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Thursday Thoughts: Season-long predictions

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In which we make more nebulous predictions, and have another argument

Your consensus rider of the year
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If you haven’t been following along with this series, a few signposts may help. I introduced this mini-series of articles here and the first half ran last week, in which we predicted winners of some of the biggest races. All of that preceded the opening of our unique season-long fantasy cycling game, FSA-DS, for which entries are now open. If you’re new to the site and truly desperate for help with fantasy cycling, do look back over our reviews of each of the World Tour teams this offseason, and my other offseason musings.

This week we move onto predictions for the full season, and I should start with a point of explanation for the reader - I deliberately didn’t give the panel any supporting information in setting the questions above. I wanted to see some variety in responses, and I think we’ve achieved that. So, if you think there’s a disagreement on definitions... you’re probably right. As the table below shows, there was virtually no common ground on some of the topics. You can see the full list of everyone’s picks here.

Season Award Picks

Awards Most Picked! Times Picked
Awards Most Picked! Times Picked
Best bunch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen 6
Best pure climber Egan Bernal 5
Breakout classics rider Mathieu van der Poel 6
Breakout sprinter Fabio Jakobsen 5
Breakout GT rider Egan Bernal 3
Becomes a star Mathieu van der Poel 2
Become a superstar Simon Yates 3
Biggest letdown season Geraint Thomas 4
Best team Deceuninck 9
Better than expected team UAE 4
Rider of the year Peter Sagan 8

With that, let argument commence!

Andrew: Let’s not waste any more time at the top. As last week, gentlemen, I’m going to kick things off with a question for each of you.

CONOR’S PICKS

Andrew: Conor - I’ll start with you. You see Sivakov, Sosa and Bernal all breaking out. Nobody doubts the talent, but all three ride at Sky and expectations are very high. What does a breakout year look like for each of them, and are they mutually compatible?

Conor: While for quite a long time it appeared that Sky was the place where young riders went to wallow and wane, in recent years the opposite has proven to be true as the young talents of Bernal and Moscon have flourished at Sky. The theme here seems to be that you will not get unlimited opportunities to show what you’ve got but if you have genuine star quality, Sky will by no means stifle it. Bernal, Sosa and Sivakov all have that genuine quality. While they of course won’t be the trident that leads Sky to unprecedented success this year, for Bernal success will come in the form of receiving at least some leadership and delivering on it, something that seems set to happen.

For Sosa and Sivakov, it’s a little less lofty. Even performing remarkably well as domestiques will get them the publicity and acclaim worthy of a breakout season, but I think they can go even further than that.

SKIP’S PICKS

Andrew: Skip - No surprise to see Mas featuring on your list given you see him winning the Tour. I’d like to ask about sprinters. Bauhaus, Ackermann and Groenewegen all feature on your lists and obviously VDS players are worrying about the sprinting uncertainty this year. How much did you allow predictions to impact on your pricing for 2019? Should readers who disagree with you be looking for opportunities?

This is the moment I leapt onto the Groany-wagon
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Skip: First- ALOHA [Andrew note. At this point Ursula referred to us all as A Very Bad Word. I’m going to edit it out because you shouldn’t have to read A Very Bad Word. Just know that Ursula is Very Naughty Indeed, as he proves every time we get the VDS prices.] Just got to the Big Island today and you know what? We should have a PdC retreat here next year in January! WHO’S WITH ME?

Okay. Now that that’s settled, Andrew you are asking me about my sprinter picks and did my predictions for Bauhaus, Ackermann and Groenewegen affect my VDS pricing or vice versa? GOOD QUESTION. I can say no, my predictions for those three riders did not affect their prices at all. In fact I almost went the other way with my VDS pricing and these predictions: I essentially had the prices down for all the sprinters before you wrote to us (some minor tweaking happened after but not with these three sprinters) and when you asked us for our predictions I started to go with the most expensive sprinter this year, which should come as no surprise that its Viviani since he easily scored the most last year and is starting to score year in and year out at a high level-higher than most sprinters ever get.

So I started to put Viviani down but then realized what I was doing and changed my predictions. I like Viviani a ton and if there’s one race that I want a rider to win this year it’s Viviani at Gent-Wevelgem. But as I said I changed my predictions for you. I took Groany instead of Viviani as I think when he’s on Groany is about the fastest thing going. (Maybe Kitty is faster, maybe, but when does he have all his ducks lined up?) Actually I then went for Ackerman cause he’s wicked fast too and I think he’ll explode this year. Bauhaus is just a throw-riders-at-a -dart-board guess.

I would rather have picked SKA instead of Van Der Poel like Jens did. Just spaced that one.

SHAWN’S PICKS

Andrew: Shawn - You’ve picked David Gaudu as a breakout GT rider, and he’s obviously someone I’ve been talking about for a while and think very highly of. What are your expectations for him coming off a quiet 2018? Also, I think people will be shocked to see Bling listed as a future superstar. How does he acheive that, in your eyes?

Shawn: I’ll take your Bling question first. And to start off, let’s examine in extremely boring detail the definition of “superstar.” Merriam-Webster defines superstar as……….. Nah, ef that noise. In terms of actual superstars in cycling, there’s probably only 2-- i.e. riders that are names that even the casualist of cycling observers may know-- Chris Froome and Peter Sagan. There’s no rider that I see on the horizon, not even Evenepoel, that I foresee rising to that level. So here’s where I’m coming from with Bling-- he is unfortunate to be riding at a time when he will always be in the shadow of an all time great and singular talent- Sagan. Matthews, like Sagan, can excel in a wide variety of terrains and situations-- bunch sprints, long hard slogs on the saddle, bumpy parcourses, and steep, short finishing climbs. There’s one place where he has been clearly behind Sagan-- on the cobbles.

However, I believe that is about to change. Matthews broke his shoulder at Omloop right at the start of what was to be his first real shot at the cobbled classics. Still, he finished in 13th in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem and 5th in Fleche. He then was forced out of the Tour with illness. Yet he came rip roaring back in the twilight of last season-- winning the Flanders stage at BinckBank and winning both of the Canadian classics (which Sagan has never even done in the same year). After this year, I think we’ll have to talk of Matthews as a potential winner in any race that he enters-- whether it be a sprint stage, the Ardennes, a hilly classic, or the cobbles. It doesn’t hurt that he finds himself as one of two potential leaders on the cobbles on Sunweb with Soren Kragh Andersen.

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As for Gaudu, I believe it is not if he will breakout as a GT rider but when. He had a quiet but important 2018 where he got a lot of race days in and rode his first GT. He’s only just turned 22 years old. He and Egan Bernal are only a few months apart in age, and Gaudu beat him handily in winning the Tour de l’Avenir back in 2016. The only thing I see holding Gaudu back is Groupama-FDJ’s damn tunnel vision for the Tour-- let him have a shot at leading the team at either the Giro, or better yet for this year the Vuelta, and we’ll see the result of his experience starting to catch up with his talent

CHRIS’ PICKS

Andrew: Chris- I’m obliged to ask you about cobbles, obviously. You’ve written about van der Poel and Pedersen recently, and see them both breaking out (last week you picked Mads to win it all). You clearly see a changing of the guard in 2019’s cobbled season. Put that into a historical context for us - how quickly should we expect the upper echelons of the classics crew to shift, and has it happened like this before?

Chris: OK, to respond to your direct question, I am (once again) getting myself perhaps overly excited about a coming talent, possibly in disregard of the entire long history of young talent at the Cobbled Classics, which seem to say over and over that experience is a decisive factor. But! Things are different now! Or might be! OK, probably not.

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I’ll say this: young athletes are coming up in more sophisticated systems than they used to, putting them on something closer to a level playing field, I’d think, with their elders. Anecdotally you see how strong Wout Van Aert was last spring. You hear about them keying in on the cobbled races from junior days. It’s all just a bit more sophisticated and with the rising international profile of the cobbled races it’s not such a strange thing to guess that kids will be as relevant as ever (i.e. somewhat relevant). But I’m not even wish-casting on guys like Van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel — I’m going with riders who, while young, are already proving themselves in these races. Pedersen second in Flanders last year; Stuyven with two straight top-fives in Roubaix. Unfortunately they are both on the same team, and not a cobbles dynamo, which makes me wonder what I’m really predicting. But still, they are young/entering their prime. And unlike Sagan, they are picks to win the one race you know they are targeting above all others.

JENS’ PICKS

Andrew: Jens - My goal this offseason has been to expect smaller changes and not to give up on riders. On the other hand, you have Landa as the best climber and Kittel as the best sprinter. Though I’m tempted to simply ask whether you have forgotten 2018, I will ask what drives you to see Kittel making a comeback to the top in a crowded field. What’s you degree of confidence in that pick?

Jens: Kittel is a tough one. My thinking is just that there is no way he is washed up yet. He is quite obviously a fragile rider in some sense since he really seems prone to getting thrown off his game and produce abysmal seasons. But basically I still thinks he has enough raw power advantage to be the dominant big day sprinter (meaning dominating the sprints in whatever GT he choses). So what needs to change is the level of team support and Kittel getting his shit together. I don’t have massive faith in Katusha’s ability to up their game but the sounds out of the camps this winter is that Kittel is a man on a mission, he has the old anger in the stomach. And I think we see with leadouts that sometimes what takes for them to click is the the mentality of the sprinter and his ability to finish the job and that could be all they need to change a poor leadout to a working one.

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So if that happens, the real challenger for the title would be Groenewegen and I just think that he is still a few % below a near prime Kittel. Plus it’s a good bet that Jumbo will have huge GC ambitions this year and that could cost Groaner a bit of crucial support whether the team consciously make that choice or not. As for confidence…. I’m about 90% sure we’ll see a much improved Kittel in 2019. Lop off a few percent confidence that this actually translates into a dominating number of big wins. As you say the field looks strong and the team still looks seriously iffy and that may spell disappointment for the big guy.

MORE THOUGHTS!

That’s enough interrogation from me. What do the rest of you take from this very varied list?

Chris: Can we all just marvel at the fact that Andrew hasn’t picked Miguel Angel Lopez for anything? Is this a reverse jinx attempt? If so, it’s not very subtle. Did you guys have a falling out that I didn’t catch?

Skip: Yeah- that’s weird Chris, the divorce of Andrew and MAL. I do like Conor predicting the S Yates double.

And no one picked Aru. WTF?????

Chris: I think that speaks to the quality of the panel.

Andrew: I mean… ouch. No, it isn’t a reverse jinx attempt. MAL had a good season in 2018, but he looked less brilliant than he had in 2017, and it felt like he sacrificed some climbing excellence in order to ride two GTs. The early plan for 2019 is to ride shedloads more preparation races and go back to the Giro. He has trouble in traffic and his time trial isn’t improving. None of that will necessarily stop him winning a Giro, he’s a good enough climber to do so. He’s going to have to be at his absolute best to climb enough time ahead of Doom and Primoz, and I’m pessimistic for the first time in his career. But thanks for bringing up a painful topic, boss.

[Andrew note: I’m not saying that Chris and Skip got to me, but after writing this rebuttal I started worrying a bit more, eventually dedicating a fairly long “most intriguing rider” section of the Astana capsule to Miggy, with whom my relationship has deteriorated from “man crush” to “still a man crush, but it’s complicated.”

As for Aru, UAE are sending him to the Giro when he’s stated a desire for the Tour, cutting back on his prep races and generally treating him like a troublesome and frail commodity. If he wins the Giro, they’ll look brilliant. It isn’t encouraging, though, is it?