It was a season full of twists and turns, so I guess it should come as no surprise that the process of saying who the best male and female athletes were this year also went decidedly off-script. Let's wrap this up and formally announce our honorees.
2015 Podium Cafe Woman of the Year...
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Congratulations to Lizzie Armitstead!
She who laughs last laughs loudest. Armitstead got a lot of support in the nominations period for her consistency and ability to finish on the hardest days. Her win still ranks as an upset over Anna van der Breggen, who ranked #1 at the PdC World Rankings and won the Giro Femminile to boot. But Armitstead's support had a lot to do with this being her breakout performance, a career best after years of improvement. She took the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, one of the monuments of the sport, in a sprint over four rivals including reigning world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and van der Breggen. Armitstead Oh, and there's no overestimating the power of a world championship too.
Wait! What about the voting?
The final polls actually showed Armitstead in third place, slightly behind Megan Guarnier and crushed (along with all the others) by Kasia Niewiadoma. Both of these circumstances had to do with some Twitter activity which resulted in Niewiadoma and Guarnier fans flocking to the poll to support their rider. The problem with this is that none of these riders were actually nominated -- I added them myself to give a better slate of choices -- and nobody went on to mount a defense as to why either had a better season than Armitstead of van der Breggen. I did get some feedback on why they were terrific this year, but I already knew about that -- when I added them to a RoY poll. In the end, these were attempts to hijack our process for the sake of popularity, rather than people coming in and voting with their heads for who actually had the best season.
But I respect people voting with their hearts too, so with that, here is a tribute to Kasia Niewiadoma and Megan Guarnier!
Niewiadoma for Next Big Thing
While Niewiadoma's candidacy wasn't up there with Armitstead's in an objective sense, the reason I was moved to add her to the list was simple: at age 22 (as of three weeks ago), she is making a huge move to stardom in the Women's elite peloton. It's pretty much beyond dispute that she was the best young rider this year, having taken home that distinction at the Giro Donne and also winning the European Championships U23 road race. Niewiadoma, from Limanowa, Poland, has succeeded across several disciplines, using a strong time trial as well as competent climbing to take fifth overall in the Giro and taking wins in the Emakumeen Bira stage race and third at the Boels Rental Hills Classic in Limburg, NL. Van der Breggen and Armitstead will have several peak years left, with luck, but look for Kasia to push them hard in 2016.
Megan Makes the Leap
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Guarnier, a New Yorker racing in her age-30 year, posted what was easily her best season this year, helping the Boels Dolmans team to a powerhouse performance across the cycling landscape. Joining up (since 2014) with Armitstead, Evie Stevens, Chantal Blaak and Ellen van Dijk, Guarnier bagged her share of big wins, primarily the Strade Bianche, the US national championship, and the first stage of the Giro that had her in the maglia rosa for six days (she conceded the lead to van der Breggen at the time trial and ended up third overall). Guarnier was a threat to take the world championship, right down to the wire, where only Armitstead and van der Breggen got past her in the sprint. Even if the voting results required some reconsideration, her presence on the final ballot was 100% correct and her 2016 campaign could be one more for the ages.
OK, over to the boys...
Your 2015 Podium Cafe Men's Rider of the Year is...
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Peter Sagan, Come On Down!
No caveats or Twitter-jacks here, Sagan used his brilliant Richmond performance and some recency bias to crush the competition in the polls. Not that Sagan is in any way the wrong guy here; this is a rider about whom we have to check our expectations on occasion. Sagan won so much, so soon, and with such relative ease that we started to collectively wonder if he was OK in 2014 when he merely finished second in places like Strade Bianche and some Tour sprints... even winning E3 Prijs but *not* de Ronde, so what good was he anyway?
But Sagan's rainbow campaign capped another brilliant season by any measure, even if it took that win in Richmond to make us focus on it. He won the green jersey at the Tour with minimal resistance, despite what seems like some dwindling interest on his part. He won the Amgen Tour of California, which is ridiculous considering the climbing involved in that race. He won the time trial stage, which is also amazing. Remember when we thought of him as a sprinter? He won a sprint in Tirreno and in the Vuelta. He was fourth in both MSR and De Ronde. He won a couple Tour de Suisse stages and was second in five Tour stages, each one its own unique near-miss. He left his management bitching (they do that a lot), only he shut everyone up in the end. In other years this might not get it done, rainbow or no, but in 2015, with no single Vos-like person presiding over the Men's field, it was enough.
Sagan's journey to World Champion involves a meteoric rise, more rising, then money issues and a celebrated transfer, then the pressure of having scored the big contract, and finally concluding with him sounding like a changed man. I suspect we are going to get a Rainbow Campaign the likes of which we haven't seen in a while, though it'd help for Tinkoff to support him and generally not be crazy. We'll see about all that.
Anyway, bravo Peter!