It is the new year, and with the Santos Tour Down Under right around the corner, the pro road season is nearly upon us. It is an exciting time for fans and riders alike, but it is also a time of increased pressure for top riders who are hungry for big victories. While Geraint Thomas and Alejandro Valverde celebrated huge successes in 2018, plenty of other up-and-comers and big stars stumbled. For some pros, 2019 will be a make-or-break year.
Here are five riders who need to win big this season.
Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo)
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: My new year’s resolution is to stop bagging on Richie Porte … But Richie needs to hold up his end of the bargain too. It feels like we have hyped up the Tasmanian for ages. He was fifth at the 2016 Tour and even back in 2010 he went top-10 a the Giro d’Italia. His wins have been tantalizing — Paris-Nice in 2015 and 2013, Tour de Romandie in 2017, and Tour de Suisse last year. But the time for one-week stage race wins has passed. At the very least, Porte needs to get on a grand tour podium in 2019.
First of all, he is 33 years old, so the window of opportunity is closing as he passes his physiological peak. Second, he is in his first year with Trek-Segafredo, a team that has been hungry for a true GC star since Alberto Contador retired at the end of 2017 (apologies to Bauke Mollema). Porte has already committed to race the Tour de France this year, and while I like that he is swinging for the fences, perhaps his best chance would actually be to carry that Tour form into the Vuelta for a run at the red jersey. If he can’t pull it off at either of those races, well, I’ll have plenty of takes on the VeloNews podcast, resolutions be damned.
Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)
Dane Cash, @danecash: 2018 did not go according to plan for Marcel Kittel. He came into his debut season with Katusha-Alpecin on the heels of a strong year — he won an impressive five Tour de France stages in 2017 — but Kittel did not manage a single stage victory at the Tour last summer. He didn’t have much success elsewhere on the calendar either. A pair of Tirreno-Adriatico stages were his only pro wins all season.
Kittel did not shy away from acknowledging the disappointment, but he could not put his finger on what was behind his down year. Medical tests did not point to any specific ailment. Whatever was holding him back, Kittel will hope to put it behind him, and quickly, this season. He will turn 31 in May, and young sprinting rivals Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) are getting better every year.
Fortunately for Kittel, he has some experience when it comes to bouncing back from an off year. He was the fastest sprinter on the planet in 2014, but struggled with illness in 2015 and did not even race a grand tour. He returned to winning ways the following season. That should give him reason to be optimistic that he can bounce back once again here in 2019.
Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates)
Chris Case, @chrisjustincase: There was a finite time — to be more specific, in 2015, during both the Giro d’Italia (where he was second) and the Vuelta a España (which he won) — when Fabio Aru was headed straight to the top of the Italian grand tour throne, dislodging Vincenzo Nibali from his perch. The Sardinian’s fight and grit were clear; big results seemed inevitable.
Then the staircase to that high perch crumbled. Aru has never really been the same rider since. Sure, he’s had his moments — a fifth place at the 2017 Tour de France among them — but he’s steadily dropped down every list of contenders preceding every subsequent grand tour. Now, when prognosticators put together their who-to-watch lists, he’s nearly an afterthought.
Over three years on since his sole grand tour triumph, Aru needs to have a big result in 2019. There were indications that dietary issues were holding him back last year. With those resolved, and a lighter schedule in the early season, Aru hopes to return to his former self. He has yet to confirm which grand tour(s) he will ride this year, but it appears increasingly likely that he will return to the Giro despite the presence of three individual time trials — he’s even stated that the Tour de France route fits him better. But his participation in the Tour is much less certain, especially given the presence of Dan Martin and new arrival Fernando Gaviria.
Perhaps what Aru needs more than a return to grand tour glory is simply to regain some confidence. If I was his team manager, I’d have him commit to putting in solid performances at a few early-season second-tier stage races: Algarve and Catalunya. Then, hit the Giro with the fire and determination that he once plastered all over his face.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: It’s not that Mark Cavendish needs a good season; he deserves one. The Manxman has had a rough ride since coming within a whisker of winning a second world title in Doha in 2016. Injuries, crashes, and illnesses have derailed the most lethal sprinting threat of his generation. One win in 2017 and one win in 2018. That’s not single digits — that’s one digit, as in one win per season for the past two years, hardly what everyone expects from the most prolific sprinter since Mario Cipollini ruled the straightaways.
At 33, Cavendish is bound to return to the fray in 2019, a contract year for him. People have written Cavendish off before, but it won’t be any easier getting closer to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins with the rise of more youthful legs in Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen. It’s now or never for Cavendish in 2019.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Poor Nairo Quintana. No other grand tour star needs a big win in 2019 quite like Quintana. Since 2013, Quintana’s name has been included on the shortest lists of cycling’s top grand tour riders, and this past season, it really felt like Quintana’s place on these lists was simply out of courtesy. Tenth at the Tour. Eighth at the Vuelta. Those results are simply not good enough for a man who was, half a decade ago now, slated to be Chris Froome’s top rival. These days Quintana is in trouble of slipping down to a (gasp) second-tier grand tour contender, far behind the Yates brothers, Tom Dumoulin, and Geraint Thomas (he’s nowhere near Froome). What went wrong?
Quintana has a suitable excuse for not winning a grand tour in 2017; his team’s disastrous decision to have him race the Giro/Tour double was simply too hard. But what’s to blame for last year’s shortcoming? Movistar’s now ridiculous three-headed monster (Quintana, Valverde, Landa) strategy can’t take all the blame for Quintana’s bad legs. Quintana should forego the Tour and instead focus on the Giro and a head-to-head battle with Colombia’s new star, Egan Bernal. Nothing would pad Quintana’s confidence quite like beating the new kid.
The dynamic continued during stage 12, a 175km stage to l’Alpe d’Huez. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) was the first sprinter to abandon, and then Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Bellisol) called it quits. Also abandoning was Rick Zabel (Katusha), who was time cut on stage 11, but allowed to continue because he suffered a mechanical.
“I cannot remember ever seeing something like this.”
In total 12 riders left the race during the two stages.
“I cannot remember ever seeing something like this,” said Dimension Data manager Rolf Aldag, who raced the Tour 10 times during his 16-year pro career. “There were always sprinters in difficulty but in two days we have seen a challenge.”
Now, just three sprinters with bunch-kick Tour victories are left to contest the remaining flat stages: Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ). And second-tier fast men like Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), may seize an opportunity to win.
VeloNews spoke with riders and team sources to better understand why so many sprinters left the race, why some sprinters survived, and whether the Tour de France organizers need to adjust the rules.
Reasons for the exodus
This Tour’s three-day run through the Alps was unquestionably punishing, yet previous races have included similarly hard routes. So why did so many sprinters fail?
Riders and directors pointed to various reasons. The shrinking of teams from nine to eight riders has forced some teams to choose riders for the GC instead of the sprint, which has decreased the size of the grupetto that forms on sprint stages. Modern training methods and specialization have perhaps widened the gap between sprinters and climbers.
“There is a feeling that the pace is very fast this year,” said Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). “It was clear from the first mountain day that the real sprinters were going to have to fight to get in the [cutoff] time.
All sources that VeloNews spoke with pointed at stage 11 as the primary culprit for the exodus. Just 108km long (67 miles), the stage included three successive and sizable climbs, with almost no flat road. It was yet another experimental route organized by ASO to inject excitement into the Tour. And it was sandwiched between two other punishing stages in the mountains.
“It was ridiculously hard,” said Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida). I’ve never done a stage like that in my life.”
The short, punishing route meant that the sprinter grupetto had to ride a stiff tempo just to avoid the time cut. For every stage, the Tour sets the time cut as a percentage of the winning time. Which percentage organizers choose is based on a convoluted system that factors in the overall difficulty and average speed of the winner. Sprinters often rely on flat roads to narrow the gap to the front group on climbing days. Without much flat, sprinters had to push themselves on the climbs harder than they may have done on a longer stage.
“It was ridiculously hard. I’ve never done a stage like that in my life.”
The effort to simply survive was huge, and it had consequences for Thursday’s stage to l’Alpe d’Huez.
“If a sprinter had to go full-gas yesterday, then there was nothing left today,” Aldag said after Thursday’s stage. “There was no way to recover property overnight and get ready for a big stage like today.”
The pace did not slow down on stage 11 to l’Alpe d’Huez, as an early breakaway attacked on the Col de la Madeleine, forcing Team Sky rode a hard tempo to keep the move in check. The aggression shed the sprinters within the opening kilometers of the stage. That tempo only increased throughout the day, as Sky’s domestiques poured on the pace.
The grupetto fell further and further behind. Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Groenewegen were first to be dropped, and eventually gave up after determining they could not make the time cut. Gaviria and Greipel were next.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) said Sky’s intense pacing at this year’s Tour added to the challenge.
“The problem is Sky is so strong. They go their own pace and still they are with a full team at the front, so the distance to [sprinters] only grows,” Degenkolb said. “That pace is too high for me and a lot of guys to stay close.”
Thor Hushovd, twice a winner of the Tour’s points classification, believes another factor may have contributed to the loss: June races. In recent years the peloton’s fastest sprinters have chosen to race the Amgen Tour of California and Tour of Slovenia, rather than tackle traditional warm-up races Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse. By choosing this option, the sprinters miss out on long, punishing stages in the Alps.
Sagan and Démare both raced the Tour de Suisse.
“A lot of these guys didn’t do a stage race with bigger hills in it, and they are perhaps missing those efforts,” Hushovd said. “I always needed to do the Dauphiné to get used to the hills. That was an important part of the preparation for me.”
How some survived
Teams saw the potential for time cuts during stages 11 and 12 and prepared specific strategies to help their sprinters survive the Alps. Degenkolb focused on a pacing strategy to help him survive the Col de la Madeleine without falling too far back. Directors had teammate Michael Gogl stay behind with Degenkolb to pace him up the Col de la Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez. Degenkolb finished 32 minutes in arrears.
“It was important for me not to over-pace myself on the first climb,” Degenkolb said. “I knew that 1km into the first mountain I would never see the bunch again, so I had to simply let it go and then ride at a pace I was comfortable with to the finish.”
Other teams employed a completely different strategy. Bora-Hansgrohe predicted the time cut would be approximately 38 minutes for the stage. Directors had Peter Sagan ride near his limit to the top of the Col de la Madeleine in order to stay as close as possible to the front group. Sagan then chased on the descent before settling into a comfortable rhythm. He rode to the finish alongside his teammate, Daniel Oss.
“Peter’s finish line was the top of the Madeleine,” said Sagan’s coach Patxi Vila. “So then you have 38 minutes to lose over two climbs. Downhill you go the same speed as the front group. So that is 19 minutes to lose on each [climb]. That’s 1.5 minutes per each kilometer, and he can do that.”
The day after the abandons, calls to permanently widen the time cut echoed through the peloton.
“I think the time cut was too narrow,” said Brian Holm, director at Quick-Step. “When you see somebody like Greipel lose it — and he is quite good in the mountains — it leads you to believe it is too narrow.”
Aldag said the Tour should adjust the cut for shorter stages that feature mountains.
“When the length of racing is only three and a half hours in the mountains then there is simply no time to make it up,” Aldag said. “You only have up, down, up, down, there’s no flat to take it back.”
Indeed Tour officials did extend the cutoff time during Thursday’s stage to Alpe d’Huez, however, the decision was made midway through the stage, after Gaviria, Greipel, and Groenewegen all quit. That decision was puzzling to riders in the peloton, even those who survived the day.
“You only have up, down, up, down, there’s no flat to take it back.”
“You saw many sprinters abandon yesterday because we had a tight time cut. We started the day and we thought we had 30 minutes and we thought it would be hard,” Kristoff said. “They moved the cut during the stage which was a bit strange. We were fighting for half an hour and suddenly we have 40-minute time cut. It’s strange when they change the rules during a race.”
Whether or not Tour organizers extend the cut remains to be seen. What is known is that the Tour’s sprinters will face a similar dynamic in the Pyrenees, where climbs, a short 65km stage, and intense racing are all on tap.
The fast-finishing duo, as well as Cavendish’s lead-out man Mark Renshaw, came across the line well outside the time limit of 31:27 behind stage winner Geraint Thomas (Sky) on Wednesday.
For Kittel, it’s a disappointing end to his first Tour with new team Katusha on the heels of a dominant campaign that saw him take five stage victories last July. For Cavendish, it marks a second straight Tour without a win. Two seasons ago, his 30 career Tour stage victories seemed so close to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34, but Cavendish will now have to wait until next July to have another shot at adding to his total.
“We wanted to come in hot and win some early stages and see how we go in the first week. Neither materialized for us,” Dimension Data team principal Doug Ryder said. “It didn’t materialize for Cav and for what we wanted to achieve. He misses the time cut today, it’s obviously disappointing, for him, for us.”
Tuesday’s stage 10 had already seen a number of riders cutting it very close to the day’s time limit. Cavendish and Kittel crossed the finish in Le Grand-Bornand among an 11-rider group just 30 seconds before the time cut. With that in mind, stage 11 was always going to be a major challenge. The parcours featured a pair of hors categorie ascents and closed with a category 1 summit finish at La Rosière. Dimension Data knew that making the time cut would be a tall order.
“Everbody expected this. It was this stage and the 65-kilometer stage that was challenging,” Ryder said. “It was definitely a concern.”
Cavendish was suffering early in stage 11, gapped and bringing up the back of the race by the summit of the first categorized climb, 26 kilometers into the day. He initially had Renshaw and Jay Thompson to help but waved them on ahead as his situation worsened. That allowed Thompson to make the cut, although it wasn’t enough to save Renshaw.
“He’s a champion. He doesn’t just give up. But he started to realize that we weren’t going to make it too, so that’s why he told us to go and he’d try for himself,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, we did what we could but it isn’t what it is. The Tour de France isn’t easy.”
Kittel spent the day a bit farther up the road than Cavendish but still marched up the final climb well behind any of the larger groups that might have provided wheels to sit on. His lieutenant Rick Zabel was up the road fighting to stay in the race himself. As it became clear that the clock was ticking down, Zabel made a dash for the line. He technically rolled home mere seconds outside the limit, but the race jury granted him clemency, noting in the jury report that he had suffered a mechanical while far removed from any support vehicles.
Kittel, however, was too far back to save his Tour, and it would be the same story for Renshaw and Cavendish. All three did finish the stage to applauding fans, but that would be their only consolation for the day’s hard work. Cavendish headed to the team bus without speaking to media.
Cavendish’s Tour exit is just the latest in a series of disappointments for Dimension Data going back to last year. Cavendish abandoned the 2017 Tour after getting tangled up with Peter Sagan in stage 4 and breaking his scapula. He fell on the same shoulder blade at the Abu Dhabi Tour this January and abandoned that race. In his return to racing at Tirreno-Adriatico, he crashed in the opening team time trial and broke a rib. He still managed to make the start shortly thereafter at Milano-Sanremo, but crashed again and broke another rib.
Dimension Data had hoped that Cavendish could ride his way into form at the Tour de France, but they’ll need to look elsewhere for results now.
“It wasn’t what we expected at the start and we were hoping that if we could get Cav through the mountains, we’d have another chance to win on Friday and that he’d get better,” Ryder said. “But I guess it wasn’t to be.”
Fred Dreier and Andrew Hood contributed to this report from La Rosière, France.