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This didn’t begin as a story idea. Well, not exactly.
It began as a stray thought, as story ideas do. This one became a tweet. A Twitter poll, to be exact.
And though I don’t know what I expected, the results of that poll surprised me somewhat. And that became a story idea.
Let me back up a minute.
The 2017 season was unique in professional bike racing in that two cyclists — Chris Froome and Nino Schurter — registered exceptionally impressive, once-in-a-career achievements.
And now, as the days grow shorter and we head into the time of the year when media outlets compose their annual best-of retrospectives, the thought crossed my mind: Which of these riders is most deserving to be anointed as “Cyclist of the Year” for 2017?
No, it’s not an easy question to answer. And yes, there can be only one.
First, a few indisputable facts.
Froome pulled off the Tour-Vuelta double, becoming only the third rider to win both Grand Tours in the same season, and the first to do it since the Vuelta moved from April to August in 1995. The Team Sky rider won no stages at the Tour but two at the Vuelta — a time trial and a summit finish — amounting to four victories on the season. He also won the points jersey and the mysterious “combined classification” at the Vuelta. The two other men to accomplish the Tour-Vuelta double are Jacques Anquetil, in 1963, and Bernard Hinault, in 1978, both five-time Tour champions and legends of the sport. With his Tour win in July, Froome is now just one more Tour victory away from joining the exclusive five-win club.
Schurter (Scott-SRAM) started off his season with a stage win and overall victory at the eight-stage Absa Cape Epic in South Africa, partnered with Matthias Stirnemann. The world cross-country champ also took wins at the Sea Otter Classic and the Swiss national championship, but his crowning achievement was an unprecedented perfect run at the UCI World Cup, winning six out of six events, followed by a third consecutive world title in Cairns, Australia. In the events that mattered most, Schurter was undefeated. Even in Roland Green’s dream 2001 season, when he won the World Cup title and the world championship, the Canadian only won two World Cup races. This year, Schurter won them all.
Froome’s victories came ahead of names such as Uran, Bardet, Landa, Aru, Nibali, Zakarin, Kelderman, and Contador.
Schurter’s wins came in front of names such as Kulhavy, Sauser, Van der Poel, Flückiger, Tempier, Cooper, Valero, Sintsov, and Absalon.
Schurter finished the 2017 season atop the UCI rankings by a comfortable margin. Froome did not, and will finish second in the WorldTour standings behind Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing.
And while Van Avermaet may have had a more consistent season — with a sensational run at the Spring Classics, winning Paris-Roubaix and finishing second at the Tour of Flanders, followed by overall victory at the Tour of Luxembourg — his was not historic.
Likewise, Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen (Boels–Dolmans) demonstratively earned the Women’s WorldTour title before the season had wrapped up; she rode to an unprecedented clean sweep of the Ardennes Classics and took overall victories at the Amgen Tour of California and Giro Rosa, the sole Grand Tour of women’s cycling. She also took silver in the world time-trial championship.
Froome won no one-day races, finished second in the final WorldTour standings, and took bronze in the world time-trial championship. He won fewer races than Schurter, Van Avermaet, and van der Breggen. However he emerged victorious after a pair of consecutive 21-day stage races — a combined 169 hours of racing across 6864 kilometres. By winning the Tour and then the Vuelta, he’d done something that had never been done before. Simply put, his Grand Tour double was the most significant achievement of any road racer in 2017.
So, I kept the poll binary: Choose one or the other, the road racer or the mountain-bike racer. Apples to oranges, who had the more impressive 2017 season, Froome or Schurter?
I’m not sure what I expected, but the results nevertheless surprised me, with Schurter taking 59% of 1,500 votes, and Froome taking 41%.
Though I hoped that those who voted would do so purely on sporting criteria, I wrongly assumed that it might simply turn into a popularity contest, giving Froome the nod based on nothing more than familiarity.
Froome has 568,000 Facebook likes, 1.4 million Twitter followers, and 742,000 Instagram followers. Schurter has 330,000 Facebook likes, 37,000 Twitter followers, and 225,000 Instagram followers.
To boil that down, Schurter has 58% of Froome’s Facebook reach, 3% of his Twitter audience, and 30% of his Instagram followers. Based on those statistics alone, I assumed the poll might tilt toward Froome. I was wrong. So I decided to write about it.
(The flipside of this, of course, is that because Froome competes on such a big stage, rides for such a dominant team, and has won so often, he’s become a polarizing figure. It’s a fair assumption that some votes for Schurter may have been votes against Froome.)
So what to write? Ultimately, a poll is just that — spread a wide net, seek opinions. It’s subjective. There is no right or wrong answer, only consensus.
Nevertheless, with 1,500 votes, and a clear winner, I was intrigued.
Opinions are just that, but some well-informed opinions carry more weight than others. So I reached out to five riders who have excelled at the highest levels of professional mountain-bike racing and Grand Tour racing — riders who truly understand and appreciate what it takes, on both sides.
Of course I also reached out to Froome and Schurter, to get their perspectives. More on that later.
Before we go any further, I should make clear that the intent of poll, and ultimately this article, was never to devalue either rider’s accomplishments. Both achievements are extraordinary and, in any other season, would clearly merit them to be considered the “Cyclist of the Year.”
Likewise, it’s not meant to propose that one is the “better cyclist” than the other. Froome is clearly the dominant Grand Tour rider of his era, and is now two Tour victories away from the all-time record. Schurter is arguably the greatest mountain-bike racer of all time, albeit in a much younger discipline.
However, they are both professional bike racers, dominating their respective disciplines at the same moment in time.
(Interesting detail: Froome started his career in mountain-bike racing, in Kenya, while Schurter did a few stage races with Orica-GreenEdge in 2014, with a pair of top-10 stage finishes at the Tour de Suisse.)
Still, this question relates solely to 2017: What to do when two riders, from different disciplines, accomplish something historic? What criteria do you use to determine whose accomplishment was more historically significant?
The experts speak
Who had the more impressive 2017 season, Chris Froome or Nino Schurter? We took the question to five riders, both current and retired, who have excelled at the highest levels of professional mountain-bike racing and Grand Tour racing. Four responded.
• 1st overall, 2011 Tour de France
• 1st overall, UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, 1998-1999
“Nino is the more versatile complete rider. No disrespect to Chris’s fantastic season but, when broken own to the basics, the two Grand Tours are won on good TT’s and uphill finishes. The Mountain Bike World Cup is more varied because they are each on a completely different course, each in different countries, different weather conditions, and with different physical and technical requirements. Nino held a level higher than all of his contenders, for a longer period of time, March to September. Chris had two peaks in his season, that resulted in big wins. I would say Nino is the more complete and dominating rider. Chris is the best Grand Tour rider of this period. His wins in the two Grand Tours proves that, again. I would not say one is the better rider than the other. Do you want a good apple, or a good orange? It is very, very difficult to be number one in any sport, or almost any activity, for that matter, as you are competing against the most-talented, best-prepared, best-resourced individuals in the world at what they do best.”
• 1st overall, 2012 Giro d’Italia
• Silver medal, 2003 Mountain Bike World Championship
“I would have to say as impressive as Nino is, and the difficulty to win that many mountain-bike races — no bad luck, no mechanicals — is phenomenal, Chris has to get the nod. To win two Grand Tours in the span of less than three months is truly incredible. The amount of work involved for that is second to none.”
• 7th overall, 2013 Tour de France
• 2007 U23 Mountain Bike World Champion
“Honestly, it is not easy to give a right answer. Both riders are really strong and the disciplines are absolutely different. It’s quite impossible to compare road and mountain-bike as well as impossible to compare three-week tours and one-day World Cups. Nino is a great athlete and he holds the highest level during many years. Indeed, this season was a very successful one, his best season. It was impressive, no doubts. But, I think, I will vote for Chris Froome. It was a real history to win two Grand Tours in a row, in the same year. You have to be on top of your shape during 42 days, to be strong and ready to fight at every mountain stage. This is very hard. Yeah, Chris did not win too many stages during these two Grand Tours, but anyway, this was a great achievement.”
• Maillot jaune with four stages remaining at 2007 Tour de France
• 1999 Mountain Bike World Champion
“It’s not an easy one. No doubt there are more parameters involved in mountain biking, such as hectic starts, mechanicals, not to mention the different courses and the fact that it’s an individual sport. Even though the depth and the level of professionalism in mountain biking is nowhere near World Tour cycling, it extremely impressive to be the world no.1 from March until September without any slips. On the other hand there is no doubt that road cycling is the Formula One of cycling. To win two Grand Tours in a season is something special. Many would argue Froome had massive help, with a super strong team behind him in order to do so. On more than one occasion his teammates saved his ass this year. He won two Grand Tours by not having any really bad days, but he also never had any exceptional days this year. Not a day where he crushed the entire field on a mountain and won solo as he used to in the past. In my opinion this was far from his best season. In the end, I am going with Nino on this one.”
• 2nd overall, 2014 Tour de France
• Silver medal, 2008 Olympic Mountain Bike Race
Jean-Christophe Péraud did not respond to email correspondence seeking comment for this article. This placeholder was created with optimism, however, and will be updated if and when he weighs in.
Ultimately, the results of this very brief pro rider poll — two votes for Schurter, two for Froome — mirror the split results of the Twitter poll.
There were several compelling arguments for both riders in comments left under the Twitter poll. Here are a few, edited or summarized:
- These are two different sports. Mountain biking has fewer races and fewer competitors. Road cycling is more complex and competitive, based on teams. So to control it like Froome did is better, in my view.
- Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. Schurter dealt with more variables and raced smarter.
- Nino. That many races in all conditions on variety of courses with no flats, mechanicals, or crashes is pretty special.
- I don’t know who Nino is, but I voted for him because Froome has his Sky train and mountain-bike racing is solo.
- The amount of kilometres that Froome raced makes this an easy choice. Two Grand Tours, showing up every day, thirty days apart? That is really amazing.
Finally, I asked the riders in question. A little awkward, yes, but this is how it works.
Via email, Schurter said he was not inclined to comment on whether his season was more impressive than Froome’s, but he did share a few general thoughts on his perfect season.
“It is possible to plan on being at your best for one single race, but not for a whole season starting in March and finishing in September,” he said. “What happened in 2017 came to me unexpected as well, and was not really planned in such a way. After I won four World Cup races in a row I was hunting for the fifth, because no one had done it before. When number five was in the books I was going for #theperfectseason, six out of six. And on top of that I was able to defend my world champion title. This is huge, and means a lot to me.
“But I also like to point out that a season like this involves a lot of factors you are only partly in control of. You’ve got to stay healthy, not get any injuries, and also not have any mechanical issues. In the last case I can call myself very lucky not having one mechanical during the eight days at Cape Epic, the six rounds in the World Cup, and the world championship. But besides luck, this also has to do with choosing the right equipment and having the very best support from my Scott-SRAM team.”
The issue of team support is one that came up often in discussion on social media, and while Froome’s accomplishment is in no way diminished due to the fact that professional road cycling is a team sport, Team Sky’s collective strength is a factor he quickly acknowledged in his comments at the close of the Vuelta.
“The team has just been incredible over the last few months,” Froome said upon sealing the Vuelta victory. “It’s meant so much to me, the way they have supported us. I owe a massive thank you to all my teammates. I think it probably is my greatest achievement, being the first person to win the Tour de France and then go on to win the Vuelta.”
As it turns out, that quote is also all I have to work with, as several requests for Froome to comment for this story were not returned. That said, I’m sure we’d all still be interested to hear what he has to say. We’ll keep this space open.
And there you have it. Two historic bike-racing achievements in one season. One accomplished on the road, across two Grand Tours, supported by the strongest team in the sport. The other accomplished off road, across seven one-day contests, raced individually.
By the way, which do you prefer — apples, or oranges?