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‘22 In Review: The Men’s Rider of the Year Conundrum

It’s three competing and compelling narratives

CYCLING-FRA-TDF2022-STAGE18 Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images

The 2022 men’s cycling season was about as satisfying as they come. Lots of seasons have various ways to describe them, but for me the one sentiment that works for 2022 is satisfaction.

Was it exciting? You betcha. Were there new and interesting characters involved? Constantly. Was the racing raced like a race? Every day, it seemed. Did we come up with plenty of things to argue about? Yes. This is not our first rodeo.

Could you say all of these things about other years? Sure, but not always, and not against the backdrop of the last two years. 2022 has been, for a lot of people and for a lot of reasons apart from watching sports, an opportunity to crawl back (slowly) toward normalcy (whatever that means), and cycling can boast some very clear progress in that respect. Most races happened on time, mostly with crowds. It was touch-and-go on occasion but a significant improvement from the last two seasons. We had a lot of the same in 2021, but me this season, I felt much less guilty pleasure in it. Obviously COVID still hit a few races, particularly the Vuelta a España where a couple dozen riders withdrew, but with greater understanding of the risks and vaccines reducing the danger, it wasn’t quite as unnerving an experience this time around.

So there’s that. Then there is the emergence of really top-shelf protagonists to challenge what was looking like the start of a Merckxian era of single-rider dominance. In a less dominant performance, Tadej Pogačar may have raised his stature even further, as he brought his star power to a wider variety of races, something we are always clamoring for. Three different riders won the grand tours, each a first-timer and each with its own unique story of triumph. Two of them were so impressive that they merit further discussion for Rider of the Year. The third, I’ll let you make the case if you think one exists, but regardless, chapeau Jai! The Classics saw numerous surprises on the podiums and endless drama. I’m sure we had a few dull days along the way but they don’t immediately come to mind.

Against that backdrop, let’s pick our Podium Cafe Men’s Rider of the Year. I will put your ballot up front so you remember to fill it out, but feel free to read below before voting. I have three candidates who clearly stand out above the rest. There’s a second cut of riders who might intrigue you, consisting of Hindley, Van Aert, maybe Démare or De Lie, but IMO the top three have an unbridgeable gap on the rest of the field. So I will focus on them alone. Feel free to make your case for bringing another rider across in comments if you wish.

Poll

Who is the 2022 Men’s Rider of the Year?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    Tadej Pogačar
    (57 votes)
  • 46%
    Remco Evenepoel
    (72 votes)
  • 10%
    Jonas Vingegaard
    (17 votes)
  • 6%
    Someone Else (make case in comments)
    (10 votes)
156 votes total Vote Now
106th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres 2022 - Men’s Elite Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Tadej Pogačar

Wins: 16, not including secondary jersey competitions. Includes Lombardia, Strade Bianche, three Tour stages.

FSA Directeur Sportif Ranking: 1. He will be #1 in every ranking, for a little while it seems.

For: He was once again the greatest cyclist on the planet, across the whole season. His biggest misses were near misses — second at the Tour de France, fourth in a remarkable Flanders where he was clearly one of the two best. He might not lose Lombardia again for a while.

Points are his strong suit, and there is a good reason they exist — because taking second in two races is harder than taking first in one and 140th in another. Well, sometimes. Anyway, it’s a long season and we value versatility and consistency, both of which Pogačar is taking to new levels. If you view his season in a vacuum — which is what this exercise is — and not against his past accomplishments, then he is the best.

His style is admirable and bears mentioning, insofar as it frames his non-victories... he took risks. His entire schedule of going to the classics involved risks to his Tour plans. This is how a true champion approaches the campaign — fearlessly. He attacked everywhere and never took defeat lying down. He probably would have added to his totals if personal circumstances hadn’t cut short his Spring.

Oh, and one more thing... read the next two rider entries and see how often we mention Pogs. He is absolutely the stick everyone else is measured against.

Against: Not to be all like “let’s relitigate points versus wins for the 100000th time,” but there is at least one win that isn’t like any other, the Tour de France, for the simple reason that people plan around it for a year at a time, so when you win it, it might be a little extra-representative of how awesome you are. And by that one measure, Pogačar was clearly second-awesomest.

Oh, and not to be like “let’s pick this year’s guy and pretend that we are only talking about this year when we are sneakily comparing him to last year,” but this year’s Pogs did suffer a bit of a dropoff. I would phrase it as the battle of Pogs vs Pogs, or reality Pogs vs expectation Pogs. He began the year with an aura of invincibility and ended it with that punctured. That counts for something, no? Maybe at 24 he is just getting too old.

108th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2022 - Men’s Elite Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Remco Evenepoel

Wins: 16, including Vuelta a España (overall + 2 stages), World Championships Road Race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Donostia Klasikoa. Also not including secondary jerseys.

FSA Directeur Sportif Ranking: 3. CQ has him second but most polls, including the UCI WT, has him behind Van Aert.

For: The only rider who can boast a hat trick of a Monument, a Grand Tour, and a Rainbow Jersey. In fact, no other rider won even two of those three major honors. For a rider having a huge breakout campaign at age 22, he nonetheless did this against high expectations and pressure. The world title, LBL and San Sebastian wins were dominant solo affairs where he just strolled away from the field and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The Vuelta win was a bit more touch-and-go but he overcame misfortune and a diminished supporting cast to salt it away when it mattered.

Evenepoel also was just about even with Pogs on total wins, though only if you include Gullegem Koerse, which the ranking systems don’t, so maybe he’s one shy. But those totals include five one-day events (including TT nats) and three stage race victories. The diversity of his wins exceeds that of even Pogačar. Points-wise, Remco raced a bit less than Pogs and after drawing almost even he saw Pogs pull away with a fall campaign that Remco bailed on after the exhasuting Vuelta-Worlds combo.

Against: Those points Pogs scored and Remco didn’t, they count too. Evenepoel raced a reduced calendar which focused primarily on the Vuelta, and it worked brilliantly, but this is a determination of who won the entire season. This plays into the other argument — who did he beat? At the Vuelta, Evenepoel’s finest hour (up to that point), he faced the Tour and Giro leftovers, all of whom had at expended more of themselves to that point, and none of whom were named Pogačar. The exhaustion argument cuts the other way when we are talking Worlds, a dominating, unimpeachable win against the finest riders on a level playing field, if not a disadvantage (physically — not tactically). And we were robbed of a fantastic LBL showdown when Pogs left the race to be with his grieving partner. Maybe it’s not Remco’s fault that he hardly ever faced Pogačar, but it doesn’t help his statistical case either.

CYCLING-FRA-TDF2022-STAGE11 Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

Jonas Vingegaard

Wins: 6, including Tour de France (overall + 2 stages), Drôme Classic

FSA Directeur Sportif Ranking: 5. He’s not higher than 4th anywhere I have looked.

For: He won the Tour. That’s the whole case. There is no other case to be made, although Vingegaard had a fine season outside of Le Grand Boucle, winning the Drôme Classic, taking second at the Dauphiné behind his teammate Primož Roglič, and winning often enough in the high mountains to be rightfully called the world’s best climber.

I probably don’t need to recount all of the Tour drama, but just keep in mind, he came into the race as his team’s second choice, only inheriting a clear captaincy when Roglič once again crashed out. He took Pogs head-on and crushed him, not only in the Alps where he left a jour-sans Pogs gasping, but in the Pyrenées where he shadowed Pogs to the line one day, ceding a stage but frustrating the Slovene’s comeback aspirations, and then dropped him definitively again the next. He even padded his advantage by a few seconds on the final ITT. None of this was expected.

Given all that, how can you pick Pogačar over him? And didn’t we just cover Evenepoel’s failure to face Pogačar directly? Vingegaard did, and triumphed. It wasn’t even all that close.

Against: Did he have a second great month this year? Doesn’t look like it. So if by “best of 2022” you mean all of 2022, Vingegaard doesn’t really have a case. Also his Tour triumph was partly about the strength and precision of his team, which flawlessly executed a plan to put one of their two guys into yellow. Maybe you think he wins the Tour without Wout, but Vingegaard is glad he didn’t have to find out.

***

OK, feel free to nominate anyone else (coughWoutcough) if you wish. And definitely vote! Thanks.