Blazin' Saddles: The biggest villains of the 2018 cycling season
The first of our end of season reviews focuses on the riders, races and figures who made the headlines in 2018 for the wrong reasons. With, at times, his tongue firmly in cheek, our cycling blogger Felix Lowe runs through a loosely chronological hall of shame.
All hell broke loose when the reigning Tour and Vuelta champion insisted on riding the Giro despite his on-going salbutamol case hanging over. Blood boiled among Froome's hordes of largely social media-based antagonists, embittered with the idea that he could secure a fabled Grand Tour grand slam while still under investigation.
How his detractors laughed at the karma-fuelled comeuppance that felled Froome in training ahead of the opening time trial; how they whooped when he crashed again going uphill in stage 8; how they guffawed when he dropped out of the top 10 on the snow-capped Gran Sasso.
If Froome's win on the Zoncolan was a sign that there was life in the old Dawg yet, then his critics were appeased when he lost time the next day to Sappada.
To be fair to Froome, the way in which he rode in support of team-mate Geraint Thomas during the Tour would (or at least should) have won over fans in July. Not that team management had anything to do with it, apparently.
Mitchelton-Scott's treatment of Caleb Ewan
December 2017: "We know that Caleb is ready for the Tour. It is going to be a learning experience and we will be supporting him 100 per cent. He has won at the Giro and the Vuelta and the natural progression is that now he gets a crack at the Tour de France."
June 2018: Caleb Ewan is overlooked by Mitchelton-Scott in their Tour team, favouring an all-in approach for Adam Yates.
July 2018: Mitchelton-Scott win zero stages on the Tour; Yates finishes 29th on GC; Tour debutant Fernando Gaviria wins two stages and wears the yellow jersey; Dylan Groenewegen wins two maiden stages.
August 2018: Ewan announces he will join Lotto-Soudal before winning final stage of the Tour of Britain in London.
Spraying agricultural demonstrators with tear gas with the peloton down wind was always a recipe for disaster – and so it proved in stage 16 of the Tour, when the race was forced to come to a standstill as riders received treatment for stinging eyes and breathing complications.
Things hardly got better for the men in uniform when, one day later, a confused gendarme pulled Chris Froome off his bike as he descended off the Col du Portet following stage 17. In the defence of the policeman, Froome was wearing a grey jacket over his Sky kit – but he did have a minder with him and, to be fair, owns one of the most recognisable faces (not to mention elbows) in cycling.
The resulting video of Froome channelling Steve McClaren and swearing at the man in an exaggerated French accent inevitably went viral.
Nacer Bouhanni & Gianni Moscon
Now here's a showdown that many people would pay good money to see...
While 2018 was quite calm by Bouhanni's standards, he was certainly far from incident free.
It was all too much for manager Cedric Vasseur, who snubbed Bouhanni in favour of Laporte during the Tour. The latter failed to make an impact, while Bouhanni saved his season with a stage win in the Vuelta.
Like all villains at the top of their game, Moscon displayed a two-fingered knack of bouncing back – winning the Italian time trial championships and the Tour of Guangxi either side of coming perilously close to donning the rainbow jersey in Innsbruck.
If a Moscon win in the Worlds would have been the worst possible outcome for the most righteous of cycling fans, what did happen was the next worst eventuality.
" I never returned a positive, but it was decided that I should be sanctioned and that’s what happened. I fulfilled the punishment and since then the only thing that has worried me is to enjoy cycling. Everyone can judge me as they see fit. But I’m aware that I have done everything possible to show that I not only won before, but after fulfilling my sanction I have been even better."
Like Marmite, Valverde will continue to be lauded and crucified in equal measure. It's probably worth mentioning that no rider in the current peloton boasts such consistency in world championships, the Spaniard's well-earned win coming after two silver medals and four bronzes.
The season started troublingly for Sky, who were hounded with more negative column inches than Brexit and a damning UK Parliamentary report to boot. But Sir Dave Brailsford's squad went about their business carefully, methodically and clinically, with wins for Michal Kwiatkowski, Wout Poels, David de la Cruz and Geraint Thomas despite the clouds gathering overhead.
When Froome did the impossible and won the Giro, all hell broke loose when Sky's fuelling strategy in that swashbuckling stage 19 victory was dissected, examined and praised by the world's media as if it were worthy of a Nobel Prize.
All this, of course, while continuing to pay Moscon's salary. Still, as unpopular as the team may be, the levels of bile directed at them on the roads of France went far, far beyond the pale.
Aqua Blue Sport
Easing the pressure from Team Sky, the Irish Aqua Blue Sport team stepped up to take over the crown of villainy at the 11th hour.
If folding on the eve of the Tour of Britain wasn't enough, then how about allegedly telling all riders and staff via text message, before promptly leaving the WhatsApp group and deleting your Twitter account? Step forward Monaco-based Cork millionaire Rick Delaney.
Cue a frantic scramble for contracted Aqua Blue Sport riders to find new homes for the 2019 season, amid opposing claims of unpaid salaries and unsavoury threats of legal action directed towards an "unnamed rider […] for slander and breach of confidentiality". It was all rather nasty to watch.