So, here we are with the fourth and final group of riders for buy/sell/hold. I’ve called this the “climby finishers” as we have lots of Ardennes types, and stage-hunters. A better name is probably “the rest” - so if there are any riders I’ve missed out across the four columns, you have only to say so.
This is a group ripe for predictions on a race by race basis, as individual parcours and the form of riders play a huge part. We saw big seasons for Ulissi and Izaguirre last year, whilst Valverde was his usual consistent self. Will this be a year when there’s a changing of the guard? I’d say that we’ll see a gradual shift, rather than a seismic one, but yes, I can see some comparatively new names taking a step forward this year.
Ulissi – SELL. I’ve nothing but admiration for him as a rider, and I think he’ll continue to have success, but 2016 looked like a career year. Two stages of the Giro could have been designed for him, and he won both convincingly, adding consistent high finishes in the top hilly classics and some week-long races. It’d be very surprising if he could repeat that.
Izaguirre – SELL. Eye-on Izz-a-goo-eer-ree (as I referred to him, just to annoy my then flatmate, the Basque-ophile Albertina) is another who had a sparkling 2016. I think he’s capable of riding just as well this year, but I think his results will suffer from moving to Bahrain. Movistar’s depth meant he could focus on the one-week races and hilly classics where he was at his absolute best (he rode the Tour in support and nicked a stage, too, which took rope he probably won’t be given in 2017) but he’s really the number 2 GC man for the new WT team and that means his peaks might not suit his strengths.
Colbrelli – HOLD. Unlike Eye-on, I think Colbrelli’s move to the Bahrain team could help him. He wasn’t hugely supported at Androni and should get more opportunities with better riders around him in the big hilly classics. Only 26, it felt like he put it together last year and should continue to thrive in his chosen races. You can race a very full season, especially in Italy, and take part in virtually nothing but hilly one-day races. Expect him to do so.
Gilbert – HOLD. Actually, that should be HOLD?, and the question mark deserves a paragraph to itself.
In writing these columns, I’ve found I have a clear instinct on how to rate the majority of riders – and these haven’t changed very often as I look into results, teams and programmes. There have, though, been a few riders where the blink test just doesn’t work, and it is interesting just how many of them are part of Quick-Step. I didn’t know what to do with Kittel, Gavrira or Stybar, inter alia, and I don’t know what to do with Phil-Gil, either. Chris’ (masterful) offseason capsule described the evolution of QS’ ambition and targets. My sense is that they also have an evolving pecking order – both for cobbled and hilly races. This is something that was thoroughly dissected in the comments below Chris’ article. It probably won’t stop the team winning a hatful of races, but it’d be a brave prognosticator indeed who claimed to know with certainty who’d be doing the winning, so I'd be very nervous indeed about backing my season-long ratings for any of these riders until we've seen how the cards will fall.
Back to Gilbert and that hold rating. I think he still has the talent to win races, especially in the Ardennes. He clearly won’t return to his remarkable 2011 form. What I don’t know is where and how he’ll race, and how much he’ll be supported. Is he above Alaphillipe and Martin in the pecking order? Not on last season’s form. On the other hand, a decoy/wild-card role might suit him and I can see him nicking a race or two.
Vakoc – HOLD. Hugely impressive last year and at 24 should improve. The issue here is the crowding at Quickstep, and the issues I discussed above. If he’s a selfish thinker, he can’t be thrilled to see Gilbert joining the ranks, and Brambilla’s prominence last year will keep him in the conversation, too. There won’t be many days when the young Czech enjoys life as a protected rider. Look for him to continue growing in strength and experience and preparing for a more profitable 2018. His agent will be a busy man in July, methinks.
Martin (Dan) – HOLD. I know, I know. He’s a GC rider. The thing is, though, he’s not. 7th in the 2014 Vuelta and 9th in the Tour last year as his best grand tour results? We’re talking about a guy who’s won two monuments and was a storm-drain away from a third. He’s also riding for a team with a cracking Ardennes squad and limited support in the high mountains. This is where he belongs, and he’ll continue to do his thing as a very good, aggressive stage and one-day rider with a clear ceiling in the three-week races. Sorry, Conor.
Alaphillipe – BUY. Despite the potential for “too many cooks” at Quickstep, it is hard to be anything other than phenomenally impressed by the young Frenchman. After a stellar 2015, I didn’t expect him to step forward again in 2016, but he did. Riding against Valverde means that he has more than his share of frustrating second places, but he’s second to a complete one-off in the peloton, and time will only swing the balance his way. His growth in week-long races gives him another string to his bow (winning California was especially impressive) and if he can keep his focus away from Grand Tours, he’ll continue to be extraordinary.
Valverde – HOLD. I’m sure there will be a year when the decline comes. I know there are lots of reasons to worry about him as a rider. On the other hand, he’s been the surest thing in cycling since 2012. If you have a steep finish, you’ll struggle to see him off before you get there… and then he’ll win. J-Rod in his prime is the only one who’s caused him bother – maybe Alaphillipe will this year. I still see another season where he’s there or thereabouts in GTs, weeklong races, and hilly classics, and one of the top-five riders overall at season’s end.
Henao – HOLD. He’s a nice rider with a bunch of top tens in hilly monuments and the ability to ride stage races well, but I’m not sure I see him stepping forward as many seem to. Team Sky have other options, and aged 29 it is hard to see him moving up in the pecking order. Should have gone better in the Tour Down Under.
Poels – SELL. How lovely that he won a monument last year. I didn’t bet on it, but for whatever reason he’s a rider I warmed to early in his career, and sympathised with through horrible injuries. Clearly back to his best, he’s a great climber and proved he can win when he gets his chance. However, he’ll ride as a key lieutenant for much of the year and won’t have many chances to repeat his exploits of 2016.
Costa – BUY. Do me a favour - without looking, have a guess at his age. Now look it up. Surprised? I was shocked. 2016 was a bit of a down year, and I wondered if it was due to declining with age, but presumably not. Rewatching the finales of some of the Ardennes races, I think it might just be statistical noise, as he wasn’t always in quite the right place. That extraordinary slow-motion sprint in the World Championships aside, he doesn’t have the kick to win too many races, but I’d expect him to be back to being a threat for the podium in all the hilly classics, and to do best when the racing is hardest.
Betancur – HOLD. Cards on the table. I don’t have a clue, and whatever I put here has the potential to make me look stupid. There isn’t anyone else in the peloton where (injuries and the like aside) I’d believe anything from “monument winning superstar” through to “didn’t finish a single race”. His Liege performance in support of Valverde last year was really good. Let’s just stick to “hold” and move on.
Kwiatkowski – BUY. Kwiatkowski continues to impress me as a rider with a flair for tactics, as well as obvious strength and versatility. Lost his Ardennes week in 2016 (inexplicably dropped after Sky rode for him all day at Amstel) but has been among the best in previous years, and adding an E3 win in 2016 was hugely impressive and opens up all sorts of cobbly possibilities. Will be one to watch in both Flanders and the Ardennes. If the hills in Bergen prove challenging (I’m assuming they won’t), he’s one who could challenge Sagan and regain his rainbows.
Gallopin – HOLD. He’ll do his thing – animating races, picking up the odd win, shining in San Sebastian. A couple of years ago, I was waiting for a breakthrough, but I feel like we know who he is now.
Wellens – HOLD. A bit like Gallopin, in that he’s a Lotto-Soudal rider who’ll animate, amuse and pick up some wins. Has done better than his older team mate over the last couple of years, and this hold rating says he’ll continue to do well in 2017. Not sure he’s got the style or the support to become a more consistent winner, however.
Albasini – SELL. 36 now and seemingly on the decline, but he has the ability to win when nobody expects him to, and might repeat that. However, even with Bling leaving, he’ll have fewer chances to ride for himself with the emergence of the Yates boys (and Chaves, though there’s less cross-over in skillsets there). Repeating his 2nd in Liege will be a challenge, and that was another superb ride from a criminally underrated rider.
Gerrans – SELL. Basically the same thing as Albasini. He’s a bit less of a climber, but with his fastman legs on, he’ll also see Caleb Ewan cutting into his opportunities. Disappointing in the Tour Down Under.
Rodriguez – SELL. I include him on the basis that nobody seems sure if he’s retired. What a pity he wasn’t able to step off his bike with dignity after Rio. Still, sympathy and emotion have no place in buy/sell/hold. At 37, he’s not going to get back to the heights of previous years even if he does compete.
Martin (Tony) – HOLD. I am putting a couple of time-triallists in here for want of anywhere else. Tony Martin won’t enjoy the worlds course. He’s also less likely to thrive in the worlds TTT with lesser colleagues. However, I like his move to Katusha, particularly for the cobbles where he’ll be a valued lieutenant to Kristoff and might get the chance to strike for himself.
Dennis – SELL. Nothing against him as a rider, but he’ll struggle to find big points this year given the move away from a flat world TT and the lack of the Olympics. For VDS purposes, he’s a rider who scores a lot of points before the scoring starts (and he’s already wrapped up an Aussie TT before I write this).
Dumoulin – BUY. Again, I know there are those who wanted me to put him in the GC group. I have more sympathy for that than I did for the Dan Martin argument. He’s a competent climber and has top-10 GT potential, but he is first and foremost a time trialler. Joins Froome on the “happy there’s a hill in the worlds TT” list, and is a real threat in weeklong races. I don’t know how much he’ll improve as a rider in 2017, but in “points” terms he should finish a GT and a similar performance would net him plenty more results.