Blazin' Saddles: Best riders, teams and races of the 2017 season
In the last of our season retrospective series, we select the best riders and teams of the year – plus the stand-out races and stages of 2017. Read on for Felix Lowe's top ten riders of the year, his brave choice for team of the year, and his best classic and stage of a Grand Tour.
The fifth and final season review focuses on the cream of the crop – and completes a comprehensive series of retrospectives which has pretty covered everything that was anything in cycling over the past 12 months.
So, without further ado, let's make it a wrap with the best riders, teams and races of 2017.
Top 10 riders of 2017
10. Warren Barguil (NEW ENTRY)
Warren Barguil wins stage 18 of the Tour de FranceGetty Images
The wiry Frenchman represents perhaps a slightly controversial choice given his acrimonious departure from Team Sunweb in the wake of his enforced booting off the Vuelta. But during three balmy weeks in July, Barguil became the new darling of French cycling – a swashbuckling climber in the Virenque mould who not only won the Bastille Day stage to Foix with true gusto, but repeated the feat on the mythical Col d'Izoard while in the polka dot jersey.
With his trademark smile, the Breton was crowned king of the mountains in Paris while netting a maiden top ten in the Tour – a fortnight after being reduced to tears by the combination of Rigoberto Uran, an early fist pump and a photo finish in Chambery. Whether the 26-year-old can build on this at Fortuneo-Oscaro next season remains to be seen: his move is a gamble, but will allow Barguil to continue riding the way he likes best – off the front of the peloton.
9. Chris Froome* (DOWN 7)
Plummeting down the standings despite becoming the first rider to do a Tour-Vuelta double in the modern era, the British rider's lowly position may seem a tad harsh – especially for those fans for whom an extra 20 puffs of an inhaler represents a fair concession to a lifelong asthmatic.
But should Froome be stripped of his historic Vuelta victory and subsequent bronze medal from the Worlds ITT – which seems unavoidable right now, hence the asterisk – then Froome's tally for the season is reduced to his fourth Tour crown: very much par for the course for a 32-year-old rider at the peak of his powers.
8. Julian Alaphilippe (NEW ENTRY)
Quick-Step Floors Team's French cyclist Julian Alaphilippe celebratesGetty Images
Alaphilippe's victory ahead of Alberto Contador in the uphill time trial on Mont Brouilly in Paris-Nice saw Tour director Christian Prudhomme proclaim "the birth of a champion". 10 days later, that rising star almost burned the brightest in a thrilling conclusion to Milan-Sanremo: when Peter Sagan attacked on the Poggio, the French youngster (riding his maiden edition of La Primavera aged 24) and Poland's Michal Kwiatkowski were the only riders capable of following – prompting a three-way sprint on the via Roma that saw the Pole pip Sagan and Alaphilippe to glory.
Later in the season, the Quick-Step rider won a stage on the Vuelta before almost pulling off the winning move in the World Championships road race in Bergen. He capped a fine season with second place in Il Lombardia. What a rider he is becoming.
7. Alejandro Valverde (UP 1)
Spain's Alejandro Valverde of the Movistar team, celebrates as he crosses the finish line in Mur de Huy during the Fleche Wallonne cycling race on April 19, 2017 going from Binche to Mur de HuyGetty Images
The evergreen Spaniard's season may have been curtailed by a hideous shattering of his knee during the sodden Dusseldorf opening time trial in the Tour, but Valverde did enough in the preceding months to ensure he was, aged 37, still dining out at cycling's top table.
Early victories in the Ruta del Sol, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco showcased his continued ability to shine on short stage races before Valverde went on to boss the Ardennes – winning a record fifth Fleche Wallonne and fourth Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The prospect of the Green Bullet gunning for double figures in the Ardennes next season before dovetailing with Movistar team-mates Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa at the Tour is mouth-watering. Expect to see Valverde return to this list again in 2018 – perhaps even with those elusive rainbow bands around his chest…
6. Philippe Gilbert (NEW ENTRY)
Those who saw Gilbert's move to Quick-Step Floors as a mere sentimental flutter by Patrick Lefevere were proven wrong by the Belgian veteran, who emerged one of the dominant riders of the spring classics. Runner up at both Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, Gilbert returned to winning ways on the centre stage with an outstanding victory in the Tour of Flanders following a solo break on the Kwaremont some 55km from the finish.
A fortnight later, the 35-year-old became the third rider in history to win the Ronde and the Amstel Gold Race in the same season – defying even a torn kidney to do so. Having initially joined on a one-year trial contract, it's no surprise to see Gilbert extend for two more years at Quick-Step. He's said to be targeting wins in Roubaix and Sanremo that will complete a Monumental clean sweep. Ambitious, for sure, but would you bet against him?
5. Greg van Avermaet (DOWN 1)
Greg van Avermaet wins Paris-RoubaixImago
Had the Belgian not hit the deck in the Oude Kwaremont after Peter Sagan clipped the barriers, Van Avermaet may well have been celebrating a maiden Monument win one week earlier – for the way in which he closed in on compatriot Gilbert in the closing kilometres suggests he could well have taken victory in the Ronde.
Worry not: Van Avermaet's fine spring continued in the Hell of the North where he outsprinted Zdenek Stybar in the Roubaix velodrome to finally bring an end to his duck and win the fastest-ever Paris-Roubaix. Earlier, GVA had picked up wins in E3 and Gent-Wevelgem after finishing runner-up in Strade Bianchi.
Granted, the 32-year-old was unable to add to his tally over the summer – denied most notably by Michael Matthews in stage 14 of the Tour – but he and Gilbert were the stand-out riders of the spring classics, with the BMC rider just edging his elder compatriot by a whisker.
4. Peter Sagan (DOWN 3)
Last year's best rider drops a few places despite becoming the first man in history to win three successive World titles in Bergen. Sagan's spring started well enough – winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne off the back of finishing runner-up in Omloop Het Niewsblad. Having lit the torch paper on the Poggio, Sagan was denied by the dogged Kwiatkowski in Milan-Sanremo after a pulsating finale to an otherwise drab, interminable first Monument of the season.
Folly then came in Flanders when Sagan, like Icarus flying too close to the sun, got his wings singed by the barriers on the Oude Kwaremont – playing into the hands of lone leader Gilbert. The bad luck continued in Paris-Roubaix after a series of punctures ended Sagan's hopes. The woe-is-me theme continued when Sagan was kicked out of the Tour one day after winning at Longwy – for an apparent elbow of Mark Cavendish.
While the Court of Arbitration for Sport eventually overturned that decision, it was scant consolation for Sagan, who was unable to break Erik Zabel's green jersey record on the Tour. Still, the Slovakian showman shaved his head and picked himself up with victories in Quebec and a third Worlds crown – proving even in a patchy season that he's one of the most talented, explosive and entertaining riders of his generation.
3. Michal Kwiatkowski (NEW ENTRY)
Michal Kwiatkowski wins Milan-SanremoEurosport
That the Pole failed to finish his last three races of the season would have come as no surprise for those of us who saw him race so indefatigably throughout the entire preceding nine months. A second Strade Bianche crown set the tone for a superb season which more than made up for his lacklustre opening year at Team Sky.
The last to successfully respond to Sagan's attack on the Poggio in Milan-Sanremo, Kwiatkowski rode the closing kilometres of the opening Monument of the year with maturity beyond his years before getting the better of the world champion and Alaphilippe on the via Roma.
Narrowly beaten by Gilbert in Amstel Gold, Kwiatkowski was seventh in the Fleche and third in La Doyenne – showing enough evidence that he's an Ardennes winner in the making. The 27-year-old capped his season with victory in San Sebastian off the back of a phenomenal three weeks riding in support of team-mate Froome in the Tour. The sky is the limit for a talent as expansive as Kwiato.
2. Vincenzo Nibali (UP 8)
Vincenzo NibaliGetty Images
For a rider who looked to be going through the motions for much of 2017, second place in this top 10 may seem rather frivolous. But pipe down at the back and let us explain…
In his first year away from Astana, Nibali managed to finish on the podium of both Grand Tours he rode before netting a second victory in Il Lombardia. Chuck in his mountainous stage wins in the Giro at Bormio and the Vuelta in Andorra – plus his overall victory in the Tour of Croatia – and Nibali had a stellar year by all accounts.
And should Froome be stripped of his Vuelta victory by the UCI, the 33-year-old Italian – albeit reluctantly, he admits – will have a fifth Grand Tour win to his name. Few riders are as consistent over multiple platforms throughout the season as Nibali – an all-rounder with considerably more talent and weaponry at his disposal than his big rival Froome.
1. Tom Dumoulin (UP 4)
Few will argue with the Dutchman's inclusion near the top of the list of best riders, but not everyone would necessarily place the 27-year-old at the top of the festive tree. But if we're talking about versatility and consistency – then Dumoulin has what it takes to match Nibali, and like the Italian, he could well develop into a multiple Grand Tour and Monument winner in his time.
As it is, Dumoulin continued his sure but steady rise to the top with a magnificent victory in the Giro – overcoming adversity and hamstrung by a limited Sunweb team to wrest the maglia rosa off the shoulders of Nairo Quintana on the final day. The chrono specialist later secured the double in Bergen with victories in both the individual and team time trials.
Sure, he won no classics and only raced one of cycling's Grand Tours – but for retaining the pink jersey despite dropping his pants on the side of the road alone, he deserves to be named the best rider of 2017. What's more, he's clearly the best dressed, too…
Team of the season: Quick-Step floored by Sunweb's bright lights
Pink Jersey Netherlands' Tom Dumoulin (L) of team Sunweb rides during the 11th stage of the 100th Giro d'ItaliaGetty Images
The safe option would be to go for the team that won over a quarter of all stages on the Grand Tours – with, most notably, Fernando Gaviria's haul of four stages in the Giro, Marcel Kittel's five stages on the Tour and Matteo Trentin's four stages on the Vuelta. Bob Jungels (Giro), Yves Lampaert and Julian Alaphilippe (both Vuelta) also added wins, while Gaviria took the points classification in his maiden Grand Tour.
And while Tom Boonen couldn't deliver the perfect fairy tale ending to his Quick-Step Floors career, Philippe Gilbert won the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold, while Alaphilippe was a constant menace throughout a glorious breakthrough year that saw Quick-Step net more wins than anyone else in the WorldTour.
But it was the team that dethroned Quick-Step as world time trial champions – Team Sunweb – who take the plaudits as the best in the business in 2017. Of course, their tally of wins was considerably dwarfed by that of the more established Quick-Step – but that's hardly surprising given the Belgian team's calibre and roster of riders.
Sunweb, however, managed to be competitive in all three Grand Tours – winning the Giro through Tom Dumoulin, winning two classification jerseys in the Tour through Warren Barguil and Michael Matthews, and coming close to a podium finish in the Vuelta through Wilco Kelderman.
While Dumoulin's maglia rosa came down to individual brilliance, Sunweb battled for their man despite losing Kelderman early in the race – with all riders fighting for the cause. That blend of team spirit and individual panache continued into the Tour with Barguil burning bright on Bastille Day and on the Izoard en route to taking the polka dots, while Matthews did the impossible and wrested the green jersey from Marcel Kittel's shoulders despite winning three fewer stages.
Kelderman showed promise in finishing fourth in the Vuelta before the team completed an astonishing hat-trick in Bergen with gold medals for Dumoulin and both the men's and women's TTT.
Best race and best stage of 2017
Both Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix boasted thrilling conclusions, but none of Monuments of 2017 came close to delivering the thrills of the Ronde van Vlaanderen – from Gilbert's brave early attack to Sagan's crash and Van Avermaet's stirring, but unsuccessful, comeback. Weeks earlier, after quite a drab race, fans were treated to perhaps the best final 6km in Milan-Sanremo history, too.
As for the Grand Tours – well, Alberto Contador's victory on the Angliru represented a fairy tale finish for the Spaniard, who retired on a high and ended the host nation's wait for a win.
Earlier in the summer, Tom Dumoulin's fight-back on the Stelvio after answering a call of nature was also a stand-out moment.