Blazin' Saddles: Best riders, rides and teams of the 2018 cycling season
In the last of our end of year reviews we look at the best riders, rides and teams of 2018. Our cycling blogger Felix Lowe runs through his top 10 riders and picks out the best performances of the year as well as the top three teams of the past 12 months and the most emotional moments. So, sit back, belt up and enjoy the rides, riders and riding of the past season.
Top 10 riders of 2018
Elia Viviani of Italy and Team Quick-Step Floors / Celebration / during the 73rd Tour of Spain 2018, Stage 3 a 178,2km stage from Mijas to Alhaurin de la Torre 105m / La Vuelta / on August 27, 2018 in Alhaurin de la Torre, Spain.Getty Images
10. Elia Viviani (NEW ENTRY)
In his first season at Quick-Step Floors, the Italian champion netted 17 wins – more than his previous three years at Team Sky combined. His four wins at the Giro ensured that the Wolfpack hardly missed the misfiring Marcel Kittel, whose debut season at Katusha-Alpecin was the antithesis of Viviani's at Quick-Step.
Of all the pure sprinters in 2018, Viviani won the most and rode the fastest: something you wouldn't have expected to write or read or see one year ago. Bravo.
Peter Sagan celebratesGetty Images
9. Peter Sagan (DOWN 5)
A quiet season for the Slovakian showman's standards, what with only one Monument win and the inevitable end of his three-year rainbow streak. Still, Sagan's maiden Paris-Roubaix victory two weeks after his Gent-Wevelgem scalp was a thing of audacious beauty – and he added a Tour hat-trick and a record-equalling green jersey too.
That nasty fall in the Pyrenees blunted his panache in the Vuelta, where he finished runner-up on four occasions, and ruled him out of contention for a fourth World title. So, despite his stock dropping, Sagan comfortably stays among the best.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Vuelta 2018)Getty Images
8. Michal Kwiatkowski (DOWN 5)
The Pole enjoyed an ebullient spring with overall wins in the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico. If he struggled a little in the Ardennes, Kwiatkowski soon got back on track with a brace in the Dauphine and another Polish national title before a solid stint as domestique to Sky team-mates Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome in the Tour.
Victory in his home Tour de Pologne was a cute warm-up to the Vuelta, where the 28-year-old was able to test his mettle as a GC contender in his own right. Kwiatkowski led the race for three days in the opening week before fading once the high mountains came along. Still, he showed enough to be taken seriously in three-week races should he get further chances to lead in the future.
Julian Alaphilippe in polka dotsGetty Images
7. Julian Alaphilippe (UP 1)
Thirteen scalps in another swashbuckling season saw the Frenchman secure the Tour of Britain and end Alejandro Valverde's four-year unbeaten Fleche Wallonne run on the Mur de Huy. But it was Alaphilippe's performances in the Tour that will linger longest in the memory bank, the 26-year-old coming of age in his national race with a brace of wins and the polka dot jersey.
To cap it all, Alaphilippe was a shoo-in for the peloton's Best Goatee award while putting a smile on fans' faces for his lively antics outside the races. He may only be little, but could Alaphilippe already be leader of the Wolfpack?
Thibaut Pinot - Milan - Turin 2018Getty Images
6. Thibaut Pinot (NEW ENTRY)
The Groupama-FDJ rider may not have won as many races as his compatriot Alaphilippe but zips into the top 10 and above his fellow Frenchman by virtue of his maiden Monument win at the tail-end of the season.
Before that, Pinot won the Tour of the Alps and came within two days of a podium finish in the Giro – only to withdraw with illness and dehydration in the Alps. The 28-year-old bounced back with a brace of mountain wins in the Vuelta: the queen stage to Lagos de Covadonga and the decisive stage to Andorra. Pinot then underlined just why he's currently the best racer in the Italian autumn series of races with back-to-back wins in Milano-Torino and Il Lombardia. It's no surprise that he's been voted as the rider with the most panache by fans online.
Alejandro Valverde of Spain and Team MovistarGetty Images
5. Alejandro Valverde (UP 2)
The Spanish veteran brushed off old-age, hair loss and a chronic knee injury as if these were mere minor quibbles, notching early season wins in Spain and Abu Dhabi before yet another competitive showing in the Ardennes.
Sure, he could only muster fifth in Amstel Gold and finally lost his Fleche hegemony to Alaphilippe – and, sure, he was the weakest trident in Movistar's failed three-pronged Tour de France armoury. But Valverde lit up the opening week of the Vuelta with two stage wins en route to a fifth-place finish in Madrid and a record-equalling green points jersey during a race in which he only sat outside the top five on GC on one occasion – after the opening team time trial.
But the best was yet to come: having finished third four times and second twice, Valverde – aged 38 – finally won the rainbow jersey by outkicking Romain Bardet and Michael Woods in Innsbruck, becoming the most-feted rider in Worlds history in the process. Not everyone was happy – especially when Valverde made light of his involvement in Operacion Puerto afterwards – but no one can deny the fairy-tale credentials of the crowning moment of his career.
Chris Froome wins the Giro in 2018Getty Images
4. Chris Froome (UP 5)
The British rider's salbutamol storm tarnished his achievements in 2017 and skewed his position in the top 10, which would have been much higher than ninth given his Tour-Vuelta double. And it looked like karma was going to catch up with Froome when, despite the issue not settled, Sky decided to send their man to Israel for the Giro grande partenza.
Crashing in training ahead of the opening ITT was the most inauspicious of starts. But Froome slowly rode back into form, winning on Monte Zoncolan before capping an extraordinary comeback with a ride of extraordinary brilliance in stage 19 to secure what seemed like an impossible Grand Slam of Grand Tour wins.
Froome was inevitably overcooked coming into the Tour, missing out on joining the Five Tour club but supporting team-mate Thomas in his quest for yellow once being cleared to race at the 11th Hour. A frustrating and stressful season in so many parts – but Froome still made history and will have the hunger to make more in 2019.
Tom DumoulinGetty Images
3. Tom Dumoulin (DOWN 2)
The Raymond Poulidor of 2018, Dutchman Dumoulin finished runner-up in his three main objectives – the Giro, the Tour and the World's ITT – but creeps above Froome by virtue of his consistency (and lack of controversy).
When Simon Yates finally imploded in the Giro, Dumoulin would have taken the maglia rosa were it not for Froome's unbelievable attack on the Colle delle Finestre. Two months later, Dumoulin pushed Thomas all the way in the battle for the maillot jaune – evidence, perhaps, that the elusive Giro-Tour double could well be possible.
When Australia's Rohan Dennis denied Dumoulin the World ITT crown, the 28-year-old could have been forgiven for packing it all in. Ditto, once the likes of Valverde, Woods and Bardet dropped him on the fearsome Höttinger Höll climb and its ridiculous 28% gradient. But no. Instead, Dumoulin diesel'ed away, catching the leading trio on the descent and coming close to pulling off an unlikely World's win. For that alone he merits his place in the top three of this list.
Picture of the year - July 2018 - Cycling - Geraint Thomas celebrates at the Tour de FranceEurosport
2. Geraint Thomas (NEW ENTRY)
His victory in the Criterium du Dauphine, while team-mate Froome was recovering from his Giro-winning heroics, underlined Thomas' credentials as Team Sky's number one rider entering the Tour.
Perhaps it took a bit of luck in the form of Froome somersaulting off his bike on the opening stage, but the Welshman took his opportunity with both hands and never looked back. If he did look back, he'd have seen four-time Tour winner Froome grappling to keep up with him in the mountains as Thomas rode to successive scalps in the Alps – including a first ever victory for a British rider on Alpe d'Huez, in the fabled yellow jersey to boot.
Thomas kept his cool and held on to the yellow all the way to Paris – conceding just 14 seconds to Dumoulin in the decisive ITT to become, with an Obama-style microphone drop, the first Welshman to win cycling's biggest prize. Victory in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year was the cherry on the cake (of which Thomas, by the looks of things, had gorged on many since the end of July). No matter: he's a Tour winner now, after years of riding in the service of others.
Simon Yates, winner of La Vuelta 2018Getty Images
1. Simon Yates (NEW ENTRY)
What was so brilliant about Simon Yates' season was the way he learned from his mistakes and setbacks to join the greats of the sport. If losing out on the Paris-Nice title on the final day was an annoyance, and his Giro implosion on the gravel of the Colle delle Finestre was heartbreaking, then what came next was breathtaking.
Yates came so close to winning the Giro by riding aggressively – taking three stage wins in pink in a bid to build up a buffer over Dumoulin ahead of the decisive ITT. The tactic almost paid off but ultimately failed spectacularly. Four months later, then, and Yates rode the Vuelta with a bit in the mouth, reining in his efforts, conserving his energy and relying on excellent support from his Mitchelton-Scott team-mates.
This time round, there was to be no collapse. Yates even resisted the temptation of a 'home' win in Andorra in favour of retaining his energy and riding conservatively. The 26-year-old completed Britain's clean sweep of Grand Tours in 2019 but, more tellingly, he became the youngest of the three other British riders to have won Grand Tours (Bradley Wiggins, Froome, Thomas). Where he goes from now remains to be seen – but he has what it takes to match, or even surpass, his elders.
Great British Grand Slam: Simon Yates, Geraint Thomas and Christopher FroomeGetty Images
What about those absent from last year's top 10?
Belgians Greg van Avermaet (fifth) and Philippe Gilbert (sixth) did not scale the same heights as 2017 and drop accordingly from the list. Van Avermaet notched more team time trial wins (four) with BMC than he did individual scalps (just the one – in Oman) but he did save BMC's Tour with a stint in yellow, and he did win the Tour de Yorkshire, although, reverting to type, he also did finish bridesmaid on numerous occasions.
As for Gilbert, Quick-Step team-mate Niki Terpstra scuppered his chances of defending his Tour of Flanders crown, while his dreams of winning Paris never materialised. The highlight of Gilbert's season – harsh, but fair – came when the 36-year-old flew over a cliff during the Tour, but thankfully managed to clamber out. A close shave that saw him sidelined for months with a knee injury.
Best rides of the year
Geraint Thomas on Alpe d'Huez
Becoming the first British rider to win on Dutch Mountain and doing so while in yellow: it doesn't get much better than that. Besides wearing said yellow into Paris one week later.
Michael Valgren in Amstel Gold
Clawing his way back through the pack before out-smarting two wily veterans at the finale – the Dane's win in Amstel Gold was a thing of unfathomed beauty. Dimension Data have a gem for 2019.
Chris Froome in Giro stage 19
Attacking 84km from the finish on the Colle delle Finestre before holding off Tom Dumoulin and the chasers to move into pink on stage 19. It's no surprise George Bennett described Froome as "doing a Landis".
John Degenkolb in Tour stage 9
There wasn't a dry eye in the house when the German put his injury problems aside to beat Belgians Greg Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert at Roubaix after a barnstorming stage 9 over the cobbles.
Vincenzo Nibali in Milan-Sanremo
Having attacked on the Poggio, the Italian veteran protected his slender lead to win by a matter of metres over the rampaging pack on the Via Roma. Fans had no nails left as Nibali celebrated.
An errant camera strap on Alpe d'Huez may have sunk its jaws into the Shark's Grand Tour aspirations in 2018 but the Sicilian showed his class with that heart-in-mouth Milan-Sanremo victory in March. Forth on GC when he quit the Tour, who knows how well he may have fared come Paris, Madrid or Innsbruck – especially given how close he came to defending his Lombardia crown in October.
Quick-Step: team of the season by a country mileGetty Images
Top three teams of the year
Team Sky: With 43 wins – including two Grand Tour victories – no-one can deny that the British team were one of the primary movers and shakers of 2018. The question now is whether or not they can attract a new sponsor following news that Sky will pull out at the end of 2019.
LottoNL-Jumbo: Everyone expected Movistar to put up the biggest fight in July but instead it was the Dutch team with their two-pronged attack of Primoz Rogic and Steven Kruijswijk – both of whom finishing in the top five. With Dylan Groenewegen winning on the Champs Elysees and Kruijswijk starring alongside George Bennett in the Vuelta, it was a season to savour for LottoNL-Jumbo.
Quick-Step Floors: An astonishing 73 wins made the Belgian outfit the winningest team of the WorldTour, with Elia Viviani's form meaning they did not miss Marcel Kittel and may not miss Fernando Gaviria. Niki Terpstra and Bob Jungels won Monuments and Enric Mas came runner-up in the Vuelta to cap an extraordinary year for the self-styled Wolfpack.
Most emotional moment of 2019
And finally... photo of the year
This gem from Reuters' photographer Benoit Tessier wins hands-down: talk about being in the right place at the right moment. In this case, a tricky corner on the cobbles during stage 9 of the Tour de France when Chris Froome and Alexander Kristoff took acrobatic tumbles as yellow jersey Greg Van Avermaet was forced into taking evasive action.
Picture of the year - July 2018 - Cycling - Chris Froome crashes Stage 9 of Tour de France (Benoit Tessier, Reuters)Eurosport