It is the new year, and with the Santos Tour Down Under right around the corner, the pro road season is nearly upon us. It is an exciting time for fans and riders alike, but it is also a time of increased pressure for top riders who are hungry for big victories. While Geraint Thomas and Alejandro Valverde celebrated huge successes in 2018, plenty of other up-and-comers and big stars stumbled. For some pros, 2019 will be a make-or-break year.
Here are five riders who need to win big this season.
Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo)
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: My new year’s resolution is to stop bagging on Richie Porte … But Richie needs to hold up his end of the bargain too. It feels like we have hyped up the Tasmanian for ages. He was fifth at the 2016 Tour and even back in 2010 he went top-10 at the Giro d’Italia. His wins have been tantalizing — Paris-Nice in 2015 and 2013, Tour de Romandie in 2017, and Tour de Suisse last year. But the time for one-week stage race wins has passed. At the very least, Porte needs to get on a grand tour podium in 2019.
First of all, he is 33 years old, so the window of opportunity is closing as he passes his physiological peak. Second, he is in his first year with Trek-Segafredo, a team that has been hungry for a true GC star since Alberto Contador retired at the end of 2017 (apologies to Bauke Mollema). Porte has already committed to race the Tour de France this year, and while I like that he is swinging for the fences, perhaps his best chance would actually be to carry that Tour form into the Vuelta for a run at the red jersey. If he can’t pull it off at either of those races, well, I’ll have plenty of takes on the VeloNews podcast, resolutions be damned.
Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)
Dane Cash, @danecash: 2018 did not go according to plan for Marcel Kittel. He came into his debut season with Katusha-Alpecin on the heels of a strong year — he won an impressive five Tour de France stages in 2017 — but Kittel did not manage a single stage victory at the Tour last summer. He didn’t have much success elsewhere on the calendar either. A pair of Tirreno-Adriatico stages were his only pro wins all season.
Kittel did not shy away from acknowledging the disappointment, but he could not put his finger on what was behind his down year. Medical tests did not point to any specific ailment. Whatever was holding him back, Kittel will hope to put it behind him, and quickly, this season. He will turn 31 in May, and young sprinting rivals Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) are getting better every year.
Fortunately for Kittel, he has some experience when it comes to bouncing back from an off year. He was the fastest sprinter on the planet in 2014, but struggled with illness in 2015 and did not even race a grand tour. He returned to winning ways the following season. That should give him reason to be optimistic that he can bounce back once again here in 2019.
Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates)
Chris Case, @chrisjustincase: There was a finite time — to be more specific, in 2015, during both the Giro d’Italia (where he was second) and the Vuelta a España (which he won) — when Fabio Aru was headed straight to the top of the Italian grand tour throne, dislodging Vincenzo Nibali from his perch. The Sardinian’s fight and grit were clear; big results seemed inevitable.
Then the staircase to that high perch crumbled. Aru has never really been the same rider since. Sure, he’s had his moments — a fifth place at the 2017 Tour de France among them — but he’s steadily dropped down every list of contenders preceding every subsequent grand tour. Now, when prognosticators put together their who-to-watch lists, he’s nearly an afterthought.
Over three years on since his sole grand tour triumph, Aru needs to have a big result in 2019. There were indications that dietary issues were holding him back last year. With those resolved, and a lighter schedule in the early season, Aru hopes to return to his former self. He has yet to confirm which grand tour(s) he will ride this year, but it appears increasingly likely that he will return to the Giro despite the presence of three individual time trials — he’s even stated that the Tour de France route fits him better. But his participation in the Tour is much less certain, especially given the presence of Dan Martin and new arrival Fernando Gaviria.
Perhaps what Aru needs more than a return to grand tour glory is simply to regain some confidence. If I was his team manager, I’d have him commit to putting in solid performances at a few early-season second-tier stage races: Algarve and Catalunya. Then, hit the Giro with the fire and determination that he once plastered all over his face.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: It’s not that Mark Cavendish needs a good season; he deserves one. The Manxman has had a rough ride since coming within a whisker of winning a second world title in Doha in 2016. Injuries, crashes, and illnesses have derailed the most lethal sprinting threat of his generation. One win in 2017 and one win in 2018. That’s not single digits — that’s one digit, as in one win per season for the past two years, hardly what everyone expects from the most prolific sprinter since Mario Cipollini ruled the straightaways.
At 33, Cavendish is bound to return to the fray in 2019, a contract year for him. People have written Cavendish off before, but it won’t be any easier getting closer to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins with the rise of more youthful legs in Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen. It’s now or never for Cavendish in 2019.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Poor Nairo Quintana. No other grand tour star needs a big win in 2019 quite like Quintana. Since 2013, Quintana’s name has been included on the shortest lists of cycling’s top grand tour riders, and this past season, it really felt like Quintana’s place on these lists was simply out of courtesy. Tenth at the Tour. Eighth at the Vuelta. Those results are simply not good enough for a man who was, half a decade ago now, slated to be Chris Froome’s top rival. These days Quintana is in trouble of slipping down to a (gasp) second-tier grand tour contender, far behind the Yates brothers, Tom Dumoulin, and Geraint Thomas (he’s nowhere near Froome). What went wrong?
Quintana has a suitable excuse for not winning a grand tour in 2017; his team’s disastrous decision to have him race the Giro/Tour double was simply too hard. But what’s to blame for last year’s shortcoming? Movistar’s now ridiculous three-headed monster (Quintana, Valverde, Landa) strategy can’t take all the blame for Quintana’s bad legs. Quintana should forego the Tour and instead focus on the Giro and a head-to-head battle with Colombia’s new star, Egan Bernal. Nothing would pad Quintana’s confidence quite like beating the new kid.