Editor’s note: The January 2013 issue of Velo magazine, which is on newsstands now, is our 25th annual awards issue. Our 2012 Cyclist of the Year was announced on November 29; we’ll be rolling out various other award winners throughout the month of December.
International Men’s Sprinter of the Year: Mark Cavendish
Mark Cavendish didn’t have to prove anything to anyone in 2012, but his year in the rainbow jersey turned out to be his sweetest yet. Overshadowed by Team Sky’s focus on the yellow jersey and Bradley Wiggins’ historic Tour de France victory, Cavendish proved once and for all he’s not only a sprinter of world-class caliber, but a champion as well.
The Manxster fought tooth and nail all season, worthy of the rainbow stripes on his back, even if he didn’t win the Olympic gold medal on home roads in London.
“Every time I wear these stripes, I get goose bumps,” Cavendish said midway through the season. “I know I may never win the world championship again, so I want to make them proud.”
Cavendish certainly did, in what was an uneven, yet spectacular season, to prove that he’s the world’s best sprinter, even without a train.
Sky’s obsession with yellow meant that Cavendish had fewer legs to help him in the sprints during the Tour. Only Bernhard Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen were there to help lead him out, a style of riding completely different from his High Road years when he had an entire team riding for him in the sprints.
Cavendish had to hunt stages on his own most of the time, and he still came away with three stage victories at the Tour, including the prestigious win on the Champs-Élysées when it was Wiggins taking pulls for Cav. The result was a 23rd career Tour stage win.
“This Tour was different for me, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything,” he said. “To be a part of a British team winning the Tour for the first time was special. It was worth it, even if I didn’t win as many stages as before.”
Perhaps that was Cavendish playing it up for the TV cameras, because he was soon grumbling behind the scenes. Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford let it be no secret that Cavendish was free to go at the end of the year.
His season was bumpy at best. After winning early in the rainbow jersey, including the semiclassic Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Cav ran out of gas at Milan-San Remo when he was dropped on the La Manie climb. Bigger disappointment came in the Olympics, when Cavendish, the five-star favorite, was forced to watch the race slip away when the break stayed clear to snatch up all the medals.
More than anything, Cavendish proved in 2012 that he’s a fighter to the end. At the Giro d’Italia he just missed out on completing a prestigious grand tour points jersey sweep on the final weekend. Joaquim Rodríguez snatched away the points jersey on the Stelvio, but Cavendish rode his guts out in the final TT, on the unlikely chance he could regain two points to move back ahead of Rodríguez. He finished 55th and out of the points, but that ride, more than any, proved Cavendish is a champion’s champion.
His inconvenient marriage with Sky ended fairly smoothly and he’s set to join Omega Pharma-Quick Step for 2013. There, he will be reunited with sport director Brian Holm and ride once again on his favored Specialized bikes, two things that should put Cav on solid footing again. He will be out to silence any doubters and take on all comers in the sprints. Having more support in the train should make him even harder to beat.
International Breakthrough Rider of the Year: John Degenkolb
If you asked cycling fans at the beginning of the season who would be the next German sprint star, you’d probably hear the name Marcel Kittel again and again. And that wouldn’t be a bad answer; it just wouldn’t be the best answer.
That’s because Kittel was overshadowed by his less injury-plagued and more prolific Argos-Shimano teammate, John Degenkolb. From early February to mid-October, Degenkolb, who turned 23 in July, defied the logic that says youth can’t sustain speed for an entire season.
But sustain it he did. Starting at the Tour of Qatar and Paris-Nice, Degenkolb grabbed four top-five results. Then, at the season’s first great test, Milan-San Remo, he was pipped in the bunch sprint for fourth by Peter Sagan, placing fifth. The big German was on the cusp. A week later he took sixth at E3 Harelbeke, a harbinger of success at the Tour of Flanders.
In May, Degenkolb seared French soil with two victories at the Four Days of Dunkirk, and two more at the three-stage Tour of Picardie. He had found the winning way.
But it was at the Vuelta a España that he broke through to the other side. Degenkolb racked up an amazing five sprint victories, just one year after his grand tour debut in the same event.
“My career has gone one step ahead,” he said, “and the next one will be the Tour de France.”
The 2008 under-23 world road champion finished the season much as he started it — on the cusp of greatness. He took the field sprint for fourth place over the Cauberg at the world road championship; three weeks later he launched a last-ditch attack that fell just short of success at Paris-Tours, again coming across the line fourth.