This is a top ten of the major movers and shakers so far this season – with a particular focus on the Spring Classics. But just as the modern day music charts take into account download sales, we're going to look beyond the single-day races and include the longer-playing week-long races such as Paris-Nice and the Tour of Catalunya.
The first thing you may notice is that there's no place for last year's number two, Peter Sagan. Despite winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and finishing runner-up in Omloop Het Niewsblad and Milan-Sanremo, the shaggy-haired Slovakian showman drops out of the charts after a catalogue of flat performances for an artist of his calibre.
Despite finishing second in four stage races, Alberto Contador also doesn't make the top ten – nor does Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert, emerging talent Oliver Naesen, Mr Ubiquitous Fabio Felline, nearly-man Zdenek Stybar or the exciting all-round talent of Primoz Roglic. In fact, even the retired Tom Boonen doesn't even scrape through on sentimental grounds: he was on course but then plummeted quicker than you can say "puncture in the Taaienberg".
So, without further ado, and in reverse order, here is the Top Ten Men of the Spring…
10. Michael Albasini – Orica-Scott (NEW ENTRY)
Much has been written of the mature nature of this season's stand-out riders but little has been said of Orica-Scott's Swiss veteran, who's enjoying something of a renaissance. Stage wins in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and, just this week, the Tour de Romandie have bookended a solid Ardennes week for Albasini who finished on the podium in Amstel Gold, in the top five at Fleche Wallonne and in the top 10 at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
9. Sergio Henao – Team Sky (NEW ENTRY)
A rousing performance in Paris-Nice saw the Colombian seize the yellow jersey after the queen stage before holding on one day later despite an enthralling last-ditch attack by Contador. Henao followed up his first ever stage race victory with solid performances in the Ardennes – showing just about enough to convince Sky he could win there if ever Alejandro Valverde decides to retire. Given his results, Henao should make the Sky plane to France in July provided he sorts out his passport prior to travelling.
8. Daniel Oss – BMC Racing Team (WILDCARD)
A glance through Oss' results (which, for the most part, are in the triple figures) is enough for eyebrows to be raised at the frizzy-haired Italian's inclusion on any top ten list other than a must-do-better one. But his stellar ride off the front in Paris-Roubaix alone merits inclusion.
Rockstar Oss paved the way for Greg van Avermaet's victory and their emotional hug in the velodrome was perhaps the enduring image of the race. One wonders if Oss – who only has two minor pro wins to his name, both more than 5 years ago – will ever get the chance to ride for himself in a race like Roubaix. While he admitted afterwards that he "felt like a winner" we're sure the real thing would feel even better.
7. Dan Martin – Quick-Step Floors (BACK AFTER 4 YEARS)
If springtime has been cruel to the Irishman since his first Monument win in the 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, then this season has at least seen a return to form of sorts.
Sure, he missed out on his usual victory at La Molina in Catalunya but an early win in the Algarve showed that the legs – for all their ungainliness – still had it, while a strong showing in the Fleche and Liege indicate that Martin should win again there one day in the future. Indeed, were Valverde ever to call it a day than Martin would, in theory, sweep up in the Ardennes.
6. Julian Alaphilippe – Quick-Step Floors (UP 3 PLACES)
Such were the 24-year-old's performances in the mountain time trial at Mont Brouilly in Paris-Nice that Christian Prudhomme was left gushing at how "We've just seen the birth of a champion". Alaphilippe beat Contador that day and went on to wear the yellow jersey until the queen stage, where he lost it on the highest ever finish in the Race to the Sun atop the Col de la Couillole.
His ability to hold on over the big climbs may be an obstacle to Alaphilippe ever winning a Grand Tour but the Frenchman showed his one-day pedigree with third place in Milan-Sanremo a fortnight later. Alaphilippe reacted first to Sagan's attack on the Poggio and dragged eventual winner Michal Kwiatkowski back onto the wheel of the world champion. In his first appearance in the race, Alaphilippe proved that he could triumph on the Via Roma. It's just a shame that injury ruled him out of the Ardennes.
5. Damien Gaudin – Armee de Terre (STEALTH NEW ENTRY)
You'll be hard pressed to see a more animated celebration than that carried out by Gaudin on crossing the line to take Tro-Bro Leon, the hipster's Paris-Roubaix. The bulky Frenchman looked as excitable as your younger brother on a wedding dancefloor after one too many shandies.
But it's not hard to understand his elation: a week earlier Gaudin couldn't even bring himself to watch as Greg van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar – the two riders who finished above and behind his fifth place in the 2013 Paris-Roubaix – battled for the cobblestone trophy.
Being forced to drop down three tiers to the Continental team of the French army after Ag2R-La Mondiale didn't extend his contract meant the 30-year-old's ambitions of one day winning Roubaix are on hold. A victory over the unpaved gravel farm tracks of Brittany momentarily made up for it, though, as did, no doubt, seeing Ag2R-La Mondiale's best rider finishing outside the top 20.
Following his stage win in the earlier Tour de Normandie, Gaudin's Tro-Bro Leon scalp means he's already doubled his pro victory count in less than a month. There was no sign of the usual prize piglet on the podium, with Gaudin instead awarded a Celtic trophy and, bizarrely, a painting of a lighthouse daubed on the back of an old wooden door. As for the zinger of a kit – surely one of the must-have camouflage items of 2017?
4. Michal Kwiatkowski – Team Sky (BACK IN FROM THE COLD)
If the Pole's first season at Sky was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster, then Kwiatkowski is at least making up for lost time in year two. Having finished runner-up to Roglic in the Algarve, Kwiato soloed to his second Strade Bianche victory in Siena before pulling the carpet from under Sagan's wheels on the Via Roma with a thrilling win in Milan-Sanremo. His Ardennes week wasn't too shabby either: second to Philippe Gilbert in Amstel, the 26-year-old top-tenned in the Fleche before making the Liege podium.
It remains to be seen what else Kwiatkowski can achieve this season and which of the Grand Tours Sky will allow him to ride. He's due a performance in Il Lombardia while winning a second rainbow jersey in Bergen should not be ruled out on this form.
3. Philippe Gilbert – Quick-Step Floors (NEW ENTRY)
Would he have won the Ronde had Sagan not taken himself and the strongest rider out by riding too close to the barriers? It's impossible to tell. Probably not. But then again, by riding on the front of the race you're putting yourself in a better position than having to undergo a frantic chase behind.
Gilbert's extraordinary Tour of Flanders win was nothing short of legendary, the 34-year-old powering away on the Kwaremont with 55km remaining and never looking back. The only thing more amazing than the attack itself is the fact that it was carried out by Gilbert, a rider who sank from world champion to practical obscurity while in the black and red of BMC. Indeed, the veteran Belgian being snapped up by Quick-Step on a rolling contract with performance-related bonuses now seems like the transfer of the winter.
Six years after his last Monument win, Gilbert put in perhaps the performance of the season so far to win the Ronde – and did so off the back of winning Three Days of De Panne and notching two podium places in Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke. And just to show that it wasn't mere fluke, Gilbert rolled back the years to take a fourth Amstel Gold win – and did so with a torn kidney. We'd say eat your heart out, Tyler Hamilton – but that would just be too offal.
2. Greg van Avermaet – BMC Racing Team (UP 7 PLACES)
Remember the days when you couldn't read an article about van Avermaet without at least two bridesmaid references? Well, GVA's barnstorming rides since last year's Tour de France means the 31-year-old has very much divorced himself from these tired quips.
After victories in Omloop, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, van Avermaet was brought back down to earth with a bang by Sagan in the Tour of Flanders – but still managed to remount and lead a thrilling chase on his old foe, Gilbert. One week later, the Flandrien finally got a monumental monkey off his back with his first major classics victory in 37 attempts.
Far from being laid out on a plate for him, van Avermaet was made to work for his Paris-Roubaix win – overcoming a crash and early mechanical difficulties to fight back into contention before winning a dramatic five-way sprint in the Roubaix velodrome to prove that cobbles and GVA are a marriage made in heaven. Performances in the Ardennes were less eye-catching – and for that reason, van Avermaet narrowly misses out on the coveted top spot.
1. Alejandro Valverde – Movistar (UP 4 PLACES)
At the rate he's going, Spanish veteran Valverde may just start to miss out on podium places in the Ardennes classics in 2021, one year after he channels Chris Horner to win the Vuelta a Espana aged 41.
But enough of the conjecture; let's look at the facts. Valverde, who turned 37 this week, has notched 11 wins this season – including overall victories in the Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco stage races, and in the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege classics.
In 26 race days so far this season, Valverde has finished outside the top ten on just eight – yes, eight – occasions. In fact, besides his 49th place in the Trofeo Palma back in January, his lowest position in a race has been 19th. And that was while warming up for his Ardennes double in the Amstel Gold.
Such is the Spaniard's stellar form that it seems a shame that it's team-mate Nairo Quintana and not Valverde who is riding the Giro d'Italia next month. Instead, Valverde will support the Colombian in the Tour before leading Movistar at his home Vuelta. He'll then no doubt repeat it all again – drawing level with Eddy Merckx with five wins in La Doyenne before adding yet another record-stretching sixth win in the Fleche.
His fans say he's ageing like a fine wine; his critics claim he's hanging around like a bad smell. We here at Eurosport just think he's a very fine bike racer who will leave an irreplaceable void when he finally decides to call it a day – in five years' time.
Read the original article on Eurosport: Blazin' Saddles: Ranking the top 10 men of the Spring Classics