The great thing about cycling is that it often throws up unexpected results and makes stars out of unassuming domestiques who happen to find themselves in the right place at the right time.
Often when such riders win you simply think ‘good for them’ and think they deserve the win for their hard work. But sometimes a rider performs well beyond expectations on unfamiliar terrain or against formidable opponents.
A sprinter wins on a climb or a climber wins on a sprint or sometimes it’s just a rider that makes you say “who??”. Here are 11 of the most surprising winners this year.
Fernando Gaviria – Tour de San Luis stage one
Although not a complete unknown in January, thanks to his prowess on the track and exploits at the 2014 Tour de l’Avenir, Fernando Gaviria’s two stage wins in the first race of the season were pretty special.
Riding for the Colombia national team, Gaviria beat a couple of decent sprinters in San Luis, including Mark Cavendish, who didn’t look best pleased with losing to a 20-year-old.
The wins seemed to mark the changing of the guard and Gaviria will likely return to the race with his new team in 2016 where nobody will be shocked if he wins.
John Degenkolb – Tour of Dubai stage three
John Degenkolb winning a stage in a race is not surprising in the slightest. The surprise about his stage three win at the Tour of Dubai was just what he accomplished on the parcours he faced.
The route profile for the stage from Dubai to Hatta didn’t look particularly bad – a lot of flat with a few lumps and a slight hill to finish. But in reality the climb to the finish line was like a wall.
At 400m above sea level, Hatta is pretty much as high as you can get when you’re near Dubai and there’s none of these winding roads to the summit – just an incredibly sharp climb maxing out at 17 per cent.
Degenkolb was not fazed, though, beating world-class climbers like Alejandro Valverde and Philippe Gilbert up the ascent. The German got his full nodding dog impression in on the climb and collapsed to the floor, panting, as he celebrated.
Rafael Valls – Tour of Oman general classification
A number of Grand Tour hopefuls turned up to the Tour of Oman in search of a bit of early season form and possibly a cheap victory in their first race, but Lampre-Merida’s Rafael Valls had other ideas.
The climb up the Green Mountain offers many of the riders their first taste of mountains in the season and with Chris Froome winning the past two editions, the big guns usually perform well.
But Valls upset everyone by winning on Green Mountain by two seconds over Tejay Van Garderen and Valverde and set himself up for a decent season of stage racing.
He built on the win by finishing in the top 10 overall at Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya, and finished 11th in the Criterium du Dauphiné. Not a bad year.
Ian Stannard – Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
As reigning champion, everyone knew just what Ian Stannard was capable of in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but having returned from a broken back few knew what kind of form he’d be in.
Turns out pretty decent form, but good form isn’t enough to win in the situation that Stannard found himself in.
The Team Sky man was surrounded by Etixx-Quick Step riders in the final kilometres as Classics heavyweights Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh tried to ride Yogi off their wheels.
In the end, though, Stannard’s tactics, strength and sheer desire to win saw him upset the odds and lead Terpstra and Boonen home; the group of four were 1-24 ahead of their nearest riders.
Jelle Wallays – Dwars Door Vlaanderen
It’s not often that a Pro Continental-level rider goes head-to-head with a world champion and comes out on top, but that’s just what Jelle Wallays did in Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
What was more impressive was that Wallays was part of the day’s breakaway and was attacking alone when he was caught by Theuns, van Baarle and Kwiatkowski and he rode with them for the last 50km.
But with 1000m to go, Wallays launched another attack and van Baarle and Kwiatkowski couldn’t work together to catch either Wallays or Theuns, who took advantage of the confusion to take second.
Luca Paolini – Ghent-Wevelgem
The conditions were horrendous, to put it lightly. Riders were thrown from the road and fewer than 40 finished the challenging course. But Paolini was not to be derailed, attacking in the final 10km from a group that contained Geraint Thomas – winner of E3 Harelbeke two days earlier – and Niki Terpstra.
His move was textbook and the fact that nobody expected him to win made it even more surprising to see him solo away and take the win by 11 seconds.
Alexander Kristoff – Three Days of De Panne general classification
Sprinters don’t win stage races, on the whole – especially those that include time trials and time trials that are won by Sir Bradley Wiggins.
But Alexander Kristoff put in the time trial of his life over the 14km course to finish just 18 seconds down on Wiggo – enough to give him the overall win by a full 23 seconds over Stijn Devolder.
The overall win just added to Kristoff’s remarkable start to the season, that saw him win stages in Qatar, Oman and Paris-Nice, claim second in Milan-San Remo and top 10s at E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem.
He built on his De Panne win by winning both Scheldeprijs and the Tour of Flanders and cleaning up most of the stages at the Tour of Norway and the Tour des Fjords.
An all-round fantastic year.
Peter Sagan – Tour of California general classification
Peter Sagan had won 11 stages at the Amgen Tour of California before the race this May. He won two more this year but the second was not your run of the mill sprint like he usually takes Stateside.
Sagan smashed the 10km time trial around Big Bear Lake, putting 15 seconds into strong tester Jos van Emden (LottoNL-Jumbo) and taking the overall lead.
It wasn’t a surprise that Sagan gave up the yellow jersey the next day on the climb up to Mount Baldy, but he did surprise quite a number of people by battling to sixth place on the stage, putting him just two seconds behind leader Julian Alaphilippe.
Needing a podium finish in the final-stage sprint to gain enough bonus seconds to steal the win, Sagan didn’t disappoint – finishing third behind Cavendish and Wouter Wippert to take the overall title.
Ilnur Zakarin – Tour de Romandie general classification
Ilnur Zakarin’s most notable achievement before 2015 – apart from his doping ban – was winning the overall title at the Tour of Azerbaijan last year.
This year he did a little bit better in the Katusha colours, denying Froome his third consecutive win at the Tour de Romandie.
Zakarin had the unenviable task of trying to hold off Froome in the final time trial, having taken the lead by six seconds from Thibaut Pinot and 14 seconds from Froome on the penultimate stage.
Froome disappointed against the clock on the final stage as Zakarin placed third behind Tony Martin and Simon Spilak and put more time into Froome and his chasers.
He went on to win a stage at the Giro d’Italia. A breakout season if ever we saw one.
Steve Cummings – Tour de France stage 14
Again, Steve Cummings winning something isn’t in itself particularly surprising, but the circumstances of his win in Mende at the Tour de France was pretty special.
Out in the breakaway all day, few expected him to triumph in such strong company. The strongest of that company attacked on the climb up to the Mende airfield in the Massif Central – Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) had the hopes of the French nation on their shoulders.
But Cumming stormed past them both as the road flattened out and the riders made their way to the landing strip and sprinted to the line to take the win for MTN-Qhubeka on Mandela Day.
Vasil Kiriyienka – UCI World Championships time trial
Team Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka is a very good time triallist, but few would have predicted that he’d become the world’s best.
The Belarussian held off the likes of Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin to win against the clock in Richmond in September, becoming the second Sky rider in as many years to take home the rainbow stripes.
He showed what he was capable of at the Giro d’Italia, where he won a time trial of a similar distance but the field there was significantly weaker.
You’d have got fantastic odds on the Worlds podium comprising of Kiryienka, Adriano Malori and Jerome Coppel, and those three surprised everyone.