Four or five riders to watch in 2015

I was going to pick five riders to watch, but while four came to me quite quickly, the fifth proved more elusive. A draft version of this article has been hanging around for about three months now, so I finally decided that four was my number. The perfect fifth selection will doubtless materialise in my brain about four seconds after I click ‘publish’.

I’ve gone for two Grand Tour riders and two classics specialists and I didn’t want to pick anyone super obvious. Clearly you’re going to be watching the Contadors and Sagans of this world anyway. Actually, the second of those is a poor example, because while you’ll certainly be watching Peter Sagan, there’s not much to be gained from watching his brother Juraj. You get the gist though – these are slightly less established riders who should do well.

1. Fabio Aru, Astana

There’s a fair chance that Astana – Vincenzo Nibali’s team – might implode in a soft ‘whoomph’ of doping stories. A couple of positive tests haven’t been enough to see them evicted from the sport, but UCI president, Brian Cookson, says they’re ‘on a very short leash’. For his part, Astana general manager Alexandre Vinokourov – an unrepentant doper and more himself – is talking about taking legal action after what he perceives as media ‘smears’.

To be clear, this is a story about people being caught doping while riding for a team run by a convicted doper. Those are facts, so quite where the smears start is an interesting question. “We are all getting heartily sick of it,” is Cookson’s view on the whole matter.

But if they don’t implode, Fabio Aru will be worth watching. Just 24-years-old, he managed third in the Giro and fifth in Vuelta this year and mostly climbed with the best of them.

If you want some justification for his selection, fortunately they conducted an outdoor lab test during the Giro. Stage 19 was a cronoscalata – an uphill time trial. What better way to judge the physical capabilities of a rider – late in the race too when everyone’s flagging. Nairo Quintana won. Aru came second, just 17 seconds behind him. Everyone else lost well over a minute.

In 2015, Aru will ride the Giro and I’d guess probably the Vuelta as well, same as this year.

2. Rafal Majka, Tinkoff-Saxo

In many respects, the stand-out Pole is Michal Kwiatkowski, but you can’t claim to be picking slightly less established riders before plumping for the world champion.

But in many ways Majka might be the better prospect long-term. There’s a bit of the Sagans (Peter) about Kwiatkowski in that he can seemingly do everything. The most reliable winners tend to be specialists and Majka has all the makings of being a Grand Tour rider. At 25, Majka is another young rider who will surely improve further. While he was outdone by Aru in this year’s Giro, finishing sixth, it was his performance in the Tour that really impressed.

Majka hadn’t been down to ride the Tour and when he was included at the 11th hour, he wasn’t right happy about it. It seems an odd reaction to being selected for the biggest race of all but he was tired and didn’t think he could do himself justice. He won two stages and the King of the Mountains competition.

I don’t know what he will be riding in 2015. I’d guess the Giro and then maybe the Tour as support for Alberto Contador.

3. John Degenkolb, Giant-Shimano

John Degenkolb is most famous on this website for his love of dry stone walls and his smashing moustache, but in the wider world of cycling, he’s generally considered to be a sprinter. At the age of 25, he’s already won nine stages of the Vuelta and secured the points classification. However, this year, he also won Gent-Wevelgem, which highlights the fact that there is rather more to him than just a quick finish.

Gent-Wevelgem is a big classic, but not as big as Paris-Roubaix. People in Britain don’t even know that one of their own, Geraint Thomas, finished seventh in this year’s edition because Bradley Wiggins was drawing all the plaudits for coming ninth. Degenkolb came second. A very big win is not beyond him.

4. Ian Stannard, Sky

I wanted to pick a Brit for this article and I thought long and hard about who that should be. Peter Kennaugh was a possibility, but I just don’t think he’ll get all that many opportunities to show what he can do. I’ll certainly be watching the Yates brothers as well, but I suspect they might still be a little way off being competitive in the really big races.

So Ian Stannard then. It’s a weird selection in that he’s only recently recovered from a broken back. I don’t know if you’re a medical professional or not, but a broken back can really hamper your cycling. He basically missed the whole of 2014 and that in itself might compromise his performance in 2015 because his fitness will have regressed. His selection is therefore based on how he was looking just before his vertabrae took a knock.

In the small amount of racing he did manage in 2014, Stannard won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. This is probably a notch down from Degenkolb’s Gent-Wevelgem win, but it continued a general upwards trend over the last few years. I’m sort of imagining that he’ll pick up where he left off. Optimistic, I know – but if he manages it and I didn’t include him in this article, I’d be irritated.

Stannard can’t really sprint and  at 83kg, he can’t really climb for any length of time. What he can do is pound along at an unforgiving pace for a very long time which means he tends to be one of the few riders with operational legs in the closing kilometres of a cobbled classic. If he looks good in flat early season stage races like the Tour of Qatar, watch out for him in the spring.

5. Carlos Betancur

Just because. In 2014, only his weight was consistent (overweight). His racing ranged from winning Paris-Nice to coming second-to-last in the Vuelta.