Who’s the best pro road racer of the modern era?
Bradley Wiggins winning the 2012 Tour de France(Image: ASO)
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First, what is the modern era? I’m taking it as post Miguel Indurain, and the question of who is the best arises now because the man who was accepted in the top slot, Lance Armstrong, has been stripped of nearly everything he won.
Which throws up another stumbling block. If Armstrong is no longer the best, then anyone else who has been involved with doping since Indurain can’t be considered as his replacement.
So that’s Alberto Contador out for a start.
The next filter is to look at the word ‘best’. I’m taking that to mean that on their day, and at what they are best at, to make the short list a rider has to not just win but make winning look inevitable when you look back and analyse how they did it.
Inevitability is rare, and I reckon that once anyone with a doping conviction is removed only eight riders since Miguel Indurain have had that stamp of inevitability. They are: Paulo Bettini, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Mark Cavendish, Cadel Evans, Oscar Freire, Philippe Gilbert and Bradley Wiggins.
Think about Philippe Gilbert and his 2011 Ardennes Classic triple. Think about Tom Boonen in a cobbled classic, sprint or break. Any way his rivals want to cut it, especially last year, if Boonen has the form Boonen will win.
Think Cancellara, at least the Cancellara of a few seasons ago, in a time trial or in a lone break. Think Cav in a bunch sprint. Think Evans winning the 2009 worlds. Think Oscar Freire or Paulo Bettini in a small group at the end of a big race.
And finally there is Bradley Wiggins, he had the air of inevitability in every race he rode in 2012.
But how do you rank all those different riders in order and find the best? First I took out the ultra-specialist. So that’s Mark Cavendish in eighth. He is probably the greatest roadman sprinter of all time.
He’s certainly the fastest sprinter ever, and he will probably set lots of new sprint records, like the most Tour stages in a career or even the most in a single Tour. But so far he’s a sprinter and that’s it. It sounds brutal but it’s true. Still, eighth best of the whole modern era isn’t bad is it?
Next is Oscar Freire. Three world road titles take a lot of winning. Only Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen and Eddy Merckx have done what Freire did, and they are all-time greats. Plus Freire has won Classics and stage races. He’s seventh.
Paulo Bettini takes sixth place. His inevitability didn’t have the dominant trait that others in this list have. Bettini won by having playing his cards better than the rest rather than by ripping their legs off. He was great, but great at being crafty.
Fabian Cancellara did rip his rivals legs off, that’s why he is fifth. Having said that though he has a bit of the specialist about him, not just because he’s a time triallist, but also because his best road race victories are achieved with one tactic, a blistering attack followed by lone break.
Even the Tour de France stage win at Compiegne in 2007 was a lone effort, albeit one where he finished with riders all around him because he had scythed through the people in front of him. His Roubaix and Flanders victories were also executed in the same glorious way.
It’s a fantastic tactic, but if he didn’t make a clean break, like he didn’t when Tom Boonen won the 2008 Roubaix, Boonen will always beat him.
If Roger De Vlaeminck was Mr Paris-Roubaix, Philippe Gilbert is Mr Ardennes Classic. He’s so good at these races he has already reached legendary status, but he sacrificed them in 2012 because he had the chance to win the rainbow jersey.
As soon as he did that his world title win on the Cauberg looked inevitable, and it was achieved with class and authority. And Gilbert is still young, there are still pages of his story to write. He gets fourth but will end up higher.
Third place goes to Cadel Evans, and that’s probably unfair because Evans has the longest career and it stretched back through the darkest doping days. There is no doubt that Evans lost races to doped riders during the first part of his career, a point underlined by the fact that he only began winning the biggest races once the blood passport was introduced.
The inference is that Evans stayed the same while the dopers slowed down because they couldn’t get away with what they’d been doing. Evans achieves his podium position for the races he should have won, as well those he did.
I’m putting Bradley Wiggins in second, but if he has another year like 2012 he will be the number one. This is a look at road racing, so Wiggins track past scores nothing. That means we are looking at one Tour de France podium, fourth elevated to third in 2009, and his Merckx-like 2012.
More than Merckx-like in fact. Not even Eddy Merckx achieved a string of Paris-Nice, Romandie, Dauphine Libere, Tour de France and Olympic time trials in one year. Wiggins winning in 2012 looked inevitable. The only thing that prevents him being number one is that he hasn’t looked inevitable for as long as the winner.
Tom Boonen is the man I judge to be the best pro road racer of the post-Indurain. I know that some will argue that a Tour de France trumps any Classic, or even any number of Classics, but I don’t think it does.
The Tour is the most famous bike race in the world, the biggest, the most prized, but it’s still a race, just like a Classic is. Ok, you have to be good for three weeks in the Tour, but in a Classic you cannot make the slightest mistake.
They are both races, and although more riders take their best form into the Tour each year than do so in any given Classic, there are still only a handful how can win the Tour. It’s the same as for the Classics.
Wiggins’s 2012 Tour win looked inevitable, but so did Boonen’s 2012 Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix triple. The thing is, Boonen has been inevitable for much longer.
Wiggins had one stellar season in 2012, Boonen has been like that for ten years. If he’s on form he will win a cobbled Classic, sometimes two, and in 2012 he won all three.
Only one other man has ever done that, Rik Van Looy in 1962, but Boonen has also rivalled Roger De Vlaeminck’s career total of five Paris-Roubaix victories. They are all-time cycling greats and Boonen has equalled them. Wiggins has to do a little more to say that.
So my post Indurain eight is
1. Tom Boonen
2. Bradley Wiggins
3. Cadel Evans
4. Philippe Gilbert
5. Fabian Cancellara
6. Paulo Bettini
7. Oscar Freire
8. Mark Cavendish