oh, and he’ll win another Green Jersey at the TDF, because that’s what he does.
Femke Van den Driessche
Van den Driessche will forever live in infamy as the first person to be caught for mechanical doping. The six-year ban she received might seem incredibly harsh, but many were calling for a lifetime ban. While performance enhancing substances will make you a pariah in the sport these days, having a motor in your bike is seen as an even worse infraction. (Even if you’re taking drugs, you still have to go out there and put in the time and effort to make the necessary gains. Drugs make the hard work easier, sure; but motors do the hard work for you.)
Femke had been one of the most promising young cyclocross athletes before her suspension. Is there any chance she stays the course over her six-year ban and has a successful career in the sport?
Prediction: Van den Driessche never competes in a UCI cyclocross race again.
She’s adamant that she did nothing untoward, stating that the bike belonged to a friend and ended up in her corral by accident. But when you see her pull away from competitors on hills with apparent ease, her words ring hollow. She’ll never be welcomed back to the sport, even when her official suspension expires. Plus, staying in peak physical condition for more than half a decade is going to be challenging when she isn’t even allowed to compete.
Photo credit: Jaguar MENA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.