Dismantling of the ‘big four’
Over the last few years, four teams have dominated the Grand Tours – Team Sky, Movistar, Astana and Tinkoff. This quartet has shared 13 of the past 14 overall classification victories stretching back to the 2012 Tour de France, as well as filling 30 of the 42 podium positions.
But heading into 2017, their stranglehold looks to be being dismantled. Tinkoff have folded, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali have moved to respectively make Trek-Segafredo and Bahrain-Merida potential forces in Grand Tours, and Orica-BikeExchange’s blossoming collection of young talents have begun to regularly compete for the top honours.
Sky and Movistar look formidable as ever, and Astana have retained Fabio Aru, but the emergence of these other teams will mean there could be a more a more congested fight for supremacy at the front of the peloton come the Grand Tour mountain stages.
Separation of Nibali and Aru
For years it has been an open secret that Astana’s two Italian stars Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru don’t get along, to the extent that they’ve mostly been kept from racing together.
But after four seasons together, they’ve finally been separated, with Nibali moving to Bahrain-Merida, elevating Aru to the status he’s long craved as the Astana team’s outright star rider.
Their separation dilutes the strength of Astana and spreads the talent pool in the peloton a little wider, and also means we get to enjoy the spectacle of both riders slugging it out in what will likely be a fearsomely competitive showdown at the centenary edition of the Giro d’Italia.
Fabian Cancellara’s retirement
With his intimidating presence and outspoken nature, Fabian Cancellara is the closest the modern peloton has had in recent seasons to a Hinault-esque ‘patron’.
His retirement at the end of 2016 will therefore have substantial reverberations across the cycling world; most notably in the classics, where his wheel was the one every rider would compete for, and around who teams would often shape their strategies.
In his absence, the onus will be on other riders to take the front foot in the classics – after an extraordinary season, the path looks set for reigning world champion Peter Sagan to be the man to assume his mantle.
A rejuvenated Trek-Segafredo
There was a time when this team was one of the most feared in the peloton, boasting a roster that included Cancellara and both the Schleck brothers when they started out as Leopard Trek in 2011. But over the years their squad has aged without any young talent coming in to replace them, to the extent that, when new sponsors RadioShack took over, they were drolly nicknamed the ‘Retirement Shack’.
Recently, however, young talents have begun to be blooded again, with the likes of Jasper Stuyven and Giacomo Nizzolo impressing, and in the off-season Cancellara, Frank Schleck, Ryder Hesjedal and Yaroslav Popovych all retired, making room for an influx of new names.
Alberto Contador is the most striking signing, but the likes of John Degenkolb and Jarlinson Pantano ensure that Trek-Segafredo look like one of the freshest squads going into 2017, and capable of rediscovering past glories.
The 2017 edition of the UCI WorldTour will be the biggest yet, with 11 events added to expand the competition from 27 to 38 races. The geographical scope of the series is expanded through additions like the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, Abu Dhabi Tour and Tour of California, while races the popularity of races like Strade Bianche and RideLondon-Surrey has been acknowledged with inclusions.
The newly included races will appreciate the increased prestige and quality of participants, but for WorldTour with smaller budgets the extra commitment to racing will be a strain.
Less divisive is the expansion of the Women’s WorldTour, to which the Boels Rental Ladies Tour, Ladies Tour of Norway, Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege has been added to make a total of 21 races. Women’s cycling should continue to gradually enjoy more exposure this coming season.
It’s all change at what was formerly the strongest team in women’s cycling. Not only have sponsors Rabobank and Liv both withdrawn (the team will be known as Fortitude Pro Cycling next season), but several of the team’s star riders have departed too, including Lucinda Brand, former world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen.
That the latter was snapped up by Boels-Dolmans means that they now look light-years ahead of every other team in the peloton, and it will be fascinating to see how Van der Breggen teams up with Lizzie Deignan in the classics and Megan Guarnier in stage races.
But Fortitude Pro Cycling remain a force to be reckoned with. Marianne Vos remains, and could begin to near her best again having now completed a whole season following her serious injuries. And prodigious Pole Katarzyna Niewiadoma has also been re-signed, and could take the peloton by storm next season.