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 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2014

The Bakers' Dozen of 2013

Last month I did a Top Ten wish list for road paving projects in Sonoma County. (Or should that be Bottom Ten?) But I promised then that I would be less provincial and return to a more global perspective on the cycling world the next month. That month has arrived, and true to my word, I am doing a retrospective on the past year in road racing, also in the form of a Top Ten list.

The last time I did a road racing Top Ten was back in this month of 2011, cobbling together my personal ten favorite highlights of 2010. This time around, I have stumped myself trying to come up with the ten best highlights of the past season. So I'm taking a different approach and counting down my choices for the top riders of 2013, although I have so many favorite riders this year, it has turned into a Top 13…a Bakers' Dozen of best riders. If you want, you can call it a Top Ten with three Honorable Mentions.

So, without further prologue, let's get after it…

13. Tejay Van Garderen, USA, 25, BMC. In some respects, it's disappointing to see Van Garderen all the way down at the bottom of this "top" list. He did well, but many expected him to do even better. He won the two biggest races in North America, the Tour of California and the US Pro Challenge, and he secured both victories by winning the events' individual time trials. He was 2nd at the early-season Tour de San Luis in Argentina, helping his BMC team win the team competition. He was 3rd at the Critérium International and won the Best Young Rider award, and he was 4th at the Paris-Nice stage race. And he had that so-close, what-if 2nd at the Alpe d'Huez queen stage of the Tour. But the rest of his Tour was a big fizzle, and therein lies much of the disappointment for his year.

12. Richie Porte, Australia, 28, Team Sky. Richie Porte spent most of his season riding as a super-lieutenant for team leader Chris Froome, and he did a great job of it, absolutely killing all the pretenders on all the long ascents at the Tour de France (and elsewhere) before handing the leads to Froome. But he did okay on his own too. His biggest career victory so far was the Paris-Nice stage race, which he nailed with a decisive mountaintop stage win and then a win in the final ITT. He was 2nd at the Critérium International behind team leader Froome, but ahead of him in winning the ITT. He was 2nd again at the Critérium du Dauphiné, again behind Froome (and again riding in support of his leader). Finally, he was 2nd at the Tour of the Basque Country, winning one stage. Not bad for a support rider.

11. Dan Martin, Ireland, 27, Garmin. Martin won the early-season stage race Volta a Catalunya ahead of a star-studded cast. He won the classic monument Liege-Bastogne-Liege ahead of another strong field. He won Stage 9 at the Tour de France and was 4th at two more classics, Fleche-Wallone and the Giro di Lombardia.

10. Alejandro Valverde, Spain, 33, Movistar. Valverde had another year in a long career of being almost the best rider of his generation. "Almost" is almost his middle name now, he's been so close to the top so many times. This past year he won two minor events, was 2nd at Lombardia, Amstel Gold, and Classica San Sebastian, 3rd at the Vuelta a Murcia, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Vuelta a España, and the World Championships. And all of those almost victories brought him to 3rd place in the 2013 UCI rankings. So close…

9. Mark Cavendish, GB, 28, Omega. Cavendish had another great year as one of the best sprinters ever. He won the Tour of Qatar outright after winning four sprint finishes. He took six sprints at the Giro d'Italia to win the points jersey, becoming only the 6th rider to win the points jerseys in all three Grand Tours. He won two stages at the Tour de France, bringing his total TdF wins to 25, a new record. He won two stages at the Tour of Great Britain and also won the British National Championship Road Race.

8. Peter Sagan, Slovakia, 23, Cannondale. I was tempted to call it a tie between Cavendish and Sagan, the two most dominant sprinters this year, but finally tipped it in favor of Sagan by virtue of his sheer volume of victories. He won two one-day spring classics, Gent-Wevelgem and Brabantse Pijl and two other minor one-day races. He won four stages at the US Pro Challenge, two stages at the Tour of California, two stages at the Tour de Suisse, and one stage at the Tour de France, and in all of those events, he won the points classification. He also won two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico, two at the Tour of Oman, and one at the Three Days of De Panne. He won the Slovakian National Road Race. He was second at Milano-San Remo, Strade Bianche, E3 Harelbeke, and the Tour of Flanders. All of those wins and near-wins added up to 2nd in the UCI points rankings for the year. Whew…

7. Nairo Quintana, Columbia, 23, Movistar. Quintana opened his account for 2013 with a stage win and a 4th overall at the Volta a Catalunya in March. In April he won the Tour of the Basque Country stage race by winning the queen stage and by finishing second behind Tony Martin in the ITT. In August he won the Vuelta a Burgos, winning the final mountain stage and dropping no less than Vincenzo Nibali on the last climb. In between, in July, he really introduced himself to the cycling world, with a brilliant 2nd overall in his first Tour de France, which included winning not only the mountains jersey but the best young rider jersey as well. (He's only 23.) He also finished third in the time trial at Paris-Nice. At 5'5" and 126 pounds, his strength is climbing, but note those assorted ITT results. If he can refine an already pretty good skill in the time trials to go with his dazzling climbing, watch out.

6. Rui di Costa, Portugal, 27, Movistar. Some might say Rui di Costa is not so much good as fortunate…being in the right place at the right time. But as the old saying goes: you make your own luck. It was no fickle finger of fate that had him winning the prestigious Tour de Suisse, including taking out a stage win and also the ITT. He won two stages at the Tour de France out of breakaways, and he was 3rd overall at the Tour of Romandie. But what puts him on this list is winning the World Championship, which he did with a stirring, gutsy late chase to nip Joaquin Rodriguez at the line. He is often overshadowed by his teammates Valverde and Quintana…but not always.

5. Fabian Cancellara, Switzerland, 32, Radio Shack. After a couple of lackluster seasons, folks may have begun to wonder if this great racer was on the slippery slope to retirement. Not so fast! One of the greatest riders in history was back to something near his best in 2013. He won the Swiss National Time Trial and time trials at the Vuelta a España and Tour of Austria. He was 3rd in Milano-San Remo and 3rd in the World Championship ITT. But his crowning glory was again what it has been before: the cobbled double…winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix on back-to-back weekends in the Spring, with the semi-classic E3 Harelbeke thrown in. He's still only 32. Rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

4. Joaquin Rodgriguez, Spain, Katusha, 34. If Alejandro Valverde gets the prize for being almost there most often, he probably has to share that bittersweet step on the podium with his compatriot Joaquin Rodriguez. Over the last four years, El Purito has won some significant stages and races, but more frequently he has finished 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. This year was no different. He was 2nd at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 2nd at the Volta a Catalunya, 3rd at the Tour de France, 4th at the Vuelta a España, and, most painfully, 2nd at the World Championship, getting run down from behind in the final meters by the gritty Rui di Costa. That may be the most frustrating, heartbreaking near miss of his career. He did redeem things just a bit by winning the final monument of the season, the Giro di Lombardia (for the second year in a row). And, thanks to all those near misses, he also finished first in the UCI points rankings for the second year in a row and third year out of four.

3. Chris Horner, USA, Radio Shack, 42. This pick may reflect an emotional bias on my part: such a nice guy and such a nice story. But how can you keep a rider who won one of the three Grand Tours out of the top three? You can't! And he won it with such élan, such panache. I'm talking about the Vuelta a España, recounted in this space just a few months ago. But aside from that thrilling victory, he didn't have much to show for his season. He finished a respectable 6th at Tirreno-Adriatico in the early spring, then spent the bulk of the year rehabbing after knee surgery. He reappeared in time to take 2nd overall at the Tour of Utah and then went on to glory in the most improbable Vuelta victory ever. As I write this in mid-December, Horner is still without a contract for next year. He thinks he's good for at least one and possibly two more years, but after his Vuelta laurels, we was apparently asking too much for any team to want to spend on someone who will turn 43 next year. Now most teams have their rosters set for 2014, and Chris is still on the outside looking in. Amazing.

2. Vincenzo Nibali, Italy, Astana, 29. I reported on the Giro d'Italia in this column last year. Vinnie Nibali was the winner, overcoming not only all of his competitors but also the outrageously grisly weather (snow and rain on almost half the stages). He won an uphill time trial and a mountaintop finish (in the snow). It was heroic, epic. But that great stage race was not the sum total of his great season. He kicked things off by winning the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race (for the second year in the row), including that crazy stage where he dropped Chris Froome and Alberto Contador and the rest on a 30% wall (in the rain). He won the Giro del Trentino stage race, including taking out Stage 4 and claiming the mountains jersey in addition to the overall. He was a gritty, battling 2nd at the Vuelta, including winning the only ITT. He thus becomes the only rider to stand on two Grand Tour podiums this year. He was also 3rd at the Vuelta a Burgos and 4th at the World Championship. He's still just 29…

1. Chris Froome, GB, Team Sky, 28. As good as all these riders are, if you put them all together in one big race, the biggest race of all, Froome would be the winner. He was in fact the winner of the Tour de France. He won three stages, including two mountaintop finishes and the more mountainous time trial. He finished 2nd to ITT whiz Tony Martin in the flatter time trial. Those four stages pretty much sealed the deal. He was in control throughout, with plenty of help from a strong team (led by Richie Porte). But like Nibali, Froome was no one-trick pony. He had a busy year. He started off by winning the Tour of Oman, including winning one stage. He won the Critérium International, again winning the most important stage. He won the Tour of Romandie and then the Critérium du Dauphiné, yet again taking out the queen stage. He was also 2nd behind Nibali at Tirreno-Adriatico. He's still just 28…

With the weird, improbable exception of Horner, all of these riders are still in their fightin' prime, or, in a few cases, still ramping up to their best. We have no idea how good they might become. It bodes well for the coming seasons.

And I'm happy to reflect that we got through this season with almost no doping scandals. The only one I can recall of any note was Danilo DiLuca getting busted at the Giro, and what made that one interesting was how it was handled by the other riders. There was none of that uncomfortable silence and looking the other way, as if to say, "there but for the grace of testing results go I." No, they all dumped on poor, dimwit Danny like a load of bricks. He was vilified, criticized, ridiculed, and ostracized. And, in the end, banned for life. Good riddance. I suppose we've all had our naiveté scrubbed right down to the bare floor boards at this point, after so many years of so many scandals, but this one did feel different. The chemistry--so to speak--in the peloton feels a little more wholesome. We can hope…

PS: I wrote that back before Christmas. Wouldn't you know…no sooner were the words on the screen than we were hit with a high-profile drug bust in the peloton. It was just announced that Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff), the popular Australian veteran, tested positive for Clenbuterol back in October (the same drug his Saxo team leader, Alberto Contador, was busted for). Like Contador, Rogers is claiming the result stems from tainted food. Yeah, right. Just when you thought it might be safe to be an optimist again…

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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