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 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2018

Top Ten Wrap-up for 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to 2018 and let’s hope it’s a little less weird than 2017. But wait…as I write this on December 29, it is still 2017 and my journalistic attention is pointing backward, turning over the mostly fond memories of this past year in the world of professional bike racing (or at least its marquee subset: European-based road racing).

It’s time for my annual Top Ten list. I like doing these lists. They motivate me to browse back over the year and review all those hotly contested races…to relive the stages and heroics that got us all tied up in knots, back during the spring classics and the long season of stage races. Making up this list, or at least the “podium” end of it, should have been a no-brainer for this year, given the superb season of one particular rider. But that rider is now under a cloud of suspicion about doping and that makes me almost not want to do this list at all. However, for the moment, I am trying to remain optimistic that this issue will be resolved in a positive way, and with that mindset—picture me covering my eyes and ears at the same time—I will forge ahead with my list as if everything is hunky dunky.

In some years I’ve had a hard time whittling the winners down to just a top ten, but this year I managed it…almost. In addition to the top ten I want to offer an Honorable Mention to one old war horse who is retiring after a long, celebrated career: Alberto Contador. El Pistolero only won one stage all year, although it was a whopper: the Angliru mountain finish at the end of the Vuelta a España. He was second several times and those seconds were mostly by heartbreakingly close margins. Just a few cranks on the pedals or a few turns of the wheel of fate and he might have won four or five big races in his last season. He did enough to finish 10th in the 2017 UCI World Tour standings. It may be a long way from his glory days but it’s still better than most pros will ever accomplish. Chapeau! to a great champion.

Now on to the list…

10

Uran

Rigoberto Uran, 30, Colombia, Cannondale

Uran only finished 20th in the UCI standings but he made a bigger impression than that when it mattered most: he finished a very competitive 2nd at the Tour de France. And to prove that wasn’t a one-time-only fluke, he won the Milano-Torino classic on October 10. Although only 30, he’s been a pro for over a dozen years and has had some impressive results in the past…2nd overall at the ’13 and ’14 Giros most notably. But he hasn’t done much lately, so his good mid-season form this year came as a surprise to most bike fans. 
9

Mathews

Michael Matthews, 27, Australia, Sunweb

Matthews finished 9th in the UCI World Tour standings and that’s right where he ends up on my list as well. He and Uran are the only new names on my list this year. His biggest accomplishment of the year was winning the Green Jersey (Points Classification) at the Tour de France, along with winning Stages 14 and 16. (The case could be made that he backed into the jersey when both Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel were eliminated, but that’s the way it goes sometimes, winning by attrition.) He was part of the winning Team Time Trial at the World Championships and third in the World Championship Road Race. He also won stages in the Tour de Suisse and the Tour of the Basque Country and had several other top ten finishes.
8

Quintana

Nairo Quintana, 27, Colombia, Movistar

A long tumble downhill for the number 2 rider on my list last year and one might argue that he shouldn’t even rank this high. But his 2nd overall at the Giro d’Italia carries enough weight to keep him on the list. His season started out well enough, with wins at the Tirreno-Adriatico and Valenciana stage races early in the year. Then he won the first significant mountain stage at the Giro and it looked like he was going to have another of his stellar years. But like a roman candle, after that skyrocket start, he kind of fizzled out with no other wins and few top finishes. He finished 15th in the UCI standings.
7

Kwiatkowski

Michal Kwiatkowski, 27, Poland, Team Sky

Kwiatkowski had a season most riders would envy. He won two of the most prestigious monuments, Milano-San Remo and Classica de San Sebastian. He won Strade Bianche and was second at Amstel Gold and Volta ao Algarve and third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He also worked his ass off as a mountain domestique for team leader Chris Froome at the Tour de France. A handful of other top ten results added up to 6th place in the UCI standings.
6

Valverde

Alejandro Valverde, 37, Spain, Movistar

You know the old taunt: “I can beat you with one arm tied behind my back!”? This year, Valverde beat almost everyone else with one half of his season tied behind his back, or more precisely, behind the shattered kneecap he suffered on the first stage of the Tour de France. Prior to that season-ending injury, he was having the best year of his long career. He was first overall at the Vuelta a Andalucia, including winning Stage 1. He won overall at the Volta a Catalunya, winning Stages 3, 5, and 7. He was first overall at the Tour of the Basque Country. He won the Vuelta a Murcia—for the fifth time—by going on a 70-K solo break to win by over two minutes. He won Fleche Wallone—for the fifth time—by launching his patented sprint over the last 200 meters on the brutal Mur de Huy. He won Liege-Bastogne-Liege—for the fourth time—with a similar attack from about 200 meters on the long, uphill grind to the finish. All of that success was pointing toward his Tour de France aspirations, but in the first ten minutes of the first stage he was out. Even so, that half-season of good results was enough to place him 7th overall in the UCI standings.
5

Van Avermaet

Greg Van Avermaet, 32, Belgium, Team BMC

This rider had many firsts in 2017 and the first thing we need to know about them is that they added up to 1st overall in the UCI World Tour standings. His biggest individual 1st—and a monster win in any season—was the cobbled monument of Paris-Roubaix. They don’t get any bigger than that. He was also 1st at Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the Tour de Luxumbourg stage race, winning Stages 2 and 4 and the Points Classification. He shared 1st in the team time trials at both Tirreno-Adriatico and Valenciana. He was 2nd at Flanders, the GP Québec and Strade Bianche, with many more top ten placings to pad his points total.
4

Nibali

Vincenzo Nibali, 33, Italy, Bahrain-Merida

As I noted in my Vuelta write-up, people keep counting Vinnie Nibali out but he refuses to take note of his skeptics. He keeps on riding very near the front of the peloton and producing good results. Not quite campionissimo results, no…but still pretty impressive. He was 2nd at the Vuelta a España and 3rd at the Giro d’Italia, becoming the only rider aside from Chris Froome to stand on two Grand Tour podiums this year. He also won the Tour of Croatia and, perhaps best of all, the autumn monument the Giro di Lombardia. (Watching him use his superb bike skills to open a gap on the final descent was watching an artist at the height of his powers…pure virtuosity.) Rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
3

Sagan

Peter Sagan, 27, Slovakia, Bora-Hansgrohe

Sagan brought his new team their first victory with a win in the spring classic Kuurne-Bruselles-Kuurne. He finished a close second at Milano-San Remo after launching the decisive attack on the Poggio. He won two stages during Tirreno-Adriatico, including a steep, uphill finish against a start-studded cast of climbers. He won Stages 5 and 8 at the Tour de Suisse on his way to winning the Points Classification. He won Stage 3 at the Tour de France but was disqualified after an incident involving Mark Cavendish in the sprint on Stage 4. His riding was deemed to have been irregular. Not everyone agreed, however, and recently the officials have retroactively exonerated him…not that that can bring back his missed TdF and a shot at a fifth consecutive points jersey. He won a stage at the Tour of Poland and then set his sights on an unprecedented third World Championship in a row. This he accomplished in Bergen, Norway, coming up from 80th on the last lap to nip Nicholas Kristoff in a photo finish.
2

Dumoulin

Tom Dumoulin, 27, Netherlands, Sunweb

The highlights of Dumoulin’s season come at opposite ends of the cycling calendar: he won the Giro d’Italia in the spring and the Individual Time Trial and Team Time Trial at the World Championships in the fall. On his way to the overall at the Giro, he won one of the two time trials and finished second in the other. He also won the Dutch time trial championship. Obviously, races against the clock are Tom’s strong suit, but you don’t win a three-week Grand Tour with just two good time trials. If you read my account of that race, you know he put in a wonderful, balanced, all-around performance. A Maglia Rosa and two World Championship gold medals in one year? Hard to beat!
1

Froome

Chris Froome, 32, Great Britain, Team Sky

Now we get to the thorny part of this list. Based on what we saw out on the roads, no one comes close to matching Chris Froome for an epic year…a year for the history books. Read my reports on the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España to get the full story of what he did. The first rider in 20 years to win two Grand Tours in the same year and the first rider ever to win the Tour-Vuelta double since the Vuelta moved to it’s late-summer slot on the calendar in 1995. They said it couldn’t be done but he did it…one of the greatest accomplishments in the modern cycling era. He also won the bronze medal in the World Championship time trial and finished second overall in the UCI standings.

However…gulp…we’re now in the midst of a mini-media feeding frenzy because it has been announced that Froome failed a drug test after a stage of the Vuelta. The drug in question is Salbutamol, the active ingredient in his asthma inhaler. In the test in question, the level of the drug was double what it’s supposed to be, given the standards applied to someone using an asthma inhaler. If you’re interested, there is a good article that covers it pretty well in The Guardian. If you don’t want to go there, here is Froome’s spin on the matter…

“It is well known that I have asthma and I know exactly what the rules are. I use an inhaler to manage my symptoms (always within the permissible limits) and I know for sure that I will be tested every day I wear the race leader’s jersey. My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor’s advice to increase my salbutamol dosage. As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose. I take my leadership position in my sport very seriously. The UCI is absolutely right to examine test results and, together with the team, I will provide whatever information it requires.”

This is pretty much a guilty-until-proven-innocent challenge for Froome and Team Sky. The test result speaks for itself. It’s up to him and his team to explain the extraordinary finding…how it could have been out of compliance. I have no idea how long it will take for this to work its way through the UCI’s administration, or beyond them to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. For now, it’s just hanging out there, unresolved but casting an ugly pall over the sport (again). I dearly hope Froome can make his case. I like him and admire his exploits on the bike. After all the scandals of past years, I am still naive enough and hopeful enough to think we’re past those bad old days. I guess we’ll find out eventually.

Meanwhile, I’m taking an innocent-until-proven-guilty stance and putting Froome and his Tour-Vuelta double at number 1 on my list for 2017.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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