Looking at all the best riders is fun and games, but what about the track to becoming one of the bests?
We looked at this year's biggest surprises, but sometimes a surprise can be written off as a fluke, a miraculous coinciding of innumerable circumstances in one race that is not likely to appear again. But cycling is a season, not just one race, and most riders are judged by their success along a whole season rather than beating the odds on one day. Who were the riders who showed us over and over they stepped up their game, did their homework, and are around to stay? Here are my four, but this is only the beginning!
Taylor Phinney has long been heralded as one of the upcoming greats in the next wave of US riders headed overseas. But there is a difference between being heralded as a future star and confirming it. Many stars shine brightly in the U23 ranks but find their wings melting as they approach the upper echelons of the sport. But unlike Icarus, Phinney only flew higher as he approached the sun, trading time trial and prologue wins in smaller stage races and domestic races for the Giro d'Italia prologue. But Taylor's season is all the more notable for the races he did not win. 15th in his first edition of Paris Roubaix after working like a man possessed for his teammates? Fourth in both the Olympics road race and time trial? And the one of the narrowest losses in recent memory in the World Championship Time Trial? Those are results a mature professional would kill for.
As with Phinney, we expected big things of Arnaud Demaré... one day. More of a hardman than pure sprinter, the 2011 U23 World Champion did much more homework when he went off to cycling university than most freshmen. Winning at Qatar is not easy, but can be written off as merely good form before the bigs are firing on all cylinders. And while it is always a good race, Le Samyn is still a showcase for younger or lesser known talents. But when you garner a fourth place in Kurne-Brussels-Kurne and win Vattenfall Classics, you have arrived. And for Demaré, it is a few years before schedule.
After his fourth place finish in the 2010 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins appeared potentially poised to make the leap to a grand tour podium contender. After a surprising third place finish in the mountainous 2011 Vuelta, his promise was confirmed. But the distance between the third step of the Vuelta podium to the top step of the Tour podium is far. When Bradley won the Tour de France this year, it seemed logical - the course favored him above all others and he had the strongest team by far. To him, this year may not have come as a surprise. But to us? You would be hard pressed to find someone who thought that Wiggins would win Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Tour de France, and the Olympics Time Trial. The man was a machine this year.
Is it fair to mark one of last year's most visible women racers as most improved? Perhaps it is. Last year, Stevens was always visible but rarely the winner, inexperience costing her energy and wins. She won the US Time Trial Championship but mass start victories were elusive. This year, though, Evie Stevens won. And won. And won. Overall in four stage races including the Route du France, stage victories (non time trial ones too!), the tough one-day race La Flèche Wallone Féminine, beating none other than Marianne Vos up the Mur du Huy, and the Worlds Team Time Trial. Then add a silver medal in the Worlds ITT. Girl is on FIRE.
Now that I've picked my four nominees, who are yours? Men and women both, please!