Without hesitation it’s Julian Alaphilippe. And that’s saying something in a year that has seen the prodigious performances of Egan Bernal, Richard Carapaz, Annemiek van Vleuten, Primož Roglič, Marianne Vos etc. It’s about more than winning, with him. When Alaphilippe is in a bike race, it just matters more.
He encapsulates the entire essence of racing a bike; a discipline in which there are a million ways of losing and very few ways of winning. Yet he fearlessly hunts down his chances. I’d say that he is personally responsible for re-engaging a generation of cycling fans who were beginning to lose faith. And the effect he had on the success-starved host nation of the Tour de France had to be seen to be believed. I have never seen such raw passion from cycling fans at a time trial than I witnessed in Pau, when Alaphilippe stunned everybody by ripping the opposition to shreds and winning. When we think back to 2019, we’ll think of this rider. It’s that simple.
One Day Race
Hipster choice, maybe. But it comes from the heart. It’s much maligned, since ASO don’t seem to know what to do with it, but the last couple of editions of La Course have been fantastic. In 2018 we had that almost unreal catch of Anna van der Breggen by Annemiek van Vleuten only metres from the finish line in Le Grand Bornand. And this year, the race produced a similarly thrilling finale. Marianne Vos left it so late to try and ride across the shrinking gap that separated a somewhat disjointed chase from Amanda Spratt, who had attacked a long way out. Spratt must have felt she had a chance with just a few hundred metres to go. But when Vos raced up that same steep ramp that Alaphilippe would sprint up later
that day in the Tour de France ITT, there was only ever going to be one winner. Vos’s series of wins this year have been astonishing. The second day at the Tour de Yorkshire was a stand-out memory, too. But this win at La Course was the best.
Errr, I think it might have been the Tour de France. I was tempted to say something unexpected here. But frankly, what’s the point? It often gets (partially justified) flack for being the dullest of the three Grand Tours, but not in 2019. It had everything: Thomas De Gendt being insane, La Planche des Belles Filles pimped and extended, French success, an interesting time trial, a totally unexpected first yellow jersey for Mike Teunissen, Eddy Merckx, Peter Sagan, a landslide, a young winner and a rest day in Nîmes, which is among the treasures of the south of France. But most of all, it had suspense; not knowing, with just three stages to go, which of five or six riders could credibly go on to win the race. I’ve covered 17 tours for ITV, and that it the first time anything remotely like that has happened. We might have to wait a generation or two for a repeat. By the way, Tirreno-Adriatico wasn’t bad, either. For the second time in four years, the winner claimed victory by less than a second.
Remco Evenepoel winning San Sebastian. I don’t know how much longer he is going to be able to carry on winning like this, but it’s totally enthralling while it lasts. To attack as far out as the Belgian teenager did, and often does, takes a rare mixture of arrogance, risk-readiness and total innocence. The fact of the matter is, long range moves like that against a complete peloton just don’t normally work. But to see it through to victory in the manner he did, against the class of opponent he faced, is a whole different thing.
My worry for Evenepoel, almost certainly unfounded, is that he’s at his very best right now, and that he may not be able to kick on and develop much beyond the stellar rider we already see before us. I hope I am proved wrong. I want him to become Belgium’s first Grand Tour winner since 1978, when Johann de Muynck won the Giro. It’s been far, far too long.
Without a shadow of doubt, Slovenian GC racer Tadej Pogačar has been the most exciting newcomer. Every single challenge placed in front of him, he has met and faced down. Every fresh challenge along the way, he’s hurdled with dismissive ease. Overall victory in California at the age of 20 is one thing, but a podium in a debut Grand Tour suggests that this rider is going to be one of the greats.
He was comfortably the most impressive of Primož Roglič’s rivals in Spain, finishing the three weeks off so strongly that you almost wondered whether he might even be able to win it. To see him eclipse (there’s no other word for it) his notional team leader Fabio Aru was almost cruel to watch. It’s not, in my opinion, a case of whether he’ll win the Tour de France. It’s more a case of how soon and how many.
Well, it wasn’t Trek-Segafredo or CCC. Did they even bother entering any races in 2019? Rather than pick out one particular race, I’d like to commend Deceuninck – Quick-Step for the way they have raced all year. The ‘Wolfpack’ may be a slightly grating hashtag, but there’s a lot of truth to it. They hunt in packs. They ride for each other. They always disrupt. They’re never content just to roll through a day in the saddle from flag drop to finish line without animating things. I remember Philippe Gilbert telling me about moving to join the team a couple of years ago, and describing how, “in every race Quick-Step had always been a problem for me. I decided to become part of the problem.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Everything that Movistar did, every time they raced. Winning the Giro was one thing, but after that it descended into weirdly effective/ineffective chaos. Nairo Quintana, to whom the rest of the team had seemingly stopped talking, might as well have been riding for a different team, so incoherent was the non-support he was offered. It was great to watch, since every day at the Tour and the Vuelta there was a new set of Movistar tactics to be baffled by, but it must have been heartbreaking for Quintana to have been party to.
No collapsing inflatable arches, team buses stuck on the finish line nor dogs running out into the road this year at the Tour. OK, we had a landslide, but that was more dramatic than comic. And even the gendarmerie had a quiet year at the race in 2019, compared to last year when they lifted Chris Froome off his bike, stepped on the timing mechanism during the final time trial and pepper-sprayed the peloton. So, I guess I’ll have to settle for Tre Valli Varesine, in which a large group of favourites, hunting down Luis León Sánchez for the win followed a TV motorbike onto a roundabout, and then promptly off at the wrong exit; the same thing every single one of us has done trying to decipher the voice instructions of our sat navs. Except this happened in the middle of the race. An old-school shambles. We don’t see enough of this kind of thing. The race was won in the end by Primož Roglič, the same guy who nearly lost the Vuelta on stage one, when he slipped in the watery overflow from a burst paddling pool. Hurray for cycling!
This category, close as it is to Mishap, probably becomes the exclusive preserve of TV commentators, whose job (complicated as it can be) is mostly to correctly identify riders at any given moment. Now, obviously, the most important moment in any bike race, you might argue, is the split second when someone crosses the line in first place. This is made even more important when the race in question is the Tour de France, and the stage is stage one, which means that the winner automatically wears the first yellow jersey of the race. So, it was disappointing, on a personal and professional level, that when Mike Teunissen threw his arms aloft to celebrate the greatest achievement of his career, I took it upon myself to shout, pretty much as loud as I could, “Wout van Aert!” into a microphone. Still, it doesn’t matter, I don’t think anyone was watching.
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