The weekly spin: The great ‘Rider of the Year’ debate

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With the 2019 road racing season effectively over, it’s time for the annual “Rider of the Year” debates.

Yes, there’s still the six-stage Tour of Guangxi, which starts on Thursday. But none of the riders in the running for Rider of the Year honors are taking part. So with Il Lombardia in the rearview mirror, we’re free to argue about which riders are deserving of the title.

Sometimes, it’s very clear which riders stood out above the rest, such as Peter Sagan in 2016, or Chris Froome in 2017.

Other times, it’s less clear — or not clear at all.

If the question is “Who was the best bicycle racer across the 2019 calendar year?” the answer is simple — Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutch phenom began the year by winning all 12 cyclocross races he started, including the world championship. He had 10 road victories in just 31 days of racing — including Amstel Gold Race, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and three stages and the overall at the OVO Energy Tour of Britain. On the mountain bike, he took three cross-country World Cup victories in five starts, as well as the European XCO championship; he also won all five short-track cross-country World Cup events he entered.

In an age of specialization, Van der Poel’s stunning talent and versatility added an exciting twist to the 2019 cycling season. The only questions surrounding his potential relate to how long he can sustain such a level across three disciplines.

But van der Poel was not the best men’s road racer of the year. That title belongs to either Primoz Roglic or Julian Alaphilippe, depending on what type of performances are deemed as most significant; more on that below.

Likewise, there’s much to debate over who was the top women’s road racer of the year; it’s a competition between three very talented Dutch riders.

Wiebes, Vos, or Van Vleuten?

When it comes to women’s road racing, Dutch women are in a league of their own. Five of the top six women in the world rankings are from the Netherlands, and there’s a sound argument to be made that any of three of them was the best rider of 2019.

Young sprinter Lorena Wiebes (Parkhotel Valkenburg) closed out her 2019 season atop the UCI world rankings with 2,259 points and 15 wins. Of course not all victories carry the same weight, but the 20-year-old had several strong results at major races, winning the Prudential RideLondon Classique, the European Games road race, and the Dutch national road title, as well as finishing second at Gent-Wevelgem. She also finished second overall at the Boels Ladies Tour, where she won two stages.

Her impressive total was also achieved by amassing 275 points at the Tour of Chongming Island, where she won all three stages and the overall. As with the upcoming Tour of Guangxi, the Tour of Chongming Island carries a WorldTour designation but doesn’t carry the same prestige as longer-running events on the calendar; it ends just a few days before the Amgen Tour of California begins.

And while the UCI offers the same points for winning the overall at both races, the quality of field between the two races is not equivalent. Wiebes had a stellar season, no doubt, but as her third-place Women’s WorldTour ranking reveals, she wasn’t dominant across the biggest races on the calendar.

Second in both the UCI world rankings and Women’s WorldTour rankings is Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv), with 19 victories. Her wins included Trofeo Alfredo Binda, La Course by Le Tour de France, ASDA Tour de Yorkshire, and the Ladies Tour of Norway, where she won three stages.

At the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche, a UCI 2.1 stage race, Vos won five of seven stages and led from start to finish, a dominating run at a lower-caliber race. She also won four stages at the Giro Rosa, finished second at the Postnord Vårgårda West Sweden road race, third at Amstel Gold Race, and fourth at Flèche Wallonne. It was the finest road season since 2014 for the three-time road world champion and 2012 Olympic road champion.

Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) sits third in the UCI world rankings, just behind Vos, but her 10 victories include several of road racing’s highest-profile events such as the Giro Rosa, Strade Bianche, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the road world championship. She also finished second at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Amstel Gold Race, and Flèche Wallonne, and third in the world time-trial championship. Van Vleuten sits atop the Women’s WorldTour rankings, albeit by a very slim margin, ahead of Vos.

What weren’t slim, however, were several of Van Vleuten’s winning margins. At the Giro Rosa, she won the mountaintop finish at Lago di Cancano by almost three minutes; the next day she won the 12km time trial by 52 seconds. At the road world championship, she soloed for over 100km and finished 2:15 ahead of teammate Anna Van der Breggen.

In 2019, van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) was a bit removed from the Rider of the Year conversation. She won the Amgen Tour of California, Flèche Wallonne, and GP de Plouay, and finished second at the Giro Rosa in both the road and time-trial world championships; she closed out the season with five victories, sitting fifth in the world rankings, behind Italian Marta Bastianelli, and fifth in the Women’s WorldTour rankings, behind Kasia Niewiadoma.

At the Giro Rosa, Women’s WorldTour leader Annemiek Van Vleuten Annemiek (Mitchelton-Scott) won two stages and the overall, as well as the points and mountains classifications, while Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) won four stages and wore pink for three days.

As with the men’s WorldTour, the UCI Women’s WorldTour wraps up in China next week. The women race just a one-day Tour of Guangxi, where Vos is on the start list while Wiebes and Van Vleuten are not. With 200 UCI points on offer to the winner, it’s possible Vos could overtake Wiebes atop the world rankings, putting her definitively in the lead of both the victories tally and world ranking.

In the UCI Women’s WorldTour rankings, Van Vleuten leads with 1,472 points, just five points ahead of Vos and 170 points ahead of Wiebes. Vos needs only to place in the top nine at the Tour of Guangxi in order to take the WorldTour season title.

Vos leading with not only victories but points in both rider classifications seems like it would almost be a slam dunk. Almost.

Wiebes has, for the moment, amassed the most UCI points. Vos has taken the most victories, and will likely finish the season as the Women’s WorldTour champion. Van Vleuten took the most prestigious victories. So which woman was the rider of the year?

I put this question out to the masses on Twitter. With around 400 votes, Van Vleuten was the fan favorite by a two-to-one margin over Vos. Wiebes received less than 5% of the vote — less than van der Breggen — remarkable given her world number-one ranking. Chalk it up to name recognition, I suppose.

I also put the question to my colleagues. CyclingTips managing editor Matt de Neef, who has been highly impressed by Wiebes while stopping short of calling her the rider of the year.

“To say that 2019 has been a breakout season for Lorena Wiebes would be a gross understatement,” he said. “Her wins mightn’t have been as high-profile as Vos or Van Vleuten’s, but there’s no doubt Wiebes is the fastest-rising star in women’s road cycling.”

Annemiek Van Vleuten (Netherlands) took the rainbow jersey in Harrogate with a 104km solo breakaway, finishing 2:15 ahead of teammate Anna Van der Breggen.

Contributor Dane Cash gave the nod to Van Vleuten. “Van Vleuten’s performances in the biggest events on the calendar put her in my top spot,” he said. “She left no doubt at the Giro Rosa or the world championships, and her excellence in those races alone would make her a rider of the year candidate. She was also a force in the Classics. All things considered, she was the season’s best rider when the level of competition was the highest.”

It’s not an easy choice, but I would put narrow it down to the two veterans. Van Vleuten won the most prestigious stage race on the calendar, dominant in both the time trial and the primary mountaintop finish, as well as three of the most prestigious one-day races on the calendar. Regardless of UCI ranking or victory tally, she won the races every rider in the peloton would most want to win. Meanwhile Vos took the most victories, and is poised to win the overall title of the most prestigious series in the sport.

So which woman was the rider of the year?

I suppose I’d have to hand it to the rider with the maglia rosa and rainbow jersey hanging in her closet.

Roglic or Alaphilippe?

On the men’s side, the debate is even more unclear, and it’s really just between two riders.

Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) finished the season atop the UCI world rankings with 4,635 points, having won the Vuelta a España, Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour de Romandie, and UAE Tour, and finishing third at the Giro d’Italia. With the exception of Tirreno, each of those overall wins included at least one stage win; Roglic took three stage wins at Romandie, which would later demonstrate that he came into the Giro a week later a bit too hot. He finished the season last week by soloing to victory at both the Giro dell’Emilia and Tre Valli Varesine one-day races.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck–Quick-Step) finished the season second on the UCI world rankings with 3,569 points, having won Milan-San Remo, Flèche Wallonne, and Strade Bianche in the spring, as well as a pair of stages at the Tour de France, where he finished fifth overall and held the yellow jersey for 14 days. He also won stages at Vuelta San Juan, Colombia Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, Itzulia Basque Country, and Critérium du Dauphiné.

What’s noteworthy is that Roglic and Alaphilippe are very different kinds of riders, and they didn’t compete at the same events often in 2019. Roglic, a GC specialist, focused on the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España; Alaphilippe, a classics rider and stage hunter, focused on the spring classics and Tour de France. They only crossed paths at Tirreno-Adriatico, where Alaphilippe won two stages and Roglic won the overall — making it impossible to find the perfect lead image from 2019 for this column. Both men also competed at the road world championship, though neither factored in the finale.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) launched the decisive move over the Poggio and then easily won the sprint at Milan-San Remo.

Egan Bernal also had a remarkable season, albeit hampered by a collarbone fracture, winning the Tour de France as well as Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. He closed out the 2019 season with his first one-day victory, at Gran Piemonte, followed by third at Il Lombardia on Sunday. And though this is an impressive tally, particularly for a 22-year-old rider, he finished the season fourth in the UCI rankings, just behind Jakob Fuglsang. Bernal made history as the first Colombian to win the Tour de France, but he wasn’t the best road racer across the 2019 season.

Roglic won more races than Alaphilippe (13 to 12), stood on the podium of two Grand Tours, and finished significantly higher in the UCI rankings. So who was the top male road racer of the year?

I also put this question out to the masses on Twitter. With over 500 votes, Alaphilippe was the fan favorite by a two-to-one margin over Roglic.

Why did so many choose Alaphilippe, and not Roglic? In a word, panache.

He may not have won the rainbow jersey in Yorkshire, but Roglic was the best time trialist of the 2019 season, winning against the clock at Romandie, the Giro d’Italia (twice), and the Vuelta. His Jumbo-Visma team also won the team time trial at the UAE Tour and finished second in the TTT at Tirreno, both races Roglic went on to win.

But time trials don’t make for memorable racing. Of Roglic’s 13 victories in 2019, five were road victories; the others were time trials or overall titles. He dominated primarily due to his strength against the clock, though not always; he finished 11th in the time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, and won the overall without winning a stage. He won the UAE Tour without an individual time trial, taking the summit victory atop Jebel Jais ahead of Tom Dumoulin, David Gaudu, Dan Martin, and Alejandro Valverde.

Roglic won the penultimate stage of the UAE Tour to seal his overall victory.

Meanwhile, Alaphilippe won 12 races in 2019, and all but two were road victories; he also won time trials at Vuelta a San Juan and the Tour de France. Ten of his 12 wins took place in road races.

Alaphilippe was the rider of reference during the spring. He rode away from Fuglsang on the steep Santa Caterina climb to win Strade Bianche. He won two stages at Tirreno. He launched the decisive move over the Poggio at Milan-San Remo, and then won a 10-rider sprint to take his first Monument victory.

He won a stage at Basque Country before abandoning due to a crash, and then retuned to finish second at Brabantse Pijl and fourth at Amstel Gold, both won by van der Poel. He won Flèche Wallonne, ahead of Fuglsang. And though he wilted in the cold at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, by then he had already staked his claim as the 2019 King of the Classics.

After winning a two-up sprint from a breakaway on Stage 6 of the Dauphiné, Alaphilippe headed to the Tour de France with an eye on stage wins. Instead, he transformed the race, capturing the attention of the French public and forcing GC teams like Ineos, Jumbo-Visma, and Movistar to recalibrate their tactics well into the third week.

Alaphilippe took a fantastic solo victory on Stage 3 at the Tour de France.

Alaphilippe gambled on a stage win on Stage 3 at Épernay in order to secure the maillot jaune, attacking 16km from the line and winning by 26 seconds. After he lost it at La Planche des Belles Filles on Stage 6, he went on the offensive again into Saint-Étienne on Stage 8, this time with Thibaut Pinot. The French duo attacked with 13km remaining and took 26 seconds from the GC contenders, with Alaphilippe reclaiming yellow, which he would wear on Bastille Day.

The maillot jaune was on the right side of the crosswind split on Stage 10 into Albi, and then won the technical Stage 13 time trial in Pau. The following day, Alaphilippe held his own on the long climb up the Tourmalet, choosing not to chase down Pinot’s winning attack, but instead sprinting to second on the stage.

The rider of reference during the spring classics was now the rider of reference at the biggest stage race in the sport. Alaphilippe, who had never competed for the general classification at a Grand Tour, was in command, and the rest of the GC riders were running out of opportunities.

“Suddenly I was the leader, and everyone started dreaming,” Alaphilippe said. “Even me.”

And though he wouldn’t finish on the final podium, with a slow-motion collapse in the Alps, Alaphilippe’s swashbuckling style and never-say-die attitude defined the 2019 Tour de France. By the time Bernal took the maillot jaune after the weather-neutralized Stage 19, Alaphilippe had already become the main storyline at the sport’s biggest race. He was rightfully awarded the most aggressive rider of the race prize, and when it comes to a subjective title such as Rider of the Year, that aggression counts for a lot.

Alaphilippe enjoyed his stint in the yellow jersey.

Alaphilippe’s 14 days in the maillot jaune nearly equaled Roglic’s time leading two Grand Tours; Roglic spent five days in the maglia rosa in May, and 12 days in the maillot rojo in September. Roglic earned 575 UCI points for his third-place finish at the Giro plus 200 for his stage wins; Alaphilippe earned 475 points for his fifth-place finish at the Tour, plus 240 points for two stage wins. In the eyes of the UCI, their respective accomplishments in May and July were nearly equivalent.

Alaphilippe wouldn’t win again after the Tour de France. He didn’t finish Clásica Ciclista San Sebastián, a race he won in 2018. He hovered around the top-10 at the Canadian GPs and then finished 28th at the road world championship in Yorkshire. Though he was scheduled to race Milano-Torino and Il Lombardia, he pulled the plug on October 8, calling it a season.

“I’ve worked really hard to try and be at my peak for a third time this year, having raced hard at the classics and Le Tour, but I knew at the worlds that my form is short of where I would like it to be,” Alaphilippe said. “I really wanted to be with the guys in Italy and give my all for the team, but as I can’t do that, it makes sense that I start my post-season recovery now. 2019 is a year that I will never forget.”

Roglic also struggled in Yorkshire, finishing 12th in the time trial and abandoning the cold and wet road race, but he bounced back to take demonstrative wins at Giro dell’Emilia and Tre Valli Varesine before finishing seventh at Il Lombardia.

His first victory of 2019 was on March 1 and his final victory was on October 8, spanning 221 days. Alaphilippe’s first victory was on January 28 and his final victory was on July 19, spanning 172 days. If registering victories across a longer span should be taken into consideration in an “… of the year” designation, that’s a point in Roglic’s favor.

Primoz Roglic won Tre Valli Varesine on October 8 with a late solo attack.

“This was my most successful season to date,” Roglic said. “Last week, I also showed that I am able to compete for the win in one-day races. But above all I am most happy with the fact that I am finishing the season as number-one in the world.”

Roglic won more races. He won a Grand Tour, and stood on the podium at another. He amassed more UCI points. His wins spanned a longer period of time, by 49 days. But was he the best road rider of the year?

The UCI’s individual ranking says yes, by a large margin. CyclingTips contributor Dane Cash agrees.

“Going by his record this season, Roglic is the clear choice for me. Alaphilippe may deserve points for the panache that helped make this year’s Tour so fantastic, but Roglic’s results were a cut above. The fact that he came up short of the victory at a Giro where he was the favorite may cloud our collective memories of his terrific spring; at the end of the day, he won three WorldTour races and then took two stages and a podium in a Grand Tour months before he went on to dominate the Vuelta.”

As for me, my heart says Alaphilippe was the rider of the year. My head is not so sure. And that’s the beauty, I suppose, of a subjective award.

What about you — what do you say?

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