On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 12/1/2016
Bill’s Top Ten for 2017
I’ve come to enjoy these Top Ten lists at the end of the year, if for no other reason than that they save me from having to think up some new topic for a monthly column. But even if the topic is obvious, that doesn’t make these columns any easier to prepare. They require a good bit of study. As a long-time fan of professional bike racing, I have the greatest respect for the riders who ply that craft. In terms of maximum effort expended, day after day, over a long season…the gut-busting, lung-baking, leg-breaking challenge of cycling is hard to match. That’s why I revere the riders who do it, and that’s why I take these lists seriously.
To honor those hard-working riders, I work hard on my choices. I go back over the season and reacquaint myself with the results, from the first races in far-off places in late winter, through the rainy spring classics, through the grand tours and the one-week stage races, right up to the last races of fall and the Worlds. And this year we have the Olympics in the mix as well. I consider not just what they won but how they won. I have pages of scribbled notes in front of me as I write this. Other students of racing might quibble with my final list, but they can’t accuse me of being slackadaisical in my research and head-scratching.
It would be reasonable to debate my conclusions, or anyone else’s conclusions, this year. There was no one rider who dominated the entire season. There were three different winners in the three grand tours. There was no one sprinter who won consistently. Some of the most important classics of the year were won by riders whose names are not exactly household standards for bike fans…Arnaud Demare at Milano-San Remo and Matthew Hayman at Paris-Roubaix, for two examples. The season was wide open.
In some of my past annual lists, I’ve had trouble keeping it to a top ten. There seemed to be so many strong riders—or strong performances—that I was waffling around with as many as a baker’s dozen instead of ten, or breaking the sprinters out in their own mini-list. I didn’t have that problem this year. Quite the opposite: I was stumped (almost) to come up with ten riders who stood tall enough to be head and shoulders above the rest of the peloton. If you have a pessimistic turn of mind, you might say this is a sign of mediocrity all across the board. if you are more of an optimist, you will say this is a healthy sign of parity: that many excellent riders are training harder, with better support from their teams and staffs, etc. Also: perhaps no one is juiced on dope and riding like a superman. Or it could just be that this is the way it is right now: these are the riders we’ve got…good, bad, or somewhere in between.
All that said, let’s get on with the list…
|10. Alexander Kristoff. 29, Norway, Team Katusha. If there was parity (or mediocrity) all across the board in cycling, that goes double for the hard boys who battle it out in the field sprints. All the most recent stalwarts were on the job this year, from Cavendish to Kittel, plus a few up-and-comers. But no one sprinter really cleaned the table. However, among that crop of almost-equal competitors, Kristoff stands just the tiniest bit taller. (I’m not counting Peter Sagan in this group. I will get to him later.) Kristoff won 12 times, although most of his sprint victories came in relatively minor events. He had several more top-ten results, and this consistency netted him the highest placing among the pure sprinters—7th—in the year-long UCI World Tour standings (again, not counting Sagan).|
|9. Romain Bardet. 26, France, AG2R La Mondiale. As far as I can tell, Bardet won only one race all year, but that was a big one: Stage 19 of the Tour de France. On a treacherous, rain-slick descent near the finish, while all the other contenders were either crashing or doing cautious damage control, he launched a balls-to-the-wall attack and then kept the hammer down on the final climb to win the stage and jump from 5th overall to 2nd, where he stayed until Paris. This sent the French press into raptures and earned him the uneasy crown as the Next Great French Hope. Aside from that one bright moment, he finished 2nd overall at the Tour of Oman, the Dauphiné, and the Giro dell’Emilia, and had seven other top-ten finishes. All of that earned him 6th place in the UCI standings. He’s only 26 and, according to folks who follow cycling more closely than I do, he has all the right tools to improve in the years ahead. So, unlike others on the long list of Next Great French Hopes—Thomas Voeckler, Pierre Rolland, Thibaut Pinot, etc—Bardet may inch up this list in the years ahead.|
|8. Alberto Contador. 33, Spain, Saxo Bank. Contador finished 8th in the UCI season standings and he’s 8th on my list. That’s quite a tumble down the ranks for this superstar, who was 1st on my list in 2014 and 2nd in 2015. But it was that kind of year for him. He won the Tour of the Basque Country and the Vuelta a Burgos, was 2nd at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Catalunya. And finally a battling, gutsy 4th at the Vuelta. He crashed early in the Tour de France and soldiered on in rather battered shape, finally withdrawing when a fever piled onto the war wounds to make it all too difficult. He was injured early in the Vuelta as well and struggled mightily to get that 4th place, just 13 seconds off the podium. Early this year he had suggested 2016 would be his last season, but no…he has signed up with a new team for 2017. I doubt he can come back to his former king-of-the-hill status, winning grand tours, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him a bit higher on this list a year from now.|
|7. Alejandro Valverde. 36, Spain, Movistar. I have something of a log jam for the middle positions on this list, from 7 up to 4. You could shuffle these four up or down and get no argument from me. Valverde had a good season but not quite as good as some of his other recent campaigns. He won the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon stage race, winning Stages 2 and 3. He won The Vuelta a Andalucia, taking out Stage 5. He won the presitgious spring classic La Fléche Wallone (again). He finished 3rd in his first-ever Giro and 6th at the Tour de France. He also worked his fanny off for team leader (and winner) Nairo Quintana at the Vuelta a España on his way to a respectable 12th place. His body of work this year added up to 5th in the UCI rankings. This list is not a lifetime achievement award. If it were, the entry for this old warhorse would run on and on. But I thought it worth mentioning that over the past 15 years of grand tours, he has stood on a podium nine times and has a total of 16 top tens.|
|6. Esteban Chaves. 26, Columbia, Orica-GreenEdge. Along with his countryman Quintana, Chaves is the only rider in 2016 to stand on two grand tour podiums: 2nd at the Giro—winning Stage 14—and 3rd at the Vuelta. He won the Giro dell’Emilia and capped off his season nicely with a snappy sprint win (out of a group of escapees) at the last monument of the season, the Giro di Lombardia. Like Bardet, he’s another young rider with a bright future. The biggest knock on him at this point: can’t time trial. Frankly, I can’t envision him becoming a demon against the clock, but if he can just improve a little, he may be a force to be reckoned with in future stage races.|
|5. Greg Van Avermaet. 31, Belgium, BMC. This may be the most surprising entry on this list, the guy we would not have expected to be here. But he had a season most riders would love to have. He won the prestigious, early-season stage race Tirreno-Adriatico, a slim one second ahead of Peter Sagan. To be fair, the queen stage of the tour was cancelled because of snow, and there were half a dozen better climbers behind both these classics riders who might have caught them in the hills. But hey, that’s racing. You play the cards you’re dealt. He caught the cycling world’s attention when he won Stage 5 at the Tour de France and donned the yellow jersey. He defended it with real panache through the next two stages. Very impressive. He finished a close second to Sagan at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, then a few days later, turned the tables, winning the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal, just ahead of Sagan. He had four more firsts in lesser races and nine other top ten finishes, mostly in significant races. But the biggest feather in his cap this year was winning the road race at the Rio Olympics. All that good work left him ranked 3rd in the UCI World Tour standings.|
|4. Vincenzo Nibali. 32, Italy, Astana. Vinnie Nibali won the Giro d’Italia—as detailed in my race report—which earns him his place on this list, regardless of what else he did this year. And the fact is, he didn’t do much else. He won the Tour of Oman by winning the hilly Stage 4. He was part of Astana’s TTT win at the Giro del Trentino. He had a 4th and a 6th in two lesser stage races. And that’s it, pretty much. One could argue that such palmares do not make him the 4th best rider in the world in 2016. But the way he won the Giro—arguably one of the three most important cycling races of the year—was so dramatic, so charged with emotion and courage, that I am willing to cut him some slack on the rest of his season. Although still only 32, one wonders if he has any more major wins ahead of him. But after his back-from-the-dead victory in the Giro, it would be unwise to count him out completely.|
|3. Peter Sagan. 26, Slovakia, Tinkoff. Peter Sagan is a strange beast. A case could be made that he is the most talented and strongest bike rider alive today. He can duke it out with the best of the sprinters. He can hold his own in the cobbled classics. He can time trial. He can even climb…at least for short distances. Ah, but there is his Achilles Heel: at 6’ and 161 pounds, he is a bit too beefy to ever be a full-tilt stage race all-rounder. The monster ascents of the grand tours are just too much for him…at least at this point. Some speculate that if he shed 15 pounds and concentrated on his climbing, he might be able to manage the biggest tours. So far, he hasn’t been inclined to do that. But in the meantime, we get to enjoy him just as he is. He missed victory at Tirreno-Adriatico by one second. He won the spring classics Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders (one of the biggest prizes of any year). He won Stages 1 and 4 at the Tour of California to take the points jersey. He won Stages 1 and 2 at the Tour de Suisse. He won Stages 2, 11, and 16 at the Tour de France on his way to the points jersey. Finally, he defended his 2015 rainbow jersey by repeating as World Champion. All of that added up to being ranked #1 in the UCI standings, and it wasn’t even close. Chris Froome, Greg Van Avermaet, and Nairo Quintana had 3771, 3711, and 3568 points for places 2 through 4 in the standings. Sagan had 5359. Ouch! His Tinkoff team has disbanded, so he will be with a new team next year. Still only 26, who knows how good this kid might eventually become?|
|2. Nairo Quintana. 26, Colombia, Movistar. Quintana won the Vuelta a España in a closely fought battle with Chris Froome, as reported in my Vuelta write-up. But he was no one-trick pony. He had a sensational season. He won the Volta a Catalunya stage race, the Tour of Romandie, winning Stage 2, and the Route du Sud, winning the time trial. (That’s a significant item: he has been and still is somewhat vulnerable in time trials against the best all-rounders, but he’s getting better.) He was 3rd at the Tour of the Basque Country and the Tour de San Luis. Most notably, we was a somewhat lukewarm 3rd at the Tour de France, never really coming to grips with Chris Froome. But the way he dealt with Froome and the mighty Sky team at the Vuelta bodes well for the seasons ahead. He too is only 26. I doubt we’ve seen his best yet.|
|1. Chris Froome. 31, Britain, Team Sky. It was a close race between Froome and Quintana for the top spot on my list, but in the end, I feel comfortable rating Froomy #1 for the second year in a row. He won the Tour de France fairly convincingly—as I reported here—thanks in part to his powerful team and in part to his killer time-trialing: he won both ITTs. And whether you like it or not, the Tour is a bigger prize than either the Giro or the Vuelta. But as is the case with Quintana, Froome did more than just win one grand tour. He won the important Critérium du Dauphiné, including winning Stage 5. He won the Herald Sun Tour. He won Stage 4 of the Tour of Romandie and was 3rd in the Olympic time trial. He finished that oh-so-close second to Quintana in the Vuelta, winning three stages: a team time trial, the ITT and also Stage 11, a thrilling, mano-a-mano slugfest with Quintana. He finished 2nd in the UCI World Tour standings.|
Froome and Quintana rule the roost right now, almost but not quite equal. It’s a fairly safe prediction to say the two of them will be going head to head for a few years yet, scrapping over the biggest prizes in the sport. Which other riders will join them in the biggest-of-all battles? That is not quite so easy to predict.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com