Which cyclist is more valuable: the Tour de France victor or the world champion? For decades, fans and media alike have argued over questions of this nature. Unlike mainstream American sports, pro cycling does not award a Most Valuable Player prize to its greatest champions. Instead, that title has been determined by debates on the group ride or at the pub.
In our annual Season Preview issue of VeloNews magazine, we were determined to rank the top 50 riders, male and female, based on their perceived value. We created a methodology that took into account race results, marketability, social following, teamwork, and other qualities. We then reached out to a group of experts to help us vote. We kept them anonymous to prevent personal relationships from swaying their votes. Our group of mystery voters included agents, team directors, Olympic champions, and even a grand tour winner or two. Their votes helped inform our final list, which was chosen by the VeloNews editorial team.
Did we get it right? It is up for debate — and that’s the point. Here are the pro men we ranked 11th-16th. Stay tuned for the rest of the rankings, and be sure to check out riders 6-10, riders 11-15, riders 16-20, and riders 21-25.
5. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
Greg Van Avermaet is finally coming into his own, after riding in the shadow of Tom Boonen for much of his early career. Though he only has one monument win to his name, his victory at the Rio Olympics started a wave of success that has yet to subside. His performance across last year’s classics season was among the best in history, and included victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix, as well as second at the Tour of Flanders. At home in Belgium, no one will soon replace Boonen. Nor will Van Avermaet ever have the personality to compete with the likes of Tommeke or the other Lions of Flanders who preceded him. Outside of Belgium, Van Avermaet now operates in the shadow of Peter Sagan, a rider with many of the same skills, but with gobs more charisma. With his BMC team rumored to end after 2018, Van Avermaet could front a team of his own — a story that would only increase his value.
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Only six riders in history have won all three grand tours. Vincenzo Nibali is the only one who is currently racing. But the Italian is not a one-dimensional specimen. He’s also a stalwart contender at one-day classics and has taken two Il Lombardia titles as well as Milano-Sanremo. Nibali’s immense value was confirmed in 2017 when he became the marquee signing of the new WorldTour team launched by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain. In the team’s first year, Nibali brought them two grand tour podium finishes — a worthy return on the investment, a reported three million Euro salary. Finally, what better compliment is there than to have Mario Cipollini, the former world champion known for his candor, say about you with respect to the Italian talent pool: “We only have Vincenzo. He is the only real talent at our disposal.”
3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
There are few riders in history with as prolific a career as Alejandro Valverde. Four Liège titles, five La Flèche Wallonne victories, a Vuelta overall win and nine stages, two Dauphine titles, and the list goes on and on. He has claimed 94 wins in total. For someone who isn’t a sprinter, that’s an enormous number. On ProCyclingStats’s all-time points list, he is ranked fourth, behind Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Bernard Hinault. Valverde wins when everyone expects him to win. That’s hard to do when the target is on your back. In 17 seasons, he has always been reliable.Valverde’s reputation took a hit after he was suspended in the Operacíon Puerto fiasco. It never returned in the United States, but in Europe, Valverde is still wildly popular. He has 392,000 followers on Twitter and 66,000 on Instagram. Finally, late in his career, he has mastered the balancing act of winning his target races, then sacrificing his chances to help his teammates be their best at their target races. Do some fans arch their eyebrows at his late-career greatness? Sure. And Valverde keeps winning.
2. Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Let’s start with the obvious: If Chris Froome fails to clear his name of any wrongdoing in his salbutamol case, he could plummet down this list (or be left off altogether).
There are no denying Froome’s qualities: He is one of the greatest grand tour riders in history and shows no signs of slowing down. He is the star athlete for the world’s richest and most successful cycling team. Assuming he’s allowed to race them, he stands a good chance of completing the Giro-Tour sweep — something Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana both failed to do in recent years. His personable, gentlemanly nature give him star quality in the United Kingdom. He was granted Order of the British Empire status in 2016. This year he was nominated for both the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and Laureus World Sportsman of the Year. (He did not win either.) Froome has tremendous value for sponsors — he almost singlehandedly made the Turbine nasal dilator a conversation topic at last year’s Tour. His reported five million Euro salary is perhaps the second largest in all of cycling; with the exposure he brings, it’s worth every cent.
1. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
It was unanimous.
It was undisputed.
It wasn’t even close. Peter Sagan earned top billing on every list submitted by our mystery voters, and he was also the top pick by every member of the VeloNews staff. Credit his rotating hairstyles, his post-race wheelies, and his viral videos on YouTube. Credit his three world championship kits and five Tour de France green jerseys. Credit his impressive collection of personal endorsements, and his 975,000 followers on Instagram. Peter Sagan is the most valuable rider in the peloton, hands down. The six million Euros that his Bora-Hansgrohe team pays him each year — Sagan is worth every one. And Sagan’s undisputed value comes on the heels of perhaps the most disappointing season of his young career. Indeed, the 2017 season was a year to forget for the Slovakian, due to his various blunders during the Belgian classics and his ejection from the Tour de France. Yet in 2017 Sagan defied cycling’s rules of popularity — he got more attention with worse results. Sagan’s Tour expulsion was the biggest story of the season. His crash at Flanders was more newsworthy than Philippe Gilbert’s victory. Does anybody care that Sagan has fewer monument wins than John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, and Dan Martin? Of course not. Sagan appears to understand the weight of his celebrity. In 2016 he agreed to market a little-known sports hydration company, Osmo Nutrition, to help rescue the product from financial ruin. “Peter’s participation saved the brand,” says owner Ben Capron. His decision to move from Tinkoff to Bora-Hansgrohe elevated that team from obscurity to the pinnacle of popularity. This fall, his participation in one charity ride for victims of California’s wildfires raised $70,000 in a few hours. To Sagan, his Midas touch seems to be part of a game, some greater mission to entertain his fans. Win or lose, Sagan is having fun. “We are actors,” Sagan said during the 2016 Tour de France. “No, we are artists.”