Who’s the best pro road racer of the modern era?

Chris Sidwells Columnist

By Chris Sidwells, Chris Sidwells is a Roar Expert


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    Bradley Wiggins was always Sky's main man in 2012. (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

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    The Crowd Says (30)

    • Columnist

      January 31st 2013 @ 6:32am
      Sean Lee said | January 31st 2013 @ 6:32am | ! Report

      How do you rate Carlos Sastre Chris? His grand tour record is extremely consistent and who knows how many of those he could have won had the dopers been excluded? In fact, the dopers may have robbed us of a Sastre/Evans rivalry with both men trading grand tour victories. As far as I can remember Sastre was never caught up in any doping controversy.

      • January 31st 2013 @ 7:27pm
        sittingbison said | January 31st 2013 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

        from memory Sean Sastre has 5 and Evans 3 TdF when the dopers are excluded

      • February 1st 2013 @ 9:45pm
        Chris Sidwells said | February 1st 2013 @ 9:45pm | ! Report

        Sean, Yes Sastre competed with dignity and was a good rider who didn’t win as many races as he should have. I just didn’t feel his victories had the inevitability of the others. That attak to win on Alpe d’Huez was amazing, but I’ve a feeling that it was helped by there being 2 of his team mates with Evans. Maybe it should have been a top ten with Hushovd and Sastre in 9th and 10th.

    • January 31st 2013 @ 7:51am
      Doug said | January 31st 2013 @ 7:51am | ! Report

      About a year and a half ago a cycling magazine published a list of TdF top ten placings with drug cheats or those reliably considered to be cheats highlighted. Excluding the cheats Cadel Evans and another rider IIRC Carlos Sastre finished 1-2 most of the Lance years. With the other rider “winning” something like 5 to Evans 2. So if Evans is there this guy should be as well.

    • Roar Rookie

      January 31st 2013 @ 9:06am
      Justin Curran said | January 31st 2013 @ 9:06am | ! Report

      I like your list Chris. I am only relatively new to pro cycling (since 2008), so I never saw Bettini or the best of Freire. I am going to admit my huge bias, but I believe Cadel Evans should get the number one slot. He has consistenly been top ten in Grand Tours for a prolonged period, including against proven dopers. He won a world title, not too mention dominating mountain biking. Secondly I think Cavendish should come in second. To put him at the bottom of the list purely because he is just a sprinter is denying him justice. I think I would have Gilbert and Boonen coming in next. Wiggins has not dominated for a long enough period to be placed above the rest.

    • January 31st 2013 @ 10:01am
      Riddos said | January 31st 2013 @ 10:01am | ! Report

      A good list Chris.
      Unfortunately injuries have ruined his last year or so but Thor Hushovd would be a rider I’d have on the list.

      World RR Champ.
      10 x TDF Stage wins.
      2 x TDF Green Jersey points wins.
      A bunch of days in yellow inc some brilliant riding in 2011 TDF.
      Vuelta Stage wins plus a points win.
      Good bloke.
      Hopefully is back in form this year and gets a good crack at Paris-Roubaix.

      Sagan most likely of the young brigade to earn a spot.

    • January 31st 2013 @ 10:12am
      Michael said | January 31st 2013 @ 10:12am | ! Report

      How come inevitability such as BW in 2012 is still accepted without question, even though so many admired LA for the same unquestioning reasons. I’m not saying BW isn’t clean, but why is it not being discussed? Hi feats were unusual.

      • January 31st 2013 @ 1:14pm
        Doug said | January 31st 2013 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

        Have you any evidence that he was in anyway dirty? If not give the anonymous potshots at his reputation a rest. He was a fantastic rider with a support team of fantastic riders with fantastic team work.

        • February 1st 2013 @ 9:49am
          Michael said | February 1st 2013 @ 9:49am | ! Report

          That’s cool. I guess I agree with you and it was just an amazing year I guess. Lots of people felt same way about LA over the years.

          • February 3rd 2013 @ 10:24am
            Doug said | February 3rd 2013 @ 10:24am | ! Report

            Yes LA certainly did have a good team (of dopers). And it is possible that BW does too. But it seems unfair to have a go at the guy just because he did well without any other evidence to suggest his success isnt based on lots of hard work..

            LA started out as a mid field rider, then after his cancer came back strong faster better with an improved aerobic capacity which just doesnt happen without pharmaceutical assistance. BW on the other hand was an olympic gold medal cyclist.

    • Roar Guru

      January 31st 2013 @ 11:25am
      Bones506 said | January 31st 2013 @ 11:25am | ! Report

      Agreed on Boonen. Whilst the wider world loves the TDF and Grand Tours, cycling fans adore Boonen and love the classics. –

      His record is absolutely exceptional and the envy of every cyclists. He absolutely dominates the Hard man classics (his 2012 Parid Roubaix attack with 55km to go was the highlight of 2012 cycling for me) and was instrumental in Gilbert getting the 2012 World Champ jersey.

      I expect him to be right there again this year.