Ten riders to watch this year. Some are suggestions of rising talent to keep an eye on, others will be familiar names but with their own challenges.
The hard part is picking ten riders among a vast cast of characters and the multiple plot lines tha help make the sport so compelling. Still, let’s get a move on…
In a relatively quiet transfer market, Richard Carapaz was probably the biggest move, switching from Ineos to EF Education. It’s notable as a grand tour contender leaves the triumvirate of UAE, Ineos and Jumbo-Visma. Second in the Giro, he came back for the Vuelta and when the GC bid fell apart in the opening days he still won three stages. Carapaz’s problem, if we can call it as such, is that he can likely finish on the podium of a grand tour but the top step is elusive. It’s probably why Ineos let him go, for them a podium might be satisfying, yet tinged with disappointment for the old days; at EF it’s a huge result. The top stop isn’t beyond him either because he’s tenacious to hang with the best and while others mark each other he can slip away, it’s practically his modus operandi. Not for him a regular attack on the steepest ramp of a summit finish, instead he’ll sneak off on a false flat. Changing teams can mean integrating into a new environment but he’s done Movistar and Ineos and will find two Ecuadorians and more Spanish-speakers. His season’s likely to revolve around the Tour but his team will be grateful if he can take points in other summer stage races long the way. Team mates Neilson Powless and Andrea Piccolo are also interesting to follow this year.
Carlos Rodriguez is on the rise at Ineos and finished seventh in the Vuelta last year, a result that could have been higher were it not for a crash that left him raw and sore. Still 21 – until February – he’s starting his fourth season as a pro. Last year saw him take his first two wins, the Spanish national championship and a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country. Put this together and we already have the picture of someone with precious endurance and the ability to win. So what comes next? Continued progress in stage races including in time trials as he’s on course to become the complete package. There’s talk of a move to Movistar but if he’s that good, would Ineos let him go? Watch for the burgeoning rivalry with UAE’s Juan Ayuso, both have plenty in common as they’re wise and eloquent already but we’ll see if sections of Spanish media try to build them up as opposing characters. Likewise Thymen Arensman joins Ineos and could take on leadership roles soon.
Danish cycling is on the up and Matthias Skjelmose is a pick for a rising talent in hilly races. The Trek-Segafredo rider might not be a familiar name, even to readers of a dedicated cycling blog, but in six stages races last year he finished no lower than fifth overall. A nice stat but let’s note the range, second in the mountainous Tour de l’Ain one week, third in his home Tour of Denmark the next week thanks to second place in the TT stage. So the 22 year old can climb and TT and we saw it all in the Tour of Luxembourg, floating on the climbs and flying in the time trial on his way to the overall win. Repeating these results would be decent but we’ll see if he can translate more podiums into wins and how he can do on slightly harder stage races.
Quinten Hermans finished second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year, a result you can’t fluke and got a string of other results including second to Marco Haller in the Bemer Classics race in Germany, and ahead of Wout van Aert. He has been popping up here and there in hilly races and showing a handy sprint from a small group. Long a dedicated cyclo-cross racer, there’s more to the world than the quagmire of Belgian municipal parks and he can bring range to Alpecin-Fenix which is a team very much suited to flatter races as Hermans can place on shorter climbs. Maybe the Flèche Wallonne is too much but look for a wall here or there.
Many of the top teams aren’t just packed with top talent, they’re congested as riders can find it hard to get opportunities for themselves sometimes. Some who work for a leader could perhaps themselves lead another team. For Eddie Dunbar just working for a leader was proving hard, he wanted to ride the Giro last year but didn’t make the selection. Now the Irish rider’s signed with Jayco-Al Ula in order to do what his new management call a “grandie” and get his chances at a win along the way. We’ve seen him at the front end in races but taking on leadership and then delivering results isn’t the next step, it can be a leap. Also his new team doesn’t race on every front all the time, the kind of races Dunbar could thrive in, like hilly one day races in Italy or medium mountain stage races in France or Spain aren’t always on the team’s schedule.
Mark Cavendish is after that Tour de France stage record. Yet what if he doesn’t get it, does his career end with a flop, a bum note? Not really, his palmarès is so extensive that most will have him down as the greatest ever sprinter, as said before here the only races he hasn’t won are Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours and they’ve changed with more climbs and off road sections. Still the narrative this year will be all around the binary question of whether he can surpass Eddy Merckx’s tally of Tour stage wins or not. Achieve the record and it’ll be a remarkable story, even more so because – as of today at least – he’s still starting the season without a team and building a lead out and developing their split second reflexes take time. In many ways the only thing that counts is one Tour stage win but expect every result between now and July to be analysed for clues. Beyond all this there’s all the question of what comes next, his love for the sport and attention to detail suggests there’s a team manager in the making.
Julian Alaphilippe as the double world champion back in his normal jersey. His contract runs to the end of 2024 but for a star any deal on a renewal or transfer is likely to be shaped or even done in the coming 12 months. The best way to increase your value is to become a grand tour contender and a spell in yellow would be ideal too, certainly the latter option’s on the cards for the Tour de France Basque beginning. Patrick Lefevere raided his piggybank to retain Alaphilippe in 2019 but he went public with criticism recently, the Belgian manager is a trained accountant and openly moved the Frenchman on his ledger to the liability column, even if Alaphilippe’s troubles have been down to accidents and injury but it’s likely Evenepoel is both the focus of Lefevere attention and budget and race programme. We’ll see how much he can shape his future, he’s 30 now and the trademark jack-in-the-box explosivity might be harder to find. Still, as the photo above shows at his best he can beat Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pogačar combined.
Arnaud De Lie had a great start to his pro career, all those wins and placings meant Lotto-Soudal were close to staying in the World Tour until late in the season; without him they’d be floundering. Sometimes it was the manner of his wins, the unrefined brute force in an uphill finish was like early Peter Sagan. Yet he’s kept his feet on the ground, literally as he still helps out on the family farm. He gave a vintage interview to L’Equipe the other day that could have been by Poulidor or Pinot, saying he saw no point in moving to Monaco, and if he ever felt like a change of scenery all he needed was the village fête or to drop by the nearby Libramont fair… an agricultural trade show. But already there are voices saying he needs to focus on cycling, that time spent shovelling manure is recovery time forsaken. He’s also the Walloon heir to Philippe Gilbert and can learn lessons from him about how to manage this label. In short can he build on last year’s success and show in the World Tour races?
Biniam Girmay because the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert team can look like a bunch of happy-go-lucky raiders looking for long shot results but in Girmay they’ve got someone they can bank on. He’s capable of making the selection in the cobbled classics and then winning from the sprint, he suggested this in the E3 last year and confirmed with the win in Gent-Wevelgem days later; plus he smoked Mathieu van der Poel in the Giro. He’s got the range to win sprints and get over short climbs. The team can probably still try some breakaway efforts, there’s no harm in having Taco van der Hoorn up the road but how much can they play these wild moves when they have Girmay is something to look out for. He’s up for riding the Tour de France but this year’s route doesn’t have many of what we’d have called a “Sagan stage” a few years ago, one of those uphill finishes where the heavyset sprinters might struggle but the Worlds just after might suit. Yes being Eritrean is interesting but it’s still something for us all to fathom, as cycling fans we admire the scenery, the fans fervour for the sport and the emerging talents but we should be aware it’s a secretive, totalitarian regime as well.
The final pick is Thibaut Pinot who’s just announced he’ll retire at the end of the year after 14 seasons as a pro, all at FDJ. He’s had his highs and lows, it’s this blend that has made following him so compelling over the years and there’s every chance that this continues this year, there might well be a setback, sometimes that’s been a precondition for an ensuing highlight. He’s down to ride the Giro but given all the time trials a win on GC looks tough but a high finish and a prestigious mountain stage win is possible. As we saw the Tour last summer he was making the breakaways but converting this into a win is a big ask. Still if he can select his days in May it could pay off leaving him with energy to spare come July too and he can leave the sport “by the big door” as they say in French.
As ever to pick ten is to leave out hundreds of other stories. Mathieu van der Poel brings excitement but can he also keep up the consistent results? Can Wout van Aert finally win the Ronde or Roubaix? Is Primož Roglič over his injuries? After crashes and illness, can Kasper Asgreen turn things around and is Quickstep still the Wolfpack on the pavé? Tom Pidcock’s been the third man of cyclo-cross this winter, pointing out he’s much lighter than his beefier rivals but does this give him range in road races, he’s still a blank canvas when it comes to the road who can strike from Sanremo to Liège. One huge question is whether Egan Bernal can recover? During the pandemic lockdowns Eurosport showed Tour de France highlights and one that was worth watching again and again was Lilian Calmejane 2017 stage win but that’s a long time ago, can he find winning ways at Intermarché? Can Marc Hirschi discover the form of old? Fred Wright is due a breakthrough win. Samuele Battistella is just one to watch but there’s one Astana rider above already, the Iron Man of Castelfranco Veneto won the U23 World Championships in 2019 and has been getting consistent results in time trials and on hilly courses. Peter Sagan says he’s over his Covid complications, will results follow? When can the likes of Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan Hart find their opportunities? Is Fabio Jakobsen going to rule the sprint roost? How much can Tim Merlier win as Quickstep’s second sprinter? Will Fernando Gaviria find winning ways with Movistar or is he on the slide? Even if Guillaume Martin remains artistically erratic, can he find winning ways?