Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen kicked-off the run to the cobbled monuments with a gutsy solo win for Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra. Now all eyes turn to the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem, two races who have seen quite a bit of change over the past few years. Traditionally held a week and a day before the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Prijs was considered by most to be the final check-point for riders hoping to win the Ronde. With many of the Ronde’s key climbs included over the E3’s 203-kilometer parcours, it provided both training and reconnaissance for riders hoping to be at their best the following weekend.
Then came Ghent-Wevelgem’s move to the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders, a move that forced teams and riders to choose between the two legendary events (many would start both, only to abandon one or the other at the first feed zone, angering both organizers and fans). The E3’s organizers soon cried foul, worryied that Ghent-Wevelgem’s World Tour status would attract the best competitors. So a deal was struck and the E3 was granted World Tour status for 2012—in exchange for a new date on Friday. Is it the best solution? Probably not. (I personally preferred the traditional Ronde-Ghent-Roubaix “Holy Week” format.) But it appears to have worked this year as the start lists of both events are jam-packed with star power—which also makes it a bit easier for pundits to preview both races simultaneously.
So without further ado, here’s my rundown of favorites for the weekend—with riders ranked according to my confidence in their ability to come through with at least one win.
Tom Boonen – Omega Pharma-Quick Steps’ Tom Boonen is the top favorite for this weekend’s races—both of them—for three simple reasons:
1. His current form is par with that during the best springs of his career.
2. He’s won the E3 Prijs four times and Ghent-Wevelgem twice—including last year’s edition.
3. He rides for the strongest team in both races with Sylvain Chavanel, Dwars-winner Niki Terpstra, and a full complement of able-bodied domestiques at his disposal.
Of course, Boonen might choose to “disguise” his fitness in favor of next weekend’s Monument—then again, he won the E3 and/or the Ronde and Roubaix on two occasions.
Sep Vanmarcke – Of all the riders taking part in this weekend’s races, I’m most excited to see what last year’s E3 Prijs fourth-place finisher, Garmin-Barracuda’s Sep Vanmarcke, can do. Vanmarcke announced himself as a main contender in this year’s cobbled classics by beating none other than Tom Boonen to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He then finished fifth behind Boonen after make the critical split during the windy Stage 2 of Paris-Nice. In Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, the young Belgian laid down an attack on the Oude Kwaremont that blew the peloton apart.
John Degenkolb – I’m going way out on a limb here: Project 1t4i’s Degenkolb took fifth in Milan-San Remo but should be even better this weekend in Belgium. A sprinter who is quickly becoming a classics challenger, I see Degenkolb as Boonen’s top challenger in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem. Even thought Marcel Kittel starts alongside him, I think harder parcours at Ghent will suit Degenkolb more. He has also proven himself over the Flemish bergs and stones, while Kittel is a bit more of a cobbled unknown.
Fabian Cancellara – If cycling were truly an individual sport, Cancellara would easily be a 5-Kite favorite. But as we’ve seen, his lack of a teammate talented enough able to draw some attention away from him has hurt Spartacus’ chances in major races. Daniele Bennati’s the team’s best bet currently, he rode a perfect race in support of Cancellara at L’Eroica (a race which Cancellara won) and finished second to Tom Boonen at Ghent-Wevelgem last year. I suspect we’ll see Cancellara do his best to win his third consecutive E3 Prijs Friday, before spending at least the first half of the race Sunday working for his Italian colleague.
Filippo Pozzato – After sixth-place finishes in both Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Farnese Vini’s Filippo Pozzato looks to have rediscovered the form that won him the E3 Prijs in 2009. Pozzato easily followed Vanmarcke’s Kwaremont surge during the Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen and has the added benefit of an in-form Oscar Gatto serving as his lieutenant. While a win would hardly be a surprise, the Italian might choose a more tranquillo approach to the weekend, hiding his good legs until next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Matti Breschel – After a disastrous 2011, Breschel looks to have regained the form he displayed in 2010 when he won Dwars door Vlaanderen and was arguably the strongest rider in the race at Ghent-Wevelgem. Perhaps more importantly, Breschel’s Rabobank team displayed its ability to control the front of the a Saturday at Milan-San Remo, something the Dane will certainly appreciate this weekend. With Lars Boom, Carlos Barredo, and Mark Renshaw (Sunday only), racing as well, there will certainly be enough men in orange to prevent Breschel from being marked exclusively.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire is on the start lists of both events this weekend, but it’s safe to say that his best chance for a win will come Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he won in 2008. Freire’s enjoyed a good season so far but fell a bit short in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. Katusha will likely back Luca Paolini in the E3 Prijs, while the talented young sprinter Denis Galymzianov provides a solid back-up plan on Sunday should Freire falter.
Peter Sagan – Sagan’s also on the list for both races for team Liquigas-Cannondale, but like Freire, the Slovakian a better candidate for Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem than Friday’s E3 Prijs. Sagan’s underwhelmed during his cobbled excursions thus far in his career, but could take his first Flemish scalp Sunday should the course not prove too difficult for him. Daniel Oss is another Liquigas rider to watch—he finished fifth in Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010 and ninth in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. That said, he and Sagan will need to communicate if the team is to be successful—meaning one rider will have to willingly take a backseat to the other.
BMC – Aside from Alessandro Ballan, BMC has done little over the past two weeks to warrant serious consideration as a contender for this weekend’s races. Philippe Gilbert is still recovering from a sickness from Tirreno. Thor Hushovd has adjusted his program after missing both Milan-San Remo and the Volta Catalunya but is clearly racing to train. Even Greg Van Avermaet has Achilles issues. On a positive note: George Hincapie finished with the leading peloton at Milan-San Remo, a good sign for a rider who often flies under the radar until just the right moment. I’d expect to see the team back Ballan in E3 and Big George Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem. Adam Blythe bears watching Sunday as well, as does Marcus Burghardt. With such a star-studded roster, who’s going to grab the bottles?
Tyler Farrar – Garmin-Barracuda’s Tyler Farrar took third in Ghent-Wevelgem last year behind Boonen and Bennati. Still winless in 2012, at Ghent-Wevelgem he has the undivided support of a strong Garmin-Barracuda squad that includes lead-out specialists Robbie Hunter and Murilo Fischer along with David Millar and Johan Van Summeren to cover breakaways.
Stijn Devolder, Bjorn Leukemans, and Marco Marcato – Vacansoleil brings three riders capable of bringing home the team’s first win in a major cobbled classic. Devolder’s the biggest wild card here—he spent the last two season dodging criticism after back-to-back Ronde wins in 2008 and 2009. Leukemans has become one of the most quietly consistent cobbled specialists in the sport without a victory—could he be this year’s Nick Nuyens? As for Marcato, he’s an aggressive rider who can handle himself in the hills and in small group sprints. Look for him to stick his nose out in front at least once over the course of the weekend.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol took a big hit with the crash of Jurgen Roelandts in the Tour Down Under as he was their best for hillier cobbled races—he finished second in the E3 Prijs last year. On Sunday, Andre Greipel is the team’s best chance to score an important home victory at Ghent-Wevelgem. He’ll have the team entirely at his disposal—they should find plenty of help from other squads hoping for a bunch kick as well.
Matthew Goss – Before he won grand tour stages and Milan-San Remo, GreenEdge’s Matt Goss was considered a star-to-be for the cobbled classics. That said, not much has come of it since his third-place finish at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2009. Assuming he’s timed his peak a bit later than last year, Goss could continue GreenEdge’s World Tour run with a win Sunday.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – Team Sky’s EBH was the last to win Ghent-Wevelgem on a Wednesday—back in 2008. At Tirreno he appeared to be at his best once again, but the Norwegian rode an anonymous Milan-San Remo. Assuming he’s over whatever caused his early exit from Tirreno and flat performance Saturday, he could be one of the best this weekend—especially on Sunday.
Juan Antonio Flecha – If the start list is accurate and he’s only riding Ghent-Wevelgem, don’t expect to see Flecha as a major protagonist Sunday—especially with both Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen lining up beside him. It’s more likely that Flecha’s using the weekend more for training purposes—he knows these roads like the back of his hand and would certainly trade a weekend of teamwork for the sake of their unquestioned support at the Ronde and Roubaix.
Arnaud Demare – The current U23 road race champion from FDJ makes the first World Tour starts of his career this weekend. A talented sprinter, he’s hoping for a high finish in Ghent-Wevelgem.
Lloyd Mondory – Another Frenchman, Ag2r’s Mondory has been steadily proving himself to be a skilled rider in cobbled races. He made Wednesday’s select chase group and has a good chance to at least repeat his fifth-place finish in last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem.
Jose Joaquin Rojas – Aside from Flecha, it’s been a long time since we’ve Spaniards to watch in a cobbled classic. That said, Movistar’s Rojas possesses a powerful sprint and the ability to make important selections in tough races. Ghent-Wevelgem is just his cup of tea.
Kris Boeckmans – With seven top-10 finishes so far in 2012, Vacansoleil’s Kris Boeckmans could finish in the top-10 Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem. Without Leukemans and Devolder taking the start and teams with more favored sprinters doing the lion’s share of the work, he should have a relatively easy ride to the finish—if such a thing is possible in a race like Ghent-Wevelgem.
Oscar Gatto – He’ll likely spend most of the weekend working for Pozatto, but Farnese Vini’s Oscar Gatto is just the type of rider to make Friday’s winning breakaway—and finish third.
Jens Keukelaire – Those who were watching Dwars door Vlaanderen might have witnessed the transformation of GreenEdge’s Jens Keukelaire from a field sprinter to a classics rider. Let’s see if this weekend proves it was no fluke.
The usual protagonists will all be present and accounted for, but this weekend will continue the anointing of two new heroes as Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke wins the E3 Prijs and Project 1t4i’s John Degenkolb wins Ghent-Wevelgem.
Enjoy the races!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
In the eyes of most fans, the season officially begins this Saturday with the 67th edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—to be followed Sunday by the 65th running of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
In Saturday’s 200-kilometer “Omloop”, expect to see the leading breakaway form with about 20-kilometers remaining—just after a difficult stretch including the race’s third passage over the Haaghoek’s cobbles, climbs of the LeBerg and the Molenberg, and the cobbles of the Paddestraat, the Lippenhovestraat, and the Lange Munte. In all, that’s two climbs and about 8.5-kilometers of pave jammed into one 20-kilometer section of race.
On Sunday, while many will try to shake things up over the course of the 195-kilometer semi-classic, look for things to come back together for a field sprint. And should a breakaway succeed, expect the weather and a perhaps a handful of smaller teams (Professional Continental squads with nothing to lose) to have played a role..
When it comes to picking the favorites for the weekend, several things must be considered. First, many riders bring two captains—one for Saturday and another (usually a sprinter) for Sunday. Second, of the riders taking part in both races, one must consider in which of the two races the rider is more likely to play a major role. Going deep to win the race Saturday indicates a possibly lesser showing (or non-start) on Sunday—and vice versa. Lastly, it’s also a bit early to have a good idea of which riders are strongest; for many contenders, this is only their second racing weekend of the season.
Luckily, several teams have chosen not to make the trip (RadioShack-Nissan and Liquigas, for example). They’ve decided to make their cobbled debuts later in the spring—this narrows things down a bit.
So let’s take a look at the men to watch this weekend. Riders have been listed with their favored race in parentheses. (Disclaimer: Riders have been included according to the start lists available as of Thursday, 2/23—there can and will be changes.)
Tom Boonen (Omloop/Kuurne) – Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen has won just about every important race on the Belgian calendar—except the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The race’s early date might have something to do with it. After all, Boonen’s a rider accustomed to peaking for races in late-March and early-April; going “too deep” to win the Omloop might be something he’s been less than willing to do—in the past. This year, I suspect that Boonen wants to get a head start on the criticism that has dogged him throughout past two seasons. He’s in terrific shape, he rides for one of the strongest teams in the race, and his confidence is brimming after a fantastic first month of racing—he’s the man to beat Saturday.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Omloop) – Flecha’s finished third, first, and second in the last three editions of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. And as his third-place finish in the Tour of Qatar indicates, there’s little reason to believe he won’t put in another podium performance Saturday. Even better for Flecha, Edvald Boasson Hagen won’t be racing due to the flu. The Norwegian’s presence certainly would have prevented other teams from marking Flecha exclusively, but Flecha’s not the kind of rider—and the Omloop is not the kind of race—where that would have made a tremendous difference. If anything, Flecha will ride with more confidence—and perhaps aggression—knowing that he has his team’s unanimous support.
Andre Greipel (Kuurne) – Greipel is the top favorite for Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, an event much more suited to his talents than Saturday’s Omloop. In 2011, Greipel finished third in Kuurne and fourth in Ghent-Wevelgem, so he clearly knows what it takes to win on tight Belgian roads. Better yet, he’ll have the undivided support of his Lotto-Belisol team as Jurgen Roelandts is out until early summer following a nasty crash at the Tour Down Under.
Greg Van Avermaet (Omloop/Kuurne) – Of the all-stars lining up for Team BMC this weekend, Greg Van Avermaet’s the rider most likely to emerge victorious. Van Avermaet’s best Omloop finish was fourth in 2009, but he’s at the top of his game following a terrific 2011. Perhaps a bit miffed that his team signed not one but two classics superstars, Van Avermaet knows he needs to take advantage of his opportunities when they arise—Saturday’s one of them. And should things not go his way in the Omloop, he’s also a more than capable sprinter with the talent to contend Sunday as well.
Mark Cavendish (Kuurne) – If he starts the race, Cavendish is a favorite to take the win Sunday in Kuurne. He’s without question one of the two or three best pure sprinters in the world, and he leads a Team Sky squad that’s powerful and experienced—as evidenced by their Kuurne victory last season. That said, Cavendish came out of the Tour of Qatar fatigued and battered following a bout with the flu and crash—there might be some cobwebs. Cold weather won’t help either.
Matti Breschel (Omloop) – After a dominant cobbled campaign in 2009, Denmark’s Matti Breschel missed last year’s races due to injury. He returns this year, fresh and ready to lead his Rabobank squad in what he hopes will be his team’s second consecutive Omloop victory. Breschel’s showed himself to be coming along quite nicely in early races, and is clearly his team’s best bet for Saturday.
Philippe Gilbert/Thor Hushovd (Omloop)– These two former winners have had quiet seasons thus far. And while they could easily prove me wrong, I suspect both are looking further ahead into the spring. The Omloop is a race many riders have used to announce themselves as major cobbled contenders. Thus, several riders have won it once or twice and then gone on to bigger and better victories. Gilbert and Thor have both had their turns at the Omloop (Gilbert twice). While their fans would love to see them on the podium’s top step Saturday, they would happily trade a victory now for a more important one later. Then again, Gilbert is the reigning Champion—a victory would be a fantastic way to open the Belgian year.
Heinrich Haussler/Tyler Farrar (Omloop/Kuurne) – The top of the Garmin-Barracuda food chain is a bit clearer now that Thor Hushovd has departed for BMC. Or is it? With Haussler, Johan Van Summeren, Martijn Maaskant, Ramunas Navardauskas (more on him later), and Sep Vanmarcke all taking the start Saturday, Garmin has at least five riders (I didn’t even mention Andreas Klier) that could play a crucial role. Then again, that’s just the way Vaughters likes it. After all, it’s easy to mark a rider out of race when he is his team’s undisputed captain; the more cards you have to play, the better your chances of winning. As for Sunday, Farrar will lead the way after a day off Saturday, which makes sense in a race that more often than not ends in a bunch sprint.
John Degenkolb (Omloop & Kuurne) – While Marcel Kittel’s been winning races, Project 1T4i’s John Degenkolb has been slowly riding his way into shape—and he’s just the type of rider to watch in both events this weekend. Last year, Degenkolb finished 12th in the Omloop—the last man in the first wave of riders to finish the race in what amounted to horrible conditions. While Degenkolb won the majority of his races as a sprinter, it’s clear to everyone that he’s more destined for the cobbled classics. He’ll have his first shot to lead a team in one Saturday. As I said earlier, the Omloop is a race that often announces the arrival of new champions—is Degenkolb next?
Yauheni Hutarovich (Kuurne) – FDJ-Big Mat’s Yauheni Hutarovich is often overlooked in most race previews, but somehow he always comes through with a result—in certain kinds races, at least. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is one of them: hard, fast, cold, and likely to end in a group sprint. The Belarusian finished second in Kuurne last year. Expect to see him among the first five Sunday.
Taylor Phinney (Kuurne) – A field sprinter with the power and stamina to survive a long, hard cobble event, Phinney’s getting his first taste of riding the classics with the big boys this weekend—he’ll be on the starting line both days. Assuming he comes through the Omloop with something left in the tank, he has to be considered a contender in Kuurne on Sunday.
Sebastian Langeveld(Omloop) – GreenEdge’s Sebastian Langeveld won last year’s Omloop, but looks to be a bit more of a long shot this year after an unlucky spring filled with sickness and crashes. Still, experience counts for a lot in the cobbled classics, and Langeveld has several seasons of fine Flemish results on his resume.
Denis Galymzyanov (Kuurne) – Katusha’s Denis Galymzyanov took the biggest win of his career at last year’s Paris-Brussels, a race somewhat similar to Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. If he wins Sunday, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise as he possesses a powerful finishing kick and feels at home on Belgian roads.
Greg Henderson/Chris Sutton (Kuurne) – These two former teammates might find themselves in a position to win Sunday’s race should their captains falter. Sutton won the race last year, but will need a bad day (or a non-start) from Cavendish to be given an opportunity to repeat his 2011 victory. As for Henderson, his move to Lotto-Belisol is one of the big reasons why Greipel’s won so many races so far this season. He’s an able-bodied Plan B should Greipel find himself missing a step Sunday.
Ramunas Navadauskas (Omloop) – If you’re in the UK, go ahead and drop a fiver on Navadauskas. His U23 resume is filled with impressive results in amateur classics, he is an accomplished sprinter/time trialist, and he rides for a team with enough depth to put him in the perfect strategic situation to take a win (a place similar to where Van Summeren found himself in last year’s Paris-Roubaix). Say what you like about Jonathan Vaughters, but he certainly knows how to spot talent. Navardauskas could prove to be one his best finds yet.
Luca Paolini (Omloop) – The 41st Law of Cosmic Reality states: thou shalt not discount the chances of Luca Paolini in any race he enters. Trust me.
Daniele Colli (Kuurne) – The Italian from Team Type 1 – Sanofi recently finished second to Elia Viviani at the Reggio Calabria two-day in Italy. A sprinter who has only one professional victory on his rather long resume, Colli’s not likely to win, but could certainly squeak his way into the top-5.
Niko Eeckhout (Kuurne) – The 42nd Law of Cosmic Reality states: An Post’s Niko Eeckhout must be mentioned as a contender in any Belgian semi-classic he enters. After all, his nickname is “Rambo.”
So there you have it—my list of contenders for the season’s first big weekend. Share your picks and predictions below.
And look for me on Twitter during the race Saturday: @whityost.
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International