In grade school, it was a consolation prize. "Most improved," they said, an excuse to give out more shiny medals so you or your classmates did not feel left out. Everyone is supposed to get medals, right? And so "most improved" was invented to celebrate what ended up in mediocrity compared to the stars, a bittersweet medal given to those who couldn't win outright. Or maybe that was just my classes...
But this is professional cycling, and "most improved" can mean a hell of a lot. Most improved lands big contracts, seals one as a star for the future. Remember 2005 when Tom Boonen won Flanders and Roubaix and then Worlds? It would be hard to argue he was not one of the most improved in that season and it is one of legend, putting him among the bests. Even when the end result is not so high, as was Lachlan Morton's season this year, the result is quite noticeable. Simply put, most improved is who we talk about with eager anticipation.
So who qualifies for this honor this year? Sometimes there is overlap between this and best rider, as with Tommeke in 2005. Nairo Quintana is perhaps the easiest pick, catching our attention this year first when he won the always difficult Tour of the Basque Country in April. But that was really just linear development from the winner of the Giro dell'Emilia and Vuelta a Murcia in 2012. But come July, Nairo not only seized upon leadership within Movistar after surviving the echelons while more senior teammates Valverde and Costa did not, but he went and provided the only halfway credible threat to Chris Froome's dominance. In his inaugural Tour de France, Nairo got second, a feat we have not seen since Jan Ullrich in 1996.
Who else could stand to challenge Nairo? Perhaps Lachlan Morton or Rohan Dennis? Morton stayed off our radar for most of the season, his long curly locks forgotten since his time as a stagiare for Garmin-Sharp during the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Then on Stage 3 of the Tour of Utah he danced away over the final climb and soloed in for a memorable stage win and the overall lead. While he would cede it by the end of the race he would grab another leader's jersey in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. This time, he would hold on for 8th on the overall classification after working hard for teammate Tom Danielson in the closing stages of the race.
Morton almost stole all the attention from his teammate Rohan Dennis, another rider in the senior ranks for the first time who stunned everyone save team director Jonathan Vaughters when he stormed into the leader's jersey in the Critérium du Dauphiné and stubbornly defended it before finishing 8th overall and first in the young rider's classification. Months later, Dennis would win the inaugural Tour of Alberta.
Picking one day riders seems to be harder for this category because most improvements are linear, accumulating over years as experience and durability builds rather than in leaps in bounds. That isn't to say it cannot be done, of course! I will leave that task for you people, though. Who else deserves to be mentioned as Most Improved in 2013? Tell us in the comments!