Peter Sagan (Tinkoff to Bora-Hansgrohe)
Let’s get the obvious one out the way first. The Slovakian sensation is the World Champion of the past two seasons, the man who seems to have a mortal lock on the Tour de France Green Jersey and a perennial contender on almost any course.
The shutting down of Tinkoff saw Peter Sagan take himself and a growing entourage of riders across to the new boys on the World Tour, Bora-Hansgrohe. Juraj Sagan, Michal Kolar, Maciej Bodnar and Erik Baska are hardly names that will be often challenging for the win, but Sagan trusts them to get him into the back half of the race.
From there Sagan has always operated as a lone hand, he doesn’t need a sprint train as he has the uncanny knack of following the right wheel and the harder races he is one of the strongest riders and increasingly one of the more tactically astute as well.
Looking at the Bora-Hansgrohe squad, it’s not the best support team, but then again, neither were Tinkoff or Liquigas, Sagan’s former homes. They spent most of their money buying up lieutenants for Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali respectively. It certainly didn’t slow Sagan down.
It would be tempting to say that the only person that can stop Sagan is himself, but he does have a nemesis, the less flamboyant Greg van Avermaet. The way their rivalry will be resumed in 2017 is one of the most tantalising prospects of the new year as both come off career best seasons.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff to Trek-Segafredo)
Arguably the best Grand Tour rider of his generation, it appears that the Spanish star’s flame is beginning to flicker. He seemed pretty certain about the fact that last season was going to be his last, but he has put off the farewell party for at least another year. An injury struck Tour de France was followed by a Vuelta performance which appeared to show that he was well behind Froome and Quintana in terms of strength.
Will the move to Trek-Segafredo be the reinvigoration that the ageing Contador needs? It is impossible to count El Pistolero out, but it does look as if he’s missing that extra gear that the other top contenders possess. That will only be further highlighted this season with the further emergence of Orica-Scott as a Grand Tour team and riders like Steven Kruisjwijk (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and Bob Jungels (QuickStep Floors) becoming big names in the Grand Tours, Contador may struggle to reach a Grand Tour podium in 2017.
Michael Matthews (Orica-Scott to Sunweb-Giant)
Rumours of unhappiness and split leadership of teams with Simon Gerrans simply could not continue for Michael Matthews and he took the opportunity to move away to a different team for a fresh start. It was surprising that Matthews didn’t opt for a bigger team, as they would no doubt having been lining up to sign the versatile climber come sprinter, but clearly he feels most comfortable with the German-based squad, who were looking for a man to fill John Degenkolb’s cleats.
He will have a talented sprint train at his disposal and the climbing ranks are well stocked as well. A rider like Simon Geschke or Warren Barguil could be a great foil for Matthews in the hillier classics and there’s plenty of tough workhorses like Albert Timmer, Laurens Ten Dam and Bert de Backer to do the work in races where Matthews goes in as favourite.
He could have gone to a bigger team, but Matthews clearly has had enough with split team focuses and clashes within a squad. With Sunweb-Giant he will be the main man for the races that he decides to target.
John Degenkolb (Sunweb-Giant to Trek-Segafredo)
Whilst Matthews will fill Degenkolb’s old spot at Sunweb-Giant, Degenkolb has an even tougher job ahead of him, replacing Fabian Cancellara. Whilst the big German doesn’t have the time-trialling prowess of the Swiss superstar, he does have the classics pedigree to potentially approach the deeds of Cancellara.
Winning both Milan San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015 showed that he could be the dominant force of his generation in the hardest races. A horrific crash with a car at a Spanish training camp in early 2016 saw Degenkolb lucky not to lose a finger and he was out of his key targets for the season and even clearly underdone at the Tour de France.
He was clearly frustrated by the end of the season and the World Championships saw him unleash his fiery temper on Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Souda) during the race with things not going the German team’s way. He will come into 2017 fully prepared and with renewed determination to make up for lost time. His Trek-Segafredo squad is very talented, Jasper Stuyven in particular looks to be a likely candidate for Classics victories himself and is likely to be the main man for Degenkolb in the big races. He also brought Koen de Kort with him from Sunweb-Giant, with the half Aussie his trusted leadout rider for the sprints.
Diego Rosa (Astana to Team Sky)
A number of team owners and sports directors have bemoaned the financial dominance that Team Sky are able to exert on the World Tour. They again seem to have their pick of the talent pool with the scoop of Diego Rosa from Astana. Rosa was the consummate teammate last season, even when the instructions he was getting were patently wrong.
He had a chance to win a stage of the Tour de France where he was following a Romain Bardet attack but was called back to help Fabio Aru improve his overall GC position to 13th. Then, at the Il Lombardia, Rosa was clearly the strongest, but was made to work on the front of the peloton to keep the race together for Aru. When Aru couldn’t follow the attack it was up to Rosa to finally take on the leadership role and despite doing the lion’s share of the work he was within a whisker of a Monument victory.
He also delivered one of the most emphatic wins of the year, going solo and extending his lead over a charging peloton on the hardest stage of the notoriously tough Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Coming over the finish line with his bike held triumphantly aloft, it will remain one of the images of the 2016 season.