This is episode 4 of The Best of 2018: Scorum Super Series which is a project set up by Tales in order to celebrate the best of 2018 in several sports. We have already been enjoying the best of Cricket, Formula One, and the NFL. In this episode, we'll be discussing the best of Cycling in 2018. Before we do that, some quick links to the earlier articles in this series:
On to cycling, shall we?
Rain, Wind, and Mud in Strade Bianche
There are a couple of races in the season, of which we know in advance that if the weather is bad, it will add to the excitement of the stage.
In most of the cases, the cyclists do not agree with that and rather have dry and calm weather conditions. Some riders though, excel in bad weather conditions and seem to enjoy that type of races more than the regular type of races. This is definitely the case for Strade Bianche, a race of 184 kilometers, of which more than 50 kilometers will go over white gravel roads.
This year's race was held on the 3rd of March and it was raining cats and dogs in Siena and its wider area. There were strong winds and the temperature was just above zero. The rain caused the gravel roads to be turned into pools of mud, it was an extremely difficult race, which turned out to be some sort of an elimination race. Strade Bianche is the opening race of the World Tour, the highest ranked competition of professional cycling.
In the men's race, only 53 out of 150 starting riders reached the finish, in the women's race 59 out of 140 starters crossed the line. The women's race is half the distance of the men's race and covers 20 kilometers of gravel roads. There were two leaders in the men's race, Romain Bardet, and Wout Van Aert, however then there was an attack from the first chasing group. Belgian rider Tiesj Benoot jumped out of that chasing group in his aim to reach the two leaders. He succeeded and then dropped them on the final section of muddy roads. Benoot continued solo and reached the finish on his own, almost 40 seconds ahead of Bardet, who dropped Van Aert in the final kilometers. It was Benoot's first and still only win as a professional cyclist, but he is considered as one of the biggest talents in the world.
The women's race was the domain of Anna van der Breggen who kept on attacking the other riders in the leading group continuously until she managed to create a gap between her and the pack. When she finally created the gap, there were 17 kilometers to the finish line. She is one of the world's best time-trialists as well and was perfectly able to show that to those watching on this occassion. She expanded her lead and the only two who were able to come relatively close were Katarzyna Niewiadoma and Elisa Longo Borghini, who finished almost a minute behind Van der Breggen to complete the podium.
The Climax of Paris-Nice
Paris-Nice is a stage race early in the season, in which the riders have to complete eight stages. After seven stages, a total of eight riders were still within a minute of leader Simon Yates. He was 11 seconds ahead in the rankings of Ion Izagirre, 12 seconds in front of his brother Gorka Izagirre and 13 seconds in front of Tim Wellens. Dylan Theuns followed at 27 seconds, Marc Soler at 37 seconds and Patrick Konrad at 39 seconds. Sergio Henao was still within the minute, but already 57 seconds behind.
With about 10 kilometers to go, Omar Fraile, David de la Cruz, and Marc Soler were in the attack, ahead of a group which contained the rest of the title contenders. The drama occurred when race leader Yates was dropped from the chasing group. All riders saw their chances increase to win the stage race and went full in the attack, trying to catch up with the three leaders, of which Soler was the main target to catch. Yates couldn't follow and the chase was winning time back on Soler. When the Izagirre brothers accidentally crashed into each other the pace in the chasing group slowed down. This gave Yates the chance to catch up with the chasing group, and he did. With Yates back in the group, the others led down the responsibility towards him, hoping he would catch up with Soler so that they could counter-attack Yates in the final part of the race. Yates did catch up on Soler who was 37 seconds behind Yates in the general ranking. At the finish the gap was just 35 seconds, however, due to six bonus seconds Soler won during his attack, he won the stage race, four seconds ahead of Yates.
Sagan Wins Paris-Roubaix in the Rainbow-jersey
We have to go back to 1981 when Bernard Hinault was the last rider to win this classical race in the Rainbow-jersey. This jersey is provided to the winner of the World Championships, which allows that rider to wear that jersey all year long, until the next World Championships. Like Strade Bianche the Paris-Roubaix race is a race of extreme difficulty lasting approximately 260 kilometers. After about 100 kilometers the first cobblestone section appears, whereas in total there are 25+ cobblestone sections during the last 160 kilometers. Cobblestones are extremely difficult to cycle on, especially when they are wet. The race is nicknamed the "Hell of the North" for a reason.
Sagan has been the most diverse rider of the peloton of the last couple of years, being extremely good in classical races, in slight uphill races, as well as in sprints. Until 2018, he had never won Paris-Roubaix however, which was one of the main goals of his bucket list. The fact that Sagan finally won this race wasn't that unusual, but doing it in his Rainbow-jersey, already made it remarkable. The way he won it though, is what makes it so extremely special. To attack the main group of riders with more than 50 kilometers to go is normally not done. Whoever does so, will blow himself up, and will potentially not even reach the finish. Not Sagan though, he attacked the group on cobblestone sector 12 and created an instant gap. At that moment there was still a leading group up front, which he caught up with shortly after. There was only one rider who managed to stay in Sagan's wheel, which was Silvan Dillier. The race finishes at the Velodrome in Roubaix, in which Sagan outsprinted Dillier to win the race. The win of Sagan was overshadowed by the death of Michael Goolaerts, who suffered from a cardiac arrest during the race.
Froome's Attack on the Colle della Finestre
What Chris Froome did on this mountain is without a doubt one of the most remarkable achievements I have ever seen in a cycling race.
After 18 stages in the Giro d'Italia, no one gave any chances for Chris Froome anymore. With only three more stages, including the final stage in Rome, where normally nothing exciting happens, Froome was 3'22" minutes behind race leader Simon Yates, in the fourth position in the overall ranking behind Tom Dumoulin (28 seconds behind) and Domenico Pozzovivo (2'43" minutes behind). He could potentially still reach the podium if he would manage to gain some time on Pozzovivo, but even that was considered a difficult task. After all, these three riders had proven to be in the better form until then, gaining that big of a gap ahead of Froome.
When Yates unexpectedly dropped from the group of leaders on the Colle della Finestre, all eyes were on Tom Dumoulin, as he was expected to retain the title he won in 2017. Yates was falling behind more and more, and it was no doubt he would even drop out of the top ten in the general ranking. Froome then attacked with about 80 kilometers left until the finish of that 19th stage, still having a gap of 2'53" minutes behind Dumoulin. It is known that Dumoulin isn't the best climber of the pack, but altogether his form had been better that whole period of almost three weeks. Still, this was the day where he was unable to follow Froome who was in a state of excitement, showing his abilities to climb mountains and time-trialing against the current time-trial world champion on icy and snowy roads. At the finish line, he had a three-minute advantage on Richard Carapaz and even 3'22" minutes ahead of Tom Dumoulin, which placed him immediately and well into the Pink-jersey, which he would not give away in the final two stages.
When Geraint Thomas Started to Believe
In stage 11 of the Tour de France, Geraint Thomas overtook the Yellow-jersey from Greg Van Avermaet after winning that stage in La Rosière ahead of Dumoulin and Froome. In the overall rankings, he had a 1'25" minute lead on Froome and 1'44" minute advantage over Dumoulin. It was expected that over time either Froome or Dumoulin or both would overtake Thomas in the rankings, potentially already the day after, when the immense climb to l'Alpe d'Huez was on the menu.
What was supposed to be the day where he would lose his leading position in the classification, became the day on which his position in the peloton raised to the highest level and gave him the belief he needed in order to dream what was previously not considered to be possible, winning the Tour de France.
Thomas was supposed to be the master-servant of Froome to help him winning the Tour de France again. The presence of Tom Dumoulin, however, made it look very difficult for Froome to win unless he would do something similar to what he did in the Giro (described above). When Froome showed weakness on the final climb to l'Alpe d'Huez only Dumoulin was able to stay with Thomas, who then decided to go for his own classification. He crossed the line first, winning two stages in a row, and increasing his lead over Dumoulin and Froome.
This was the moment where Thomas realized he could go all the way and win the Tour de France. In two other mountain stages, 17 and 19, Thomas expanded his lead on his two compatriots further. Stage 20 was a time-trial, in which Dumoulin and Froome are normally better than Thomas. They were better on the day as well, but the gap Thomas had created in the previous weeks was enough to remain in the first position and to win his first Tour de France.
Van Vleuten's Remarkable Comeback at La Course
La Course is one of the more challenging races in the women's circuit, with the finish on top of Le Grand Bornand. On that final climb Dutch star Anna van der Breggen was the most likely to win the race. She had been dominating the whole year in women's cycling and was solo on her way to win La Course as well. She had just dropped fellow Dutchie Annemiek van Vleuten on the climb, and it seemed like Van Vleuten was unable to come back at Van der Breggen, who was still climbing smoothly.
Van Vleuten, on the other hand, looked like she was completely tired and at the end of her strength. Van Vleuten struggled her way up to the top of the mountain, but with 500 meters to the top, she regained energy, when Van der Breggen's legs started to fade away. The gap that Van der Breggen had created started to close down with every second and with just 50 meters to the finish line, Van Vleuten overtook Van der Breggen to claim her second consecutive win in La Course. This was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable comebacks of the year.
The Battle of Pinot and Nibali at Il Lombardia
The last big race of the season by tradition is Il Lombardia, a race around Lake Como in Italy. Former professional ski-jumper Primož Roglič went into the attack with approximately 50 kilometers to go. Shortly after he was joined by Thibaut Pinot, Vincenzo Nibali, and Egal Bernal. The young talent Bernal and impressive Roglič had to let the two more experienced riders go. Nibali who suffered an injury during the Tour de France, was just back at professional racing after his recovery, showing tremendous form. A serious battle between Pinot and Nibali was decided in Pinot's favor as he dropped Nibali on the final climb, getting an advantage of 21 seconds. Eventually, he finished 32 seconds earlier than Nibali, who still took the second place after he was caught up by the chasing group. He attacked from the group again, finishing 11 seconds ahead of them.
Other remarkable moments that almost made it into this list:
- The emotional win of John Degenkolb in stage 9 of the Tour de France, two years after a nearly dead experience and a crash that almost ended his career. (video)
- Simon Yates winning La Vuelta, completing the triple-win for British riders in Grand Tours (Froome winning the Giro, and Thomas winning the Tour). (video)
- Philippe Gilbert, who crashed into a ravine of the Portet d'Aspet, climbed out of it and still finished the stage with a broken knee-cap. It brought back memories to Fabio Casartelli's death on the same descent back in 1995. (video)
- Van der Breggen's solo of approximately 40 kilometers at the World Championships. (video)
Bonus video: The best interview of 2018 featuring Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig finishing 4th at La Course, and she was super happy with it.
Next up in the series jon.bonomo will be posting about the Best of Gaming in 2018.