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Who Needs What? An Alternative Season Preview

How 2022 can improve the historic palmares of some major riders?

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Those of you with long memories may remember Ursula writing about a cycling hall of fame back in 2016. Those of you who share my love of Bill Simmons’ writing might know that he believes in Hall of Fame pyramids (he wrote a book about the basketball pyramid but the initial idea, with baseball, is here, and is somehow twenty years old). For Euros who don’t share my love of American sport, the notion of debating “HoF credentials” is an alien one, but regardless of sporting culture we all have a habit of ranking, comparing and overanalysing the biggest names in the sport.

What sort of questions are we asking? Here are a few that I think help.

  • How important is this rider to telling the story of cycling? All time, for a decade, or a year, or a race?
  • If you start naming riders, how long before you mention this person?
  • How often would they be the favourite on the starting line for a major race?
  • How deep is their palmares, and how big are their biggest prizes?
  • Do they have a USP? Are they in some way unique or memorable? There’s bonus points for that. Example - if I say Oscar Freire you say rainbow jersey, without hesitation.

So, let’s start an argument. What follows is my attempt to look at some big riders, primarily those coming towards the end of their careers, and look at where they sit historically – and, more importantly, what they can do this year to enhance their reputations. It is one man’s views on how the bigs should prioritise for this year, and an attempt to look at some of the meta-stories around the season before we get dragged into the detail.

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Some pointers:

I don’t plan to touch on doping issues. Some of the riders under consideration have been in cycling over plenty of years and have been successful. That does, in some cases, lead to “raised eyebrows.” In one particuarl case suspicions are far more serious and well-founded. Not being considered in this article – wide-eyed innocence from me.

This is my version of the pyramid. There are, of course, Hall of Famers and Hall of Famers. Stealing Ursula’s ideas of “big winners” and “always favourites”, in my mind there are tiers when we are trying to tell the story of this era of cycling:

  • All Time Great: You can’t talk about cycling without mentioning them. Definitive figures in the story of cycling. Dominant across multiple types of races over many years, with extraordinary palmares. Favourite every time they start. If there’s one every ten or twenty years, that’s about all. Eddy Merckx. Gino Bartali. That sort of name.
  • Generational talent: You can’t talk about a decade of cycling without mentioning them. Dominant GT, sprinter, chronoman or classics rider for a number of years, or someone who combines these skills to an elite level. Favourite in major races over a long period. Probably three or four a decade.
  • Hall of Famer: Multiple GT winner, or winner of more than one monument more than once, or a massive weight of winning in TTs/sprints and other events. Often a favourite for some of the biggest races with a few years of elite performance. Probably one or two retiring each year.
  • Elite rider: One of the biggest names over a shorter period, or a great rider but not truly dominant. In VDS terms, probably spent some time as a restricted rider without ever being number one or two in the field. Probably three or four retiring in a typical year.
  • Great rider: These are riders with top careers, team leaders with some big wins and names all cycling fans are familiar with. Still not rising to the level of elite, perhaps from a lack of GT/monument wins or a lack of longevity. Probably another three or four retiring in a typical year.

I’m only focusing on male riders, and only those with road cycling as a major part of what they do. There are plenty of riders who’d make a cycling Hall of Fame with a bit of a road in their palmares, where it just doesn’t matter that much. We have to stop somewhere. Case in point – Zdenyk Stybar is a Hall of Famer (3 times cross world champ) with USP as first cross star from outside western Europe. As a road cyclist he’s only a Great Rider (Omloop, Strade, E3, podiums in monuments but no huge wins).

Just as these levels are mine, so are the decisions in placing riders between them – they are entirely up for debate. It is also really easy to add riders to this structure – so please do! The palmares writes itself and the other bits are pure opinion, so do please add more riders or re-write the ones I’ve got wrong. With the first major targets of the season coming into focus and with your FSA-DS teams closed down, let’s look at what this year could mean for a few riders when they hang up their cleats.

The Riders Chasing History

Mark Cavendish

Current level: Generational talent

Palmares to date: weight of sprint wins that has never been matched. 34 Tour stages, 15 Giro stages, and 3 Vuelta stages. Milan Sanremo and World Champion. PCS get him to 158 wins.

USP: Simply, the fastest man in cycling for most of the last 17 years. Plus being, in the UK at least, one of the first cyclists to have a recognised personality for wider sports fandom.

What does he need in 2022?: A stage in the Tour, to do the hardest thing in cycling and take a record off Eddy Merckx, in this case as the rider to win the most stages. That would also become his USP. He is running out of time and may not get a place in the QuickStep team. I think if he achieves it he becomes an All Time Great.

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Philippe Gilbert

Current level: Hall of Famer.

Palmares to date: Winner of Il Lombardia twice, the World Roads, Paris-Roubaix, Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege as well as four Amstel Golds. A great one day rider on climbs.

USP: For now, probably his annus mirabilis in 2011 – winning all three Ardennes races, as well as Strade Bianche, Brabantse Pijl, San Seb, the Belgium Tour, TT and Nats, Quebec, Wallonie, ZLM and a stage of Eneco. Or maybe winning four monuments and the Worlds, which brings me onto…

What does he need in 2022?: He’s won four of the five monuments, and has another crack Milan-Sanremo to wrap up the quintet. The current trio are van Looy, de Vlaeminck and Merckx (who won them all multiple times). He’s an outsider to achieve it, and it isn’t needed, but it would be an extraordinary story if he managed it. Does it make him a Generational Talent? I think so, simply because it is so hard to achieve. Even more than Cav, in the twilight of his career and the odds are against him achieving it.

Alejandro Valverde

Current level: Generational talent

Palmares to date: Road world champion, Vuelta winner, four times a monument winner (though all at Liege). Twenty GT top tens point to his longevity, as do a Cav-adjacent 131 wins.

USP: A winning machine who has been around since 2002. Probably best remembered for Ardennes dominance – four wins in Liege and five in Fleche-Wallone. I mean, other things too, but I said I’d ignore all that.

What does he need in 2022?: This is harder to answer than for the previous riders. I think, at this point, our opinions (good and bad) are baked in. I think he’d improve his resume most notably by winning a different monument. He went a long way by winning the worlds, but adding Lombardia (four times a runner up) would be valuable.

Wout van Aert

Current level: Hall of Famer

Palmares to date: Won his first monument in MSR, and grabbed Olympic Silver. Six stages of the Tour, Amstel Gold, Gent-Wevelgem, Strade Bianche.

USP: Extraordinary versality. Hard to imagine any other rider of the modern era winning the Champs sprint and a mountain stage in the same Tour. Second in the World ITT. Also three times a cyclo-cross world champion, which helps.

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What does he have need in 2022?: To win more big races. Specifically, to pick up a second monument or a world championship (either ITT or road, I’m not fussy). This feels like I’m nit-picking, but if we exclude his cross records, we see lots of stages, and lots of second places, but wins in the biggest races are quite sparse. I think we all believe he’ll add more monuments, but the time is now. He is the only rider younger than Gilbert who I could see winning all the monuments.

Tadej Pogacar

Current level: Hall of Famer

Palmares to date: Two Tours with six stages, Lombardia and Liege, a podium and three stages in the Vuelta. An Olympic bronze and a slew of GC wins in world tour races.

USP: A meteor – so young to not only win the Tour for a second time, but to dominate it. I talk in this article about the greats being favourites every time they start. Pog is that rider.

What does he need in 2022?: More of the same would be extraordinary, and if he adds another monument and another Tour this year, I think he’s already a Generational Talent – and he’ll only be 24 and still white jersey eligible. Chris described him as the youngest Tour patron in history, and he is bang right about that. At 23 he has a chance to rewrite the record books and if anyone on this list becomes an All Time Great it is him.

One advantage of a column like this is to put a rider in his proper context. He is something very special.

Peter Sagan

Current level: Generational talent

Palmares to date: Three rainbow jerseys, seven green jerseys, Paris-Roubaix and Flanders, eighteen grand tour stages.

USP: Those green jerseys. Seven of them. Yes, a good sprinter and a great classics rider, but nobody has been as dominant in the Tour points competition.

What does he need in 2022?: I think he needs another monument. In truth, a very early idea for this column was supposed to be “have these riders won as much as we think they should have?” Peter Sagan… hasn’t, I don’t think. At least on the cobbles. Three world champs help quite a bit, and his Tour record is excellent, but he set himself out to be a cobbled star and hasn’t quite brought it home. Honestly, my image of Sagan in a classic is him sitting frustrated on the front of a doomed chase group, waving his arms at riders not willing to help him. I’m not sure that’s totally fair, but I want more. Post-peak now, but it isn’t too late if he can get motivated.

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Primoz Roglic

Current level: Hall of Famer

Palmares to date: Three times a Vuelta winner, podiums at the Tour and Giro. Sixteen stages at grand tours, Olympic gold in the ITT, and Liege. Plus lots of GC wins in weeklong races.

USP: Ski-jumper. No, I kid. Nor do I think it is the loss in the ’20 Tour, though that might be the first image we have of him. He’s one of the “TT first, climb second” GT winners, but there are a few of those. I think his USP is as the first guy from Eastern Europe to win a GT. If you exclude Vino and a few Russians (Menchov, Tonkov, Berzin) and put him on a level above Kwiatkowski, he is the in vanguard of opening up a whole new area of cycling talent, with Sagan and now Pogacar and Vlasov and maybe many more joining him. Is that a USP? No, but it is probably a legacy.

What does he need in 2022?: If he wins the Tour, I think he’s a Generational Talent. If he wins another monument and another Vuelta, he might be. At 32, he isn’t over the hill, but it is time for him to take a step forward if he wants to elevate himself historically.

Julian Alaphillipe

Current level: Hall of famer

Palmares to date: Twice a world champion, MSR winner, lots of other classics wins (San-Seb, three Fleches, Strade Bianche, Brabantse Pijl), six more monument top fives, seven grand tour stages, plus that Tour – 2019, fourteen days in yellow, fifth overall).

USP: I suspect it is the 2019 Tour. But it should be being the guy who knocked Valverde off his perch in the Ardennes. He’s the best short sharp climb rider in the peloton and has been for a few years, and he’s building up the palmares to prove it.

What does he need in 2022?: Winning another monument would help more than anything else, and he’s among the favourites for Liege and has a decent shot at Lombardia and the Worlds. He’s not far off replacing Hinault as the French rider with the best record in one-day races. I think Liege or Lombardia push him up towards Generational Talent.

Conclusions

This was a very self-indulgent piece to write - and I’m sure a VDS-focused Strade preview would be more popular. This was long and rambling and I know it is full of gaps as so many more riders deserve covering. In the end, I think it is worthwhile for giving me the space to consider two questions.

First, what sort of era are we in at the moment? I assumed we were in a slightly better-than-average era, or a typical era with a few unusually elongated end-of-career arcs. On reflection, I think we are in an era where the most notable names at or just past their best are one-day riders of one stripe or another.

By my reckoning we are coming to the end of the generational talents of Valverde and Gilbert (I didn’t cover Chris Froome, who is probably another generational talent) – and I think these three replaced Boonen, Cance (arguably the last TT-dominant generational talent, and my choice for the first All Time Great of this century) and Contador as the kings of their respective (if overlapping) eras.

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What do we see in the generations below them? A bit of a gap in Grand Tour terms, with Froome and Nibali gone and a lot of years down to Pog. In this order Rog, Doom, Nairoman and Yates are the four leaders of their generation, I think, and I only made Roglic a Hall of Famer.

Sagan is the Generational Talent who bridged from Cance and Tommeke to WVa and MvdP on cobbles as well as being a sprint/worlds beast. Alaphillippe is the new climbing generational talent. With so many other great one-day riders I do think we’re in a deep era in those areas.

It isn’t obvious to me that anyone is standing out as a TT-specialist who has made it to the upper levels of the hall of fame. Doom and Rog are probably both Hall of Famers with TT-cred but there isn’t a Cance-level TT-crusher and Ganna is still to prove he’s more than a one-trick pony, on the road at least. Similarly, it is too early to anoint any sprinter of the post Cav-era a superstar of historic importance.

Put all that together and the era looks typical - just skewing to the dominant riders preferring one-day riding (not sprinty or TT one day stuff, either).

There are lots of questions in this, even before you start trying to fill out the lower levels of the Hall. What do you do with Carapaz (Ecuador’s emergence, Giro/Olympics, but does he feel like he’s a Generational Talent? Not for me, even with another win)? What about G (throw in the track and he has to be a Hall of Famer, without it is he a Tour winner who only made it to Elite Rider – and is that possible, or is a Tour winner automatically a Hall of Famer)? MvdP (Generational, with cross) is injured at the moment but he could really do with a Worlds win and deserved covering. Dumoulin is well worth a section, though it ends up looking weirdly similar to Roglic’s. What about the “creep up on you” Hall of Famers (as well as Carapaz who has the headline palmares but I don’t quite buy it, what about Stuyven? If he added Roubaix to MSR is he an elite rider? He’s never felt like that to me)?

Then there’s my second big takeaway – what does this tell us about the 2022 season? Well, it reflects the importance of the Grand Tours and Monuments, but that is blindingly obvious and the mother of all circular arguments. It does, though, bring into stark relief how rare those wins are that the biggest riders need. There are only 8 a year. Some monuments can go to non-elite riders through racing chance (not luck, exactly, but nobody thinks Matthew Hayman or Alberto Bettiol belong in the generational talent list).

If you only have six or seven of these prizes for the true elite, you really can’t miss them when your time comes. Yes, podiums matter, so do semi-classics, and so do week-long stage races. But if you want to be considered a real great of the sport, you know when to turn up. At Liege and at Lombardia especially, history is on the line.

Over to you.