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The Agony and the Ex-Stani

One man’s battle to pick a VDS squad

Oh, Captain! My Captain!
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The final Thursday Thoughts piece of 2019 comes out, fittingly, on a Saturday/Sunday night. I didn’t want to run this before the deadline but so much of my offseason writing has been leading up to picking a team that I thought I’d show my workings, as it were, for the last exam on the 2018/19 offseason. I know it is a bit self-indulgent, but I’m sure you’ll all enjoy the chance to talk about your own, undoubtedly superior, teams.

I’ve loved writing this series (especially the “Team PdC” column. Thanks for your company and bring on the season proper.

My philosophy

I know you’re all desperate to hear the approach to team-building that led me to finish 182nd in 2018. To that, I’d say the following:

  • Shut up.
  • I finished 3rd in the 2018 Ed’s draft league and 2nd the year before that.
  • I was 14th in 2011, you know.
  • It’s harder when you publish all your secret guys where Ursula can read them.
  • Seriously, shut up.

My approach is to figure out, first of all, what shape my team will have. That is, how will I distribute most of my points among the higher-value riders, and what will be left for the cheaper team members.

Even before the new, “kinder” scoring system with cheaper riders even more valuable than usual, I’ve steered clear of the “100 points per point” (from here, PP) rule. My view is that I want the bulk of my points to be spent on guys with a high floor, from whom I can reasonably expect at least 70PP, and I’ll take a flyer on a few guys with the potential to score 250PP+ to make up the difference. It doesn’t always work, but that’s my theory.

In the last couple of years, I’ve run into the buzz saw that is Ursula, who is making it harder and harder to find “safe” high-value riders, but last year I was confident in both Julian Alaphilippe and Miguel Angel Lopez, so it wasn’t too difficult to build the shape of a team. This year was far harder.

My spreadsheet

I’ve shared my template before. When I get the list for the new season I update and share the spreadsheet. Then, thinking as briefly as possible, I run through everyone from 8 points upwards and longlist anyone I want on my team at that price. Then I run through again and shortlist the ones I think represent the best opportunities.

After that I have the first feelings of what a team might look like, and I make a lightning quick run through the 1-6 ranks. The idea isn’t to find the guys for my team, it is just to get a shortlist of guys so that I can compare different team shapes.

The big guys

Now we’re back to the top of the scoring chart. Before I saw the 2019 scores, I had a faint hope that one of Primoz Roglic, Jasper Stuyven or Thibault Pinot would be single-restricted. I was hoping for a team with twin captains in the twenties. Reader, I need scarcely tell you how disappointed I was. With all three double-restricted, I started to worry. I know this is a game, but I do care, and this is the first year that I’ve looked at a list and had genuinely no idea how to use up my points.

I thought about imposing a limit on myself – like, “I’m only going to spend 80 points”, or “none of my guys are going to be more than 4 pointers”. I figured I could write an article and call it a theory. But I play this game as fairly as I can every year and that’s what I wanted to do in 2019. If it is harder, so be it; I’ll do worse. I picked the captain I wanted (Miguel Angel Lopez, at 26), the captain I liked and who’d use up more points (Simon Yates, at 32) and the captain who’d be safe and use the most points (Peter Sagan, at 40). I ended up with these three teams (and again, the lower valued riders are nothing more than placeholders at this stage).

Don’t make me regret calling you “deliciously undervalued,” Dylan.
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That’s when I gave up on Lopez. For a while I thought about Yates, and that team went through a few iterations before I realised how little I liked the 10-20 point range this year (with the exception of the delightfully undervalued, in my view, Dylan Groenewegen). I gritted my teeth – yes, I think that may be literally true – and decided that, for the first time since 2011, I’d be a Sagan-owner. I don’t think he’s the best value double-restricted rider out there. I do think he’s as safe as any rider can be, especially with a WC course that could be made for him, and I think he allows me a team that is the best value I can conjure up.

My team

At this point, it is time to drop the coyness and reveal my 25 riders (incidentally, I do have a women’s team, but my knowledge is even sparser, and the deadline isn’t on us yet, so this post remains purely men’s team oriented).

  • Peter Sagan
  • Tim Wellens
  • Dylan Groenewegen
  • Matteo Trentin
  • Alvaro Hodeg
  • Marc Soler
  • Stefan Kung
  • Ivan Sosa
  • Marcel Kittel
  • Daniel Felipe Martinez
  • Florian Senechal
  • Dylan van Baarle
  • Robert Power
  • Alexis Vuillermoz
  • Jasper Philipsen
  • Sebastien Reichenbach
  • Guilio Ciccone
  • David Gaudu
  • Pascal Eenkhoorn
  • Pavel Sivakov
  • Kristoffer Halvorsen
  • Mark Padun
  • Fausto Masnada
  • Luke Rowe
  • Robert Stannard

The middle class

As I’ve said, I wasn’t in love with the middle class riders this year, save Groany. That’s the main reason that Sagz is on my team, as I was able to replace some 8-14 point riders with some cheaper guys. Tim Wellens and G-Wagz are both riders who made most iterations of my team, and that’s because (knock on wood) I think they’re safe bets. Both could survive an injury at any point in the year and still score points for the rest of the year (nothing worse than a one-week specialist who misses that week). I think Groany could be the best sprinter around this year, whilst Wellens has moved from “escape specialist Lotto boy” to one of the more consistently excellent riders in hilly races, and has started 2019 brightly. It is safe to say that these two have had wildly different experiences in Iberia since I picked my side, but I’m going to ignore that.

Matteo Trentin and Alvaro Hodeg both made my team, and I have previously picked one as intriguing and one as primed to break out. Both have versatility and a degree of upside, and both are, I think, fairly priced. Honestly, I don’t love either pick, and I can feel echoes of Edward Theuns (2018, 193 points for 10) and Sondre Holst Enger (2017, an 8-point donut) calling me back to the fateful past. I don’t like the 8-14 point range, I think it is a total minefield, and if I get 1,400 points between these two I’ll be pleased to just move on. I also got a team name, which was something. These boys are now Teh Hodeg Shcool Off Spöllling.

I’m not sure about this either, Alvaro
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Plenty of other riders bounced on and off my team in this group. I’m not heartbroken to have left any of them out. Dylan Teuns, Fabio Jacobsen and Fernando Gaviria were more involved than most but a lack of general “trustworthiness” caught them out, whilst Tiesj Benoot and Matej Mohoric were just a touch too highly priced for my tastes. Gianni Moscon appealed but (like Kwiatkowski) was too highly priced for a guy who’ll spend much of the year as a domestique, even before I made an “ickiness adjustment”. He then ended up as my first Ed’s League pick. Sam Oomen and Wilco Kelderman would have made it to the shortlist were it not for the Doomedoulin plan at Sunweb to have one star riding both the Giro and the Tour (Kelderman is also an integral part of my Ed’s league team. Ugh).

The Six-pointers

Now things got interesting. Lots of guys here I wanted to take and there were starting to be some tougher omissions. That said, Marc Soler only narrowly made it into my team, alongside Hodeg (the two were traded in for Teuns and Lutsenko) fairly late on. I worry about Movistar’s ability to harness his undoubted skills but Carapaz found a way to show his talent last year and I think we’ll see something similar from Soler this year. Picking Ivan Sosa and Marcel Kittel was easier – they’re different riders at different stages of their careers, but both are packed with upside and could easily pick up a four-figure return. Stefan Kung is a bit of a “money where your mouth is” pick; I’ve said so often that I think he’s going to be great that I couldn’t leave him out. I think he’s solid at six but the upside is a little limited.

The hardest cut here was Fabio Aru. Partly because I wanted to name my team as I named this article, and partly because he’s not long removed from GT dominance and a 1,485 season in 2017 (and, indeed, 2,392 in 2015). If he is an “odd numbered year star” then I’ll be frustrated, but I worry that the dynamic between UAE and Aru is too broken for even Peiper to fix. I’d have enjoyed finding a role for Emanuel Buchmann, too.

The Four-pointers

There were several iterations of my team that would have been far easier if I’d only had two four pointers. It never happened. Dylan van Baarle, Florian Senechal and Daniel Felipe Martinez all made it onto every iteration of my team. I see all of them as solid (DvB and Flo scored 460 and 500 respectively in 2018, despite underperforming on the cobbles, and that’s their floor in 2019 in my view, with monument wins possible for either, whilst DFM remains one of the most talented climbers in Colombia and is somehow only 22. Winning the Colombian TT didn’t get him onto my team, but it didn’t harm) and potentially spectacular. After I picked my team, he looked good in Colombia 2.1.This is the point-level at which I’m moving from “I need 70PP safely” to “I need massive upside”.

Of course he made my team.
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I thought about Alexi Lutsenko long and hard, and he made some of my teams. That’s true every year. I’m glad I finalised my team before he went up Green Mountain like a superstar. I thought about Magnus Cort Neilsen, too, simply for the opportunities he’ll have. Pello Bilbao did me proud last year and is an underrated climber who could have done a job. All of them were desirable but there just wasn’t room and they didn’t match the excitement of the three who did make my team – and, with that, I had an Astana free team. I also had a lede for this column, since I couldn’t use The Agony and The Ex-Stani as a team name if I didn’t pick any Stanis or Ex-Stanis.

To my horror, I even spent a few minutes thinking about Giacomo Nizzolo. I mean, at four points, it isn’t the worst, idea, is it? Anyway, I got over that madness pretty quickly and was done with the four-pointers.

The two-pointers

OOOOF. Now things are getting truly tricky. By the time I’d gone through this properly (checked all the WT teams individually, been through my articles and the offseason capsules, checked the younger two-pointers and the races I see as “pointers” from last year) I had a longlist of 41 two-pointers, and a shortlist of 20. Getting down to 20 was a struggle. Somehow I carved out nine spaces and it wasn’t nearly enough.

Some guys made it onto the list and never left, a nice combination of youth and experience. Kristoffer Halvorsen (could easily outscore Hodeg, who made my team as a ten-pointer), Pavel Sivakov (I’m not alone in expecting a huge second year in the WT), Giulio Ciccone (back in the WT and top-ten GC class in every climby race), Sebastien Reichenbach (way too low a price for a consistently excellent rider on a “watch them in 2019” Groupama squad) and Alexis Vuillermoz (2018 was a down year and he’s now free of Bardet-shepherding Tour duty) were all staples.

Robert Power (VDS-point friendly skillset, huge talent, should get chances), Pascal Eenkhoorn (range of skills, big cobbles season experiment, massive potential), David Gaudu (pure class, even though I worry about opportunity) and Jasper Philipsen (upside, kick, cobbles possibilities) were the last four into the team. I’m delighted to find space for all of them. What hurt was the guys who didn’t make it. In any other year, I’d have found space for the criminally underpriced Jens Keukeleire, or for Niccolo Bonifazio, Ryan Mullen, Nathan Haas, Chris Lawless, Edward Theuns, Bjorg Lambrecht or Benoit Cosnefroy, all of whom I love. I just had to be ruthless and prioritise guys with high ceilings over safety or sentiment.

For four days, I had a team with 26 guys and 152 points. Jack Haig is my 2019 “missing man” and the unkindest cut of all.

Oh, Jack. What could have been.
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The one-pointers

For me, this is the category that has changed most. I used to find guys I loved and expect to be the just about the only one picking them (five of us found Giulio Ciccone in 2016, and five found Davide Formolo in 2014). Expectations were low and points were a bonus. I can’t think like that any more, so it is a wistful wave farewell to Aldemar Reyes Ortega, Miles Scotson, Cyril Barthe, Damien Touze, and Juan Felipe Osorio. I then had to jettison the guys I’ve been advocating for but couldn’t make room for, and out went Kilian Frankiny, Danny McLay, Edward Ravasi, and Jonas Rickaert. Petr Vakoc is a guy I’m rooting for, but the risks are too high even for a single-point flyer.

That left me with four spots and nine guys, a common enough problem. Fausto Masnada (I still believe), Luke Rowe (now 14 months since a leg fracture and clearly under-priced), Mark Padun (yes, I’m buying the hype, he really is a fantastic young rider) and Robert Stannard (I’m surprised there isn’t more hype, but “climby with a kick” will always get VDS points – I just hope I’m not a year too early) made it. Alas, I couldn’t find room for five talented young guys who’ll get chances on WT teams – Rui Oliveira, Niklas Eg, James Knox, Stan Dewulf and Eddie Dunbar. Just know, lads, that I wanted to.

So, I have a team of 25. I’ve spent my 150 points and right now I’m in with a chance. Just like the rest of you. How did you get to your team? Are you happy with it? Who wins your personal Jack Haig “can’t believe he didn’t make my squad” award?

Picking a team this year was still fun, but it was the hardest year yet for me. Still, I like my team well enough and I’m more optimistic than I’ve been since 2016. That year I finished 176th. Still, as a wise man once said, “remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Here’s to hoping for my team, and yours.