Blazin' Saddles: The biggest flops of the 2018 cycling season
Our second end-of-season review focuses on the riders – big name or otherwise – who have underachieved over the previous 12 months. With, at times, his tongue firmly in cheek, our cycling blogger Felix Lowe runs through the flops and must-do-betters of 2018 while rating their chances of a bounce-back next year.
Fabio Aru (UAE Team-Emirates)
Where did it all go wrong for the one-time Grand Tour impresario? It certainly pre-dated the Italian's departure from Astana – although Aru's stock has risen as much as Northern Rock since joining UAE Team Emirates.
Zero wins in his debut season is a dire return from the 2015 Vuelta champion, who withdrew from the this year's Tour when in lowly 27th place three days from Paris before riding to 23rd on GC in the Vuelta without once cracking a stage top 10.
Italy's rider of team UAE emirates Fabio Aru reacts after crossing the finish line of the 9th stage between Pesco Sannita and the Gran Sasso during the 101st Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy cycling race, on May 13, 2018.Getty Images
In fact, Aru only twice finished a stage or a race in the top five all year and was regularly out-performed by his 'rival' team-mate Dan Martin, who himself had a quiet season by his standards.
Aru's lacklustre performances seem to be endemic to UAE-Team Emirates, for whom Alexander Kristoff – the team's other big-name arrival – failed to deliver until the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The likes of Diego Ulissi, Rui Costa and Ben Swift all added grist to the mediocrity mill.
Still only 28, Aru has time on his side. Provided he can keep fit and mentally stable, he surely has the pedigree to turn things round next year.
Marcel Kittel of Katusha-AlpecinGetty Images
Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)
Brought in to replace the outgoing Kristoff, Kittel's departure from Quick-Step was hardly felt given the strong performances of Fernando Gaviria and the in-coming Elia Viviani. By stuttering worse than Ken in A Fish Called Wanda, Kittel made what could have been a doleful break-up quite easy – like an ex who moves on fast into an unhappy, toxic relationship.
He's recovered before from a barren patch while at Quick-Step so you'd think he can find his sprinting legs again; you don't just lose your speed overnight. But the German is now 30 and is very much a confidence sprinter. Fail to start the season well and it could be curtains for Kittel. But come on, surely anyone as statuesque as Kittel must come good again.
Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic)Getty Images
Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic)
Twelve months on and the decision to follow his heart and leave Sunweb for a second-tier team based in his native Brittany seems to have backfired for Barguil. The Frenchman put in a spirited defence of his polka dot jersey in July, but never really posed any threat to compatriot Julian Alaphilippe, who echoed last year's Barguil by securing the KOM jersey with two stage wins.
In the end, Barguil's troubled and winless first season at Fortuneo-Samsic was summed up best by the sight of him, in a break in a stage during the Arctic Race, being blown off the road and into a ditch. Or worse: being overlooked by the French team for the Worlds, selected at the 11th Hour, but then crashing out while chasing back on following a mechanical.
It took him four years to get back to winning ways after that double scalp in the 2013 Vuelta but you'd like to think that Barguil won't have to wait that long to win another. A tilt at the Giro would make sense, only his French team won't get an invite. The same may be the case come July, given the mounting pressure from Vital Concept. 2019 could be another fallow year. Still only 27, Barguil needs to be back in the WorldTour if he wants to turn things round.
Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates go one-two on EtnaGetty Images
Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott)
When the smiling Colombian won on Mount Etna ahead of Simon Yates it looked like he had put his nasty crash from Il Lombardia behind him. But it would be the only time Yates would trail his faltering team-mate all season.
Chaves' subsequent collapse in the Giro remained unexplained until he was later diagnosed with mononucleosis and was ruled out of the Vuelta. In his absence, Yates secured Mitchelton-Scott their first Grand Tour win in Spain. Having dropped below Simon and Adam in the pecking order, Chaves suddenly appears an anachronism on the Australian team.
It's hard to tell with something as fickle and debilitating as mononucleosis. Even with it, Chaves spearheaded one of the most memorable moments of the season – that photogenic Mitchelton-Scott one-two on Etna which heralded far greater things to come for the man who crossed the line in second place.
Still only 28, the likable Chaves will have fans rooting for him – and provided he can get back to fitness, there should still be ample opportunity on the team now Caleb Ewan (another underachiever – albeit one whose opportunities were limited) has flown the nest.
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott)
The Italian left Quick-Step off the back of his four-stage haul at the Vuelta but a nasty crash early in the spring put the brakes on his bid to test himself as a leader in the classics. It's probably too early to write him off just yet.
In a testing year he still managed to become European champion and ended the season on a high in Hong Kong and China. With Ewan gone, Trentin will continue to have chances at Mitchelton-Scott both in the classics and Grand Tours.
Movistar's Big Three
Nairo Quintana , Alejandro Valverde and new arrival Mikel Landa were meant to form the trident that would pierce Sky's bubble. Instead, they were all out-performed by Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, whose fourth place in the Giro represented the highest finish by a Movistar rider in Grand Tours.
Individually, they all picked up wins over the season, but collectively they were a mess. Valverde's world title papered over the wrinkles, but Movistar have work to do.
They certainly have the class to deliver a Grand Tour win for Movistar, but with Valverde winding up his career, Quintana plateauing and Landa already talking about moving on, it's highly unlikely that we'll see the trio deliver the goods while on the same team.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
Another season derailed – this time by the Epstein-Barr exhaustion virus – has seen the Manxman fall further behind in the sprinting stakes. He still trails Eddy Merckx's Tour record by four stage wins and, with so many younger sprinters getting faster, it looks unlikely that he'll surpass the Belgian.
With just two wins in as many years, time could be running out for Cavendish even adding to his tally.
Re-signing with Dimension Data for another year will give him continuity but it remains to be seen if Cavendish can still pull it all together on the main stage. His legendary status is assured, although his kick is now something of a myth.
Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data)
Another rider for whom a trip to the Emirates worked out about as successfully as for the British academic Matthew Hedges. Thankfully, Meintjes was released after a ramshackle stint – but his troubles continued in 2018 when back with Dimension Data: the South African only broke the top 10 in a stage once all year (and that was a ninth-place finish one day in the Tour of Austria).
Indeed, the hottest he got came from a jersey malfunction and a lack of sun cream…
Even if Meintjes were to bounce back, so to speak, it's hard to say to where: after all, he wasn't exactly a big-hitter in the first place, despite his three Grand Tour top 10s. At 26 years old, Meintjes does have time to notch the major win he lacks – but that would represent a vast improvement for a rider who has never finished higher than fourth in any Grand Tour stage.
Slovakian cyclist Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe and Belgian cyclist Sep Vanmarcke of EF Education First - Drapac Cannondale compete the 102nd edition of the 'Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres - Tour of Flanders', a one day cycling race, 264,7km froGetty Images
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First)
When do we reach the point where it's acceptable to call out Vanmarcke's early promise in the classics as an anomaly? Surely, it must be soon. Regularly in the bread mix, the unproven Belgian once again couldn't rise enough to net that elusive big win.
Jonathan Vaughters certainly believes in him, which helps, as does the stability of a two-year extension at Education First. If Vanmarcke gets a bit of luck, he still has it in him to win a monument.
Dan McLay (EF Education First)
His first year on the American team produced more DNFs than podiums while McLay did not get the nod for any of the Grand Tours, having made a resounding knock on the door in 2016. In fairness, his final year at Fortuneo was hardly stellar, so while highly disappointing, his season has not been too much of a nosedive. Still, he'll have to improve on a single Circuit Cycliste Sarthe win in 2019.
McLay, 26, is still young and will have more opportunities provided team selection goes his way.
Richie Porte crashes out of the 2018 Tour de FranceGetty Images
Richie Porte (BMC)
Once again, the Australian came into the Tour among the favourites but crashed out in stage 9 for the second year running. To make matters worse, his big rival Chris Froome was clearly undercooked following his Giro exertions, so the win was there for the taking. There must have been a sense of that-should-be-me as Porte sat at home and watched Geraint Thomas – a rider below him in the old Sky pecking order – enter Paris in yellow.
If he left Sky for a better chance at winning the Tour, he didn't really come much closer in his three years at BMC despite always entering the race among the favourites. Tipped for both the Vuelta and Worlds after last year's July setback, Porte was massively short in Spain and then sat out potential humiliation in Innsbruck.
The big lesson from all of this is quite clear: the Tour de France is not won on Willunga Hill in January.
There's no denying that, on his day, the Tasmanian is one of the best climbers and a superb bike rider. But there's also a growing sense that Porte's days are limited to the week-long mark, as opposed to the full 21-day Tour shebang. A fresh challenge at Trek-Segafredo could help but he'll be 34 before the next Tour – perhaps too old to overcome such a hoodoo.
Leopold König - ©bora-hansgrohe_veloimagesFrom Official Website
Leopold Konig (Bora-Hansgrohe)
The case of Konig remains something of a conundrum, the Czech rider having participated in just a handful of races since rejoining Bora from Sky two years ago. Illness ransacked his 2017 campaign, but things were even more fruitless in 2018 where the only major race the 31-year-old started was Tirreno-Adriatico.
It's a huge shame for a rider who top-tenned in each of his first three Grand Tours but who hasn't registered a noteworthy result since 2015.
Well, Bora-Hansgrohe seem to be standing by their man having given Konig another year to prove himself. But until we know more about his condition and fitness, it all remains a mystery.
Bryan Coquard Belgien-Rundfahrt 2018Imago
Other riders with a point to prove
In his three years at Team Sky, Benat Intxausti never featured in a Grand Tour as persistent mononucleosis laid the Spaniard low, restricting his appearances this year to a mere handful up in Scandinavia. Having considered throwing in the towel, the 32-year-old drops a level to Euskadi-Murias in 2019 where he will hope to get back to fitness and in the saddle.
The return of Lachlan Morton to the WorldTour did not yield the results Dimension Data would have hoped, the free-thinking Aussie more often than not finishing DNF or thereabouts. Perhaps a return to the Garmin family in 2019 is what Morton needs; he's still only 26 and has time to find his way.
Also returning to EF Education First after a duff year away is Italy's Alberto 'DNF' Bettiol, whose highlight from his BMC stint, besides being part of a TTT-winning squad in Tirreno-Adriatico, came when being the third rider through the doors of Oman's Ministry of Tourism in February.
Two versatile climbers who failed to hit their usual lofty heights in 2018 were Poland's Rafal Majka and Italy's Gianluca Brambilla. Majka came close to a win in the Vuelta for Bora while Brambilla's first season at Trek lacked the punch of his final season at Quick-Step.
A fresh challenge may rekindle things for the likes of Andre Greipel, Tony Martin and Lars Boom, who all misfired this year for Lotto Soudal, Katusha and LottoNL-Jumbo respectively. After one troubled year at Sunweb, Edward 'Out of' Theuns also returns to Trek, where he showed earlier promise.
Former Dutch champion Ramon Sinkeldam had a quiet debut year at Groupama-FDJ while Daniel Teklehaimanot struggled so much to make an impression at Dimension Data that he was allowed to join Cofidis in February, to very little fanfare. Where's the rider who became the first African to wear the Tour's famous polka dots?
Next year will be a big year for Bryan Coquard, the once-spunky French sprinter whose career has been on the wane since having a direct, energetic strop and throwing all his toys out of Jean-Rene Bernaudeau's pram.
Talking of Direct Energie, Lilian Calmejane failed to build on his impressive 2017 while another Frenchman, Pierre Rolland, couldn't add to his Giro win in his opening year at EF Education First and now rejoins former team-mate Coquard at Vital Concept. Let's hope he gets to up to his attacking reputation.
Will the recruitment of the likes of Rolland and Ag2R-La Mondiale's Cyril Gautier (another rider who went M.I.A. in 2018) give Vital Concept the edge when it comes to Tour wildcards? Barguil will be biting his nails…
Romain Bardet in stage 17 of the Tour de France 2018Getty Images
And finally, how about throwing Frenchman Romain Bardet onto the list of underachievers? For the second year running, his stock in the Tour dropped, while his only win of the season came in something called the Faun Environnement - Classic de l'Ardèche Rhône Crussol way back in February.
A runner-up spot in the Worlds behind Alejandro Valverde, however, suggests that Bardet still has what it takes to compete with the big guns. Expect the 28-year-old to be back in the mix come next July during a Tour that really suits his strengths.