Cycling is a brutal sport at times. Despite the hard labour of hundreds of riders, every race, the victors are the ones who are lauded, names etched into the fabric of the races they have won, the valiant efforts of everyone else lost to the annals of time.
From Omloop to Liège and every race in between, this classics season more than most seemed to feature a rolling loop of the same three or four names, scrolling across the screen in an never-ending parade of ‘which one will it be this time?’ It was almost always one of the so-called ‘big 3’ whose name topped the results sheet and even when it wasn’t, it was Remco Evenepoel, who avoided becoming a part of the big 3 narrative simply by not taking part in any of the classics apart from Liège–Bastogne–Liège.
It's a thankless task to ride for a podium place, knowing Pogačar, Van der Poel and Van Aert are likely to take the spoils, yet several riders’ names were consistently in the mix as they gave it their all, battling it out for whatever might remain in the hope that just once, a bigger prize would be up for grabs. These riders are the true heroes of a season.
Following a feature I did in 2022 on the riders who made the classics season so good - without actually winning - I figured given the curtain falling on the 2023 season, it was time to refresh the data, and dig down into the results to find the riders who gave us their very best, but didn’t walk away with a win.*
First I’ll run down the top riders who didn’t win by their placements, before taking a look at some of the other contenders, the animators and agitators, who fell short in the end but without whom this classics season simply wouldn’t have been as memorable. The ratings are an inexact science but include prestige of race, relative competition, prior expectation and consistency (coupled with a healthy dose of 'that feels about right').
*For the purposes of this piece I have included results from one-day races in Spring at Pro level or above.
1. Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)
BEST RESULTS: Tour of Flanders (3rd); Paris-Roubaix (4th); Gent Wevelgem, Dwars Door Vlaanderen (5th); Milan-Sanremo (6th)
There’s one rider who stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to a consistent performance throughout classics season. A real contender who not only hung on with the best, but shaped races too, taking matters into his own hands when he needed to on the biggest of stages. Pedersen was one of the key instigators of the strong breakaway group at the Tour of Flanders, and he was the only one strong enough to launch a serious attack at the sharp end of the race, earning him a precious podium spot, his best performance since his 2nd place in 2018.
At Paris-Roubaix, after the Trouée d’Arenberg, the former World Champion closed the gap to the stacked front group pretty much singlehandedly, and he was able to hold on for 4th spot, in the classic he previously stated he most wants to win. With a handful of other top tens, it’s been a stand-out Spring for Pedersen who must be rueing his luck that he lives in these times of superhumans. In another era, he’d have a stack of trophies to show for his excellent season so far.
2. Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost)
BEST RESULTS: Brabantse Pijl (2nd); Amstel Gold Race (2nd); Liège–Bastogne–Liège (4th)
A climber by trade, Healy dropped in to join the classics circuit for the Ardennes so while he doesn’t have as broad a range of top end results in the classics as Pedersen, his two 2nd places and creditable 4th spot at Liège–Bastogne–Liège combined with the unexpected nature of his success puts Ben Healy comfortably into 2nd position on my (extremely mathematically sound) list.
Healy was a whisker away from the win at Brabantse Pijl, losing out to Dorian Godon’s stronger sprint in the end, but it was his performance at Amstel Gold Race that really stood out. The Irishman dropped Tom Pidcock and came within 19 seconds of an imperious Tadej Pogačar at Amstel, rocketing him into contention on everyone’s list of Giro favourites in the process, something which would have raised cynical eyebrows prior the season start. Impressive stuff.
3. Filippo Ganna (INEOS Grenadiers)
BEST RESULTS: Milan-Sanremo (2nd); Paris-Roubaix (6th); E3 SaxoBank (10th)
Ganna is a World champion time trialist, hour record holder, track team pursuit giant and rouleur tour de force. If that weren’t enough things to excel at, the Italian stallion has gone ahead and added ‘classics specialist’ to his ever-expanding cycling CV this Spring.
Many suggested he lacked the punch to stick with the usual suspects on the Poggio at Milan-Sanremo, but when four emerged on the descent from the famous rise, and Ganna was among them, somehow we weren’t surprised.
We were more surprised (well, I was) when he managed to come 2nd among the company he was keeping, effectively first from the group of three after Van der Poel had bade them 'arrivederci’ with 5km to go.
A strong ride in Paris-Roubaix and top ten at E3 just about seals the deal for the Italian over his next closest rival. Though expectation and team resources are much greater, the prestige of Ganna's results just about outweighs De Lie’s not insignificant achievements.
4. Arnaud de Lie (Lotto-DSTNY)
BEST RESULTS: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (2nd); Dwars Door Vlaanderen (6th); Brabantse Pijl, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (7th)
It’s fair to say the young Belgian was one of the most hyped riders prior to the classics, with people tipping him to win all kinds of races. His best results were early in the season and he perhaps didn’t live up to the frankly quite ridiculous expectations heaped on his young shoulders, however when you look across the board, he’s probably fourth best of the rest, overall. Not half bad.
Remember Omloop? It feels like about 100 years ago which is about how old De Lie looked when he crossed the line that day, battered and bleeding after a crash from which he valiantly bounced back to come through and take second place on a day dominated by Jumbo-Visma.
Beyond that, De Lie has had good results in three other classics, including most recently a 7th place in Brabantse Pijl, perhaps an anomaly given his physiology, and certainly a result which seemed to fly under the radar, but proof that he’s an all-rounder with a huge future ahead of him.
5. Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ)
BEST RESULTS: Strade BIanche (2nd); Liège–Bastogne–Liège (5th); E3 SaxoBank (8th); Amstel Gold Race (11th)
The next few riders are all on a similar level. Top of the bunch is the French rider Madouas, largely because of his excellent second place at an exciting and unpredictable Strade Bianche, and for his there-or-thereabouts ability to be involved at the business end of many races, often alongside team mate and classics partner in crime, Stefan Küng. Madouas is the master of all parcours though, and with consistent results on the gravel of Strade, the cobbles, and the hills of the Ardennes, he’s perhaps the most well-rounded classics rider of the current second string. He could have done even more but suffered from illness midway through the Spring. He deserves nice things, and they are surely coming (though perhaps in a race without Pog).
6. Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost)
BEST RESULTS: Dwars Door Vlaanderen (3rd); Tour of Flanders (5th); Milan-Sanremo (7th)
One of a small number of riders visible in basically every race he rode in, Neilson Powless has started 2023 in sparkling form. Brimming with confidence and seemingly capable of chameloen-ing effortlessly between ‘climby GC type’ and ‘cobbled specialist’ (and all the bits in between), Powless has followed through on the promises he has been making over the past couple of seasons, and maybe could have done even more if it wasn’t for some bad luck in the Ardennes classics, arguably the terrain that suits him best. And he's going to be a Daddy soon. Only nice things for Neilson too, please.
7. Mattias Skjelmose Jensen (Trek-Segafredo)
BEST RESULTS: La Fleche Wallonne (2nd); Amstel Gold Race (8th); Liège–Bastogne–Liège (9th)
Like Ben Healy, the young Dane only rode the Ardennes classics so can only be judged on these, but he finished in the top ten of all three, and with a 2nd place finish on the Mur de Huy, it’s arguably been a super successful, and decidedly efficient, classics season from Skjelmose.
8. Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious)
BEST RESULTS: Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (3rd); Strade Bianche (6th); E3 SaxoBank (7th); Milan-Sanremo (8th)
The only representative from his team in this list, in a team that doesn’t feature at all in terms of victories this season at the classics, Mohorič proved his consistency and willingness to push on and involve himself in important moves this Spring. He finished on the podium during opening weekend, and it’s his solid performances at some seriously stacked races that have earned him 8th spot on the list.
9. Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech)
BEST RESULTS: Gent-Wevelgem (3rd); Nokere Koerse (6th); Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (10th)
Finishing in the best possible position in Gent Wevelgem, when you remember the whole 'Van Aert gifting Laporte the win' scenario that played out way ahead of the rest of the race, the veteran Belgian finally has a result from a classics season to shout about, years after his best performances, and following a number of seasons of terrible luck.
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) – the perennial nearly-man, Küng once again had a classics season that delivered him to consistent mid-top ten performances. With 6th spots in E3 and Flanders and 5th place at Paris-Roubaix, Küng has proven himself capable of contending, yet he lacks the killer punch necessary to win, particularly in an era featuring the likes of Tadej Pogačar. But he gives everything every time and we love him for it.
John Degenkolb (Team DSM) – he deserves a place here and there’s nothing anyone can say to change my mind. The veteran rider won Paris-Roubaix in 2015 and 8 years later, he defied all expectation by being up alongside the world’s best in a supergroup of incredible riders, in with a shot of repeating the feat of winning arguably the toughest Monument of them all. When calamity befell the German on the Carrefour de l’Arbre the gasps of shock reverberated around the cycling world and the sense of injustice was palpable – without laying blame anywhere other than at the feet of the cruel hand of fate.
Movistar – while Soudal-QuickStep undergo something of a transition away from their traditional role as key animators of the classics, other teams are rising to fill the gap left behind. Last season INEOS showed their mettle, proving their commitment to diversifying from a Tour-focused GC superpower, and this season, it’s been Movistar’s turn to shift focus. With the departure of Alejandro Valverde, it seems the Spanish side are enjoying the freedom to dedicate their resources to different pursuits, and in Matteo Jorgenson they have a fantastic GC/classics all-rounder, who was the best of the rest outside of the big 3 at E3, and came a creditable 9th in his first participation at the De Ronde. The Spanish side’s other stand-out result was the phenomenally strong ride of Oier Lazkano to arrive 2nd at Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
Nathan van Hooydonck (Team Jumbo-Visma) – the classics super domestique extraordinaire didn’t win a race but was instrumental in almost all of his team’s success this Spring. He enjoyed second place (behind his team mate Tiesj Benoot) at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and a handful of top 20 positions for his troubles, but there’s little doubt that he’s up there with the most valuable of team mates when it comes to one-day races.
Join me tomorrow to find out who features in my ‘best of the rest’ list from the women’s peloton – and why working it out is an altogether more prickly prospect.