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 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2015

The Top Riders of 2014

This may be the first column of 2015, but it's being written on December 29, 2014, and the view is backward into the past year, reviewing all the races and racers to see whose stars shined brightest.

I end up this year with the same problem I had last year: I started out with the idea of doing a Top Ten list, but couldn't whittle it down to just ten riders. Last year I ended up with 13—a bakers dozen—and this year, it's even worst. I have my list down to 13, but I'm going to have to add an auxiliary list for the sprinters.

Let's face it: sprinters really are in a class of their own, a subset of bike racing. It's a hugely entertaining subset and one that demands the greatest respect from the fans, especially fans such as this one, who has never sprinted for anything more significant than a county line sign. What they do takes great strength and wily calculation and cojones the size of grapefruit. But they are usually specialists…a master of one skill but sorely deficient in most of the rest of the ways that make the best all-rounders the true champions. So it's close to silly to try and include them in a list of best riders of the year, unless of course your sprinter is someone like Eddy Merckx.

This year there were no Cannibals in the sprinters' ranks. The hardest of the hard guys were almost all single-purpose, field-sprint rockets, capable of 200 or 300 meters of blistering acceleration at the end of a stage, always provided they hadn't been scraped off the back end of the peloton on some hill near the finish. The one exception to that might be Slovakian Peter Sagan. He really can climb a bit, now and then, and even though he's not the absolutely fastest man on two wheels, he can do a decent sprint. That jack-of-all-trades resumé only earned him seven wins in 2014, but he made the most of them, parlaying those few victories and a slew of near-wins into the points jerseys at Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour de Suisse, Tour of California, and, most importantly, the Tour de France.

Among the pure sprinters, four were approximately equal. According to my reckoning, the big German, Marcel Kittel, had the most wins—14—including some on the biggest stages: two at the Giro and four at the Tour de France. When all other factors were equal, he did seem the strongest. His compatriot John Degenkolb was not far behind. He won 10 races, including the spring classic Gent-Wevelgem. He won the points jerseys at the Tour Méditerranéen, Paris-Nice, and the Vuelta a España, where he dominated, winning four times.

Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni had a good year too—a break-out year, really—winning 11 times, including three stages at the Giro, which secured the points jersey. He also won the points jersey at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Finally, Norwegian Alexander Kristoff won 13 races. Most were fairly minor, but one was as important as they come: Milano-San Remo.

Now then, on to the all-rounders, plus a few classics riders…

Cancellera 13. Fabian Cancellara, Switzerland, 33, Trek Factory Racing. In 5th place on my list last year, Spartacus almost drops off the list in 2015 but just hangs in there by virtue of winning the Tour of Flanders (for the third time). He also won the Swiss national time trial (again) and was 2nd at Milano-San Remo and 3rd at Paris-Roubaix.
Peraud 12. Jean-Christophe Péraud, France, 37, Ag2r-La Mondiale. Péraud is a bit of a late bloomer. Coming over from mountain biking—a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics—he didn't join the pro ranks until he was 32, an age when many riders are thinking about hanging it up. But he has had a good if not spectacular career since then. This year, he had his best results ever. Most notably, he won the Critérium International and was 2nd at the Tour de France. He was also 2nd at the Tour Méditerranéen, 3rd at the Tour of the Basque Country, and 4th at Tirreno-Adriatico, all of it adding up to 9th in the final season UCI World Tour ranking.
van Garderen 11. Tejay van Garderen, USA, 26, Team BMC. The only American on my list, Tejay is still lurking just outside the Top Ten. He repeated as winner of the US Pro Challenge, winning the queen mountain stage and the ITT. But he did not repeat as winner of the Tour of California. He was part of the BMC team that won the World Team Time Trial Championship. He was 2nd at the Tour of Oman, 3rd at the Tour of Catalunya, and a battling, gritty 5th overall at the Tour de France.
Gilbert 10. Philippe Gilbert, Belgium, 32, Team BMC. Not a great year for Gilbert, but better than most other riders. He won the spring classic Amstel Gold and the semi-classic Brabantse-Pijl. He won two road races: Ster ZLM Toer (winning the Prologue and one stage) and the Tour of Beijing (winning one stage).
di Costa 9. Rui di Costa, Portugal, 28, Movistar. Not quite the star-studded year he had in 2013, but still respectable. Costa won the Tour de Suisse for the third year in a row. He was 2nd at Paris-Nice, 2nd at the Grand Prix de Montreal, 3rd at the Tour of Romandie, 3rd at the Giro di Lombardia, and 3rd at the Volta ao Algarve. All those good finishes added up to 4th overall in the UCI World Tour ranking.
Terpstra 8. Niki Terpstra, Holland, 30, Omega Pharma-Quick Step. A new name on the list this year, but a well-earned placing. He won the early-season Tour of Quatar, won Dwars door Vlanderen and Amstel Curaçao, and was 2nd at E3 Harelbeke and the Dutch Road Race Championship. But what really put the star on top of Niki's tree in 2014, and earns him his place on my list, was winning Paris-Roubaix with a gutsy breakaway in the late miles.
Kwiatkowski 7. Michal Kwiatkowski, Poland, 24, Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The youngest member of my list. His most notable accomplishment this year was winning the World Championship, the first Polish rider to do so. But he had more success than just that one great day. He won the Volta ao Algarve, taking two stage wins in the process. He won Strade Bianche. He won the Polish time trial championship. He won stages at Tirenno-Adriatico and Romandie. He was 2nd overall at the Tour of Great Britain and the Tour of the Basque Country, taking away the points jerseys in both stage races. He was 3rd at Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. So here's a guy who's only 24. He won time trials. He won points jerseys (sprinting), he won on gravel (Strade Bianche). He was a factor in the most prestigious spring classics. And he won the World Championship. Someone to watch!
Gerrans 6. Simon Gerrans, Austraila, 34, Orica-GreenEDGE. Another new name on the list and, frankly, one I would not have considered until I started checking over the season's results. His name kept popping up all over the map. He opened his account by winning the Tour Down Under stage race, including winning Stage 1 and the points jersey to go with the GC jersey. He won la Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Grand Prix de Québec and the Grand Prix de Montréal. He was a fast-closing 2nd behind Kwiatkowski in the World Championship and 3rd at Amstel Gold. All of that netted him 3rd place in the UCI World Tour ranking.
Froome 5. Chris Froome, GB, 29, Team Sky. A bit of a fall from his exalted position on my list last year (#1), but still a season most cyclists would consider a success. Froome won the early season Tour of Oman, including the decisive Stage 5. He won the Tour of Romandie, including the ITT. He won two stages and the points jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné. He was considered the favorite going into the Tour de France but crashed out on Stage 5. He came back at the Vuelta and finished a heroic 2nd, losing to Contador by a slim 1:10, but receiving the consolation prize of the Most Combative jersey, which he certainly deserved. He was 7th in the UCI World Tour ranking.
Valverde 4. Alejandro Valverde, Spain, 34, Movistar. Valverde almost shed his title of Mr Almost this past year. Yes, he did have some near misses, in his usual style. He was 2nd at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia, 3rd at Strade Bianche and the World Championship and the Vuelta (where he won two stages). He was 4th at Amstel Gold and the Tour de France. But he didn't always just barely miss out. He won the Vuelta a Andalucia road race, winning three stages and taking home not only the GC jersey but also the points jersey and the combined jersey. He won the classics Fleche Wallonne and San Sebastian, along with the Vuelta a Murcia, Roma Maxima, and GP Miguel Indurain. All that added up to #1 in the UCI World Tour ranking. A very good year. Almost a great year.
Quintana 3. Nairo Quintana, Columbia, 24, Movistar. Not quite the youngest rider on my list—five months older than Kwiatkowski—Quintana is still very much a young gun, a rising star, and no telling how good he might become. He has already reached the highest ranks in the sport by winning the Giro d'Italia in 2014, taking out two decisive mountain stages on the way to the maglia rosa. He also won the Tour de San Luis and the Vuelta a Burgos, winning the significant mountain stage in each tour and taking home the climber's jersey along with the GC jersey in both stage races. He was 2nd overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and took home the Best Young Rider jersey. He skipped the Tour de France to focus on the Vuelta, where he was in the lead when he crashed on Stage 9 and had to abandon the next day. We're left wondering what might have been and what lies in store for 2015.
Nibali 2. Vincenzo Nibali, Italy, 29, Astana. I had Vinnie in 2nd place on my list last year, and here he remains. It was really a tough call whether to elevate him to the top position. After all, he won the biggest stage race of the year—the Tour de France—and he did it convincingly…a total smack-down from start to finish. He won four stages and was in control throughout. He took time off his GC rivals in all sorts of ways. He was strongest in the mountains; he was a feisty opportunist in the sprints; he was solid in the time trials and better than all the rest on the cobbles. He was a classic all-rounder. The only problem with Nibali's season is that the Tour de France is pretty much all he did, all year. He won the Italian National Road Race, but that was about it for other palmarés. He was a rather lackluster 5th at Romandie and 7th at the Dauphiné. That's it. The big points haul from the TdF netted him 5th place in the UCI ranking, but overall, it wasn't really a complete year.
Contador 1. Alberto Contador, Spain, 32, Saxo-Tinkoff. A new name to my list but certainly not new to the world of cycling. Last year, Contador sat out most of the season because of his "tainted beef" suspension, otherwise known as doping. His star was tarnished and no one was really sure if he could return to his former days of glory. He did in fact return, but in a rather improbable way. He got going in good form early on: 1st at Tirreno Adriatico, winning two stages; 1st at the Tour of the Basque Country, winning another stage. He was 2nd at Volta ao Algarve, Volta a Catalunya, and the Dauphiné. So far so good. But he crashed out of the Tour de France with a broken leg. Many assumed his season was over. But 46 days later, with the leg barely healed, he began the Vuelta a España. Three weeks later, he had won it, scrapping and clawing against an all-star cast of rivals, picking up two convincing mountaintop victories. All of his season-long success rewarded him with 2nd in the UCI World Tour standings. It is because of that remarkable comeback from injury at the Vuelta, plus his entire body of work for the year, that I have to tip the chapeau in his direction…a more impressive year overall than that of Nibali or any of the others.

It was fun putting this list together, sifting through the season's results to refresh my memory about who did what. Some of my eventual rankings were tough. I could have swapped folks around, up or down. There's not much to differentiate between many of the mid-list placings. They're all good, or at least they all did good things in 2014. And there are others knocking at the door for entry to this elite penthouse at the top of the tower. Fabio Aru (3rd at the Giro and 5th at the Vuelta and winner of three grand tour stages), Joaquin Rodriguez (winner of the Volta a Catalunya), Carlos Betancur (winner of Paris-Nice and Tour du Haut Var), Dan Martin (winner of Lombardia), Rafal Majka (winner of the Tour of Poland and two TdF stages), Rigoberto Uran (2nd at the Giro and winner of the ITT). If I do another year-end wrap-up for 2015, some of these very good riders may crash the party and bump a few of the current stars aside.

But for now, at the start of the new year, let's enjoy the mixed sensations of rejoicing in the grand racing we saw this past year, while at the same time looking ahead to all the as-yet unknown developments awaiting us in the season to come. Happy New Year!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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