A look at ten riders to watch this year. They’re not all hot tips to fly up the rankings, some are picked to see how they or their team can handle questions and challenges ahead and to build on past achievements.
Tadej Pogačar and what do you do for an encore? His predecessor on the Champs Elysées, Egan Bernal, is a cautionary tale: the Colombian won the Tour de France and looked set to dominate stage racing but hasn’t, a reminder that just winning once is a remarkable feat and success is not automatic even though it’s a trait in pro cycling that wins get banked fast and questions quickly turn to what comes next. Assuming Pogačar can stay injury-free and not get too distracted by his growing fortune and status – BIG assumptions – the question is how to win the Tour de France again? The course has two flat time trials for starters but he can’t hide in plain sight any more, already rival teams like Jumbo-Visma were talking about taking multiple leaders to the Tour so they can force Pogačar to respond to moves and do the old one-two attack and if sans Dumoulin this isn’t so obvious the fact that it was the plan shows what a threat Pogačar is to Jumbo-Visma and Ineos. The first test is the UAE Tour because its his team’s home race and with the Tour de France winner on their books they don’t want to disappoint. He’s only 22 but a win here and he could vanish like a submarine for months and emerge for the Tour de France.
Arnaud Démare won more races than anyone else in 2020 and now tries to parlay this confidence into an even bigger season with Tour de France sprint stages as the grand goal. One secret of his success last year was a total focus on the sprints, when in previous seasons he’d also tried to focus on the cobbled classics and so trained for longer efforts on the climbs. Several sprinters manage this, think Alexander Kristoff or Peter Sagan; others don’t like Pascal Ackermann or Caleb Ewan and Démare’s trying to become a pure sprinter. Only he’s still much more versatile than almost every other sprint rival, he topped the tables last year because of this and several of his wins last year were on hilly courses where he beat the likes of Philippe Gilbert or Michael Matthews, plus he won the French championships after riding down Julian Alaphilippe. Thanks to a powerful leadout train – Milano-Torino was a masterpiece – he can win the big bunch sprints but there’s the risk he falls between two stools this season and a Tour stage against the world’s best is a big ask but achievable. Watch to see how he does in Paris-Nice for starters.
Ineos’s biggest problem this year is there only three grand tours. They could start with co-leaders in the Giro, Tour and Vuelta and still some riders might feel left out. So where does Tao Geoghegan Hart fit in? Does he go back to the Giro or to the Tour de France, as planned for 2020? The answer should be the Tour de France, it’s what he wanted to do last year. Only it’s all more interesting that office politics, it’s about what can happen on the road. TGH featured here as a neo-pro to watch for 2017 and was interesting because he hadn’t come from the British Cycling track cycling conveyor belt but at the same time turned pro already looking like the polished item. He’s made steady progress ever since and seems suited to the third week of a grand tour, if the Giro was an upset it wasn’t an accident. Look for him in support of
Egan Bernal Geraint Thomas this July and maybe to see what he can do along the way before and after.
After TGH Jai Hindley’s an obvious one to watch but let’s go away from the easy ideas and follow Lucas Hamilton instead. Because when Geoghegan Hart first took time on his GC rivals in the Giro last year it was when he clipped away with Hamilton at Roccaraso. It was only a few seconds and they weren’t essential riders to mark but still, they rode away on a summit finish. Only we never saw what could have been because Hamilton’s team pulled out of the Giro after the first rest day. He’s had some good results over the years and while many eyes were on Jack Haig, Hamilton’s probably had the better results. He’ll turn 25 in a few days’ time and look to see if he can win mountain stages and place high on GC or if he’s deployed as Simon Yates’s mountain lieutenant. All this with Bike Exchange’s funding secured to the end of next year but that sets off a ticking clock for the entire squad as there are no guarantees beyond.
I Know What You Did Last Summer was a 1997 horror movie, only for Sep Kuss last summer was more of a fairy tale. We know he won a stage of the Dauphiné in impressive manner and then rode the Tour and Vuelta in support of Primož Roglič and if it wasn’t for team duties he looked as if he could have won stages along the way too, in part because of the effortless look on his face all the time, as if some Botox rictus prevented him from changing facial expression. Now he and Jumbo-Visma management want to see what he can do when given the chance, in a similar way to George Bennett too. Only there’s the paradox that the more Kuss succeeds, the more it’ll cost Jumbo-Visma to retain his services as his contract’s up. But that’s still a second order tale, the more interesting stories will be where he gets to race for himself and what role he plays alongside the team’s leaders Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk now that Tom Dumoulin has paused his career. Kuss though is a pure climber and so any stage race success is likely to depend on a high ratio of mountains to time trials.
Groupama-FDJ are so very French but have made some shrewd foreign signings in recent years, think of Stefan Küng, Ramon Sinkeldam and Miles Scotson. Next could be Attila Valter, hired out of the wreckage of the CCC team and the Hungarian rider is a promising rider for hilly and mountainous races, a potential stage race winner even. It’ll be interesting to see where he races, whether he becomes part of the entourage for Thibaut Pinot or David Gaudu or if he gets his chance in other races starting with smaller week-long tests. Another rider to watch this year is Tobias Foss at Jumbo-Visma and Valter has got the better of him several times.
Can Nils Politt win a spring classic, or will he just prove invaluable to Bora-Hansgrohe? One unremarked trend is the rise of German pro cycling, the demise of the T-Mobile and Milram teams left a gap but things look to be on much more sound foundations now, at least as long as Bora can keep on selling extractor fans with the likes of Emu Buchmann and Lennard Kämna closing in on stage race podiums and Pascal Ackermann capable of winning sprints at the highest level. Now comes another classics contender to win Paris-Roubaix after John Degenkolb. Politt’s been a very visible rider, in part because of his sheer size as he towers over other riders but it should be interesting to see what he can do now with Bora-Hansgrohe after serving out the last year of his old Katusha contract with the Israel team. He’ll be another ace to play in the spring classics and could be just what Peter Sagan needs in the final hour of racing.
Jasper Philipsen had a perfect start to his career with a win in the Tour Down Under and then had to wait 18 months before a win in the Tour du Limousin and a Vuelta stage late last year. Signing for UAE Emirates helped ease some pressure for the “new Tom Boonen” (of course, as he’s from the same town) but also meant he was an obvious pick for the spring classics and he duly got a very heavy programme for a neo-pro. Now he’s left the World Tour for Alpecin-Fenix, hardly a demotion. The question is how he’ll fit in as the team have the sprints and uphill dashes covered thanks to Tim Merlier and a certain Mathieu van der Poel, you have thought the team could have spent the budget on a climber. But he should be a good signing precisely because he overlaps, Philipsen can ensure all expectations aren’t on MvdP and provide an extra tactical card to play; and for a team that wants to race on all fronts he’s capable of winning when others are resting.
At Deceuninck-Quickstep Joao Almeida’s an obvious pick to see what he can do in week-long stage races, to convert his ability in medium length uphill finishes into wins and whether he can improve for the very long climbs but maybe the answers will take time and perhaps a transfer for 2022. So let’s look at Andrea Bagioli instead as he could be even better in uphill sprints. He collected several wins as a neo-pro last year including beating Primož Roglič in an uphill sprint in France and Diego Ulissi in an uphill sprint in Italy, a privilege few enjoy and Bagioli did it at the age of 21. So look for more of this in 2021.
Anton Palzer (photo from his website) will join Bora-Hansgrohe in April, perhaps because the snow will have melted by then. He’s a skier by background but we’re talking skimo as in ski-mountaineering, not for him a lift to the top so he can slide down, he races uphill and down. Then “Toni” spends the summer running over mountains and setting records for going up ski jump ramps, as well as cycling and by several accounts has an impressive Vo2 Max. Yes there’s a gimmicky side and if he doesn’t succeed in cycling he’ll have still got plenty of publicity for him and the team, indeed it’s helped bring in Red Bull as a sponsor for the team too although they’ve yet to announce this formally. But looking far and wide for talent is a sound idea, it wasn’t that long ago that road teams recruiting mountain bikers like Jacob Fuglsang or Jean-Christophe Péraud was seen as leftfield and risky, and if Michael Woods can go from runner to cyclist, why not Palzer too?
- As ever picking ten means leaving out hundreds. Chris Froome’s recovery will be interesting to watch, especially because Israel have built a team around him. Likewise Remco Evenpoel hopes to takes aim at a grand tour but in both cases to pick them was really to focus on the continued rehab, ditto Fabio Jakobsen and Dylan Groenewegen who have physical and mental challenges to overcome post Tour de Pologne. Romain Bardet’s swapped Ag2r for DSM (Sunweb) and what comes next, the Giro say the whispers but a GC bid with Jai Hindley too or stage-hunting? Does Julian Alaphilippe go back to the Tour of Flanders? What next for Mathieu van der Poel on and off the road? Vlasov? Quintana? Hirschi? Can Cavendish get just one win to bow out with? How do Ag2r Citroen fare given the big changes at the team? Movistar? Will DSM keep making clever moves? Are Intermarché-Wanty and Qhubeka-Assos going to get stomped on all season? Can Mads Pedersen get even better and will Guilio Ciccone start to fill Vincenzo Nibali’s Sidis? If the Olympics go ahead is it Ganna vs Dennis and the rest? There’s a lot to look out for…