In a climb-heavy race of attrition, is Alejandro Valverde so different from the constantly maturing and evolving Romain Bardet, Michael Woods and Tom Dumoulin?
It was a question I was asking myself after the conclusion of the 258.5 kilometre men's road world championship Sunday in Innsbruck.
I believe the answer is in the negative. If this season has shown anything, it is that certain riders can oscillate between riding GC and taking a leadership role in some of the toughest one-day races. Winning such events is not mutually exclusive.
If we take Liège-Bastogne-Liège as a benchmark - widely considered to be the most athletically challenging of the five Monuments - Bardet, runner-up to Valverde in Innsbruck, out of six participations, has finished four times in the top 10 at La Doyenne including third place this year. Earlier in March, the twice podium finisher at the Tour de France took a big step in extending his one-day credentials when he ran second to Tiesj Benoot of Lotto-Soudal at Strade Bianche. At the Giro di Lombardia, the next most rigorous Monument in terms of metres gained, from four outings, the 27-year-old finished a career-best fourth place in 2016 (behind winner Esteban Chaves).
Four years his senior but racing the WorldTour for less than half the time of Bardet, at 31, former 400-metre runner Woods, third on Sunday, is only beginning to come of age in his current metier. At last year's Vuelta a España, just his second Grand Tour, the Canadian finished seventh in Madrid. And he clearly has a liking for L-B-L because out of the four Monuments he's ridden three have been in the former - following up his ninth place in 2017 with a superb ride on April 22 this year, where he was runner-up to Bob Jungels of Quick-Step Floors.
Aside from individual time trial victories at the Giro d'Italia and Tour, Dumoulin, the remaining member of the front group in Innsbruck, may not have won big but probably had his most consistent season to date. He's notched no less than seven second places including second overall at the Giro and Tour, and second in the team time trial and ITT in Innsbruck. Last season he started to branch out and won the BinckBank Tour (formerly the Eneco Tour) in August, a race normally the domain of some of the finest Classic specialists whose recent winners include Edvald Boassen Hagen, Lars Boom, Zdeněk Štybar, Tim Wellens and Niki Terpstra. A fortnight before he finished fourth at the Clásica Ciclista San Sebastian behind Michal Kwiatkowski, Tony Gallopin and Bauke Mollema. It clearly did him no harm with his Grand Tour or time trial ambitions, since he won the Giro and was both individual and team trial world champion in Bergen, Norway.
Unsurprisingly for a rider of his make-up, like Bardet and Woods, Dumoulin has a proclivity towards Liège or Lombardia when it comes to the Classics: out of the 16 Monuments on his resume he's ridden L-B-L and Lombardia six and five times respectively. As far as results go none have been particularly noteworthy, although this year and last, solid placings at Liège, held less than two weeks before the start of the Giro, provided a portent of what was to come from the charismatic Dutchman, who is just two days younger than Bardet.
Despite having finished fourth at Liège in 2017 - the year Valverde last won; notably, Matthews finished ahead of Bardet and Woods - he was never considered for a support role either, which he was clearly prepared to do.
Now that he's won the Worlds there's little point going through the palmarès of Valverde other than to say he's won just about everything for a rider of his calibre. For the sake of this argument, let's focus on Grand Tours and the aforementioned Monuments: in the former, seven podiums including overall victory at the 2009 Vuelta; in the latter, seven podiums including four wins at L-B-L, and two podiums, both runner-up places, at Lombardia.
By any reckoning an incredible record for the evergreen 38-year-old. What separates Valverde from those who finished second to fourth Sunday, however, is not so much his age but his finishing speed, which one could say is responsible for at least three-quarters of the 122 wins he's amassed over a 17-year pro career.
It's precisely why Australia should have taken Michael Matthews to Innsbruck.
In fact, they didn't even need to arrange travel because he was already there as part of Team Sunweb's team time trial formation, where, the Sunday before last, they finished second to Quick-Step Floors. "Michael was never considered for a leader role on this course given the profile," technical director Bradley McGee told Cycling Central. Despite having finished fourth at Liège in 2017 - the year Valverde last won, followed by Dan Martin and Kwiatkowski; notably, Matthews finished ahead of Bardet and Woods - he was never considered for a support role either, which he was clearly prepared to do: "With one of my best friends, Richie Porte, being the leader this year, I really wanted to go there to support him with every bit of energy I had," he told Cyclingnews the weekend before he won both the GP de Québec and Montréal, three weeks out from the men's world championship road race.
Matthews said he received the 'thanks, but no thanks' call just before the start of the BinckBank Tour. He finished second there while riding support for his team-mate Søren Andersen, which also included a final stage win that brought him within five seconds of overall victory. When it was announced Porte had withdrawn due to illness, the Australian selectors decided to elevate Simon Clarke and Jack Haig into the vacant role, and add Nick Schultz, the 24-year-old Queenslander from Pro Continental team Caja Rural who joins Mitchelton-Scott next year, as a climbing domestique.
History has shown experience counts for a lot at the world championships. Australia had a reasonably experienced team but they lacked an experienced leader in Innsbruck. Clarke, who did not finish, is far better as a captain; Haig rode creditably to finish as the best Australian in 19th but needs a few more years and a few more opportunities before he can podium at this level. Without a favourite in their midst, and therefore no onus to control proceedings or chase breakaways, Australia didn't need such a large support network.
Matthews rightly said "I'm probably the second-most-consistent rider at the Worlds in the past four years". His track record; his proven leadership ability; despite a Tour left wanting due to illness, his excellent form leading up to the Worlds; and his preparedness to work for others should have been enough to warrant his inclusion - if not the first occasion, then certainly the second when Porte withdrew himself.
Having turned 28 a few days ago and thus 10 years Valverde's junior, like Bardet, Woods and Dumoulin, the Canberran is still very much in the process of discovering his limits, and finding new ones.
Would he have been there? Could he have improved Australia's fortunes? Sadly, for this year at least, we'll never know.