Twelve riders for 2012. Some are riders you will be familiar with, some you might have forgotten about and maybe you will read about some for the first time below.
First up, six established riders who are worth watching for in 2012 to see if they can confirm results from the past year.
Jelle Vanendert: loyalty is the word. He was a vital lieutenant for Philippe Gilbert’s annus mirabilis but decided to stay with Lotto because apparently he promised his kid brother Dennis he’d ride with him, instead of moving to BMC with Gilbert. His form was surprising, after not winning a race since 2007, he took a stage win in the Tour de France and another second place, both in the high mountains and wore the King of the Mountains jersey. We’ll see if he can win more for himself or if he becomes a useful support for Lotto’s main GC hope, Jurgen Van den Broeck.
Chris Froome: arguably the most improved rider this year, it’ll be interesting to watch what he does in 2012. Just repeating the same kind of performance in the Vuelta would be huge but with more support and confidence, how far can he go?
Rein Taaramäe: 12th overall in the Tour de France, fourth overall in Paris-Nice and a stage win in the Vuelta, Taaramäe continues his progress from prospective talent to real winner. It’ll be interesting to see if this trajectory can continue, certainly his Cofidis team will be counting on this and if the Estonian can achieve more in 2012 then a bigger contract and a stronger team await.
Dan Martin: a stage racer or a one day rider? A gifted climber with a Gilbert-esque tolerance of lactic acid, the Irishman finished the season in ninth place on the UCI rankings. A stage of the Vuelta, he took a string of podium places throughout the season. A methodical and intelligent rider, we’ll see if he can win more in 2012.
Pierre Rolland: after an outstanding Tour de France many will ask what he can do in 2012. But in fact he’s already been the-next-big-thing in French cycling after winning his very first race as a pro in 2007 and going to claim a few wins including the King of the Mountains jersey in the Dauphiné stage race. Nevertheless, the attention from the Tour de France this year was something else and we’ll see how he copes with the pressure, the first test should be Paris-Nice.
Thomas Voeckler: Voeckler’s made a career of going in breakaways on hilly days and once in a while, winning. A modus operandi if you like. But now his riding in the Tour de France means few will want to let him get up the road. Yet I suspect he’ll struggle to become an ice-cool stage racer who saves energy at every opportunity, his temperament won’t allow it. So I’m interested to see both how he does and also how the peloton treats him.
I’m going to use a wide definition that includes any rider on a neo-pro contract, in other words this can include a rider who rode as a pro during 2011 and has another year to go under the label in 2012.
Bart De Clercq: you’ve probably forgotten but De Clerq won a very impressive stage of the Giro d’Italia. I’ve included the video clip above. Stage 7 had a substantial uphill finish on Montevergine di Mercogliano. Not steep, but when De Clerq jumped away with 7km to go he stayed away to win the stage. Analyse this for a moment and he managed – solo – to hold off a chasing pack with all the race’s top riders going full gas. On a climb like this it means he was putting out massive numbers whilst the chasers could benefit from slipstreaming, especially thanks to the work done by Lampre. He only started riding a bike in 2008 so there’s surely a lot more to come.
Diego Ulissi: another Giro stage winner, Ulissi is talked about as the new version of Paolo Bettini. The similarities in style and size are obvious and in fact Ulissi is from the same Tuscan town as Bettini. He was outfoxed by Thomas Voeckler in the final stage of Paris-Nice but come the Giro and he beat Giovanni Visconti in a close sprint.
Andrea Guardini: eleven wins in 2011, outstanding for a neo-pro although Marcel Kittel won more and took bigger wins. Still they say Guardini could become Mark Cavendish’s biggest rival and the styles are similar, an aero position on the bike and a style that seems to come from the track. His biggest limit is his team, the Farnese Vini squad aren’t even sure of a ride in the Giro but are counting on Guardini to secure them race entries. His more modest team though means he gets time to learn his craft, in fact plenty of time since he’s signed a contract extension through to the end of 2013 already.
Nikita Novikov: the Russian has joined Vacansoleil, a strange story. Novikov has arguably been the most complete amateur in Europe this season, with wins on the track and in the high mountains alike. You’d think the self-appointed Russian Global Cycling Project would be offering countless roubles to hire Novikov, especially since he was on the Itera-Katusha team, Katusha’s development squad.
Luke Durbridge: “Durbo the Turbo” beat Marcel Kittel for a medal in the TT World Championships in Geelong back in 2010. Now we’ll see how he fares against Kittel and others in the pro ranks as he’s signed with Greenedge. The Aussie squad is packed with sprinters and we’ll how often he gets his chance – something Kittel didn’t worry about. At the same time, it means plenty of experienced riders to learn from and an atmosphere free of pressure.
Kenny Elissonde: a pure climber, Elissonde made a long breakaway and almost won the U-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège but was caught on the line. He delivered several other good rides in 2011 including winning the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard stage race in the Pyrenees and duly became a stagiaire with FDJ in August. Normally riders are tested to see how they fit in but Elissonde delivered results. As several big names were warming up for the Vuelta in the Tour of Burgos, Elissonde was twice in the front group in the mountains and took the best young rider whilst only 19.
Some names to watch but remember almost all neo-pros have been winning big across Europe in the amateur ranks. I didn’t mention FDJ’s U-23 world champion Arnaud Demare although the team expect wins from him right away; I didn’t mention Marcel Kittel because he is too obvious. There are many more, some have given some very good tips in the comments, I could pick 20 more.
There’s something I enjoy about watching new riders emerge and trying to spot the stars of tomorrow but a lot can happen to a rider in the early years of their career. The promise of new riders, a cast of new actors for the theatre of pro cycling, is as enticing as ever.