Blazin' Saddles: Unluckiest riders of 2016
In the start of a series of retrospectives pieces during cycling's off-season, Felix Lowe takes a look at the five riders whose 2016 was plagued by bad luck.
In the lead up to Christmas, Blazin' Saddles will cast its eye over the defining moments of the 2016 season – the riders who achieved most, those who broke through, those who surprised, those who flattered to deceive; from the biggest let-downs and shocks to the unsung heroes and crowd-pleasers, it's all here – starting with the five most unlucky riders of the year.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin)
2016 was meant to be Degenkolb's year. The powerful German had come of age during the previous season, winning both Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix while adding a 10th Vuelta stage to his crown. But a woman driving into on-coming traffic in Calpe during a team training camp in Spain in January had other ideas.
In his absence, Frenchman Arnaud Demare and Aussie veteran Mat Hayman filled his shoes in Sanremo and Roubaix, while Peter Sagan finally broke his own monumental duck with victory in Flanders. Suddenly, Degenkolb looks to be out of the picture.
We've missed the 'tache and the cheeky grin; we've missed his bellowing yaaaahs as he talks Laura Meseguer through his wins; and we've missed his explosive, upbeat presence in the peloton. Heck, after the season he's had, is it any surprise Degenkolb sprayed Jens Debuscherre in the face with his water bottle in Doha?
Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo)
Dutch football icon Dennis Bergkamp was so calm and calculating that they called him the Iceman. For someone whose own iceman qualities were very much on display during the Giro d'Italia, it was certainly ironic that it took a wall of ice to derail Bergkamp's cycling compatriot Kruijswijk and his fight for pink in May.
Comfortably leading the Giro entering stage 18, Kruijswijk's shoulder-barge into the snow going over the summit of the Colle dell'Agnello proved the turning point of the 99th edition of the Corsa Rosa, giving a lifeline to the stuttering Vincenzo Nibali which the Italian seized with both hands. Two days later it was Nibali – who had trailed Kruijswijk by almost five minutes entering that decisive stage – who entered Turin in pink, while Kruijswick, cruelly, was no longer even on the podium.
If riding into a wall of ice was perhaps evidence of poor bike-handling rather than unluckiness then Kruijswijk certainly carried no blame when ploughing into an unmarked bollard near the finish of stage five of the Vuelta. The collision saw Kruijswijk smash his collarbone and ended his season. Will the Dutchman ever have a good a chance at winning a Grand Tour as he did in the Giro? Only time will tell. But it's unlikely.
Ilnur Zacharin (Katusha)
It was almost as painful watching the rangy Russian struggle in the Giro's first major time trial as it must have been actually being him. There's no denying that Zakarin rode the 40.5km race against the clock in Chianti as if he'd drunk four bottles of the stuff: as hapless as Shaggy from Scooby Doo, he crashed twice in the wet conditions and stopped for a third occasion to swap bikes.
Trailing the race leader Gianluca Brambilla by just 23 seconds going into the decisive ITT, Zakarin had real hopes of donning the maglia rosa and laying strong foundations in his bid for the overall victory. Instead, he shipped the best part of four minutes and plummeted out of the top 10.
A week later, Zakarin's hunt for a podium finish was back on after a series of strong performances in the mountains – only for the 27-year-old to crash out of the race spectacularly after Nibali had lit the torch paper on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello.
Zakarin had the last laugh when he took a stage win in the Tour de France two months later – but, like Kruijswijk, he'll be kicking himself for seeing what could be his best shot at winning a Grand Tour slip through his fingers.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18)
So much for the luck of the Irish! Bennett's debut Tour in 2015 was derailed after a pile-up during the second stage reduced the sprinter's ambitions to mere survival over any ostensible hope of being mildly competitive. He lasted until stage 17 when he pulled up in the Alps.
Twelve months on and it was a similar tale of woe for Bennett, who was forced to ride the entire Tour with stitches in his right hand and a clamp on his little finger after a nasty crash in the opening stage to Utah Beach.
Bennett managed his only top-10 finish on the last day, sprinting to ninth place on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The 26-year-old will be hoping the third time lucky adage rings true next year – provided he makes Bora-Hansgrohe's squad for the Tour: no given since the arrival of a certain stellar world champion who may steal the limelight.
Pierre Rolland (Cannondale-Drapac)
Swapping his cushy life on a French team for a far bigger challenge across the Atlantic, Rolland was seen as a "diamond-in-the-rough" by manager Jonathan Vaughters when he tore up the script and joined Cannondale. At Europcar, Pierrot had "trained as if it were 1975" according to the man who during his career doped as if it were 1960.
Vaughters had a point, mind. And when Rolland managed to negotiate the first seven stages of the Tour on level terms with Chris Froome, it finally looked as if the man Vaughters invariably called "Tequila" or "Frogman" had got past his opening week Grand Tour blues.
But then Froome attacked on the descent of the Peyresourde, his chasing rivals panicked, and Rolland rode into a wall at top speed. All of a sudden, Rolland was 1:55 down on Froome and had horrific injuries to his left hand, hip and flank – the blood speckles covering his left leg mirroring the polka dot jersey he came so close to winning a few years previously.
On soldiered Rolland, and he was just finding his feet again when – riding off the front of the break with Rui Costa in stage 19 – Rolland's front wheel slid on a wet bend and sent the Frenchman sprawling across the road, only to come to rest in a pile of mud and cow poo on the side of the road.
So, in the year when Rolland looked destined finally to reach his potential, he failed to win a stage and came home to Paris in 16th place. A month later, Rolland rode the Vuelta but to little fanfare, cracking the top 10 on just two occasions (one being the opening team time trial). It's been a rough first year for diamond geezer, Pierre.
And what about...
Winning on Mont Ventoux on a day the stage only actually went to Chalet Reynard and on a day when Chris Froome stole the headlines by running uphill must be seen as mildly unlucky for Belgium's Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), but at least he actually had something to show for his troubles.
The same could be said for Colombian Darwin Atapuma (BMC), who twice finished runner-up in a Vuelta mountain stage (adding to his earlier runner-up spot in stage 20 of the Giro) but at least had a few days in the red jersey to sooth the disappointment.
Leopold Konig (Team Sky) was all set for a top-five finish in the Vuelta before he was caught napping – along with practically half the peloton – during the so-called ambush of Formigal, which saw his team-mate Chris Froome all but lose his chance of beating Nairo Quintana to red. Also in the Vuelta, French pocket-Hercules Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) lost the polka dot jersey on the last day by just one slender point before signing away his future prospects by opting to join Team Sky.
Finally leading a team for himself, Australian Richie Porte (BMC) punctured in stage two of the Tour leaving him with a mountain to climb before the race even hit the mountains. And he was just getting back into his groove when spectators forced a TV motorbike to slam on its breaks on Mont Ventoux, resulting in Porte, Froome and Bauke Mollema all ploughing into the stationary vehicle.
But at least all of the above got the chance to prove themselves on the bicycle. Spare a thought for Mikel Landa (Team Sky) whose debut season as Froome's climbing domestique was hampered by everything but the kitchen sink. Illness forced Landa out of the Giro while he was comfortably in the top 10; the Spaniard's Tour was spent in the service of Froome; while his tilt at the Vuelta never even got off the ground owing to an aggravation of a hip injury just days before the start.
And yet, Landa still rode his bike. Fellow Spaniard Benat Intxausti (Team Sky) missed practically the whole season due to mononucleosis. If Intxausti's tally of 15 race days looks pretty paltry then it at least beats Italy's Adriano Malori (Movistar) whose appearances barely hit double figures.
Missing most of the season thanks to a brain injury suffered in a catastrophic fall during the Tour de San Luis in January, Malori failed to finish any of the five races he entered in September before calling time on a season from hell.
Of course, for all his pain and suffering, Malori will be relieved to have made it out of the medically-induced coma he was placed in after that January crash. The same cannot be said for the riders who this season lost their lives – or are still in a critical condition – for simply doing their job. We'll have more on the tragedies to befall the likes of Antoine Demoitie, Daan Myngheer and Stig Broeck in next week's blog, which covers the biggest shocks of 2016.