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 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2016

Top Ten (plus) of 2015

It’s 2016! Say hello to the new year. Or, more to the point in this column, turn around and wave bye bye to the old year. In the grand old tradition of year-end retrospectives, I am once again cobbling together my Top Ten list from the world of professional road racing, this time for 2015.

Only it’s not exactly an even ten. I kicked the results around and dithered and stewed, and in the end could not quite pare the list down that far. But I’m doing better than I have in recent years. For 2013, I had a Top Ten list of 13 riders; for 2014, 13 again, plus an auxiliary list for sprinters. This year, I’ve got the sprinters and classics riders and GC riders all back on the same list and the total is only 11…okay, plus two honorable mentions. Gee, that sounds almost like 13 again.

After refreshing my memory about who did what this past year, one thing is perfectly clear: nothing is perfectly clear. It was a very muddled year, with no one rider standing head and shoulders above all the others. The assorted laurels were shared out fairly evenly over a broad sampling of good riders. No single rider marched through the competition like Sherman through Georgia. No one was so dominant that all the other riders looked like afterthoughts. The results were close in most of the major stage races and in most of the classics as well. There was only one competition that ended up in a total runaway, and I will get to that one a bit later.

So it was tough to rank these riders, and I will float the disclaimer that some of the choices could shift two or three places up or down and I wouldn’t argue too hard about that…about the relative merits of this rider over that one. No one who’s down near the bottom should be up at the top, and I’m pretty sure no one who is not on this list should be, although no doubt cases could be made for a few other worthies. It’s interesting—to me at least—to note that nine out of the 13 riders on my list last year are absent this year: Fabian Cancellara, Jean-Christophe Péraud, Tejay van Garderen, Philippe Gilbert, Rui di Costa, Niki Terpstra, Michal Kwiatkowski, Simon Gerrans, and Vincenzo Nibali. That’s a lot of turnover.

Some of that displacement is due to shortening the list. Some is due to adding some riders back into the “all-around” list who were on the stand-alone sprinters’ list last year. (Those distinctions get a little blurry in the real world, where some so-called sprinters can climb pretty well and some so-called climbers can sprint respectably, not to mention which riders can crank out better efforts in time trials.) But mostly those riders are gone because they simply didn’t do that well. I don’t think any of them retired. They just didn’t do much.

Before getting into the countdown to number one, let me toss in two honorable mentions for pure sprinters who didn’t make the list. Mark Cavendish and Elia Viviani both had 11 wins. Viviani won one stage apiece at the Giro, the Eneco Tour, the Dubai Tour, two stages and the points jersey at the Abu Dhabi Tour, three at the Tour of Great Britain, and three other minor wins. Cavendish won four stages and the points jersey at the Tour of California, three stages and the points jersey at the Tour of Turkey, and two stages, the points jersey and the overall at the Dubai Tour. He also won one stage at the Tour de France and the spring classic Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Okay then…drum roll, please: let’s get into the short list of top riders for 2015…

11. Alexander Kristoff, Norway, 28, Katusha. This classics specialist had a break-out year. (Last year, he was on my sprinters’ honorable mention list for winning Milano-San Remo.) His biggest win this year was the super-prestigious Tour of Flanders. He also won the classics GP Ouest France and Schelderprijs and one stage each at the Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice, the Tour of Oman, and a couple of minor races. He won three stages, the points jersey, and the overall at the Three Days of De Panne. He won three stages and the points jersey at the Tour of Quatar, two stages and the points jersey at the Tour de Fjords, and two stages and the points jersey at the Tour of Norway. He had eight other top ten finishes, including seconds at Milano-San Remo and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. All of that busy activity netted him fourth place overall in the season-long UCI points rankings.
10. John Degenkolb, Germany, 26, Giant-Alpecin. He won two stages and the points classification at Bayern-Rundfahrt, one stage each at the Vuelta and the Dubai Tour (beating Alejandro Valverde in a 17% uphill finish), and won four other minor races. Doesn’t seem like enough to make the list, right? But he won two other races and they make all the difference. He became the first rider since Sean Kelly in 1986 to win both Milano-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in the same year. A victory in either one might have been enough to make my list—as it was for Niki Terpstra at Roubaix last year—but both? That is heroic…historic.
9. Rohan Dennis, Australia, 25, BMC Racing Team. This young, emerging star won the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, taking out the mountainous Stage 4 and the Stage 5 ITT. He also came away with the mountains jersey. He won the early-season Tour Down Under, including winning the mountaintop Stage 3. He was second in his National Time Trial and was part of the winning BMC World Team Time Trial Championship effort. He won the only ITT at the Tour de France (the prologue) and was part of the BMC team that won the TTT. Clearly very strong in races against the clock, he capped off his season by setting the World Hour Record at 52.491 km (32.54 miles).
8. Richie Porte, Australia, 30, Team Sky. Porte won the overall at Paris-Nice, winning a mountaintop stage and the ITT. He was first overall at the Volta a Catalunya. First overall again at the Giro del Trentino, winning Stage 2. He won the Australian Time Trial Championship. He was second overall at the Tour Down Under, winning the queen stage. And fourth overall at the Volta ao Algarve, winning one stage and the mountains classification. One of his best efforts of the year was working as the top domestique for Chris Froome at the Tour de France. Most notably, on the first big mountain finish, he paced Froome to the lead, then had enough left to pass Nairo Quintana for second and deprive Froome’s chief rival of the bonus seconds he would have otherwise gained. Porte is moving to BMC this year, where he’ll join Tejay van Garderen and Rohan Dennis on a formidable team.
7. Joaquim Rodriguez, Spain, 36, Katusha. El Purito did not have quite the stellar season he has had in some years, but he was always in the mix, always a contender. He was first overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, winning two stages and also taking the points jersey. He was second overall at the Vuelta and won the combination classification. He won two stages at the Tour de France. He was third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, fourth at Flèche Walloon, and fifth at San Sebastian. His consistently high placings all year added up to second overall in the UCI season-long rankings.
6. Peter Sagan, Slovakia, 25, Tinkoff-Saxo. Sagan won the Tour of California, winning two stages and battling ferociously for every second in others. (His final margin of victory was :03.) He won both the Road Race and the ITT in the Slovakian National Championships. He won one stage and the points jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico, two stages and the points jersey at the Tour de Suisse, and points jersey—but no stages—at the Tour de France. He also won one stage at the Vuelta. And he was fourth at both Milano-San Remo and Flanders. But what puts him so far up this list was winning the World Championship Road Race in Richmond, Virginia in September. Sagan is one of those sprinters who can also climb, at least for shorter distances, and he made his winning move on the 20% cobblestone wall of Libby Hill on the final lap.
5. Nairo Quintana, Columbia, 25, Movistar. Quintana did not have as good a season as the previous year either, but like Rodriquez, he was always a major player…someone to be reckoned with. He won the overall at the early-season Tirreno-Adriatico (against a star-studded cast of rivals), winning one stage. He was second overall at the Route du Sud, third overall at the Tour de San Luis, fourth overall at the Vuelta and at the Tour of the Basque Country. Most significantly, he was a close second to Chris Froome at the Tour de France and gave the final winner pretty much all he could handle in the final week. As noted in my past columns about the Tour and the Vuelta, he lost time in both events on otherwise unimportant stages. At the Tour, he lost more time than the final margin of victory by missing out on a simple crosswind-echelon move on Stage 2. And at the Vuelta, he lost more time than the margin of victory when he was hammered by the flu on one early stage. Absent those two mishaps, he might have won two of the Grand Tours. In end, all his hard work left him third overall in the UCI World Tour rankings.
4. Alejandro Valverde, Spain, 35, Movistar. My perennial Mr Almost did plenty of winning in 2015, but also plenty more in the way of near misses. His biggest outright wins of the year were the Spanish National Championship Road Race and the two very important spring classics Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Flèche Wallonne (both with brutal uphill finishes). He was second overall at the Volta a Catalunya, winning three stages, second in the Amstel Gold spring classic, third overall at the Tour de France and at the Tour of Oman, third at San Sebastian and Strade Bianche, fourth at Lombardia and at the Dubai Tour, fifth in the World Road Race Championship, seventh at the Vuelta, with one stage win and the points jersey. And so on, and on and on…so many almosts…again. All of his consistently excellent placings resulted in his finishing first in the UCI World Tour rankings…again. This is the only runaway win of the entire year, really. Think about this: his points total for the season is 675. The next six riders in the rankings—Joaquin Rodriguez, Nairo Quintana, Alexander Kristoff, Fabio Aru, Chris Froome, and Alberto Contador—have point totals from 475 to 407. That murderers’ row of superstars—all on this list—fall within a range of 68 points. Meanwhile, Valverde is 200 points ahead of second place. His legacy may be to go down in history as one of the greatest cyclists to never win a Grand Tour.
3. Fabio Aru, Italy, 25, Aatana. As I said at the top, the incremental differences between the best riders this year are tiny, and nowhere is that more the case than among the three lads who occupy the steps on my podium. In fact, I’m almost inclined to declare a tie for second between Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru. But because that would look messy and also like a weeny cop-out on my part, I’m shading things ever-so-slightly to Contador. Aru was not on my list last year, although I mentioned him as one of the younger riders knocking on the door, looking to work their way onto the Top Ten list…and now, here he is, very near the top of the heap. His crowning glory for the year was winning the Vuelta a España with a gutsy attack on the final mountain stage. He also finished second behind Contador at the Giro (winning two stages) and coulda, shoulda, woulda won the overall if his team had played their cards a little better. (This takes nothing away from Contador, who did play his cards right.) After that frustrating near-miss at the Giro, Aru and his handlers got their tactics sorted out for the Vuelta and it all came right for them, with the young Sardinian winning his first Grand Tour. He had an assortment of other good finishes over the year and finished 5th in the UCI rankings.
2. Alberto Contador, Spain, 33, Tinkoff-Saxo. Contador’s year would have been a glossy triumph for almost anyone except himself. But he has set the bar so high in past years, anything less than total domination seems like an off year. (He was #1 on my list last year.) But his year was not exactly mediocre. He won the Giro d’Italia, arguably the second most important stage race of any year. He did not win any stages though, but eked out the victory with careful race management and with a lot of grinta, and frankly, with a helping hand from some rather dubious race tactics from his chief rivals on the Astana team. He also finished first overall at the Route du Sud, winning one stage, and second overall at the Vuelta a Andalucia, winning one stage but losing the overall in a gritty uphill battle with Chris Froome on the queen stage. Also fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya, and fifth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico. And of course fifth overall at the Tour de France, where he was trying to do what everyone says can’t be done anymore: win the Giro-Tour double. He didn’t manage it, but hat’s off to him for trying.
1. Chris Froome, Great Britain, 30, Team Sky. Froome was #1 on my list two years ago, then fell to 5th last year. Now he’s back on top, thanks primarily to again winning the Greatest Show on Earth: the Tour de France. That triumph is well documented elsewhere, including in my review of the race. But that was not the sum of his season. He finished first overall at the Vuelta a Andalucia—winning that critical mountain stage ahead of Contador—and also claiming the points jersey. He won the overall at the prestigious Criterium du Dauphiné, winning two stages. And he was third at the Tour de Romandie, winning one stage. There may not be as many lines in his palmarés as there are for a few other riders this year, but the victories and top finishes that are on his list are big ones, including of course the biggest stage race of them all.

The differences between Froome, Contador, Aru, Valverde, and Quintana are slight and subtle…itty bitty gradations. So minute are the little advantages and weaknesses among them that any tweak of fate or tactics or grit can make all the difference between first and fifth. Most of the riders on this list are young—four are only 25—and so we can expect them to be working at or near their peaks for years to come.

Now, if ASO and the UCI can work out their political wrangling, we can look forward to another amazing year of racing in 2016. (Yes, the bureaucrats and lawyers are all balled up in yet another off-season pissing match, with no end in sight yet. Let’s hope they come to their senses and remember that racing is about the racers and not about the suits and the money men.) Meanwhile, from our mid-Winter, hot-stove perspective, we can look back and recall the great days of racing that blew along our back roads this past year.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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