Friday, January 10, 2014

Six First-Year U23s to Watch in 2014

With a new year upon us, there is new talent moving up from the junior ranks to the espoirs ranks and we will see if their results match their promise. As opposed to my magnum opus that was the U23 ABC's, I will be limiting myself to just six riders, ranked in no particular order. Boy, this is going to be a challenge...

Photo: @Toscana2013

There will be one big exclusion from this list even though he might be the strongest all-around rider that has come out of the junior ranks in a long time. After going undefeated as a junior in the 2012-13 cyclocross season that included a World Championship, Mathieu van der Poel won 13 races on road including the World Junior RR Championship. It was rare for him to be outside of the top 10 and even more for it to happen in two consecutive races. While he was one of the most dominant juniors on the road, he has said that he will be mainly focusing on cyclocross with the road taking a backseat for now. I'm sure he will be seen at U23 Nations Cups and other select events with his BKCP-Powerplus team.

1. Mads Pedersen (Denmark - CULT Energy Vital Water - 1995)

Next to van der Poel, Mads Pedersen has been the most consistent junior over the last two years on the international scene with 20 wins including 5 stage race overalls and a Paris-Roubaix Juniors. Pedersen is an all-arounder who has won in time trials, sprints, breakaways but is just a bit behind on the biggest climbs, which seem to be one of his only weaknesses at this point. He won Paris-Roubaix in a three-up ahead of Nathan Van Hooydonck and Tao Geoghegan Hart. He won the Junior Peace Race by making all of the important breakaways, crushing the time trial and winning a bunch sprint. In every stage race he entered this year, he won at least one stage. Even after Mathieu van der Poel broke away at the end of the Worlds RR, Pedersen won the bunch sprint just behind him. I've learned to take young, successful Danes with a grain of salt because of their propensity to not make it as pros. Need I mention riders such as Guldhamer, Vedel Kvist, Mads Christensen, etc. and the recent retirement of Peter Mathiesen, a talented Danish junior that won the Pays de Vaud in 2011 but lasted just one year in the senior ranks before calling it quits. It isn't a knock on the Danes by any means as they seem to want to do more than just sport but for people looking for a long-term investment, Pedersen will have more to prove as a U23 and beyond.

2. Hernán Aguirre (Colombia - 4-72 Colombia)

If Hernán Aguirre ever gets big and Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwan are still kicking around, I am sure there will be a mention of Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" because of the young Colombian's penchant for climbing. Aguirre hails from southwest Colombia from the province of Nariño, which is where former Tour de l'Avenir podium winner Juan Chamorro hails from. While he doesn't have a lot of international presence, Aguirre showed his wrath on the queen stage of the Vuelta del Porvenir Juniors (Junior Tour of Colombia), where he took the win solo and went on the win the overall, a race that has been won by Mauricio Ardila, Rigoberto Uran, Juan Mauricio Soler and Darwin Atapuma. He has signed with 4-72, which is a bright spot in Colombia as it is a on the bio-passport and uses modern training techniques thanks to the team's leader Luis Saldarriaga.

3. Tao Geoghegan Hart (UK - Bissell Development)

With the emergence of the Yates brothers, it is no surprise that the British junior ranks include some gems including Hackney Tao Geoghegan Hart. London isn't exactly known for producing racers but Tao is in good company as the most famous Hackney rider happens to be Brad Wiggins. Tao was originally competitive as a track cyclist but after some good results in 2012, he really stepped onto the scene in 2013 with the national team. His season started off as best as it could with a 3rd place in the Paris-Roubaix juniors, after making the breakaway with Mads Pedersen and future teammate Nathan Van Hooydonck. He then went on to win the hilly Tour of Istria after he made the selections and sprinted to a stage win out of a reduced bunch on stage 2. The results kept coming and Tao was always near the top 10 overall before he busted out at the Giro Internazionale della Lunigiana. At Lunigiana, he simply rode away from the front group on the uphill finish on the first stage and won by 5 seconds. On the queen stage, Tao marked Australian Robert Power and let Power take the stage win as Tao solidified his overall lead. After finishing 2nd again on the final stage, Tao won the overall, the KOM and points jersey, a might haul in a race that has been previously won by the likes of Bortolami, Simoni, Guerini, Bruseghin, Cunego, Nibali and Mohoric. Tao will join Bissell Development for 2014, where he will be one of four first year U23s that will be on the non-UCI roster but could get cracks at domestic US races along with races for their national teams. Look for Tao in hillier races, stage races along with any course that is demanding enough to seek out the best talent.

4. Nathan Van Hooydonck (Belgium - Bissell Development)

Many remember Edwig Van Hooydonck for his two emotional victories, which were the source for his Eddy Bosberg monicker, and for his early retirement, which happened just as the EPO era in cycling really took off. His nephew Nathan Van Hooydonck is keen to keep the family legacy going and has been using his uncle's success as a goal to aim at. Van Hooydonck began his cycling career in cyclocross but transitioned into the road and by the age of 15, he was working with a trainer. He was the Belgian Novice TT Champion in 2011 and his time trialling carried over into his juniors career. He was provincial champion in 2012 and 6th in the World Championships, just 19 seconds off the winner Oskar Svendsen. Also in his first year of the juniors, he podiumed the Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and the Belgium Junior RR (2nd). In 2013, his consistency only rose as he was all over the top 10 in one-day races as well as stage races. He was 2nd in Paris-Roubaix, 7th in the Peace Race, 4th in the GP Patton and Ronde van Vlaanderen. After a 2nd in the Belgian Junior TT Championship to future World Champion Igor DeCraene, he was 3rd in La Philippe Gilbert and won the Keizer der Juniores overall. According to an interview with Cafe Roubaix, his best moment of his season was at a regional race in Tollembeek, where he broke away solo and won by a hefty advantage of 2 minutes 40 seconds. The Belgian will follow the same path as his good friend Tao Geoghegan Hart and join Bissell Devo's club team because he is still having to finish school and traveling back and forth between the United States would make things a bit too difficult. Watch for a new Van Hooydonck to come to the classics sometime in the near future.

5. Elie Gesbert (France - Pays de Dinan)

Back in 1972, a then young rider from Bretagne won the French Junior National Road Race just a year after taking to cycling. Following a break for military service, the young man went on to do great things on a bike and his tenacity was a thing of legend. In 1995, a baby was born just six miles from where this cyclist, who had long been retired, hailed from on the jagged northern coast of Bretagne. 31 years after Bernard Hinault won his first tricolour, Elie Gesbert won the French Junior National Road Race in Albi in a style that would make Hinault proud. After a lead group had taken an advantage of 40 seconds, Gesbert attack with one lap left in the race and caught the leaders and dropped them to take a solo victory by 30 seconds. It was Gesbert's 2nd title in three days after he took out the French Junior TT by 20 seconds before the road race. After beginning with cyclocross, Gesbert was strong as a first year junior on the road in 2012 that included multiple domestic wins, a KOM jersey at the GP Rüebliland, a 10th overall Junior Peace Race Nations Cup and 15th in the Worlds TT in Valkenburg.

Following an appearance at Junior Cyclocross Worlds in Louisville that didn't go to plan (29th), Gesbert rested for a big 2013 campaign. He started off slow on the domestic front but built quickly and by sping, he was 5th in the Tour of Istria Nations Cup, 19 seconds of winner Geoghegan Hart, and 4th in the Junior Peace Race, where he took out the queen stage ahead of a select group. After being diagnosed with tendonitis in after the Peace Race, Gesbert was forced to take a break but this was probably beneficial in the long run. Come July, Gesbert was going toe to toe with Mathieu van der Poel and came 2nd to him in the Tour du Valromey, where he was the only rider to consistently stay with him including on the final stage, where they rode in tandem to the finish together and finished 1-2. The next week, he was 2nd in the demanding European Championships RR behind teammate Franck Bonnamour. His summer was just one more highlight after another; 4th overall in Le Trophée Centre Morbihan; an overall win in the Ronde des Vallées over the likes of the Russian National team and Julian Lino, son of Pascal Lino; his double Nationals wins; a 4th overall in the Giro di Basilicata, on the same time as Italian Lorenzo Rota and Australian Robert Power.

While he crashed in Junior Worlds, Gesbert finished his season with a 2nd in the Chrono des Nations Juniors behind World Champ Igor DeCraene. Gesbert is a jack-of-all-trades that can seemingly get it done on all types of terrain. Probably will develop as a rider for hillier one-day races and stage races but the U23s can be a strange trip. Remember Marcel Kittel was originally a stud TTer before even trying sprinting.

6. Logan Owen & Geoffrey Curran (USA - Bissell)

I know that this list is filled with Bissell kids but Axel Merckx vacuumed up a lot coming into 2014. Even though I spent a few days compiling this list, I couldn't decide between Logan Owen and Geoffrey Curran because both made a name for themselves in 2013.

Owen has been known for a while because of his cyclocross exploits but the Washington native has done well for himself on the road. As a first year junior, Owen finished 2nd in the US Junior RR and 2nd overall and a stage win in Vermont's Green Mountain Stage Race behind Tim Johnson. After a successful 'cross season, he was back on the road and in May, he finished 2nd overall at the Junior Peace Race thanks to a 3rd in the TT and making the selection on the queen stage. Owen returned to the US and won the final stage of the Mt. Hood Classic before heading to Wisconsin for Nationals, where he won the Junior Road Race and Criterium. Owen headed back over to Europe in late summer and spent time in the breakaway in the Keizer des Juniores stage race in the lead up to the World Championships. On great form, Owen came into the Florence Worlds RR with a bone to pick with rival Mathieu van der Poel, who he had only been able to beat once on the road. When van der Poel accelerated on the final uphill, Owen stuttered and had to wait for the bunch sprint, which he came 3rd in. While disappointing to miss the podium, Owen has the talent to medal in the U23 Worlds RR.

While Owen might have some stage race results, Geoffrey Curran might be the brightest stage race talent coming out of the junior ranks for America. Curran has been racing and winning in Europe the last two seasons along with getting a few key results stateside. Hailing from the LA area, Curran lit it up in 2012 as a first year junior with a 5th in the Junior Peace Race; winning the Drei-Etappen Rundfahrt time trial and overall; 3rd in the Tour de l'Abitibi behind BMCers TJ Eisenhart and Alexey Vermeulen; 4th in the GP Rüebliland along with a solo stage win and a 7th in the Rothaus Regio Tour. This is as a first year junior and he hadn't even turned 17 yet...yikes. Joining the Get Crackin' squad for 2013, he lined up for the Merco Cycling Classic and on the first stage, he rode into the finish in 4th with former Garmin pro Kirk Carlsen and Jamis' Ben Jacques-Maynes, with only Phil Gaimon, now with Garmin, up the road. Before heading to Europe, he finished 4th in the Sea Otter P-1-2 Stage Race and won a stage in the Category 1 Tour of the Gila along with a top 5 overall. In his first European race of the year, Curran broke away on an uphill finish in the Tour du Pays de Vaud and won solo on the Col des Mosses, which propelled him to the overall victory. He then went on to finish 2nd in the Trofeo Karlsberg, 18 seconds behind Mads Pedersen. Curran can definitely climb as well as time trial and could develop as a stage racing threat as a U23.

Owen and Curran will be with Bissell's club team for 2014, which should allow them to race in Europe with the national team along with select events in the US with the continental squad.

Honorable Mentions

There will be more than just six riders to watch so let me give you a few of them...

Australian Robert Power climbed like a bat out of hell in Italy during the late summer. After winning the Elite Western Australian Hill Climb Championship in 2012, Power came over to Europe with the national team in 2013. He was the closest to Mathieu van der Poel in the queen stage of the GP Rüebliland and less than a week later, he took out the queen stage of the Giro della Lunigiana, where he went on to finish 3rd overall. He finished his season with a win in the climby Trofeo Buffoni and a 3rd overall in the Giro di Basilicata, which was followed by a 19th place in the World Championship RR, tucked safely in the front group.

Slovene David Per is a good TT rider, winning his national championship TT in both junior years. He used the skill to win a stage in the Tour of Istria (2nd overall) and a stage of the Oberösterreich Rundfahrt Juniors, where he won the overall. He joins Adria Mobil for 2014, where he will get a strong diet of European and Asian races.

Jenthe Biermans could be one of the Belgians that could solo to a win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen when he gets older. Biermans won the Belgian Junior RR and the Ronde van Vlaanderen Juniors, both in sprints. Biermans is also a good TTer, which has brought him good overall results in stage races such as the Junior Peace Race, Driedaagse van Axel and the Keizer der Juniores. Biermans signed with Argos-Shimano Development for 2014.

Miguel Bryon is perhaps the USA's best shot at a future classics star. The Miami native won the 2012 USA Junior RR, won multiple stages in the Tour de l'Abitibi and finished 2nd in the Ronde van Vlaanderen this year. He was snapped up by Hincapie Development and should split time with them and the National team.

Dmitriy Rive is a Kazakh talent that was the Kazakh Junior TT Champ, the Asian TT Champ, won the Drei-Etappen Rundfahrt along with the prologue and was 8th in the World Championship TT.

Lorenzo Rota and Simone Velasco are two of Italy's best juniors that graduated to the U23 ranks for 2014. Rota took 8 wins in 2013 including a solo victory on the Madonna del Ghisallo and placed 5th in the World RR Championships in Florence. Rota joins the former Trevigiani set-up, MG. KVIS-Treviso, for 2014. Look for him in hillier one-day races and hard races where a bigger group comes to the line. Velasco took 10 victories in 2013 including the UCI races GP dell'Arno and Trofeo Citta di Loano, both in solo escapes using climbs as launching pads. He had two podium placings at the Giro della Lunigiana and ended up 5th overall when it was all done. Watch for him in hilly races and in a lot of attacks with Zalf-Euromobil in 2014.

Alex Aranburu has done cyclocross for a while but was the Spanish Junior RR Title in 2013 and should develop through the Caja Rural system, as he was apart of their juniors team.

Mathias Rask is nearly the youngest on the new Argos-Shimano Development squad but his TT skills are going to be what carries him during his transition to the U23 ranks. The young Dane is pretty stout for cyclists at 75kg but he isn't pudgy by any means. Rask was strong in many time trials in 2013 including podiums at the Driedaagse van Axel and Trofeo Karlsberg. Rask also took out a few reduced group sprints including at the final stage of the Driedaagse van Axel and at the Omloop Mandel-Leie-Schelde.

I know there are more but we shall leave it here for now.

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