Here with Sarah Connolly‘s nominations for women’s rider of the year. And it’s good to see that Sarah has fit right into the VeloVoices ethos of never letting guidelines dampen enthusiasm. She tried to give us five – but her final count is six and an honourable mention! Over to Sarah …
This is probably the most open competition in years, with all kinds of riders taking steps up, or consolidating their positions. But some have stood head and shoulders above the rest. In chronological order of their achievements.
As Lizzie Armitstead, she had a fantastic 2015, winning the last ever Road World Cup series, and finishing with the 2015 Road World Championships win to add to her Team Pursuit rainbows on the track. That rainbow jersey gave her a new confidence and in 2016 she won Omloop het Nieuwsblad, in fine solo style, following it up with first ever Women’s WorldTour race, the glorious Strade Bianche, and two more WWT wins – the hilly Italian Classic, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and one of the biggest prizes in women’s racing, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, in a thrilling endgame with Emma Johansson.
After the Classics, she raced her third Aviva Women’s Tour – the first time she’s completed the race, proving third time lucky as she took the overall and two stage wins, and everything looked on track for her biggest goal, Olympic gold. We all know what happened next – that secret ban, as she fought suspension over three missed drugs tests, getting one discounted by CAS over the testing procedures. It was a bad build-up to Rio, but realistically, coming 5th on that very hilly course was the best she could have done. Post-Rio, she raced the Vårgårda and GP Plouay WorldTour races, and the Boels Rental Ladies Tour, playing super-domestique to teammates and winning another World Championships title as part of Boels-Dolmans Team Time Trial squad.
Chantal Blaak has always been a great rider to watch, however, a lot of fans worried that signing for Boels-Dolmans, with their superstar roster, might mean no room for her to get rides in all the big races. 2016 showed us, however, that not only would she get to ride at Boels, but she’d shine! Starting the Classics season, she came second at the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, won Le Samyn and easily outsprinted her rivals to take the Ronde van Drenthe. One WorldTour win wasn’t enough, and she attacked out of the final break at Gent-Wevelgem for a solo win – and was third behind Deignan’s win at the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Boels-Dolmans is so famously packed full of stars, they end up with superstars working as ultra-domestiques – with the reward of getting the team to work for them later in the season, with Megan Guarnier as the classic example.
She’s a rider who can easily go under the radar. Super-intelligent (she has an MSc in Neuroscience, and wants to get a PhD and an MD after her cycling), she’s a worker, and while she has a fun social media, it’s a perpetual puzzle to fans why she’s not better known, or more celebrated by the US cycling media.
One reason is that she chose to work in Europe, and took a more difficult path – learning from Marianne Vos in Rabo-liv, identifying her weaknesses and working solidly on them. Like a lot of climbers, descending was a problem for her, so she spent the 2014/5 off-season pushing herself to improve. It paid off last year, with her Strade Bianche win, and her second US National Champion’s title, but this year she improved even more.
After a spring of working her heart out for her Boels teammates, when the peloton moved to stage racing, it was her time to shine. She won the Durango-Durango day race, the final stage at the Emakumeen Bira, the Amgen Tour of California, the Philadelphia Classic, and a third US Champ’s title. She achieved one of her biggest goals – winning the Giro Rosa with climbing, descending, and above all, relentless tenacity. She won the first ever Women’s World Tour but when riding the final WorldTour, the sprint-friendly Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta, she was there working for her teammates and honouring the WWT jersey – finishing the season in true Guarnier style.
It’s hard to believe Chloe Hosking is only 26. She famously paid her way to Europe at age 19, getting rides with clubs and small teams, that morphed into a stagiaire role and then a pro contract with HTC-Highroad, where she was part of Ina-Yoko Teutenberg’s unstoppable sprint train. For one reason or another, Hosking never seemed to live up to that early potential. In recent years, she’d become more known for her excellent blogging, tweeting, and of course that infamous moment calling Pat McQuaid “a bit of a dick”, and in Wiggle-High5, she joined former World Champion Giorgia Bronzini and Belgian cobbles star Jolien D’hoore as the sprinters who’d take turns riding lead-out and getting their chances for the win.… which ironically seems to have done Hosking a lot more good than her roles in other teams as lead sprinter!
She started the season in Australia, and in the Ladies Tour of Qatar was featured in the Wiggle team videos showing the team’s frustrations at not being able to get a win until the final stage, when it all came together gloriously.
She’s taken some of the big sprint prizes this season: winning the overall and a stage at the Tour of ChongMing Island, and then, a sprint stage at the Giro Rosa, something Hosking said she thought would never happen to her. The confidence that gave her took her to La Course on the Champs-Elysées cobbles, where the team raced perfectly, despite a late attack from Boels’ Ellen van Dijk and Hosking made bunch sprinting look easy.
Hosking is getting married over the off-season, and has taken a surprising career move, deciding to spend more time in her home of Australia, with only a couple of 2017 racing blocks with Italian squad Alé-Cipollini. How will this work for her? One thing we know, it’ll be a lot of fun to watch.
Annemiek van Vleuten
It seems strange, having Annemiek van Vleuten on the list, because in terms of races, it’s going to be a year that she looks back on with a huge frustration. AvV came relatively late to cycling, after an injury stopped her football career. She was part of a devastating pairing with Marianne Vos, with her 2011 Ronde van Vlaanderen win – team work that also gave AvV the overall Road World Cup win that season, and gained her fans all over the world.
But that football injury plagued her cycling career, with scar tissue in her iliac artery causing her problems with blood flow to her leg muscles, so it felt like she was riding with only one leg and at the end of last year, it felt like 2016 would be her final season. She had some good results – second overall in the first European stage race of the season, the brutal Dutch Energiewacht Tour, and more big race podiums in theFestival Elsy Jacobs, the Boels Rental Hills Classic and Thüringen Rundfahrt, but it counted as a quieter year.
But not racing as much as normal seemed to have helped Van Vleuten, and it seemed like she would end her career with Olympic gold. With the Netherlands riding a perfect Olympic road race, she was the only rider left with mountain goat Mara Abbott at the end of the Vista Chinesa climb, breaking Abbott’s spirit to overtake her and hit the summit first, then attack the descent. Abbott is a notoriously bad descender, and AvV one of the strongest time trialists in the women’s peloton, so she was on her way to Olympic gold, until a mistake on one of the corners caused her to crash out.
It was a horrible moment – commentators and fans everywhere thought there was a real chance she would have life-altering injuries at the very least, with real fears for her life – but miraculously, she “only” had cracked vertebrae and concussion, and was back racing a month later, to win the Prologue of the Lotto-Belgium Tour, the final Geraardsbergen stage, and the overall GC.
It’s how she talked about the crash and it’s aftermath that cements her as a “rider of the year” contender – she was so open about what happened, including how the impact on her emotional and mental health was worse than on her body. She also says that it’s made her rethink retiring so watch out for her next season!
Anna van der Breggen
Last year, Anna van der Breggen won the Giro Rosa, the only women’s Grand Tour and the biggest stage race on the calendar – this year she won the Olympic Road Race, making her one of the all-time greats of the sport.
This year she won her second Flèche Wallonne, ricocheting off an attack from team-mate Kasia Niewiadoma on the penultimate climb, to get away with only Evie Stevens for company. “We all know” how Fléche ends, with a bunch dash up the Mur de Huy… except this year no one could catch the pair – and Stevens could barely hold AvdB’s wheel.
Although she couldn’t repeat her Giro victory, that Olympic gold will more than make up for it. It had looked like AvdB’s Dutch team-mate Annemiek van Vleuten had victory in the bag, until her horror-crash took her out, and left the USA’s Mara Abbott in solo lead. AvdB crossed the top with Emma Johansson of Sweden and Italian Elisa Longo Borghini – three of the top riders in the world – thinking her job was to go for a Dutch 1-2, until she passed AvV lying motionless by the side of the road, in what looked like a horrific injury.
Van der Breggen has spoken about how awful that moment was – and how Johansson helped her re-focus on the race, telling her to “ride for Annemiek”. She rode those last kilometres beautifully – Abbott may only have been caught in the last 500m, but she was always going to be pulled back – and when Longo Borghini started her sprint early, was there to overhaul her.
Although AvdB didn’t get her classic Olympic Champion’s moment, as all three podium riders were clearly still upset about Van Vleuten, there’s a gorgeous video (one of the ones here) where Van der Breggen is told AvV was OK, and she just glows.
Van der Breggen followed up the Olympic Road Race win with Olympic ITT bronze, and went on to become European Road Race Champion – and while she wasn’t on top form for ITT Worlds, another career goal, it doesn’t matter, because becoming Olympic Champion is a huge deal in women’s cycling, on a par with winning Worlds, or the Tour de France, for the men.
Kirsten Wild is head and shoulders the top power sprinter in the women’s peloton, known for completely destroying bunch sprints, and being a ferocious breakaway rider. On paper, she should be a contender for Rider of the Year, but while she had some great wins – including the Tour de Yorkshire and the WorldTour Prudential Ride London kermesse in the classic Wild POWER!!! style, her focus was the Olympic track, where she came 6th in the omnium, meaning she missed a lot of the big races for top sprinters.
While she won her 10th stage of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, she had a bad race for her, “only” having one win. We should still celebrate her achievements, but with such a light programme, I’m betting Wild won’t count this as her favourite season.
There was only ONE vote between the first and second place (33%), but it was that one vote that gave Megan Guarnier the award over Chantal Blaak, Then it was Anna van der Breggen (15%), Annemiek van Vleuten (10%), Lizzie Deignan (7%), Chloe Hosking (3%).
Header image: GETTY Images/AFP/Khaled Desouki