Tour de France Notebook: GC-Only Standings and First Week Winners/Losers

With the first “week” of the Tour de France over, we can look back and see who won, and lost, the opening stages and how that sets up the upcoming decisive Alpine and Pyrenean stages.

Below is the weighted overall standings. When we take out current race leader Greg van Avermaet [edit: Wow, I was very wrong. Really impressive ride to hold yellow, watch out for GVA at the lumpy world’s course in Innsbruck], and third place Phillippe Gilbert, Geraint Thomas is in “virtual yellow,” and young Bob Jungels is right behind him in second place. Behind them, the menacing presence of Valverde and Fuglsang stick out. Despite his bad luck on the first day, Chris Froome comes out ahead of almost all of his main rivals.

Let’s take a moment to run down the winners and losers of the first nine stages based off the GC-only standings.

1 Geraint Thomas 0:00:00
2 Bob Jungels 0:00:07
3 Alejandro Valverde 0:00:48
4 Rafał Majka 0:00:49
5 Jakob Fuglsang 0:00:50
6 Christopher Froome 0:00:59
7 Adam Yates 0:00:59
8 Mikel Landa 0:00:59
10 Vincenzo Nibali 0:01:05
11 Primoz Roglic 0:01:14
12 Bauke Mollema 0:01:15
13 Tom Dumoulin 0:01:20
14 Steven Kruijswijk 0:01:23
15 Romain Bardet 0:01:49
16 Warren Barguil 0:01:54
17 Ilnur Zakarin 0:01:59
19 Domenico Pozzovivo 0:02:05
20 Nairo Quintana 0:02:07
21 Rigoberto Uran 0:02:10
22 Daniel Martin 0:02:39

The Winners

Geraint Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong so far in the Tour, and baring a mishap, will likely be in the actual yellow jersey at the end of stage 10. Scoring a yellow jersey on a mountain stage in the Tour de France would be a massive achievement for the Welshman. However, the implications of Thomas taking yellow could be somewhat disruptive to the Sky team.

When Alberto Contador took yellow on stage 15 of the 2009 Tour de France, even Lance Armstrong, who famously hated the Spaniard, wouldn’t attack his teammate. Instead of going on the offensive, he was forced to wait for his teammate to crack, but the chance never came. Thomas and Froome have an infinitely better relationship than Armstrong and Contador, and Froome will have no responsibility to wait if Thomas has an issue in the mountains, but things could get interesting if Thomas doesn’t crack. With rumblings of Froome making preparations for the run at a Vuelta a Espana title in August, Thomas certainly feels slighted. He was promised GC leadership at the Giro before Froome announced his intention to ride the race. After Froome decided to race the Giro, Thomas changed his focus to the Tour with an eye on leading the Team at the Vuelta. Now that Froome is potentially calling Thomas off once again, tensions could start to bubble up between the two riders.

Another name that sticks out on that list is Alejandro Valverde. When Movistar announced their tri-leader strategy, he was considered the least likely rider to actually contend for the win. However, he has emerged from the first third of the Tour with nearly a minute and a half over Nairo Quintana, and ten seconds over Mikel Landa. While Landa would normally be tipped over Valverde in the high mountains, he appeared to crash incredibly hard on stage 9, and one has to wonder how that is going to affect him over the next few days of racing.

Other big winners are Bob Jungels, who some tipped as a dark horse contender for this race. He hasn’t proven an ability to hang in the high mountains, but it will be interesting to see how he performs.  Jakob Fuglsang and Adam Yates are both sitting well less than a minute back. Both are superb climbers who have been able to quietly head into the Alps within touching distance of the lead. We haven’t heard, or seen much, of Vincenzo Nibali, which is exactly what the Italian wants. Outside of a lackluster TTT, he has avoided any major time losses, and when he is on form, can put time into the best in the mountains. Watch out for the shark of Messina to strike as the race enters the twisting roads of the high mountains.

Chris Froome is fresh off a tough Giro d’Italia win, crashed twice in the first week, and has a teammate threatening to take the race lead, but the four-time champion is less than a minute off the lead and sits ahead of many of his main contenders in the GC standings. The Briton doesn’t even need to attack to win the race at the point. He can hold steady knowing he can put time into nearly every contender in the final 31-kilometer time trial.

The Losers

While Tom Dumoulin is only 80 seconds off the lead and sits on equal time with other favorites, the big Dutchman is going to have his work cut out for him in the mountains after losing over a minute on the final kilometers of stage 6. He is a good climber, but likely won’t be able to advance his GC position until the final time trial. He’ll chew into the leads of the other GC contenders on stage 20, but ultimately, he will rue the 1:20 he shipped on the Mur.

Romain Bardet needed to take advantage of the punchy climb of Mûr de Bretagne and stage 10’s cobbles, but instead, he sits nearly two minutes behind Geraint Thomas. On top of that, he lost two teammates in the first nine days. In the past, Bardet is a grinder who chips away time here and there, not one that takes giant cuts out of leads with long-range attacks. He needed to have a perfect opening to the Tour. Instead, he’s dug a whole.

The two Colombians riding for victory, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, both have the ability to climb with the best, but their 2+ minute deficits will likely prove too much to overcome. If either Quintana or Uran is on top climbing form, it will certainly be thrilling to watch them try to dig themselves out.

A Fit and Lucky Geraint Thomas Is Turning into Froome’s Biggest Rival

With six days in the can at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is sitting at the top of the list of overall contenders. They have a rider three seconds behind Greg Van Avermaet, who has been kind enough to keep their Yellow Jersey warm for the race’s opening week. This scenario is par for the course for the British squad and barely merits a mention in a first week Tour de France piece. However, there is a major wrinkle in the plan this year. The leader sitting in pole position with sparkling form is former Sky domestique, Geraint Thomas, while the four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome sits close to a minute down in 14th overall.

While we saw Thomas ahead of Froome during the Tour’s first week last year, it was by a mere twelve seconds, and the moment the road tipped skyward, Thomas stumbled and ceded the overall lead to Froome. But as of stage 6 in 2018, Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong and currently sits second overall, a full minute (technically 59 seconds) ahead of Froome. Most importantly, he outperformed the former champion on the first big climbing test. The stage 6 finish on the slopes of the Mur-de-Bretagne saw Thomas finish five seconds in front of Froome. The eye-test revealed an even bigger gulf in form than the final results let on. Thomas looked incredibly strong and appeared to even be a legitimate contender for the stage, while Froome dangled off the back. The Welshman looked appears to be on the form of his life, while Froome appeared fatigued from his recent Giro d’Italia victory.

While the climb is much shorter and more explosive than the high alpine slopes where the race will be decided, the Mur has proven to be a reliable bellwether of climbing performance later in the race. In the Mur’s past two appearances, the eventual race winner has been present in the front group of finishers. Froome’s absence in the lead group could be a sign of things to come later in the race.

The gulf between the two riders even has the potential to widen before the Tour hits its first real mountain stage when the peloton hits the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix during Stage 9 on Sunday. Thomas was once a legitimate classics contender, and while he has slimmed down and lost raw power since those days, he still posses deft bike handling and an ability to read the treacherous cobblestones. It stands to reason that Thomas will be able to pull out even more time over the more traditional GC contenders who have little-to-no experience on the brutal cobblestones. While anything could happen on Sunday’s stage, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thomas head into the first rest day with a sizeable advantage. This scenario would wreak havoc on Sky’s team dynamics and Froome’s ability to mount a long-range attack similar to his coupe on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia. A lot was made of Movistar’s decision to bring three leaders to the 2018 edition, but not enough attention was paid to the leadership tussle that was set up when Sky designated Froome and Thomas co-leaders.

This co-leadership situation raises a number of complications and theoretical questions. For example, what if Froome had suffered misfortune like Tom Dumoulin and Romain Bardet at the base of stage 6’s finishing climb? What would the team have done? Would Thomas feel compelled, or be forced, to sit up and wait for his teammate, or would Sky be true to their “co-leader” word and let Thomas ride away from a four-time champion while he waited for a wheel change?

Many have been saying Froome comes into form later in grand tour’s and the early setup is nothing to worry about. There is only one issue with this argument, it isn’t true. While he came back with a stunning late-race comeback in the 2018 Giro, he traditionally pulls out his winning margins in the first 10 days of a race.

In 2016, 2015, and 2013, Froome took a significant chunk of his winning margin in the first 10 stages. In 2013, Froome took 40% of his winning margin to Quintana on the first mountaintop finish of Ax 3 Domaines, on Stage 8. In 2015, at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, Froome took 88% of his eventual winning margin to Quintana on Stage 10.

2016 deviated slightly from this template. Froome won the first mountain stage into Luchon, a shocking downhill victory, netting 23 seconds. This gap was only roughly 9% of his winning margin and the first big gaps had to wait until individual time trial on Stage 13. In 2017, he used the steep slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 5, and a slight time bonus on stage 9 to carve out an 18-second lead by the stage 10 mark, which turned out to be 33% of his final margin.

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While Thomas is obviously a massively talented cyclist with a mind-boggling set of skills, and looked on incredible form at June’s Dauphine Libere, he has an abysmal track record in three-week grand tours. He’s never stood on a podium at a grand tour, and his biggest result on the road is the overall win at the aforementioned Dauphine Libere. It is incredibly risky to suppress Froome’s chances of pulling back time in the name of backing an unproven Thomas for victory. Even if Froome has free reign to ride his own race in the mountains, he certainly won’t have access to the team’s vast firepower to wind up a long-range attack like we witnessed at the Giro.

The co-leadership situation with Thomas, at one point an abstract way to repay a loyal teammate for years of service, is starting to look like a major liability to Froome’s potential, and record-tying, fifth Tour de France title. It is too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but Sky could have a legitimate leadership controversy by the time the race heads into the Pyrénées during the third week.

The Case For Movistar’s Multi-Leader Tour de France Lineup

Movistar’s recently released Tour de France lineup was notable for including nearly equal parts team leaders to domestique. Mikel Landa, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde all head to the race with GC ambitions, along with budding stage-race star Marc Soler. With the UCI cutting teams from nine to eight riders, this three-pronged attack is even more top heavy than previous triple leader teams we’ve seen in the past, like T-Mobile in 2005.

This strategy stands in stark contrast to team BMC, who has one clear leader in Richie Porte, and Team Sky, who has a clear hierarchy with Chris Froome as the team’s undisputed leader. The use of this strategy raises the age-old question of if it is better to back one rider at a three-week race or diversify your strategy by backing multiple leaders.

The unusual three-leader setup has caused more than a few raised eyebrows and skepticism from those who have seen this setup fail endless time before. History is littered with failed attempts at the “multi-pronged” Grand Tour leader approach. The downside of this decisions was most famously exemplified in the 1986 Tour de France when La Vie Claire teammates Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond openly fought for team leadership from one another. The T-Mobile team in 2005 went to the Tour de France with three leaders, Alexander Vinokourov, 2004 Tour de France runner-up Andreas Kloden, and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich. This three-leader setup saw the three fail to work together in any way, and possibly even hurt each other chances, making the team lesser than the parts of its whole.

Of course, let’s not forget the 2009 Astana team, which featured dueling leaders of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Any chance of a positive relationship between two riders was doomed from the start. Like Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy, “neither can live while the other survives… ” the two generation-defining talents could never co-exist. They were meeting each other at opposite ends of their careers and Armstrong could never come to terms with the existence of a newer, faster rider that subconsciously reminded the champion of his fleeting mortality. The Astana team was bitterly divided from the start, with Contador actively undermined team orders in-race, while Armstrong and Team Manager Johan Bruyneel played mind-games with the Spaniard off the bike, going as far as leaving their “leader” stranded following a mountaintop finish. Contador was physically on a higher plane of existence during the three-weeks, and took the overall win in Paris with a healthy time buffer, but had the race been closer, the divided team could easily have cost Astana the race win.

These examples are burned into the minds of team directors everywhere, but even taking personality clashes out of the equation, there is certainly merit to the argument that taking multiple leaders to a Grand Tour diminishes the chances of overall success for individual riders on the team. A truly cohesive team will have 7 (formerly 8) members riding in full support of a sole leader, but for every extra leader added to the start list, a domestique is taken away, with the remaining helpers divided among the leaders. A team of 8 riders featuring two leaders is left with 6 total workers, with each leader getting 3 domestiques if the team sees its loyalty split down the middle, a la Astana in the 2009 edition. While this leaves split teams at a firepower disadvantage and keeps them from consolidating team power to accomplish a singular objective, the main reason for its failure is that teams taking multiple leaders to Grand Tours usually just simply aren’t as good. A true favorite is most likely able to convince a team manager to put all of their chips behind them, while B and C level favorites are more likely to share leadership duties. This pollutes the sample and makes it difficult to know if multiple leaders actually increase a team’s chances of success.

On the flip side, there are three big reasons for spreading out risk by taking multiple leaders to the 2018 Tour de France. The first week of the Tour de France often sees an absurd number of crashes, which can leave a team leaderless before the race for overall victory even begins. Team Sky, which traditionally religiously sticks to the lone-leader template, suffered this fate at the 2011 Tour when Bradley Wiggins crashed out on stage 7. It should be noted that Sky has bent their strict “one-leader” rule in recent years. Geraint Thomas was sitting second overall when he crashed out fo the 2017 Tour, and heads into the 2018 race as a self-described co-leader for the British squad.

The second main reason is that having multiple riders placed high in overall standings put rival teams in difficult position late in the race. This is best exemplified by Carlos Sastre riding away from a peloton busy marking his CSC teammates Frank and Andy Schleck on stage 17 of the 2008 Tour. This hesitation by conflicted riders allowed the Spaniard the requisite elbow room to ride away with the overall victory. Movistar’s tri-leader lineup certainly allows for this possbility late in the 2018 Tour if they can finally figure out how to capitalize on their superior numbers. If they can’t convince one of their leaders to lay it all on the line, their numerical advantage could be wasted as we’ve seen in years past.

The third reason a multi-leader strategy could work is the collection of unique stages in the 2018 route that could be lethal to a rider’s overall ambitions. The opening week of the Tour de France is always hectic, but this year, that hectic week is capped by a stage 9 that sees the peloton traverse the brutal cobblestones of northern France.

Screenshot 2018-07-05 at 7.51.54 PM

Having a few “spare” leaders during this stage could end up being the difference between winning the overall and having your team’s ambitions ruined before you even get a glimpse of the Alps. In addition to the brutal stage 9, the uber-short 65-kilometer stage 17, with 43 of those precious Ks spent climbing, will codify team hierarchies in a truly egalitarian fashion.

Screenshot 2018-07-05 at 7.51.47 PM

Outside of the risk of an untimely mechanical, teammates will be rendered all but useless on the short, frantic stage, and each individual rider’s form will be laid bare for all to see.  No artificial team structures will protect a GC pretender, the cream will rise to the top over the super-sonic 65 kilometers.

Taking these three reasons into account, Movistar’s Tour de France selection starts to look less like a fan’s fantasy squad, and more like a deliberate strategic decision.

 

Can Bob Jungels Win the Tour de France?

Bob Jungels transformed from a star of the future to simply a star on Sunday with his win at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Winning one of cycling’s monument is a huge achievement that could be considered a crowning achievement for almost any rider. However, Jungels has the talent and skill to be one of the preeminent riders of his generation. If he really wants to utilize his immense toolset, he should turn his focus to winning grand tours, and the big question everyone should be asking is if Jungels has what to takes to win the biggest grand tour of them all, the Tour de France.

Winning the one-day race with the most elevation gain should be a bellwether for ground tour success. However, there isn’t a direct correlation between winning Liege and winning either the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France in the same year. Since 1980, no rider has won Liege and the Tour in the same season, and only three riders have won Liege and the Giro (1980-Bernard Hinault/1994-Eugeni Berzin/2007-Danilo Di Luca).

Jungels has won the best young rider classification and finished in the top ten overall at the Giro d’Italia the past two years. This is an impressive feat and puts him in good company.

Here is a list of the best young rider classification winners from the past eight editions of the Giro and Tour.

Best Young Rider Giro d’Italia
2010 Richie Porte
2011 Roman Kreuziger
2012 Rigoberto Urán
2013 Carlos Betancur
2014 Nairo Quintana
2015 Fabio Aru
2016 Bob Jungels
2017 Bob Jungels

Best Young Rider Tour de France
2010 Andy Schleck
2011 Pierre Rolland
2012 Tejay van Garderen
2013 Nairo Quintana
2014 Thibaut Pinot
2015 Nairo Quintana
2016 Adam Yates
2017 Simon Yates

Only Schleck and Quintana are the riders on this list to go on to win grand tour’s overall. Rigoberto Uran scored a second place overall at the Tour de France in 2017, and the Yates twins, Pinot and Aru could potentially score an overall win in the years to come.

There is also one major difference between Jungels and every rider on this list, the ability to crank out a world-class time trial. Due to the decreasing number of TT kilometers in grand tours, the TT has paradoxically become more important.

Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 10.48.43 AM

With the trend of diminishing overall TT kilometers, most grand tours are coming down to the small separation between riders during these efforts.  This trend sets up a rider like Jungels perfectly. He displayed his skill in the race of truth at last year’s Giro d’Italia by finished top ten in both TTs.

We’ve seen Froome challengers like Quintana able to match him the mountains, only to hemorrhage time in the TT. If the young star can avoid bad luck and serious injury, he will certainly emerge as a significant force in the Tour for years to come, which sets up a likely rivalry with a rider of similar skill, Tom Dumoulin. Taking this speculation even further, Jungels could use his proven classics skills to navigate through the cobblestone-riddled stages in northern France to put himself in position to surprise the favorites at this year’s edition of the race. Even if he falls short in the 2018 edition, keep your eyes on the Luxembourger in the years to come.

Tour of Flanders Power Rankings: Who to Watch This Sunday at De Ronde

The Tour of Flanders is nearly here. For a true cyclophile, it doesn’t get any better than Flanders. I would argue that it is hands down the “best” race of the year. The Tour de France has the history, the Giro d’Italia the beauty, Paris-Roubaix the carnage, but no race requires the same mixture of skill, fitness, power, and finesse as Flanders. For the first time in a few years, we don’t have a clear favorite going into Sunday, which makes the pre-race speculation all the more fun. Let’s run through some of the riders who are peaking at the right time, and who hasn’t done their homework before the big exam on Sunday.

Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list of favorites, merely the ones that are the most interesting to talk about at the moment. 

Greg Van Avermaet
What do you get the rider who has won nearly every race of significance? If it’s Greg Van Avermaet, its a Tour of Flanders win. It is the glaring gap in his Palmares. The Olympics, Paris-Roubaix, and Tour de France stage wins are nice, but to be a true Flandrian champion, you have to win Flanders, full stop. Unfortunately, Van Avermaet hasn’t enjoyed the smoothest run-up to the most important block of his season. His BMC team has been severely outgunned by Quick Step in the semi-classics building into Sunday, and he generally hasn’t displayed the sparkling spring form we’ve come to expect. Missing the front group at this week’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen tuneup race was either a calculated move to throw rivals off his scent, or more likely, a signal that he simply isn’t at his best. I previously said we needed to see a sign of life at last weekend’s E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. While he finished third at E3, his attack in the last 5k of the race lacked any punch (he only succeeded in dragging the entire group along).
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To compound his wet blanket attack at E3, GVA was a complete non-factor in the sprint finish at Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. While I wouldn’t completely write off GVA, the strongest rider usually wins at Flanders it appears that GVA seems to be slightly off his usual form this spring.

Niki Terpstra
While he’s rarely the favorite, Terpstra can never be counted out for a big Classic. This guy is what American sports radio hosts would call a “gamer.” He shows up when it matters. In the past, he’s leveraged an incredibly strong Quick Step team and ability to time trial to win a monument (Paris-Roubaix 2014). So far in 2018, he has looked strong, and more importantly, his Quick Step is on an absolute rampage. They have rolled into every Northern Classic with a phalanx of capable riders, each one capable of winning as the next. This allowed Terpstra and his teammate, Yves Lampaert,  to ride off the front of E3 with only 70 kilometers remaining. Lampaert is a very strong rider, and Terpstra made the young Belgian look pedestrian on the bergs late in the race. The only big knock against Terpstra is that he has absolutely no sprint. If he is going to win Flanders on Sunday, he is going to have to get away on the Patersberg or Oude Kwaremont late in the race. However, he certainly appears to have the form to get away and the team to keep him there.

Peter Sagan
The three-time World Champion won Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday in the sprint finish against some of the best classics sprinters in the world. Normally this would be a great sign of things to come in Flanders, but this edition of Gent-Wevelgam only told us that Sagan’s sprint is there, while his overall form is more of a mystery. Sagan was dropped from lead group two days earlier at E3 and has looked somewhat off his best form since his stunning chase at Tirreno. Sagan opted out of today’s Flanders tuneup race, Dwars, to fly home to Monaco to get a few days of warm weather training. Considering the miserable weather in Belgium this week, this could prove to be the right move. Nothing wears on a rider’s body like hard racing in the springtime rain/cold of Belgium. Sagan’s biggest weakness in past editions has been his overenthusiasm, so perhaps a slightly off-form spring could force Sagan to finally sit and play the waiting game at the critical moments.  

Jasper Stuyven
Stuyven was supposed to be the Belgian that was promised a few years back, but since his breakthrough win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2016, the rider once hailed as the “new Boonen” has failed to bag a signature win. He’s been consistent so far this spring, and with the absence of a true favorite this spring, there is no time like the present for Stuyven.

Sep Vanmarcke
Today’s finish at Dwars proves that Sep Vanmarcke is, in fact, allergic to winning bikes races. When last year’s winner Yves Lampaert slowly drifted off the front inside the final kilometer, Vanmarcke correctly wound it up to mark the move. Unfortunately, he marked the coasting Mike Teunissen, instead of the rider who was clearly riding away with the win.
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Vanmarcke has been showing great form in recent weeks and his talent was on full display at E3 when he pulled back nearly five minutes following a crash with 100km remaining. But if he wants to finally capitalize on the promise he displayed with second place at the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, he has some major mental blocks to overcome.

Philippe Gilbert
Last year’s Flanders champion hasn’t had a standout result so far this spring, but he has certainly looked strong in the past few weeks. He appeared to be toying with the lead group at E3, and would certainly have delivered a knockout blow had his teammate Terpstra not been up the road. Even if Gilbert doesn’t bag a repeat win on Sunday, look for him to factor in by breaking up the race from a long way out. He attacked with 55 km remaining in last year’s edition and displayed a herculean effort to stay away until the finish. It is likely he won’t be able to repeat such a feat, but I would be surprised if a Gilbert long bomb didn’t shake up the race.

Tiesj Benoot
The young Belgian is on the form of his life. He’s the real deal. However, I wonder if his future truly lies in cobbled classics. While he won Strade Bianche in fantastic fashion, if you watch that video closely, he was alone at the finish line. He made the effort to get away alone because the kid cannot sprint his way out of a paper bag. This is going to severely limit his chances of victory at Flanders. He is sure to be a factor, but don’t expect a W from the rising star.

Alejandro Valverde
(Edit: Since writing this, Valverde has announced he will not be racing Flanders. Don’t I look silly now.) It isn’t even certain that Valverde will be on the start line on Sunday, but if he is, he certainly can’t be counted out. His performance at Dwars, which he only road to get a feel for the cobblestone roads that will feature in this year’s Tour de France, turned heads with his ability to handle a one-day cobbled classic. On Wednesday at Dwars, we were treated to the rare site of a climber at the front of a cobbled classics. He even seemed to be looking around wondering why everyone says these things are so hard.
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We saw a Ground Tour contender shock the world with Vincenzo Nibali at Milan-Sanremo, but Valverde winning Flanders would be one of the most surprising wins in the race’s history. In an age of specialist, we thought we had seen the end of the days of Grand Tour winners contending for a one-day classics victory, but for all his personal faults, Valverde is a thrilling throwback to a bygone era of racing.

There are certainly riders outside of this list that can and will play a factor on Sunday. Michal Kwiatkowski has to be considered a threat in any race he starts, but we haven’t seen the former World Champ race since Milan-Sanremo. I worry his legs may have gone a bit stale in the two weeks between the two races. Wout van Aert has been shockingly strong all spring, but until he kicks his cyclocross habit to the curb, he won’t have the legs late in these races to take a victory. There are a plethora of B-level contenders that could take a big career step up by winning on Sunday: Gianni Moscon, Zdeněk Štybar, Matteo TrentinOliver Naesen, and the entire Quick-Step team. Of these, Naesen seems the most likely to finally make the next big step, however, his lack of finishing kick could doom him to a career of Flanders top tens, without ever touching the top step of the podium.

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.  

Tuesday Morning Power Rankings: Three Riders Trending Up and Down This Spring

The early season racing in Australia and the Persian Gulf is behind us which means the “real” professional cycling season is finally underway. We are less than a week away from Milan Sanremo, or “La Classicissima,” the first monument of the season, so it is time to finally take stock of where we are and who are the riders to watch for the coming weeks.

First up on the roll call are three riders whose futures are trending down as we head into one of the most critical points of the spring season.

Trending Down

Tom Dumoulin
Dumoulin may be feeling a slight hangover from his dream 2017 that saw him win the World Time Trial Championship, become the first ever Dutch winner of the Giro d’Italia and a media darling in the process. However, his 2018 hasn’t been as kind. The best way to describe his 2018 so far is that the pressure of being a newfound star appears to be getting in the head of the usually charismatic Dutchman. On top of his Abu Dhabi Tour meltdown, he recently crashed out of Tirreno-Adriatico on stage 5 and he is doubtful to appear at Saturday’s Milan Sanremo. This is certainly not the preparation he was hoping for heading into an attempt to defend his Giro d’Italia crown in May. A successful defense of the Italian Grand Tour looks like a longer and longer shot with every passing race and if the Dutchman doesn’t turn it around soon, he may be forced to write off the spring and turn his focus to the Tour in July.

Geraint Thomas
When Geraint Thomas found himself ensconced in the Maglia Azzurra during stage 5 at Tirreno-Adriatico, he must have felt like something wasn’t quite right and disaster was around the corner. Since the Welshman has abandoned his promising one-day Classics career to chase the stage racing dragon, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong (see here, here, and here). His Team Sky teammates literally had the wheels fall off at the Tirreno team time trial last year. This fiasco ended up costing him the overall win. He then went on to crash out of both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. Not to be deterred, Thomas set his sights on winning the 2018 Giro d’Italia, only to have his superstar teammate Chris Froome wave him off and declare now that he had thought about it, he was going to be the leader at both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France (this means that for four straight Grand Tours no other Team Sky rider was given their own chance to win. THIS IS INSANE! Froome was  basically asking for a mutiny at that point.)

Thomas had put all of this behind him and actually out-ridden his team leader Froome at the summit finish on stage 4 to declare himself the new alpha at Sky. Unfortunately, this all came crashing down around him with one kilometer to go as his chain inexplicably slipped off his chainring and he was left yelling on the side of the road, waiting for a new bike as his rivals disappeared up the road. His Team Sky leadership was over almost as quickly as it had arrived and Thomas is now left to emotionally pick up the pieces of an almost comically cursed stage-racing career.

I don’t in any way doubt Thomas’ physical ability as a Grand Tour rider, but he is 31 years old, on the most talented stage racing team ever assembled and has never finished higher than 15th in a Grand Tour. One can’t but feel like time is running out on his ill-fated stage racing career and wonder what may have been had he had remained on promising Classics trajectory. Even if Froome’s adverse analytical finding sees him unable to race the Giro and Tour this season, the stable of talented young riders on Sky is lining up to push out Thomas. Exhibit A: Earlier this season, Thomas’ “teammate” Michal Kwiatkowski jumped up the road on the final stage Volta Algarve to take the leader’s jersey right off the Welshman’s back.

Chris Froome
The only rider having a worse week than Geraint Thomas is Chris Froome. Froome came into the season with many questioning whether he should even be lining up due to his ongoing case from his adverse analytical finding (aka he had too much of an allowed drug in his system and has to explain how so much of it got there) during last year’s Vuelta a Espana.

Putting all of that aside, right now Froome’s biggest problem is that he has stunk on the bike so far this season. He was 10th at the Ruta del Sol, a race that he had won the last time he attended in 2013, and has been consistently off the pace of the top group at Tirreno-Adriatico, a race where he previously finished 2nd overall. To add insult to injury, members of the media are questioning if his flat at the end of stage 5 was legitimate, or if he was attempting to hide how much he was struggling to stay in the group. Whether it is true or not is irrelevant, the fact that we are even asking that question about a rider who was discussed as a possible winner of the near impossible Giro/Tour double mere months ago shows how far and quickly his star has fallen.

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

Trending Up

Peter Sagan
The three-time world champion missed the standard early season tune-ups, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, where he usually announces himself and/or hones his form. However, if anyone thought that the birth of his first child and a late start to the European season would hamper his Classics campaign, they were proven wrong this week. Sagan looked strong but maybe missing the top gear at Strade Bianche last Saturday. While not at his best, he still managed to finish 8th at the absurdly hard race. And while he hasn’t won a stage at Tirreno this year, he has three 2nd place finishes, two to Marcel Kittel and one to Adam Yates. Kittell, a 190-pound monster, was created in a lab to be the fastest road cyclist in the world on a flat, straight finish, while Yates is a 125-pound climber who floats away on the steepest pitches. It is likely that these two riders have never even ridden next to each other in the group and possibly don’t even know the other exists. The fact that Sagan finished behind each on back-to-back days is a testament to his otherworldly versatility. Most importantly for Sagan, on stage 5 he showed a willingness to sit in the group and force other riders/teams to chase, even if it meant having his bluff called and the lone rider staying away. The Slovak is showing his competitors that the days of relying on him to chase back every move in the finale of the race are over. These tough lessons could pay major dividends at the upcoming Monuments, where patience is arguably more important than physical form.

If this impressive consistency still had us asking questions about his form going into Sanremo, the means in which he clawed himself back into the pack on stage 6 at Tirreno should leave no doubt. With 8km to go, Fernando Gaviria crashed directly in front of Sagan. For every other ride on the planet, this would have meant they were going down as well. However, Sagan reminded us that he isn’t every other rider. He somehow managed to hop over the fallen Colombian, stop, get a new bike from his team car, chase back on to the full-speed peloton, and still nearly beat Kittel in the sprint to the line. This highly impressive chase forced Sagan to tip his hand more than he would have liked, but it could end up being a mere teaser for a truly dominant Classics run from Sagan.

Tiesj Benoot
The young Belgian finally made good on his vast reserves of potential by winning Strade Bianche in highly impressive fashion. Benoot has been tipped so heavily as the star of the future, that it was shocking to learn his Strade victory was the first in his professional career. Certainly not a bad way to announce to arrival. However, the most impressive thing about Benoot isn’t his ability to win races, it’s his ability to compete for the win in almost every race on the calendar. In the age of specialists, it’s shocking to see a rider win a one-day classic and finish top-ten at three conservative climbing stages the following week. Benoot’s top ten finishes at the Tirreno-Adriatico summit finishes are arguably more impressive than his win at Strade. The only issue facing him at the moment is having to decide if he wants to be a stage racing specialist or a one-day Classics star. While leaving the one-days for the promise of Grand Tour success can be a gamble (see above: Geraint Thomas), Benoot’s lack of finishing punch could leave him an also-ran throughout his Classics career. He would be wise to consider taking his immense talents to the Tour de France in an attempt to become the first Belgian to win since  Lucien Van Impe in 1976. This is certainly a tall order that comes with substantial risk, but Benoot is the real deal with the talent to take on this challenge.

Michal Kwiatkowski
Kwiatkowski is one of the most underrated riders in the professional peloton. The former World Champion has an impressive palmares despite spending most of his career on crowded teams that don’t always let him race for the win. He is a rare rider that can regularly win one-day Classics (Milan-Sanremo, 2x Strade Bianche, E3 Harelbeke, Classica San Sebastian, Amstel Gold, World Road Race Championship) while climbing with the best in the high Alps of the Tour de France. He won Volta ao Algarve by taking the lead from his teammate Geraint Thomas on the final stage and wrestled team leadership away from Froome and Thomas at a stacked Tirreno-Adriatico. His usurping of teammate Geraint Thomas on the final stage of Algarve earlier this season signaled that he finally might be ready to shrug off the yoke of Team Sky domestiqueness (these crude images violate my number 1 rule: an on-form World Champion should never be relegated to set pace for teammates) and ride for himself. The looming suspension of his team leader Chris Froome has thrown the traditional rote hierarchy of Sky into disarray as the other riders sense that Froome either won’t be able to compete at the upcoming Grand Tour or won’t be on his best form due to the stress of his ongoing legal battle. This means that everyone is auditioning to be the new Alpha at every day of every race between now and the Tour. Kwiatkowski will most certainly show up ready to defend his Milan Sanremo title on Saturday. However, I wouldn’t be on him to take the victory, only because winning this race is hard, and winning it twice in a row is nearly impossible. But if he continues his impressive run of form, my money is on the young Pole to come out of the Sky scrum as their Tour de France leader. If that happens, the dynamic 2018 Tour route could play right into Kwiato’s hands and we could see the emergence of a new Grand Tour contender.

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.