If Road Cycling Had an NFL-Style Draft, Who Would Be the #1 Pick?
The NFL Draft starts Thursday night and runs through the weekend. Teams in America’s professional football league will select the stars of tomorrow in a seven-round draft of the top collegiate talent. The worst teams from last season get to pick first in hopes of finding a player that can alter the direction of these franchises.
It doesn’t quite work like that in cycling. Instead, talent is scouted and riders are signed at a young age. Every team doesn’t necessarily have the opportunity to select these future stars. But it got us here at Bicycling thinking: what if there was an NFL-style draft for road cycling? What if we removed all the riders from their respective teams and re-drafted them onto new teams? Who would be the first overall pick if you were trying to build the best team in the WorldTour?
We looked at five top picks (five women and five men) for a hypothetical cycling draft. Who would you select with the No. 1 overall pick? Who are we sleeping on? Who’s underrated? Overrated?
Here’s some pre-draft analysis of the top road cyclists.
Kopecky, like her SD Worx teammate Demi Vollering (more on her below), is off to a roaring start in the 2023 season. She won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Nokere Koerse, and the Tour of Flanders, the latter of which for the second straight season. She’s an absolute force in the classics, and the 27-year-old would be a solid choice at No. 1.
Ellen van Dijk
Van Dijk announced earlier this year that is expecting her first child and will miss the 2023 season. But that shouldn’t stop you from considering taking her with the first pick. The three-time world time trial champion also holds the hour record. Talk about strength. While her speciality lies in the TT, van Dijk has proven to be a solid all around rider throughout her long career. She’s already targeting the 2024 Olympics and a gold medal in Paris would surely be an achievement that any team would welcome.
The 26-year-old Dutch rider is coming off a 2022 season that saw her finish second at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes (the winner, Annemiek van Vleuten, has announced 2023 would be her final season and, therefore, didn’t crack our list). Already, she’s proving that her 2023 season could be even better than last. Vollering has already won five one-day races in 2023, and looks like she’s in a good spot to chase the GC at the TdF. She’s a strong climber and a great tactician. All things considered, she’d make for a great first overall pick.
The list of her palmarès is too much to list, but Vos has firmly established herself as a legend of cycling. She’s been an incredible ambassador for the sport. At 35, she’s still worth a first overall pick. Vos, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the road race, won two stages at last year’s Tour de France Femmes and wore the yellow jersey for five of the eight stages. Vos continues to be a force in the peloton, and she’s showing little sign of slowing down.
Wiebes was the first-ever wearer of the yellow jersey in the inaugural Tour de France Femmes last year. Why? Because she’s the best pure sprinter in the world. Wiebes stormed to the win in Stage 1 of the TdF on the flat and fast Champs-Élysées last summer. She’s currently on a deep SD Worx squad, which doesn’t always fully show off her skillset. But imagine if a team decided to build a sprint powerhouse around Wiebes, complete with strong domestiques to reel in breakaways and a top-notch leadout to catapult her to one-day race and stage wins? Sounds like it’s worth a top pick to me.
The NFL Draft is all about future potential. Few young riders were more hyped-up at a young age than Evenepoel, and the now-23-year-old Belgian has responded to that hype by living up to it. He’s won Liège–Bastogne–Liège in back-to-back years, took home the 2022 Vuelta a España, and blew away the field en route to his first world title at this past fall’s UCI Road World Championships. The scariest part is wondering just how much of that potential he has yet to unlock. Maybe you should pick him first overall and find out.
Pogačar has already won the Tour de France twice, and won three of the five Monuments (Giro di Lombardia in 2021 and 2022, Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2021, and the Tour of Flanders in 2023). He’s a bonafide superstar that has proven he can climb as good as anyone ever has in the high mountains and put down powerful accelerations in the classics. At just 24, Pogačar figures to be a dominant force in men’s cycling for a long time. His fun-loving personality makes him a hit with the media and fans—he’d be a slam dunk first pick.
Mathieu van der Poel
Van der Poel, 28, has been on a tear in 2023, most recently winning the Super Bowl of the classics, Paris-Roubaix. He’s a tremendous bike handler and a top-notch sprinter. Van der Poel is straight-up the toughest rider to beat when you’re faced off head-to-head with him. You really can’t go wrong with him as your top pick. While we narrowed this draft to “road-only” it doesn’t hurt to mention that he’s a five-time cyclocross world champion. (Sure, if you draft him, you can also enjoy his ’cross palmarès).
Wout van Aert
NFL Draft analysts will talk all weekend long about the importance of versatility—the dual-threat quarterback, the tackle that can also play guard, or the wide receiver that can also return punts. Van Aert is like if your star running back could also play defense…and then kick field goals. Van Aert is a sprinter, a classics rider, a time trialist, and even a climber all in one. He’s won sprint stages, as well as a Mont Ventoux stage at the Tour de France. Like Van der Poel, he’s also a multi-time cyclocross world champion. He’s also proven throughout his career to be a consummate teammate on the stacked Jumbo-Visma squad.
The 2022 Tour de France champion may not have the versatility as the other first overall pick hopefuls we’ve listed here, but the thing about this 26-year-old Dane is that he’s the best in the world at main skill—climbing. Vingegaard proved at last year’s Tour de France to simply be the best pure climber in the world. As cycling fights for wider audiences, the TdF remains the event that “casuals” care the most about. Why not pick the rider best positioned to chase his second straight GC title at the Tour this year and in the coming years?
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