Tuesday Power Rankings: Milan-Sanremo, Spring Classics, Who’s Trending Up and Who’s on Blast

Milan-Sanremo is behind us as we head full-speed into the meat of the Spring Classics season. While Sanremo is traditionally a mere amuse bouche, this year’s version was an instant classic, and we still have E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the entire Ardennes triplet ahead of us. For single-day racing fans, the next few weeks are as good as it gets. Let’s run down who the winners and losers are coming out of this past week of racing.

Let’s take a look at three riders trending up coming off the first big block of serious racing.

Who’s Looking Good

Vincenzo Nibali
Bravissimo! Vincenzo Nibali, the shark of Messina, lived up to his nickname by displaying extremely aggressive racing to become the first Italian to the win Milan-Sanremo since Filippo “Pippo” Pozzato in 2006, and the first Grand Tour winner since Sean Kelly won in 1992. With this victory, the Italian goes a long ways towards cementing himself as the best all-around racer of his generation. This Milan Sanremo victory was his third Monument victory. This adds to an already impressive list of wins, which includes all three Grand Tours.

Milan Sanremo is normally billed as the “Sprinters Classic,” and is often won from a reduced bunch sprint. However, Nibali turned the race on its head by attacking the slopes of the final climb of the race, the Poggio, and beat the long odds by making the solo move stick to the line. Fabian Cancellara won La Classicissima solo in 2008, but the Swiss strongman snuck away on the final 2km run into the finish, not with a dramatic attack on the slopes of the Poggio. The attack and solo win harked back to cycling’s age of heroes, specifically Eddy Merckx’s solo win in 1971. Nibali ‘s attack with 7km to go in the race was perfectly timed, as he was able to play the remaining sprint rivals off each other, which meant any significant chase failed to materialize until it was far too late.

Nibali’s solo win in the sprinter’s classic adds much-needed excitement to the Italian Spring Classic and Italian racing in general. The finish line was awash with a palpable energy as victory-hungry Italian fans cheered as the chasing pack looked to swallow the lone Nibali. The image of the climbing specialist posting up for victory in front of the chasing groups of sprinters was powerful enough to land on the front page of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, real estate that is almost exclusively reserved for soccer news. Watching an attacking climber/non-sprinter foil the fast men will certainly inspire similar racers, and hopefully, mean more lively finales in the future.

As a bonus, the Italian wants to get a feel for the cobblestones ahead of the cobblestone-ridden Tour de France Stage 9 and is heading north for the Tour of Flanders in two weeks time. Cycling fans are in for a treat If the Italian can capture some of that magic at La Ronde.

Alejandro Valverde
If Nibali is the most versatile racer of his generation, he is merely following in the footsteps of Alejandro Valverde. The Spanish all-rounder has been around for ages, winning his first professional race all the way back in 2002. Valverde crashed out of the 2017 Tour de France with a severe kneecap fracture and many questioned if time had run out on his already long career. The answer came in his first major race of the 2018 season when he rode away from a full Team Sky train to victory on stage 2 of the Tour of Valencia. Just to make sure we knew this wasn’t a fluke, Valverde chased down Adam Yates two days later on Stage 4 to win on the brutally steep summit finish. Just to make sure we hadn’t missed the message, Valverde stormed away on the Queen stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, winning the stage and taking the overall lead. After an impressive fourth place at the one-day Strade Bianche, he found his place in the winner’s circle once again by taking the sprint and putting himself in the driver’s seat for the overall at the Volta a Catalunya. This run of form is incredible, especially when we consider Valverde is 37 years old and coming off a potentially career-ending leg injury. One has to wonder how Nairo Quintana feels while he watches this run of victories. Movistar announced plans in December to send all three leaders, Quintana, Valverde, and Landa to the Tour de France. At the time, I assumed Valverde would be lucky to be at the start. Now I’m marking him as a favorite for every Ardenne Classic, as well as a major name to watch as he head into a Tour de France with minimal time trialing kilometers and an excess of technical challenges.

Caleb Ewan
The young Australian sprinter wasn’t mentioned among the favorites for Milan-Sanremo, but if not for the heroics of Nibali, Ewan would have walked away with the biggest victory of his career. Ewan’s burst of speed at the end of a hilly 300-kilometer race was highly impressive and showed that he a pure, flat-line sprint specialist. Ewan was on my “Trending Down” list in the January Power Rankings, but on Saturday he showed that he was added a previously unseen depth of fitness and climbing ability to his lethal sprint. Watch out for the young Australian to make some waves when he takes the start line at his first Tour de France start this July.

Now let’s take a moment who I have trending down after the first big monument of the season.

Who’s On Blast

Michal Kwiatkowski & Team Sky
Kwiatkowski was highly touted by some coming into Milan-Sanremo, and while his fitness seemed to be there, the tactics employed by the former World Champ and his team left a lot to be desired. After setting a quick tempo on the Cipressa, they moved to the back of the pack leading into the divisive climb, the Poggio, and were caught looking when Nibali made his move. What makes this an especially horrible tactic is that they lacked a sprinter that could have won from a big group at the finish. They seemed to be setting pace out of habit, and then sat on their hands when they needed to be the aggressor up the Poggio. If Kwiatkowski was going to the race, he needed to get clear with Nibali on the Poggio, not sitting back and waiting for others to pull the move back and rolling the dice in the sprint finish. The good news is that the Polish rider looks to be on good form physically and has a strong team heading into the Northern Classics.

 Greg Van Avermaet
Where is the Greg Van Avermaet we all fell in love with last spring? GVA has been MIA for the meat of the spring season outside a few impressive climbing days at Tirreno-Adriatico. There have been moments this spring where I’ve legitimately forgotten Van Avermaet exists. Becoming that anonymous that fast is an incredible feat after posting one of the most impressive run of Classics results ever in 2017. So far in 2018, he laid a goose egg at Strade Bianche and was a non-factor at Milan-Sanremo. Keep an eye on the dominant Belgian this weekend at E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem. If he is going to turn his season around, he’ll need to back some noise before we get to the big-show of Flanders and Roubaix.

Matteo Trentin
The Italian dazzled at the end of the 2017 season and was a high-profile signing by the Mitchelton-Scott team heading into 2018, but his solo flyer with 4 kilometers remaining might have cost his teammate Caleb Ewan the win. If he had displayed patience and used his energy to pull Nibali back for his fast-finishing teammate, it certainly would have given the chasing back the firepower it needed. One has to imagine choice words were exchanged between Ewan and his new teammate back in the privacy of the team bus.  

Monday Power Rankings: Riders Trending Up and Down After The Tour Down Under

The Tour Down Under wrapped up on Sunday, with journeyman South African Daryl Impey taking a surprise victory over a heavily favored Richie Porte. Highlights from the sprint-heavy race featured the return to form of Andre Greipel, a surprising in-shape Peter Sagan, a revived Elia Viviani, along with a humbled Caleb Ewan. The general classification also produced a thrilling tied-on-time victory for the darkhorse Daryl Impey, while Richie Porte showed a return to form following a recovery from his horrific crash at the 2017 Tour de France.

While people tend to far read too much into these early season friendlies, there were a few developments at the Tour Down Under that I believe merit mentioning and could prove significant later in the 2018 season.

First, riders with a sinking stock following the first World Tour race of the season.

Nathan Haas

Haas has displayed signs of overwhelming talent in past versions of the TDU, in addition to snagging a top ten at last year’s Amstel Gold and the Montreal and Quebec City UCI races in 2016. He showed up at the 2018 TDU with a new team and was talked up as a potential race winner. However, he quickly went backwards when the pace picked up. He cited the extreme heat as the reason for his struggles and was very vocal in his criticism of the race organizers to run the race in such high temperatures. If the South Australian summer he too hot for him, it could be time to move on from the race, since editions in the past few seasons has been plagued by extreme heat and global trends suggest this isn’t likely to change.

Jay McCarthy

The young Australian on Bora-Hansgrohe was expected to build off his third overall last year and was highly touted as a potential contender for the overall victory. He is now in the meat of his 20s, and such it is ripe time to start delivering results if he wishes to retain a position as a team leader. While he showed an impressive acceleration to follow Porte on the slopes of Willunga, he was quickly dispatched from the Tasmanian’s wheel, losing major time and forfeiting a shot at a podium position in the process. While the Queenslander tends to show flashes of brilliance during the early season Australian calendar, he seems to peak too early every year and has consistently failed to show up during the meat of the European season (aka The One That Matters). At 25, it is now or never for McCarthy to establish himself as race winner or resign himself to a career spent fetching bottles and ensuring that his team leaders have a slipstream to ride in.

Richie Porte

Yes, Richie Porte won atop Willunga Hill for the fifth consecutive year and showed that he has recovered from his crash and physically returned to form. He also went on to finish second overall, tied on time with Impey and losing the race on countback placings.

How could his stock go down after this performance?

The negative: He finished second overall tied on time with Impey and arguably could have won the race had he not stopped racing before crossing the finish line on stage 5. In addition, it is debatable if Porte should even be present at the early season race showcasing his Tour de France form. I personally think that Porte places far too much emphasis on showing up to the Tour Down Under in top shape. He consistently fails to display the type of explosive climbing he shows on Willunga Hill over the remainder of the season. While Porte is cutting weight and fighting the media scrum, his Tour de France competitors are enjoying a more comfortable body fat ratio and calmly banking base miles at training camps or at the notoriously relaxed Vuelta a San Juan. Porte is paid to win Grand Tours, not the Tour Down Under. He needs to prioritize his form and energy accordingly.  

There are also massive question marks surrounding the unity and cooperation of Porte’s BMC team. During the run-in to the Willunga Hill climb, EF-Drapac moved up the field in anticipation of a turn into crosswinds for the final few kilometers before the climb. While deft, this move should have been easily anticipated, especially since this was the second time the race had ridden this section of the course.

In the screenshot below, it is clear that EF-Drapac (the pink train) is moving up the field to ambush the race in the upcoming crosswinds.

Screenshot 2018-01-22 at 10.02.18 AM

Once the race makes the turn, the EF riders jack up the pace, put the race in the gutter and shred the field. BMC is present at the front of the field, helping EF turn the screw.

Screenshot 2018-01-22 at 10.06.18 AM

The only flaw in this plan is that the BMC team leader, Richie Porte, is back in the field, riding dangerously in the roadside gravel, and spending valuable energy to close gaps. Porte is the last rider pictures in the screenshot below. Notice his teammate pushing the pace in the right-hand portion of the frame. 

Screenshot 2018-01-22 at 10.05.03 AM

Porte was only able to recover and get back on terms with help from Peter Sagan and his teammate Daniel Oss. While he got back to safety before the climb, the huge effort to close gaps when he should have been sitting in, protected by teammates, likely cost him the precious energy that he needed to eek out an extra second at the end of the stage. If BMC is serious about helping Porte take a Tour de France win, it desperately needs to work out these kinks before July.

Caleb Ewan

Ewan won 4 sprint stages at the 2017 Tour Down Under and was widely seen as ready to usurp Cavendish, Greipel, and Kittel in the bunch gallops at the grand tours. Flash forward twelve months and the Australian has been brought back to earth. While he left his home tour with a stage win, he was also bested by an aging Andre Greipel, middle-of-his-offseasn Peter Sagan, along with being beaten by a hard-charging Elia Viviani during an embarrassing moment of over-confidence.

During the run-in on stage 3, Ewan greatly underestimated the speed of the world-class sprint field by attempting to play god and gift the win to his leadout man Alex Edmondson. Ewan clearly lets off the gas assuming the gap between him and the rest of the field is too large to close.

Screenshot 2018-01-22 at 11.48.00 AM

However, by the time he looks back to see a fast-closing Viviani, he cannot pick his pace back up and is soundly beaten to the line. In the screenshot below, Viviani (in blue) has wound up his gear and is blowing by both Edmonson and Ewan on his way to the stage win.

Screenshot 2018-01-22 at 11.48.43 AM

A possible upside is that Ewan could be building into his 2018 form at a slower rate than in years past, which could leave him with more finishing pop for the European season. Also, a humbling week at his home tour could have been exactly what the young Australian needed to grasp some well-needed perspective and respect for the level of competition he will face when competing for stage wins at the Tour de France.

Now, the riders leaving Australia with a healthy, rising stock.

Phil Bauhaus

In addition to sharing a name with one of the best architecture movements of the 20th-century, the young German sprinter impressed with two top fives against a field of heavy hitters. His Sunweb team has an amazing track record of developing young talent, which ensures that Bauhaus could become a sprinter to watch for the upcoming seasons.

Elia Viviani

The Italian sprinter and Olympic champion appears to be a man revived following his rescue from his imprisonment at Team Sky. He struggled to get race starts at Sky, and was rarely able to score wins against the top sprinters when he got the chance in the past. After his stunning comeback win against Ewan on stage 3, he looks set for a big season as he enters his physical prime.

Peter Sagan

The three-time world champion sauntered to the start line of the TDU with a no-stress demeanor and insistence that he came in peace. After stunning the sprinters at the opening criterium and spoiling the climbers day by hanging on up the climb and easily winning the sprint from a reduced group on stage 4, it was clear that despite his zen outer demeanor, Sagan is taking 2018 very seriously. If the Slovakian can continue to build his form into the Monuments, we could finally see the dominant Spring Classics performance we’ve been waiting on for years.

Tom-Jelte Slagter

The 28-year old Dutch rider came out of nowhere to win the 2013 TDU and win two stages of Paris Nice in 2014. He then had three years on Garmin/Cannondale/EF that was marked by a lack of results and consistency. A transfer to the spunky Dimension Data has seemingly rejuniviated his career, displayed by his third place overall last week.

Nicholas Dlamini

The young neo-pro from South Africa rode out of obscurity to hold the climber’s jersey from start to finish at last week’s TDU. The Dimension Data rider wasted no time making an impact in his first UCI WorldTour level race. He is a rider that could be leaving his mark on the world’s toughest race for years to come.

Daryl Impey

The jack-of-all-trades journeyman South African scored the biggest win of his career on Sunday with his highly impressive overall Tour Down Under victory. Despite his team coming into the race claiming they had no interesting in the overall victory, Impey stayed attentive when he needed to be and picked up just enough time bonuses to surprise the favorites. The veteran rider became the first African to wear the Tour de France’s leader jersey in 2013, and continues his advancement of African cycling with his most recent victory.

Looking back through the TDU stage by stage to examine where Impey won the race, it is apparent that while he lacked a stage won, his consistency along the entire air-tight race was key. His ability to score two second-places in sprint finishes, while being able to put in the ride of his life up Willunga Hill to take an additional second place after being dropped earlier on the climb, showcases Impey’s impressive wide-range of skills. By taking a career-defining win and showing the world his immense versatility, Impey, without a doubt, leaves the TDU with the biggest winner of the week.