Blazin' Saddles: Underachieving riders, surprise packages and unsung heroes of 2017
After a Chris Froome-shaped, salbutamol-infused interlude, our series of season retrospectives gets back on track with a bumper edition looking at the most frustratingly underachieving riders of 2017 as well as the biggest surprise packages, unsung heroes and breakthroughs of the past 12 months.
So, let's get this show on the road again – starting with…
The most disappointing riders of 2017
Dumoulin goads Quintana - Giro d'Italia 2017 stage 17 Getty Images
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Let's not beat around the bush: given his lofty targets, the Colombian's season was a stinker. It started promisingly enough, with a notable victory in Tirreno-Adriatico. But Quintana failed to win the first haft of his targeted double – and following Tom Dumoulin's deserved Giro win, Quintana toiled on the roads of France en route to his lowest ever Tour finish (12th). That he now faces competition at Movistar from his former rival's understudy, Mikel Landa, probably sums it all up.
Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott)
Look, it just wasn't a great 12 months for another 27-year-old Colombian climber, either. Pacing himself back from a bad knee injury, Chaves was unspectacular in the Dauphine, woeful at his debut Tour (where his highest stage position was 21st), and, at best, patchy in the Vuelta (showing glimpses of his old self in finishing 11th). Off the back of three successive Grand Tour top fives, 2017 was calamitous for Chaves, who nevertheless kept smiling.
Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Rafal Majka arrives at the finish in Chambery after his crash in stage 9Getty Images
Finally given a chance to lead a team and not ride in support of former team-mate Alberto Contador, the Pole looked to be edging into form ahead of the Tour following victory in the Tour of Slovenia and a runner-up spot in California. But a nasty crash in that chaotic Stage 9 to Chambery scuppered Majka's Tour hopes. Illness then hampered his GC tilt at the Vuelta, although the 28-year-old salvaged something with victory in Sierra de la Pandera in Stage 14.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo)
Three top-five finishes in July's Tour was about as good as it got for the once-powerful German on the centre stage, with the luckless Degenkolb pulling out of the Vuelta in the opening week because of bronchitis. Just the one victory, in Dubai in February, gave him a sparser return than last year's meagre brace of wins off the back of that horrific training accident in Spain. It remains to be seen if the Trek-Segafredo classics specialist can re-find the form that took him to Sanremo and Roubaix glory in 2015.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
A maiden yellow jersey off the back of his opening day time-trial victory in the Tour was the highlight of a frustrating season for the Welshman. Victory in the Tour of the Alps underlined the strong form Thomas was carrying into the Giro, where his team leadership at Sky came to an end after that unfortunate crash with the police motorcycle at the foot of the climb to Blockhaus. His stint in yellow aside, the Tour was equally unfair on Thomas, who crashed heavily on the descent of the Col de la Biche and was forced out.
Leopold Konig (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Rejoining his former team after two underwhelming years at Sky, the Czech climber was supposed to spearhead Bora's charge in the Giro. But a lingering knee injury from his time at Sky saw Konig skip the Italian race – and kept him on the sidelines for pretty much the rest of the season. Konig went through the motions in Turkey and Guangxi – and it's anyone's guess if the 30-year-old can turn things round in 2018.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
Even Cavendish's biggest fans will admit that his 2017 season hardly smelled of roses. Sure, Peter Sagan's elbow and the barriers in Vittel had something to do with this – but even before that horrific Stage 4 crash in the Tour, Cav's season had been derailed by Epstein-Barr virus. After coming back from a fractured shoulder blade, the Manx Missile only rode a handful of races – and finished second alongside Peter Kennaugh in the London Six Day. Still four wins short of Eddy Merckx's Tour stage record, it's unlikely Cavendish will surpass the Belgian now. Discount him at your peril, mind.
Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirates)
Having left Sky to pursue his own ambitions, the 30-year-old was winless all year and indeed only cracked the top ten twice in the Tour. Perhaps surprisingly, Swift's most notable ride came on the Col de Sarenne in the Dauphine, where he finished behind former team-mate Kennaugh at Alpe d'Huez. Swift's 17th place in Milan-Sanremo was his worst in four attempts of a Monument he has twice finished on the podium. Fellow sprinter Andrea Guardini also struggled to cut the mustard at UAE Team Emirates – and the arrival of both Alexander Kristoff and Sacha Modolo has pushed the Italian out and will see Swift fall further down the pecking order.
Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac)
Once heralded as the next big thing in Belgian cycling, Vanmarcke's status as a natural heir to Tom Boonen was presumably why Jonathan Vaughters signed him ahead of the 2017 season. Things couldn't have gone much worse in Vanmarcke's debut season at Cannondale: a bad crash in the Tour of Flanders forced him out of the Ronde and of Paris-Roubaix – his dual targets for the year. A few days leading the Tour of Austria would have been welcomed – although Vanmarcke would have traded these in for the top step on his three podium finishes on the race. 2018 will be make-or-break for Vanmarcke.
Tony Martin (Katusha)
Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) - Tour de France 2017, DüsseldorfGetty Images
That the 32-year-old's only time-trial win of the season came in the national championships says it all for Martin, who struggled in his opening year at Katusha. Entering the Tour with high hopes of glory in Dusseldorf, Martin had already finished three ITTs as runner-up. That frustration was to continue as Martin drifted to fourth place in his native Germany. His big chrono rivals Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara may have retired, but the meteoric rise of Tom Dumoulin has made Martin something of an anachronism. Ninth place in the Worlds at Bergen capped a miserable season.
Javi Moreno (Bahrain Merida)
While hardly a household name, Moreno was brought to Bahrain Merida for one purpose: support Vincenzo Nibali in the Grand Tours. Four days into the Giro, the 33-year-old Spaniard was disqualified for lashing out at Sky's Diego Rosa – an early dent to Nibali's fight for pink. Moreno rode the Tour to little fanfare before crashing out of the Vuelta in Stage 2 – once again, albeit more inadvertently, leaving Nibali short of support. A new contract never came, and Moreno now drops a level to Delko Marseille Provence KTM next season.
Jurgen van den Broeck (LottoNL-Jumbo)
Signed on a two-year contract by LottoNL-Jumbo, the Belgian struggled in his supporting role for Steven Kruijswijk in the Giro before listening to his body and deciding to call it a day. Following a big crash in 2013, Van den Broeck failed to capture his form of old and the Dutch team were happy to release a rider who no longer had the desire to compete. It was a sad and rather flat farewell for a rider who finished third in the 2010 Tour.
Now, we've been criticised for being too negative in these end of season reviews – even though we're building up to a final piece on the best riders, races and teams of 2017. But before that climax, let's up the positivity a bit by reflecting on the unlikely gems, under-appreciated rouleurs and most improved riders of the year, as well as the biggest surprises.
Unsung heroes of 2017
If Greg van Avermaet stole the plaudits for his Paris-Roubaix triumph, then the Belgian would certainly have raised a glass of beer to two of his trusty BMC team-mates that day. Firstly, Miles Scotson helped pace Van Avermaet back after an early crash ahead of the Arenberg, then Daniel Oss proved not only the perfect foil, but a quite superb pilot in the closing kilometres.
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) deserves praise for ripping up the rule book and giving the Giro a go – rewarded as he was with a memorable mountain victory at Asiago in Stage 20. Also on the Giro, consistency on the climbs earned Jan Hirt of CCC Sprandi Polowice a two-year contract with Astana.
The Tour's dreary series of opening week 200+ km transitional schleps just wouldn't have been the same without the thankless daily digs from Wanty-Groupe Gobert – most notably the flame-haired farmer Frederik Backaert and his team-mates Yoann Offredo and Guiillaume van Keirsbulck.
While we're on the subject of game, yet ultimately flawed, escape artists, a huge shout-out is due to Quick-Step Floors' Julien Vermote, aka The Breakaway Killer, for the role he played in setting up Marcel Kittel for his five wins on the Tour. We'd mention Lars Bak (Lotto Soudal) and Tiago Machado (Katusha) as well, but for the lack of wins for their men Andre Greipel and Alexander Kristoff.
A certain Mark Cavendish will be looking forward to Vermote's services when the Belgian joins Dimension Data next season. Meanwhile, a final chapeau goes to the Portuguese LA Aluminios-Metalusa team, who stepped in to help out Aqua Blue Sport in their time of need with a replacement bus after theirs was torched in an arson attack during the Vuelta.
Breakthrough riders of 2017
When former Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal famously once said with regards to his fellow Canadian, "Who the &%$* is Rusty Woods?", he was sharing the sentiment of most cycling fans. But after a breakthrough 2017, former long-distance runner Michael Woods has become a household name (albeit in households more attuned to Sean Kelly than Kelly Brooke).
Finishing 37th in May's Giro in his maiden Grand Tour set Woods up for an impressive top ten in the Vuelta, during which he climbed with the best and exceeded expectations for Cannondale-Drapac. He may already be 31 but his cycling career is young, and it looks like Woods, far from rusty, won't have to wait too long before a maiden stage scalp in Europe.
Finishing one place behind Woods in the Vuelta, in eighth, was the Colombian youngster Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana – one year after a nasty crash ended his maiden Grand Tour and cost him quite a few teeth. Granted, the 23-year-old made his break-through last year with his overall win in the Tour of Suisse and the Milano-Torino crown – but it was 2017 where Lopez really underlined his credentials as a force to be reckoned with following a flurry of mountain blitzes in Spain, including solo scalps at Calar Alto and the Alto Hoya de la Mora.
Another rider to come of age on the Vuelta was the Austrian Stefan Denifl, who defied a rampaging Alberto Contador to win on the Los Machucos climb in the mist, gifting his Aqua Blue Sport team their first stage victory in a Grand Tour.
A final rider who shone during the final Grand Tour of the season was the Spanish youngster Enric Mas, who put in a series of impressive performances in the mountains for Quick-Step Floors – and endeared himself to an entire nation after helping compatriot Contador ride to glory on the Alto de l'Angliru. El Pistolero may have fired his final shot, but in Mas, there is hope for the future of Spanish cycling.
In July's Tour, Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) built on some consistent finishing to win the showpiece finale on the Champs Elysees – denying Andre Greipel back-to-back scalps in Paris and in so doing symbolically ending the German veteran's run of winning in every Grand Tour he's entered since the 2007 Vuelta.
Already a time-trial victor in the 2016 Giro, Slovenian powerhouse Primoz Roglic showcased his climbing ability on the Galibier in Stage 17 of the Tour, soloing clear and holding off the main favourites to take a maiden Tour win – despite crashing earlier at the foot of the climb.
And finally, Lotto-Soudal showed there's life beyond Greipel in the Vuelta with journeymen domestiques Tomasz Marczynski (twice) and Sander Armee picking up their maiden Grand Tour wins in their early 30s.
Top 5 surprising moments of 2017
Postlberger goes off-script in the Giro: Bora-Hansgrohe's Lukas Postlberger upset the odds by springing a surprise in the opening stage of the 100th Giro in Olbia. The 25-year-old Austrian darted off-script and clear of the peloton with 2km to go in Sardinia – holding on to take an unexpected win ahead of Caleb Ewan and the sprinters. Not a bad way to kick-off your first ever Grand Tour, eh?
Matthews wins green in the Tour: When Peter Sagan was disqualified from the Tour, the quintuple stage winner Marcel Kittel looked a shoo-in for the green jersey. But that was until Michael Matthews used his climbing ability to slowly chip away at the German's lead – picking up intermediate sprints and using his excellent Sunweb team-mates efficiently en route to two superb stage wins of his own. And with the Australian reducing Kittel's lead to just 9pts in Stage 17 to Serre Chevalier, Kittel – perhaps feeling the pressure – crashed and subsequently withdrew. Job well done by Matthews et al.
Michael Matthews in the green jerseyGetty Images
Quick-Step found out in the crosswinds: The straw that perhaps broke the camel's back for Kittel in his quest for green came in Stage 16 to Romans-sur-Isere when Team Sunweb engineered a split in the peloton in the crosswinds. Usually the team dishing out the punishment in such blustery conditions, Quick-Step were blown apart by Sunweb. In tactical disarray, the Belgians threw everything in the basket marked Kittel – leaving Dan Martin isolated. At the end of the day, Matthews won his second stage, Kittel's lead came down to 29 points and Martin conceded 51 seconds on GC.
Froome wins green in the Vuelta: One rider who would certainly welcome Chris Froome's salbutamol-assisted disqualification from the Vuelta, should it come, would be Quick-Step's Matteo Trentin who, despite notching his fifth win of the Vuelta on the final day in Madrid, was denied the green jersey by the man in red. Picking up points in the intermediate sprint and for his 11th place at the finish, the voracious Froome kept the green jersey from Trentin, who later described the situation as "a joke".
Alberto Contador - Tour de France 2017Getty Images
Contador-Quintana a mere sub-plot: In any normal Grand Tour, the sight of Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana combining to attack on an early climb would be enough to send alarm bells ringing. Just ask Chris Froome, who famously lost the 2016 Vuelta after the same two riders pulled off the so-called Ambush of Formigal. Well, 10 months later and the state of play had changed so much that Froome was happy to let both his rivals do their thing in Stage 17 to Serre-Chevalier. Quintana, shattered from the Giro and out of sorts, quickly faded, while Contador crested the summit of the Croix de Fer in a record time – but became Contadormant by the end of the stage.
Do you agree with what you've read? Can you think of any more disappointments, break-through stars, surprises or unsung heroes? Have your say below…