Who was better than the rest?: The top 10 riders of the 2023 men's racing season

There were plenty of standout performances this year

There’s a developing consensus that we are currently living through a golden age in men’s cycling. The current generation has changed the way cycling is approached, and rarely has there been an era in which so many talented, charismatic and entertaining stars have had the peak years of their careers all coincide.

The big wins aren’t being shared around so much as they used to, with a smaller elite of stars hoarding the top honours, and facing off against each other in races throughout the season across a variety of terrain, rather than specialise and target a narrow range. 

As such, it’s hard to pick who the very best rider of 2023 was, given just how many made history with their achievements this year. So, here’s who we’ve decided were the standout performers.

10. Wout van Aert

When Wout van Aert gifted victory to Jumbo-Visma team-mate Christophe Laporte in March, he couldn't have anticipated how wins would come at such a premium for him throughout the rest of the year. He’d started the season in the same vein as his stellar 2022, winning the E3 Saxo Classic just days before Gent-Wevelgem, but was left with frustrating third and fourth place finishes respectively at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, then endured a winless Tour de France before having to settle for another World Championships silver medal at the road race in Glasgow. It was a run of consistently high finishes that reinforced his status as one of the world’s best, but it is some climbdown from the heady heights reached in previous seasons.

9. Mads Pedersen

Were his career not coinciding with a golden generation of Classics stars, Mads Pedersen would surely receive far more recognition than he does. He held his own against the so-called Big Three of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar in the biggest races of the season, only just missing out on podium finishes at their expense at the World Championships and Paris-Roubaix, and smartly stole a march on them at the Tour of Flanders to take third. These were very impressive performances, but it was his seven wins that really made Pedersen’s season such a success — especially his sprint wins at the Giro d’italia and Tour de France, which made him the only rider to claim stages in both races this year.

Image: SWPix.com

8. Adam Yates

Moving to UAE Team Emirates turned out to be a resounding success for Adam Yates, who enjoyed the best season of his career, and elevated to one of the best climbers in the world. The Tour de France was the highlight, where he not only held the yellow jersey for a few days and provided great support for team-mate leader Tadej Pogačar in his battle against Jonas Vingegaard, but even proved himself a genuine co-leader, eventually finishing third behind the big two for a career-first podium at a Grand Tour. On top of that, he also won one of the biggest stage race titles and Classics victories of his career at the Tour de Romandie and GP de Montréal.

7. Remco Evenepoel

In many ways, Remco Evenepoel continued in the same vain that saw him crowned rider of the year in 2022, defending his titles at both the Liège–Bastogne–Liège and San Sebastián Classics with similarly extravagant attacks and swapping his status as world road champion for time trial champion in Glasgow. Yet this season is still a step down from the imperious standards he set last year due to his failure to repeat the overall victory at a Grand Tour as he achieved at the Vuelta a España last year, whether because of ill-fortune (catching Covid while in the pink jersey at the Giro), or plain bad legs (falling out of the top ten at the Vuelta after cracking on the Tourmalet). 

Nevertheless, the hunger he showed in bouncing back from the latter disappointment to attack constantly and win two stunning stage wins from long-range breakaways was seriously impressive, not just in how it extended his overall season total to 13 victories but in the way that he continued to commit to doing things his own way and ride in his inimitable aggressive manner. 

Image: Unipublic

6. Jasper Philipsen

There hasn’t been a clear best sprinter in the peloton for a fair while, with wins in bunch finishes being spread across multiple evenly-matched stars in recent years. Until now. In 2023, Jasper Philipsen reached a level of unstoppability in the bunch finishes not seen since the eras of peak Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel, best epitomised by his run of winning four out of five of the sprints at the Tour de France, plus the green jersey to boot. And despite being the world’s fastest finisher, he proved himself to be much more than just a pure sprinter — many of his nineteen victories (incidentally, the highest season haul of any rider for almost a decade) came in the tricky cobbled terrain of the Belgian semi-Classics, and he even recorded a completely unexpected runner-up finish at Paris-Roubaix. 

5. Primož Roglič

There wasn't a single stage race in 2023 that Primož Roglič featured in which he was not part of the winning team. The Slovenian began the year in roaring form with a run of overall victories that began at Tirreno-Adriatico and Volta a Catalunya (including multiple stage wins in both) and culminated with the Giro d’Italia, a result that might go down as the very best of his illustrious career. He continued in the same vein during the summer with overall victory upon his return at the Vuelta a Burgos, and his winning streak was only ended when he was obliged to play a support role for his Jumbo-Visma team-mate Sepp Kuss at the Vuelta a España and settle for third-place overall. 

It was a result that clearly provoked mixed feelings for Roglič, who believed he could have won the race for himself had he been granted the licence to do so by his team; but in any case, it capped off a year that marked a major return to form following a frustrating 2022, and was arguably his best yet. 

Image: SWPix.com

4. Tadej Pogačar

Tadej Pogačar is surely the best rider in the world, as evidenced by another prolific year, which saw everything from the Tour of Flanders and Il Lombardia Monuments to the Paris-Nice stage race included among his wide-ranging list of seventeen victories. But this was not the best season of 2023, mostly because of a crash which prevented him from gunning for a third Monument at Liège–Bastogne–Liège that he was favourite to win, forced him to miss two months of racing and probably played a major role in his defeat to Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France. “Without my fractured wrist, my season would have been perfect,” he said back in September, and it’s worth remembering that by anyone else’s standards, his record of achieving a rare double in two such contrasting Monuments while still making the podium at the Tour de France, would be considered extraordinary. 

3. Sepp Kuss

For Sepp Kuss, a great year usually involves helping team-mates to win Grand Tours, so to have been a key part of the Jumbo-Visma line-ups that saw Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard triumph at the Giro and Tour, respectively, meant that even by the end of July, his 2023 had been a resounding success. Of course, Kuss did not stop there, as the following race saw him defy all expectations and transcend his usual role as super-domestique to win the Vuelta a España. Ever the selfless worker, the American took delight merely in completing Jumbo-Visma’s unprecedented Grand Tour clean sweep, but from a personal perspective, this victory was an undisputed career high that he was never expected to crest and expanded the horizons of what he might yet achieve in the future. 

Image: Unipublic

2. Mathieu van der Poel

As much as Mathieu van der Poel astonished us all with the spectacular riders during his first few years as a professional on the road, there was always a feeling that he too often squandered great legs through mistakes and tactical mishaps. He’s a changed man now, though, and his 2023 season was characterised by how ruthlessly he executed all of his major season goals. A leaner race program meant fewer victories — just six, in fact, fewer than any previous season apart from the Covid-curtailed 2020. But half of those victories were made up of Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and the World Championships, an unprecedented hat-trick that puts the Dutchman firmly in the history books as only the fourth rider (along with Tom Boonen, Rik Van Looy, and Eddie Merckx) to win two Monuments and a worlds road race in the same season. 

Remembering how significant a role he played in leading out Alpecin-Deceuninck team-mate Jasper Philipsen to four sprint wins at the Tour de France, the only time he didn’t come out on top in the year’s major races was against a rampaging Tadej Pogačar at the Tour of Flanders, which, with the exception of one even more successful rider (see below), sets him apart from every other from the sport’s elite.

1. Jonas Vingegaard

For the second year running, Jonas Vingegaard ends the season as Tour de France champion, but these past twelve months have also seen the Danish rider develop into so much more. Whereas then he was more of a conservative rider who won through a measured approach, peaking only in time for the Tour de France, he’s now turned into a seal winner, also triumphing at the Izulia and Critérium du Dauphiné stage races with an exhilarating front-foot approach. The stats tell the story: his total of fifteen victories in 2023 was bettered only by Tadej Pogačar and Jasper Philipsen and more than doubles his career tally, which stood at just twelve at the start of the year. 

Image: SWPix.com

It wasn’t just what and how much he won that was so impressive, but also the manner in which he won. What had been shaping up to be one of the closest Tour de France contests ever between himself and Pogačar turned into a thrashing after Vingegaard obliterated him in the Combloux time trial at the end of the third week, and his ultimate winning margin on GC of 7-29 was the biggest in almost a decade. And whereas last year he pretty much ended his season after the Tour, this time he hungrily targeted the Vuelta a España too, which, though he didn’t win himself, goes down as yet another success as he was runner-up behind only team-mate Sepp Kuss.

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