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Who’s in your Grand Tour Dream Team for 2014?

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?’

Image credit: Ian Wakefield (https://www.flickr.com/photos/iandwakefield/14421245888/)
Image credit: Ian Wakefield (https://www.flickr.com/photos/iandwakefield/14421245888/)

It would have to be a balanced squad, not just a team of GC whippets. You’d need some sprinters and some blokes to do the grunt work. You’d have an unlimited budget (hey, spreadsheets are for proper jobs).

Any performances from non-Grand Tour races don’t count. Winning classics doesn’t help here, sorry Gerro.

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, were 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. He almost can’t be beaten.

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 perfect 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 been able to finish the Tour. That said, his Vuelta performance was full of grit and determination, despite coming in underdone. It’s a grudging selection for me, but I think it ranks him as one of the top 3 GC riders in this year’s Grand Tours, ahead of the podium-getters from the Tour.
  4. Marcel Kittel
    This year, Kittel has clearly been the best sprinter in 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 TTT) 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 Alberto Contador changed when the Spaniard crashed out. Switching to freelance mode, Majka took his chance and won two stages of the Tour, and the KoM jersey. This followed an impressive Giro d’Italia where he finished 6th overall. I think 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, but he 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-Quickstep 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:

Peter Sagan
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. If he can overcome being a marked man, and rectify some tactical naivety, Sagan clearly has enough buckets of ability to fill an Olympic swimming pool. This year, he’s been better outside Grand Tours than in them.

Michael Rogers
Has 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’s 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.

Alejandro Valverde
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 3rd overall, 2nd in the points jersey, 3rd 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.

Fabio Aru
Astana’s ‘mini-Nibs’ emerged from obscurity this season to finish on the podium in the Giro and 5th 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.

Nacer Bouhanni
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.

Adam Hansen
Because how can you have a Grand Tour team without Adam Hansen? He’s now finished ten in a row, and even claimed 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.

Matthews shows the need for speed at La Vuelta

The Vuelta is feeling the need, the need for speed this week after stage 3 started on a Spanish aircraft carrier.

Cue Instagram shots of top gun riders in flight helmets looking ready to write cheques their bodies couldn’t cash, lots of jokes about borrowing one of these jets for the sprint lead-out, and does anyone else reckon John Degenkolb bears an uncanny likeness for Top Gun’s tragic hero Goose? Maybe it’s just the moustache.

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Launching the sprint a tad different today I think

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Catch me if you can!! #vuelta #cadiz #procycling?

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Anyway, never let it be said that cycling doesn’t love a gimmick.

Australia’s Michael Matthews hit the afterburners and won stage 3 overnight, he also took the leader’s red jersey. It’s the same feat he managed in the Giro d’Italia earlier this season – winning a stage and wearing the leader’s jersey is becoming a habit for him.

This was his third career Vuelta stage, after winning two in his 2013 debut.

Matthews is becoming a specialist at winning sprints at the end of hard stages, and everyone in the peloton knows it. It’s gratifying that when he aims for a particular stage, he delivers remarkably often.

It’s certainly doing his reputation no harm, although being photographed before the stage wearing sandals and socks might.

Michael Matthews is lucky his legs do the talking, not his fashion sense.

For all Matthews’ talent, these successes are built on the strength and depth of his Orica-GreenEdge team in the team time trials, which gets him within striking distance of the race lead.

It’s no accident that the Australian team is consistently taking the leader’s jersey in Grand Tours, and the team was open about its goal for the day before the stage began. The team worked all day for Matthews, and will do so again tomorrow. He’s a leader worth working for.

The disappointment of missing the Tour de France after a crash in training just before the race will be eased by success in Spain, but Matthews clearly has unfinished business in France next season.

It’s a measure of Matthews’ ability and rapid improvement that Orica-GreenEdge’s erstwhile top gun sprinter Matt Goss has hardly been mentioned this year, as he battles through a winless season.

The Vuelta is in Spain’s deep south, not far from the Straits of Gibraltar and the short ferry crossing to Morocco. Stage 2 began in Algeciras, a port city where travellers can make the crossing to Tangier, the scene of centuries of trade (not all of it legal), international espionage and a seedy underbelly.

Southern Spain is sweltering country, in late August the summer is barely waning and sunburnt British tourists flop through the heat haze in states of barely coping.

It’s lucky then, that the Vuelta keeps the mountains under control this week. Not entirely absent – stage 3 had a series of four Cat.3 climbs; stage 4 has a Cat.2 – but the first real climb doesn’t come until Thursday.

The expected melee for the overall victory is still a few days away from any serious skirmishes. Movistar’s Colombian sensation Nairo Quintana is sitting pretty in second on GC, Spanish favourite Alejandro Valverde is third,and Alberto Contador and Chris Froome are a handful of seconds back.

Image: Sean Rowe (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjr-images/14162178575/)
Image: Sean Rowe (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjr-images/14162178575/)

Handing the race lead to Matthews is almost the ideal scenario for Movistar, which faced a decision about how much energy to spend defending it. When you’ve got two riders who are expected to be high on GC in two-and-a-half weeks’ time, a few days chasing breakaways in the wind and heat just so the sprinters’ teams can clean up the stage wins probably seems less than appealing.

That said, relinquishing the leader’s jersey in Grand Tours seems to have gone out of fashion, and a Spanish team in its home race has extra pressure to keep its sponsor’s logo on the evening news. Matthews is no threat to Quintana or Valverde, but as he showed in the Giro, he might be strong enough to defend the jersey for a few days and let Movistar save their legs.