With the season winding down, it’s probably a good time to say our goodbyes to some old favorite riders, and to acknowledge the closing chapters of some other riders we at least though of and maybe cheered on from time to time. This year’s list of gents tempo-tapping off into the sunset includes four riders of special note, who I want to ruminate on for a bit: Daniel Martin, Fabio Aru, Tejay van Garderen, and André Greipel.
The first three are an interesting study in contrasts as to why one retires, while the Gorilla is in a category by himself, in so many respects.
It is a bit hard to believe that the Irish climber is only 35, given that he has been in the peloton, and near the front of it, since the early days of Team Slipstream, his first pro club. Martin came to the continent in 2004 to race for the French club VC La Pomme Marseille, which has earned a nice place in the sport since its founding in 1974 and has a particular connection to Irish cycling, having trained Nicholas Roche, Mark Scanlon, Philip Deginan and Sam Bennett in its long tenure. That Martin should find himself there, and in the sport, was no shock, being the son of former British pro Neil Martin, and of Maria...née Roche, Stephen’s sister. So basically he went over to France to race with Cousin Nic. Martin won a British Junior Championship, then became Irish National Champion at age 22, shortly after turning pro with the Vaughters outfit. A year later, he was second overall at Catalunya, and by 2010 he was the winner of a World Tour stage race, the Tour de Pologne. From there, we all began counting the days until he won a grand tour.
We are still counting, although he isn’t, so maybe it’s time we stopped. Anyway, Martin’s career from there will be remembered for what he could do, which is win one-week stage races and climbers’ classics with the top riders in the world. He might also be remembered for not finding a way to translate that into grand tour success — he never came closer to winning than fourth at the Vuelta (just last year) and sixth place was his best Tour de France finish (2017). But he also checks out as a member of the elite club of now 101 riders to win stages of all three grand tours, having taken two Tour stages — at Bagneres-de-Bigorre and fittingly the Mur de Bretagne — plus three notable mountain stages of the Vuelta and Giro.
What he lacked in consistency over three weeks Martin more than accounted for in his consistency over shorter time periods. In the one-week stage races, he won Catalunya, possibly the most prestigious of them all, and took three other podium spots at what was clearly his favorite event, rarely finishing outside the top 10. He bagged third at Paris-Nice, second at the Pais Vasco, and two more thirds at the Dauphine. And of course Martin rose to his greatest heights in the classics, winning the two climbers’ Monuments, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia as well as notching second in each event. And of course he notoriously lost a chance to win LBL on consecutive tries when his wheel slipped out in the final turn in 2014. He took a few podiums at La Fleche Wallonne, and could have won there easily except for the fact that he did not have the sprint of Alejandro Valverde, to whom he lost three times. He did appear to have an ethical code, though, so you wouldn’t be entirely wrong to add some moral victories to Martin’s palmares.
Known back home as Il Cavaliere dei quattro Mori, the Knight of the Four Moors, Aru’s somewhat quixotic career ended after a nice run at the Vuelta this past month. Sardinia’s first grand tour champion (and thus the four Moors reference), Aru goes home with a nice run of success that definitely ended all too early, as he retires at the age of 31.
He also ends his career as the greatest Sardinian cyclist since Alberto Loddo, winner of the Tour of Qatar, so maybe it’s much safer to simply say Aru is the greatest Sardinian cyclist ever. I can’t say for sure what impact that will have on his home region, although a few internet searches show that the English speaking world is full of riders salivating to take their bikes there on holiday. Now, of course, the distance from the remote Italian provinces to the Italian cycling talent machines of the north are much shorter, and the next potential winner from the Island will not go casually overlooked. Aru himself might have some ideas about helping local talent, given that he cited the need to stay home more as a reason for stepping away, along with just generally sounding tired and having accepted the limits of his career.
This all sounds a bit dismal, and for the last few seasons as he has battled iliac artery blockages and intolerances to both gluten and dairy, all limiting factors for a cyclist, which probably help explain how his career seemed to fade away starting in 2018. But the arc of his career is pretty special, one many cyclists would happily trade theirs for. He started out both on the road and the MTB circuit as a junior, racing for a Sardinian team, before moving to Bergamo with the Palazzago squad, with whom he was able to race against the top competition in Italy. His first major win was a stage on Monte Grappa, and in two seasons with Palazzago he won four mountain stage races, including the prestigious Valle d’Aosta event, a proving ground for future climbers. He took second in the Baby Giro, behind Joe Dombrowski, and nearly won stages at Monte Terminillo and Passo Gavia. Astana scooped him up to support Vincenzo Nibali in the Giro d’Italia, where Nibali won and his protege took fifth in a stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, battling a snowstorm. By the following year, after Michele Scarponi withdrew as captain, Aru was a team leader, stage winner and podium finisher at the Giro.
From here, his career was consumed by the grand tours, which might not have been the best thing to ever happen to him. Perhaps he could have found more success and happiness in the one week races, like Martin, or in a few more of the classics. But nobody was paying him grand tour money unless he could contest grand tours, and he sealed his own fate in 2015 by taking second in the Giro and winning the Vuelta, placing him sixth in the world rankings. That got him ticketed as a Tour contender, and with Nibali downshifting to Giro/Vuelta status, Aru became Astana’s leader at the world’s biggest race. He did OK, all things considered, for a guy who was really just a climber and nothing special against the watch, moving up to fifth place in 2017 with a stage victory at La Planche des Belles Filles and a short stint in yellow before Chris Froome greedily reclaimed his crown.
But for these plans, Aru probably could have won a Giro along the way, except that he never returned to the race after his second place in 2015, where he held the maglia rosa for a day and hung with eventual winner Alberto Contador to the end. Most painfully, his Tour selection meant he couldn’t start the 2017 Giro in Sardinia. In hindsight, it was probably for the best, but I am sure he has some regrets. Aru is in select company, joining Martin on the list of 101 riders to win stages at all three grand tours, and joining a more select 20 or so riders (it was 20 in 2017) who have worn the leader’s jersey in all three events. He was a national champion in that memorable 2017 season, and was an Olympian in 2016, taking sixth in the Rio road race after his captain and countryman Nibali crashed out.
Compared to Martin, it’s safe to say that expectations make our assessment of his career seem less than what the Irishman accomplished, when in fact he was just a different rider, or at least he was sent to do different rides. Left to his own devices, perhaps he could have done more in the classics or shorter stage races where Martin garnered his greatest successes. But a grand tour win probably trumps all of that, along with his Giro and Tour exploits, so Aru should feel mostly OK with the cards he was dealt.
Tejay van Garderen
One of America’s most decorated stage racers, probably its best since Lance slunk away (although Chris Horner and his odd Vuelta win say hi). In any event, van Garderen got people excited as an American coming up through the Rabobank system, which seemed like a good idea at the time, and if nothing else exposed van Garderen to the wider world of cycling as compared to the U.S. development options. We Yanks tend to get excited about the next big stage racing talent, and TVG made matters worse when he took third at the Dauphine during his first professional season. He was anointed the Next Big Thing.
And the truth is, he WAS pretty big. Just not as big as some of the others. Remaining consistent over three weeks is fundamentally harder than doing so for one (if you were to name one single reason why cheating exists...), and while van Garderen was strong enough against the watch to make him a legitimate stage race contender, he generally couldn’t repeat the performances often enough to take down guys like Contador, Froome and the other big stars.
Van Garderen won a lot on home soil, taking overall wins at the Amgen Tour of California and two editions of the USAPCC in Colorado, plus several stages along the way. He really was of that caliber, even if he wasn’t of the next level up. He did win a Giro d’Italia stage, plus the white jersey at the 2012 Tour (and fifth overall), followed by a double-Alpe d’Huez stage in 2013 where he nearly took an iconic, career-defining solo win before Christophe Riblon caught him in the final 2km. He really could climb on his good days. He rose back up to fifth at the 2014 Tour, and seemed on track for a podium in 2015 when he took second at the Dauphine just 10 seconds behind Froome, only to see his Tour undone by illness.
In the end, he never won a major stage race in Europe, but took three podiums at the Dauphine, another at Catalunya, and high finishes in all of the biggest one-week events (Paris-Nice, Pais Vasco, Romandie, Suisse Tour). His final race was arguably the USA national time trial championships, where he finished third. He would also contest the road race a couple days later but didn’t finish. He reached a world ranking of 20 in 2014, a rank any cyclist short of the superstars would be proud of. Well done Tejay.
So, to tally it up, we are saying farewell to three stage racers who are defined in part by one-week successes, and in part by their varying results in grand tours. One, Martin, veered away from that ambition and made a massive name for himself in the classics, while another, Aru, broke through in the three week format, and maybe could have done so again, while van Garderen reached neither height but took enough from his stage racing exploits to feel good. This is what life as a grand tour hopeful looks like: mostly defeating, but to even be a grand tour hopeful suggests that you can make a name in plenty of other places, as all three did.
Switching gears, we have to spend a bit of time talking about the Gorilla, who hangs his bike up this year too. Greipel isn’t done yet, having just completed the Tour of Britain, and at a minimum he is on the startlist for October’s rescheduled running of Paris-Roubaix. So we can hold on to our hankies for now. Arguably, though, his retirement is the biggest one of the year. Greipel has been a sprinter who then crossed over into classics success. He’s been a helper and a constant presence in the sport. He’s been a pro for 17 seasons. He might be the greatest rapper in World Tour history. [And maybe the worst too.] His numbers:
- 158 wins as a pro
- 11 Tour de France stage wins, including four in 2015, when he finished second in points to Peter Sagan
- Seven Giro sprint wins and four more at the 2009 Vuelta, his breakout race as a sprinter and his only points competition win
- 19 points competition victories in one-week stage races
Prior to the 2009 Vuelta Greipel was seen as more of an understudy to Mark Cavendish at T-Mobile, but with his 2010 move to Lotto he got to ride for himself, even nipping Cav in a Tour stage for his first such win. From there, being on a Belgian team, he started to appear at races like Gent-Wevelgem (fourth in 2011), Flanders (15th in 2015) and Paris-Roubaix (7th in 2017). He won on home soil at the Vattenfalls Classic, plus three other podiums, and took third in Eschborn. Such performances allowed him to escape being pigeonholed as a temperamental bunch finisher and won him hardman recognition. Always a good thing in cycling, especially if you’re going to pull off a nickname like “gorilla”. Last, it’s hard to know these people, but Greipel seems universally liked in the peloton. He might be the one guy on this list who is missed the most.
Finally, those may be the biggest names, but numerous others are stepping away after this season, or have already. Here are some of the more notable ones.
Philip Walsleben — A cross sensation who didn’t do a ton on the road, but no matter. At one point the Potsdammer held a full house of (U-23) titles: German, European, World and UCI World Cup. At the senior level he couldn’t quite get past the stars of the sport, topping out in second place in the World Cup standings, but he was one of the top non-Belgians at least.
Marcel Sieberg — Long time teammate of his countryman Greipel, Sieberg was a classics/sprinter type who topped out at seventh (like Greipel!) in Paris-Roubaix and won a Ronde van Drenthe in 2005. He also performed for many years as a veteran domestique of some note.
Kevin Reza — One of the few Black riders in the peloton, the French sprinter and track star notched some nice results at the pro level (4th in Classic Sud Ardeche, 3rd in Paris-Camembert) plus a win as an espoir in Les Boucles de la Loire. His final Tour de France participation saw him ride at the front on the stage into his hometown of Paris, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jonas Van Genechten — Belgian classics guy, once took third at Paris-Tours and won a stage of the Vuelta in 2016. Probably better known as a classics domestique.
Sean De Bie — Another classics/cross rider, De Bie notched five wins, including the GP Impanis. He comes from a long line of pros including his dad and several cousins. He just missed out on one last win at the Tour du Finistere, where Benoît Cosnefroy took him on the line.
Jelle Vanendert — One of many Belgian Climbing Sensations, Mr. Van in Dirt took a Tour stage win at Plateau de Beille and held the KOM jersey for a bit. He was twice second at Amstel Gold and third on one occasion at La Fleche Wallonne. GP Waregem, Vlaamse Pijl and a stage of the Belgium Tour are his other palmares.
Mitchell Docker — Aussie classics rider and notable lead-out guy. His stage win at the Route du Sud is his biggest pro palmare, unless you count being part of a TTT squad that won a Giro stage.
Mickael Delage — A French national champion on the track, Delage won a couple combativity prizes at the Tour and took third in San Sebastian.
Maarten Wynants — wow, Wynants hung on through his age 39 season as a classics rider and beloved teammate at Quick Step, Lotto, Rabobank and Jumbo Visma. His only win was U23 national champion, but he shepherded Tom Boonen to some magical moments back in the day. Wynants stopped after De Ronde this year, not being willing to extend his career another five-plus months just for Paris-Roubaix, where he had four top-20 results including tenth in 2012.
Brent Bookwalter — A fine teammate and time triallist, and thus a good guy to have around for your TTT squad. The New Mexican was mostly known for helping out some very strong BMC squads.
Koen De Kort — His career didn’t pan out quite the way he wished, joining Liberty Seguros and then Astana at a time when these teams were getting shelved or nuked for doping cases. But the U23 Paris-Roubaix winner notched some decent results at the middling classics and took 12th overall at the ENECO Tour once.
Marco Marcato — Wow! He was still riding? Somehow a bunch of us, possibly relying on poorly sourced information (my blog posts), convinced ourselves that he was a cobbles ace, and in fact he did score top ten finishes at E3, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars. For a bit he was paired up with Bjorn Leukemans and Stijn Devolder in an effort to muscle their Vacansoleil team into the inner circle, which didn’t quite happen. The Italian from San Dona di Piave, which sort of sounds like pavé, did prove his classics chops with a win in Paris-Tours in 2012. He never got close to a monument win, unless you want to count him crashing on the descent of the Poggio at the 2011 Milano-Sanremo, from a group that saw Matt Goss take the win. Coulda shoulda? Whatever. He also got linked to Dr. Ferrari, so I’m OK with Marcato just being a guy we kinda remember and not something more.