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The Grand Tours have finished for 2014 and we’re on the downhill run to the season’s finish.
This week, as I soft-pedalled my way through the ennui that accompanied this depressing realisation, a thought struck me: if you could pick a dream team of nine riders based on their performances in Grand Tours this year, who would you pick?
It would have to be a balanced squad, not just a team of general classification whippets. You’d need some sprinters and some blokes to do the grunt work. Unlimited budget (hey, spreadsheets are for proper jobs). Any performances from non-Grand Tour races don’t count.
I’ve chosen three GC riders, three sprinters and three wildcards.
Some selections were easy. Yes, predictably the three GC winners are present, but each of them won their respective titles in relatively straightforward fashion – clearly the best riders in the races. I couldn’t convince myself that Jean-Christophe Peraud’s battling second at the Tour was better than Contador’s win at the Vuelta.
Marcel Kittel is another obvious choice.
The others are less clear cut, and I’m sure there’s a few of you who’ll have other suggestions. It’s hard picking just nine guys. Anyway, here’s my Grand Tour Dream Team.
1. Vincenzo Nibali
It’s hard to think of a more flawless performance than Vincenzo Nibali produced at the Tour de France. For me, it was easily the best ride of the year, and one of the best individual Grand Tour performances I have seen.
Right from his surprise victory in Stage 2 in Sheffield, it was clear that Nibali had come to France in peak form. Go hard or go home was the theme, and by Stage 5 on the cobbles he already had the Tour by the throat and his rivals faltering.
Nibali won four stages, led the race for 19 out of 21 days, and won by 7’37” having barely dropped a second to any rival.
He’s first picked.
2. Nairo Quintana
Many fans were bitterly disappointed when Movistar chose Alejandro Valverde as leader for the Tour de France, leaving their Colombian prodigy at home. It seemed crazy after Quintana’s storming 2013 performance.
Quintana himself was disappointed, but management insisted that riding the Giro as leader would be better for his development. As it turned out, Quintana put in a scintillating performance in Italy, and clearly demonstrated that he isn’t fazed by the responsibility of leadership.
His crash at the Vuelta was a massive shame, but his superbly aggressive performance in Italy still guarantees him a place in my dream team.
3. Alberto Contador
A season built around the Tour could have ended in disaster when the Spaniard lost concentration and crashed on Stage 11. His surprise return for the Vuelta provided some redemption, but his winning performance despite recovering from a broken leg really only increases speculation about what might have been if he’d finished the Tour.
That said, his Vuelta performance was full of grit and determination, despite coming in underdone. It ranks him as one of the top three GC riders in this year’s Grand Tours, ahead of the podium-getters from the Tour.
4. Marcel Kittel
Kittel has clearly been the best sprinter in this year’s Grand Tours. He looked unstoppable in the first days of the Giro, winning two stages before getting sick and withdrawing from the race before Stage 4.
He returned in the Tour, winning four stages including the two that all the fast men wanted, Stages 1 and 21.
On the flat, Kittel is virtually invincible. Between him and Nibali for the easiest selection.
5. John Degenkolb
Kittel’s Giant-Shimano teammate has disproved the conventional wisdom that having two gun sprinters in the same team is a recipe for ego clashes and conflict. The two are different enough that they don’t really compete for the same stage wins, and their rapport seems strong.
Four stage wins and the points jersey in the Vuelta shows how good Degenkolb is when given the opportunity, and he can get over modest hills to win sprints that Kittel can’t.
6. Michael Matthews
The flashy Aussie sprinter came of age this year. He won two stages at the Giro (including the team time trial) and wore the pink jersey for six days.
He sat out of the Tour de France, but returned to the Vuelta in style, winning Stage 3 and wearing the leader’s jersey for three days. Matthews is a highly versatile sprinter who can win on stages with moderate hills.
I’ve picked him ahead of Nacer Bouhanni because of his all-around ability to win and then hang on to leader’s jerseys where other sprinters would struggle – that’s hugely valuable to his team.
7. Rafal Majka
Despite coming into the Tinkoff-Saxo Tour squad at the last minute and seemingly against his will, Majka’s role as a support for Contador changed when the Spaniard crashed out.
Switching to freelance mode, Majka took the most of chance and won two stages of the Tour, and the King of the Mountains jersey. This followed an impressive Giro d’Italia where he finished sixth overall.
Majka is the best super-domestique in the world at the moment.
8. Tony Martin
Always the unbackable favourite to win the time trial stage(s) in any Grand Tour he rides, Martin also managed to take Stage 9 of the Tour de France with a solo breakaway that ripped the peloton to shreds.
He’s also a great team rider, regularly seen drilling it on the front to shut down breakaways for his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, and is a huge contributor to that team’s regular high finishes in team time trials.
9. Geraint Thomas
I’m picking G. Thomas because he’s become one of the most valuable riders in his team, even without the wins and profile of some others. He is relentless, tough as nails, and completely selfless.
He only rode the Tour de France this year, but some of the rides he put in for Chris Froome and Richie Porte were incredible. He still finished 22nd overall – not bad for a guy who was working for others and is better known as a classics man.
Picked for his grunt work and attitude.
Unlucky to miss out
His Tour de France green jersey showed his consistency and versatility, but he didn’t win a stage. He also failed to win a stage at the Vuelta.
Sagan clearly has enough ability to fill an Olympic swimming pool, but he must overcome being a marked man, and rectify some tactical naivety. This year, he’s been better outside Grand Tours than in them.
Had a great year after the worst possible start, under a doping cloud. Since being cleared, he’s ridden with a freedom that has rarely been seen during his long career, and it netted him two Giro stage wins, and one at the Tour.
That’s a great return for a guy who doesn’t get many personal opportunities. Also a great team man.
Probably the most versatile rider in the world. How many others can win during the spring classics (he won Roma Maxima and Fleche Wallonne, and was second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege), miss a Tour de France podium by a handful of seconds, and then back it up with a Vuelta that netted him third overall, second in the points jersey, third in the mountains jersey, and two stages (one individual, and a team time trial)?
He’s got lethal finishing speed for a guy who can climb with the elite, and he’s also amazingly consistent through the season.
He might not win a Grand Tour again, but he’s usually not far off the podium and he really loves a stage win.
Astana’s ‘mini-Nibs’ emerged from obscurity this season to finish on the podium in the Giro and fifth at the Vuelta. He also won a stage at each, showing that at just 24 years old, he’s Italy’s next likely Grand Tour challenger after Nibali himself.
Despite being the second-favourite sprinter on the FDJ.com team, Bouhanni cleaned up five Grand Tour stages this season: three in the Giro and two in the Vuelta. Bouhanni only misses out because Kittel dominates him head-to-head, and he’s still not versatile enough when the road gets lumpy.
He’s had a combative year, with his team management preferring Arnaud Démare for the Tour, and his race programme has been cut short by criticism of FDJ management after he signed for rivals Cofidis for next year.
Despite all this, he won more Grand Tour stages in 2014 than Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel combined.
How can you have a Grand Tour team without Adam Hansen? Ten in a row, and a stage win at the Vuelta this year, Hansen is the ultimate team rider, and everyone knows it.
He’s also grown in confidence over the last two years and is now often making the race. Very dangerous in a break.