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Commentary: Roglic and Bernal battle at Il Lombardia for rider of the year honors

Who has had a better season: Egan Bernal or Primoz Roglic? Il Lombardia could feature a showdown between the two stars of 2019.

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Pro cycling’s unofficial Rider of the Year honors could be settled this weekend in Italy in a heavyweight bout between Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Egan Bernal (Ineos).

The two top breakout riders of 2019 will go head-to-head for bragging rights at the Giro di Lombardia to close out what’s been the most-thrilling racing season fans have seen in years.

The pair rarely crossed swords this season, however, so Saturday’s battle across the steep mountains of northern Italy carries even more weight in what could help settle the ongoing debate of who was the best rider this season.

Judging top rider honors is always a contentious talking point at the end of every season. Sometimes it’s relatively straightforward — think Peter Sagan in 2016 or Bradley Wiggins in 2012. Sometimes, like this year, it all comes down to a personal bias.

Roglic has won more races in 2019, racking up victories from February through September, including the Vuelta a España win. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

After all, it’s hard to single out just one elite men’s rider as better than everyone else in the peloton in what’s been a racing season full of surprises, revelations and coming-of-age stories from January to October.

Behind Roglic and Bernal, there is another handful of standouts that deserve to be considered in the conversation. Two obvious names that jump out are Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus).

Alaphilippe was impeccable across the spring classics, and lit up the Tour de France like no French rider in decades. And van der Poel was sensational across his WorldTour debut. Only a rare, late-race short-circuit in the Yorkshire worlds last month even leaves the “best-of” honors up for debate. Had van der Poel taken the rainbow jersey, there wouldn’t be much of a discussion at all.

It doesn’t stop there. Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Jumbo), Richard Carapaz (Movistar) and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) all had phenomenal seasons for different reasons. Add Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Emirates), Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), well, it’s not an easy call.

That depth across the entire season is what’s making the highly subjective decision of “best rider” honors even trickier than usual.

What makes Lombardia decisive in this annual end-of-season deliberation is that Roglic and Bernal are hitting the season’s final monument riding high. The others are already hitting the beach or have pulled a plug on their respective seasons for one reason or another.

Roglic and Bernal are still racing, and still winning. That adds weight to the argument that one of these two deserves the honor.

How do they stack up? It’s not an easy call.

Both won a flurry of one-week races across the calendar, as well as taking their first respective grand tour overalls. This past week as part of Italy’s fall classics, each won their first major one-day races of their careers. They’ve been winning and performing consistently from the spring, to summer and into the fall.

Roglic, 29, and Bernal, 22, both surpassed personal expectations in dramatic fashion this season.

Roglic won four of five stage races he started in 2019 — including his first grand tour win at the Vuelta a España and third at the Giro d’Italia. Bernal won three of five stage races he started, including Paris-Nice, Tour de Suisse and, of course, the Tour de France.

Both have kept it going into the fall, with Roglic victorious twice over the past two weeks — Giro dell’Emilia and Tre Valli Varesine — while Bernal was untouchable Thursday at Gran Piemonte.

One way to measure “best of” honors is weighting the prestige of the victories.

Considering the one-week races, one could argue that Bernal takes the edge. Yet Roglic had a better run, winning all three stage races he started — UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie — before heading to the Giro. Bernal won Paris-Nice and Tour de Suisse, on paper more prestigious races, but was fourth at Tour Colombia and third at Volta a Catalunya.

Bernal, however, faced relatively thin fields at Paris-Nice, where he fended off compatriot Nairo Quintana. And at the Suisse tour, only Rohan Dennis’s strong time trialing made it close. Roglic had a dogfight to win Tirreno-Adriatico, beating back the likes of Adam Yates, Jakob Fuglsang and Tom Dumoulin. It was a much tighter affair at Romandie as well, where Roglic fended off Geraint Thomas and Rui Costa.

Bernal’s Tour de France was one of the most stunning victories in ages. Would a win at Il Lombardia make him the undisputed rider of the year? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

And then there’s the balance of the grand tours. Roglic raced two — finishing third in a very hotly contested and brutal Giro — and won at the Vuelta where he was largely in control despite serious pressure from Movistar.

Bernal made history as Colombia’s first Tour de France winner, but the fact that the final two mountain stages were truncated by foul weather puts a bit of a pall on Bernal’s win. There’s no way of knowing how the race would have turned out had the full distances been raced in the final climbs. As it turned out, Bernal won, and there’s no taking away from what it takes to win the Tour.

Does Roglic’s third at the Giro and victory at the Vuelta outweigh Bernal’s singular victory at the Tour? More fodder for debate.

Team strength is another important factor: is Bernal’s Tour win somehow diminished because he rode for Ineos, winners of six of the past seven yellow jerseys with three different riders? Yet Ineos was far from its best during the Tour, and Jumbo-Visma was on top during the Vuelta.

That’s what makes the Giro di Lombardia even more interesting is that they only raced together once all season at the Giro dell’Emilia on October 5. Roglic won, and Bernal was ninth.

There’s no question that both Roglic and Bernal had spectacular seasons. Choosing one over another isn’t necessarily fair, but it is fun to talk about, especially with the road racing season winding down.

So it all comes down to Saturday. In your opinion, who wins between Bernal and Roglic for the rider of the year honors?

Right now, it’s a toss-up.