Highlights of 2018: Part V

The fifth and final pick, not easy as to pick one means to exclude all the others but let’s go with John Degenkolb’s Tour de France win, a satisfying result on many levels.

The opening week of the Tour de France suffered from too many sprint finishes, the daily plat du jour was getting repetitive and the stages that could have been different in Brittany still saw the bunch huddling. It takes a lot to split the field up these days. One way to achieve this is the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, both directly because of their brute force but also indirectly because of the fear factor as riders jostle for position in the approach to each sector. Indeed the fear factor was something that was playing on minds for days, weeks and even months ahead of the race and most teams with ambitions for the overall classification made sure to select at least one “bodyguard” for their team leader, a classics contender tasked with shepherding a climber across the pavé.

The Tour de France has borrowed the cobbles before but the 2018 incursion borrowed heavily with over 20km of cobbled sectors including some tough ones. It was as close to a summer remake of Paris-Roubaix as you could get within reason during the Tour de France, at least over 156km.

The stage started and Richie Porte crashed early and was out of the race. He’d just won the Tour de Suisse and once again we were left wondering what could have been. Some say he simply can’t do a grand tour but at best this is speculation because we can never see and after all people said that about Geraint Thomas too. As soon as the race hit the pavé Romain Bardet was among those suffering a puncture and this was to be the first of several times when he was playing catch up, L’Equipe later reported a team mix-up over the tyres and wheels meant they didn’t have enough puncture protection on the day.

Sky picked up the pace and forced a selection despite Egan Bernal having crashed hard. There was talk of a cracked wrist but he’d prove to be ok – one story of his season, something we’ll touch on next week – but for all the team tactics and two races in one, for the stage and for the GC contenders, the day didn’t change the standings too much. Porte was out because of his fall, only Rigoberto Urán lost time among the GC contenders but with hindsight he wasn’t going to feature anyway.

Late in the stage and Yves Lampaert (Quick Step) accelerated, taking John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) with him. A perfect trio for the moment, no threat to the GC so the teams with numbers didn’t have to chase. Perfect for their symbolism too, as all three would have made satisfying winners. Van Avermaet in the yellow jersey could cap off a dream week. Lampaert the Quickstepper in his Belgian champion’s jersey as the Flandrien icon. Degenkolb as the former Paris-Roubaix winner on the comeback. Having finished third the day before Degenkolb was the fastest on paper but on the road with all the racing it was another matter, there was suspense to the end. But sure enough Degenkolb got his sprint going, his head banging as if at an imaginary Rammstein gig, and he won. Of the three he surely brought more cheer because of where he’d come from.

Why the highlight? a great day’s racing with moves flying for hours on end and one of those days where the TV production crew must have been shattered after trying to work out which video to show from all the different choices, with attacks here, crashes there, mechanicals and more. It brought the Tour de France back to life especially on the back of the previous stage which was so dull it saw a breakaway form only for riders to sit up from it and retreat for the bunch so futile was the move. The Roubaix stage didn’t so much as awaken the race but was like placing a defibrillator on the peloton. Then it was enhanced by the story of Degenkolb’s win, perhaps not Lazarus but all the same a comeback and the sheer emotion of it all showed. There’s also the secret hope that the millions who watched this stage will be interested to see what Paris-Roubaix is all about and tune in for the classics next time.

With hindsight: It’s not a comeback from zero, Degenkolb has had wins since the horrific training accident in 2016 and was third in the sprint the day before, but all the same a return to the highest level. So to take the Roubaix stage win was a prestigious return. It showed too, an outpouring of tears and joy.

Once again for the Tour the cobbles provided more fear than selection, several bantamweight climbers were supposed to get bounced out of contention but in the end most were fine, just. Nairo Quintana for example lost more time after slamming into a traffic island on the opening stage and breaking his wheels. In some sense this was the ideal result, to have the excitement but not to lose the contenders before the mountains arrived. The pavé will be back but we’ll see if they’re still used sparingly, if the race can visit France’s north without them, or if the route almost bends towards the north because of them, because of the need for constant action.

Highlights of 2018 – Part I
Highlights of 2018 – Part II
Highlights of 2018 – Part III
Highlights of 2018 – Part IV

36 thoughts on “Highlights of 2018: Part V”

  1. Thanks for another fine year of blogging.

    I was surprised that the latter part of the Giro didn’t make the cut for your highlights of the year with Stage 19 as the crescendo?

    • Froome’s ride was a big deal but in the moment it was hard to enjoy because nobody knew if the result was going to stand or not, as written here at the time there was an asterisk to the stage, a “pending resolution of the open case” small print to it all which, from here at least, took away the thrill of the moment that day. Degenkolb’s roars of pride and tears of joys were free of this.

    • +1. And agree with the comment below, Degenkolb’s win, and his reaction, brought tears to my eyes. Truly a rare and special moment in the season.

  2. It was Paris – Roubaix lite for me.
    But any race north of the Centre-Val de Loire Region, where the winner ran a 54/42 set-up, must have been good to make it in to Inner Ring’s pick 😁
    All the more surprising that the list has a couple of foul weather picks too given our host’s predilection for sunshine and mountains.
    There’s a joke about sunny and Cher (check the map) somewhere but I’m not clever enough to fully find it 😁

    • Well said. Maybe the most knowledgeable commentators/pundits lose sight of the woods for the trees sometimes and over-complicate stuff. But whatever.

      • I think these are Mr/Ms Ring’s personal choices. It is not meant to be objectively fair or comprehensive.

        On the other hand, even as a Froome fan, I’d say Giro Stage 19 never quite had the suspense. Writing was on the wall once Tom decided to wait on the descent and Froome managed to have a much larger buffer at the bottom.

    • It just didn’t excite me in the moment, sorry. As explained above we didn’t know if this was going to stand or if some court or arbitration panel was going to rule otherwise on the stage. But all these picks are personal, there’s no right or wrong to them.

    • At least you didn’t overreact Jrt82.
      The asterisk that remains next to Froome’s season for many is reason enough not to have fully enjoyed it then and not since.

    • Agree with your sentiment Jrt82 but not the manner in which you express it. No need to be rude to INRNG. It’s his blog after all (and my favourite by a country mile) and he was giving an opinion, which he also explains.

  3. Pathetic? No. It was a great day to watch a bike race, but it leaves a queasy feeling in the belly and reminds us of exploits now long passed that we’d rather forget. And I speak here as a believer…

    I agree that this was the best single day in a GT I’ve seen in many a long year. Good choice Mr RNG

  4. I’m not sure I agree, this day had an effect and the climbers lost big. Not in time lost but in energy expended keeping up with the heavier rouleur/grimpeur. Landa looked good in the mountains but crashed heavily, where would he have been without that crash ? Bardet constantly seemed tired, was it due to this stage ? I think the cobbles disadvantage the climbers massively, even if it is not shown in time lost on the cobble stage

    It was a great stage though ! Delighted for Degenkolb but would have been happy with any of the three winning.

    • Fair point, there was an effect but it was hidden a bit more, a slow effect rather than anything spectacular. One point I didn’t mention above was Vuillermoz breaking his shoulder blade on the stage after a spectator (probably the wrong word) stepped out for a selfie, which added to Ag2r’s problems.

    • But the Tour isn’t about being the best climber, but about being the best GT rider and a GT can include anything! 2010 always jumps to my mind where Evans, Schleck and Hesjedal were all in the first group, and Wiggins and VdB were in the second. Or how in 2014 Nibali smashed the cobbles in the rain gaining almost 1’00 over specialists Sagan + Cancellara. The cobbles can spell disaster, but they can also bring huge rewards, and if you can’t handle them you don’t deserve to win in the same way if you can’t handle the mountains you don’t deserve to win.

      • I agree ! The winner should be the best all-rounder. I wasn’t disputing that. It is just that there have been many complaints about the tour being boring because nothing happens in the mountains. I believe that a hard stage like this is part of the reason. I also believe that the idea of short mountain stages does not help the climbers, delete this stage and put in a 250 km multiple mountain stage and it gives different riders a chance for GC.

        I love the cobbles, I loved that stage but I just disagree saying that it had no effect on GC. I believe that from that point on, the climbers stood no chance due to the energy they expended not losing time compared to a rouleur such as Thomas or Dumoulin.

  5. I’m so pleased you chose this to top out the highlights INRNG. It’s been constantly on my mind this season precisely because of Degenkolb’s outpouring of emotion afterwards. It’s one of the few times that the TDF has made me actually weep for somebody else’s joy. So much so that I’ve been prompted to post my first comment here.
    We all know the Giro stage that won Froome the Giro was epic; a man, and a team, showing complete mastery over the sport. But the redemptive aspect of Degenkolb’s win – against his perfect competitors and on the biggest platform – seems to embody some sort of celestial majesty of the what this, or any, sport can achieve at its pinnacle. In an age where heroes are often clouded in mitigating circumstances this was a win that sang and also pulled our emotions along in harmony.
    Hat well and truly doffed.

  6. Amazing stage, great highlight.

    We also had Michael Woods win at the end of the season. A similar emotional celebration, but for different reasons – but these moments give us so much when often the riders can seem distant / robotic / aloof (which I also understand, but humans like a story).

    What I don’t understand though is how someone can jump on here and call your choice of highlight ‘pathetic’. Just a reminder that this blog is FREE, and is the most insightful commentary on pro cycling. We should all be grateful for it.

    Season’s greetings x

  7. Glad this was featured as I spent the odd hour watching my recording of the stage in between admiring van der Poel on both his weekend demonstration cyclocross rides.
    Looking foward to watching both him and van Aert compete across the cobbles at the classics and the Tour in a few years time.
    Thanks for the 2018 coverage and Happy Christmas

    • It’d be a long list, the problem of picking five is you leave 10 out and they’re still subjective. Milan-Sanremo had a thrilling finish but was even more back-ended that usual as normally there are moves on the Cipressa and a group floats away on the way to the Poggio but this time it was all contained.

      The Vuelta had some great finishes with deserved stage wins for the likes of King, Woods, Geniez and Pinot. King saved his team’s season, Woods had personal reasons for the triumph, Geniez was a textbook tactician and Pinot’s Covadonga win had plenty of suspense.

      The Giro’s stage to Sappada was the most interesting on paper and makes for a good “with hindsight” lookback as Simon Yates stormed off solo for the stage win, perhaps using energy he’d need later? While behind Froome had been dropped but Dumoulin and others were bickering over who should chase Yates, a moment which allowed Froome back into the race when he could have been eliminated.

      The Tour had some other good days, Fraile’s win in Mende finished off a long day when there had been attacks from the start in crosswinds. Steven Kruijswijk’s raid to Alpe d’Huez was impressive and an unsung bold ride. The final stage in the Pyrenees was good action with the podium still in play and if Lotto-Jumbo hadn’t helped the chase you wonder what might have been.

      The Tour of the Alps was good with a variety of winners and action, Ben O’Connor made a name for himself. Romandie had some highlights, like Campenaerts and De Gendt together in the breakaway with Campenaerts towing the move away and then De Gendt riding the rivals off his wheel, the kind of move you might plan over a beer but executing it is much harder; a couple of days later and seeing Bernal and Roglič duelling with uphill attacks was thrilling. Staying in Switzerland and Nairo Quintana’s long range win to Arosa was good, a bit of a slow burn but seeing Porte get so close but just not be able to close the gap was an example of how cycling can do slow agony as well as action. Often August feels a bit flat but both the Tour of Poland and the BinckBank Tour had their moments.

      Elia Viviani’s famous for his great sprint season but what if his best win was the Italian national championships? It was a hilly circuit and he was outnumbered by Bahrain-Merida but he still won.

      For sheer joy Steve Chainel winning the French CX championships (unwittingly watched when round at a friend’s) takes some beating: imagine a child getting the toy of their dreams this Christmas and you’re halfway there. The men’s race in the Worlds was a good race, finally a hilly course for a new cast of riders although it didn’t go wild until the end, more an elimination like the worlds often are. Seeing Remco Evenepoel go through the field like he’d had a late start in a handicap race was something, it’s one thing to win when you’re expected to do it but this way just adds to the pressure on him. Cult attacking rider Nicolas Edet finally won in the Tour du Limousin and the race was on TV for the first time, which leads to a concluding point: there’s so much to watch, there’s never been as much racing on TV and these days you can pull out your phone at watch half of it too.

      Some more picks but people probably and hopefully have more…

  8. This was such a great race with a dream-come-true finale. Although in hindsight I do think the stage had a slightly too big influence on the outcome of the TdF with some GC top 10 contenders (Mollema, Uran) and sprinters (Groenewegen) crashing and forced to either quit or tone down aspirations.

    What I’m wondering – is it a coincidence (apart from INRNG’s personal preference) that 2 out of 4 of the highlights of men’s pro racing come from races that are famous for the large parts that are not raced on asphalt (Roubaix/Strade Bianche)? In other words – do these surfaces provide better racing, period, or is it the fact that they are only raced once or twice a year that makes every rider extra keen to make it a special race?

    Thanks for a great season of blogging and merry Christmas!

    • I’d imagine a bit of both – the riders know it’s the point to make an impact but also the road surface give an extra layer of complexity to the racing. However if a GT was a 3week gravel race then the teams would plan accordingly and reduce the variables to include more rouleurs in the team and tactics to suit, you couldn’t go all guns blazing on every stage because that’s not how GTs are won (or more importantly, lost)

  9. “one of those days where the TV production crew must have been shattered after trying to work out which video to show from all the different choices, with attacks here, crashes there, mechanicals and more”

    Not to mention being one car down most of the day as it *allegedly* shepherded Bardet back to the front group

  10. Saved the best til last. This was a thrilling ride compared to Sagan’s victory in Roubaix earlier in the season which became a foregone conclusion.

    My top 2 asterisk rides:

    Froome’s Giro raid

    Valverde in Austria

  11. My personal highlight had to be Nibali winning in Sanremo although I appreciate that, however thrilling it was, it was a “standard” type of thrilling finish where a sole leader just hangs on until the end, and might not make everyone’s list.

    Another highlight for me was 19 year-old Brandon McNulty of Rally Cycling holding off the bunch until the last few hundred metres of Stage 4 of my local race – the Dubai Tour, won by Colbrelli.

  12. This was an emotional day for me.

    The trip to Northern France had been planned for months but my dad passed away five days before this stage.

    I was persuaded by family and friends that travelling would be good for grief and it certainly was. It was an incredible (and hot) day.

    And to top it off we HAD to help the French celebrate their World Cup final win in the evening.

    Great choice INRNG, Degenkolb is quite the man.

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