Building up to our nomination for rider of the year, we at Marmeladrome have put our heads together and cast our minds back across the season to offer a selection of some of the brightest riders, best races, and most brilliant rides of 2015. Without further ado, let’s kick things off with our pick of the most impressive stage race of this year.
Critérium du Dauphiné
Traditionally, the Criterium du Dauphiné is a proving ground for the elite general classification riders, a chance to test and to showcase the form they’ve been working for ahead of the Tour de France. And with names such as Nibali, Froome, Van Garderen, and Rodriguez on the startlist, things were set to be intense. So it was that we were treated to a masterclass display across a gruelling week of cycling.
Things got off to a fine start for Team Sky, with Peter Kennaugh slipping out of the bunch to take a solo win on stage 1. Stage 2 and 4 brought in wins for the surly sprinter Nacer Bouhanni, and stage 3’s team time trial was dominated by an on-form team BMC.
Events started to heat up on stage 5. It was an arduous day in the saddle, with a long and laborious grind up the cat 1 Col d’Allos, before a drawn-out descent leading into the foot of the final climb. On the day, the win went to the young Frenchman Romain Bardet thanks to a descending masterclass on the way down the d’Allos, followed by a solo effort up the final slopes into Pra-Loup.
But if temperatures were rising on stage 5, by the end of Stage 6 the race was on fire, despite the bucketing rain. Encouraged by the miserable weather conditions to take a roll of the dice, Vincenzo Nibali threw in attacks practically from the drop of the flag onwards — even riding the first 20km of the race alone, off the front. A break soon formed around him, with such powerful figures as Tony Gallopin, Tony Martin, Alejandro Valverde and Rui Costa working hard to get a gap on the treacherous and rain-spattered climbs. By the final climb, Nibali looked like the safest bet for victory — he’d been feisty all day, all looked to still have the energy to finish fast. Attacking on the last slopes, the stage was all but his — that is, until the cool and collected Rui Costa bridged across to the Italian. Turning a large gear with ease, Costa soared past Nibali to take the stage win — but Nibali took the yellow thanks to his valiant efforts.
But the race was far from over, and Nibali paid for all that excessive attacking on stage 7. Froome, who had finished outside of the lead group the day before, rode a hard and fast past all the way up to the final category 1 climb, and then danced away to take stage win. Nibali, meanwhile, had blown up on the Cote des Amerands and lost almost four minutes to Froome. It goes to show that famous stage victories come at a cost, even at the top level of the sport.
Froome played the long game, winning the final two stages — including stage 8, which took in the stunning Lacets de Montvernier climb — and in the process clawed back the two-minute gap to the race leader, Tejay Van Garderen. Ultimately, he snatched the yellow jersey from Tejay by just 10 secs, a nail-biting end to a thrilling tour.
Simon Yates also put in a stunning performance, and deserves mention. The young Brit finished 5th on both stages 5 and 6, where the significant time gaps meant he was slowly working his way up the leaderboard. On the final climb of the final stage of the tour, Yates was only beaten by Froome, the tour winner. This was enough to cement a brilliant 5th place overall for Yates, who showed much promise for future week-long races.
Honourable mentions for best stage race
Of course, there are other strong contenders in this field, and it would be remiss of us not to at least mention this year’s Vuelta a España. Of the three grand tours this year, the Vuelta had arguably the strongest selection of riders on the startline, took more dramatic twists than the narratives of the other tours, and offered more strikingly beautiful and staggeringly brutal parcours than the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia combined.
Remember, for instance, the horrendous climbs and descents during stage 11, a course designed by Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez and widely hailed as the most challenging single stage in modern cycling history? Remember, too, the drama of Peter Sagan getting knocked off his bike by a camera-wielding moto, losing out on a chance at the stage and dropping out of the tour. Remember the unfulfilled promise of Chris Froome, who showed good form early in the tour but who soon fell off the pace due to injury. Remember the time Nibali held on to his team car and got a ride back to the leading group of riders, instantly getting himself disqualified from the race?
Don’t forget the first week dominance of Orica Greenedge with their young duo of GC hopeful Chaves and speedster Ewan. Also the uphill struggles between Quintana and Valverde, and the in-fighting between Mikel Landa and his team-mate (and eventual winner) Fabio Aru. And who could forget the near-perfect consistency of Tom Dumoulin’s unexpectedly powerful performance? Falling short on the penultimate climb of a three-week tour, he had the Astana men fretting till the very finish. It was an extraordinary tour, and well worthy of mention here.
Space should also be made for this year’s Tour of California, though in some respects a summary of that tour would read like a nomination for Peter Sagan in the ‘rider of the year’ category. Sagan came second in the first, second, and third stages of this, one of his favourite tours, before hitting the top step of the podium on the fourth day. He was still on the podium on the fifth, though disappointed to find himself in third for a change.
He was 18 seconds behind the race leader at the start of the stage five time trial and, as he rolled down the ramp, few would have predicted that he would so emphatically win the stage, with over 15 seconds on his nearest rival on the day.
The race was now in the shadow of Mount Baldy, and all eyes were on the specialist climbers in the race: Sergio Henao and Julian Alaphilippe. Sagan promised the assembled media representatives at the startline that he would honour his jersey, and go down fighting. But go down he did not. Fighting tooth and nail for the duration of the long, harsh rise up to the summit of Baldy, Sagan surprised everyone by digging deep, then deeper, then looking like he was on the verge of explosion, but somehow always managing to keep the pedals turning. Alaphilippe took the stage and the jersey, but, amazingly, Sagan was still hanging in at second place, a mere two seconds off the pace.
With only a single sprint finish left, the exhausted Sagan now needed to finish in the top three of the final stage of the Tour of California to reprise his jersey. On the day, he swung wildly around the final bend and rode on to the wheels of Mark Cavendish and Wouter Wippert. He could get around neither of the fast men, but he’d done enough to slip into third place, and the gold jersey. It was a stunning performance, and one that easily left us with one of the most pleasingly surprising tour narratives of 2015.