Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Top U23s: Spring 2014

I suck at top 5 lists. I don't even know why I attempt to call it a top 5 list when I automatically list 7 riders and 4 others as honorable mentions. Wait make that 8...this is not going well. Alright, well I better get this started before it turns into some long-winded diatribe of some sort.

Keep on, Keeping on

Some riders hit a little sophomore slump after a breakout year and many will begin to question their talent and all that jazz. Silvio Herklotz might have had a rough start to the season that included a massive crash at rough 70 km/h into a car and some bronchitis but in the last month, the young German from outside Berlin has turned it around with a win in the Palio del Recioto and a slew of strong placings in races like the Giro del Belvedere (2nd) and the pro version of Eschborn-Frankfurt (13th after making late breakaway). Herklotz just finished the Grody Tour in Poland in 3rd overall after making the winning break on stage 1 and then riding a very good TT by his standards. Herklotz is down to ride the Bayern Rundfahrt again and should be able to make an impact on the hillier stages. What else can I say about Herklotz that I already haven't droned on about at length before?

While he courted multiple team's attention after last year's Tour of Denmark, Magnus Cort's decision to stay in the U23 ranks for another year was probably beneficial for him and his future employer, whoever that may be at this point. Cort spurned a contract offer from Garmin-Sharp to stay with his Danish CULT Energy squad for 2014 though he did go to training camp with Giant-Shimano. Cort fired a warning shot at the Istrian Spring Trophy when he won two consecutive uphill finishes on his way to the overall victory. After his 5th place at the Volta Limburg, Cort had a little lull through the U23 races in late April before attacking the first week of May like an under-fed neo-pro going after a buffet. He was 6th in the Eschborn-Frankfurt U23 (his teammate Mads Pedersen won) before going back to back at the Himmerland Rundt and Destination Thy thanks to 2 attacks, one from 10 km out and the other from 500 meters out on a slight rise after catching teammate Martin Mortensen. As I write this, Cort just took out his 6th win of the season at the Ringerike GP in Norway from a small breakaway.

Is there anybody out there?

Seriously, Caleb Ewan has been pretty quiet so far this year. He was his usual self earlier this year in Australian summer at the Bay Crits and he got his head kicked in at Tour Down Under. Since then, Ewan has raced just a handful of times. He spent nearly a month training in Canberra with the Australian National Team, which included sleeping at a simulated altitude of 3,000 meters, and then promptly shipped off to Varese. (His blog on CyclingTips goes into further detail.) In his first European race of the season, the small Trofeo Antonietto Rancilio, Ewan got pipped on the line by Jakub Mareczko (more on him later). He won the group sprint for 6th at Trofeo Piva Banca but that was over a minute down on the winning group. Ewan then proceeded to get chopped in the finale of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and while he was in the winning group for the sprint, he had to take a nice fat DNF. Ewan has been out of action since then and just turned a pedal over in full anger for the first time in a month at the Olympia's Tour prologue, where he finished 15th. The devil from Down Under should be returning in a big way soon enough.

It's a Hard Knock Life...

For Sondre Holst Enger and Luka Pibernik. Enger and Pibernik were sensations last year and already have professional contracts lined up for 2015 but U23 life is not always as grand as some make it out to be. Maybe I am being a bit hard on Pibernik because he already has a pro contract lined up and isn't blowing these guys out of the water. But wins in the U23 ranks do not correspond with pro success so I'll dial it back a little bit. Pibernik has made top 10's this year but when he was making some key breakaways last year, he has been leading in chase groups. The Slovene is headed for Lampre in 2015 and has a while to breakout so I'm not too concerned at this point but he really needs to start impressing.

Enger is where there is a bit of a problem. While it was announced over the off-season that he would be joining IAM as a stagiaire and then on a full contract for 2015, the Norwegian was riding high. His season has not been much to write home about up to this point. Out of the14 race days he has had this year, he has had one good result in a 3rd place on the 1st stage of the Tour de Normandie, where he led the sprint for 2nd out from about 500 meters and was swamped on the line by Maarten van Trijp. The rest of his season has been quite mediocre to be honest with finishes in the 2nd half of the pack and DNFs in both the Tours de Normandie and Bretagne. Some crashes and bad luck but still, it isn't a good sign when the next big thing isn't riding up to his caliber.

They might be on to something with this riding around the wooden track thing...

Okay, it has been well recognized that many that ride the track have gone on to very successful careers on the road. It was nearly a requisite in previous generation that one had to ride the track to be able to get good leg speed and power. There are three current U23s that have been on the track for the majority of their junior and U23 careers (including a couple of Worlds medalists) that have had some great success on the road so far this year. Owain Doull has been apart of the British academy since he left the junior ranks until this year when he joined AnPost-Chain Reaction. It must have been joining the Belgian-Irish team because the Welshman has been lights out in Belgium so far this year. Doull was impressive in Triptyque Monts et Chateaux when he went 2nd in the time trial and then won the final stage to consolidate his overall victory. Doull, who rides the scratch as well as a few other events part-time for the British, then finished 4th in the crash-marred finale in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23. He could be a force at the upcoming AnPost Ras as well as the Tour of Britain later this year.

Thomas Boudat could be described as a not so mini-Bryan Coquard but he is even more versatile. The young Frenchman is a devil on the track and won the omnium World Championship in Cali, Colombia on March 1st to go along with his small mountain of European and French track titles. A month later, Boudat was on the road with his Vendee U squad and the French National team. In the span of 4 days, Boudat went 2nd in the La Cote Picarde Nations Cup and then won the ZLM Tour Nations Cup out of a breakaway of 10. Boudat has a nasty little sprint on him but he is capable is getting in breakaways on tough courses that go the distance (if you need evidence, look to the first stage of the Tour de Bretagne, where he was 4th in the break with some GC hitters.

Stefan Küng is a unit. He is big. He is fast. He makes people have transcendental crises. The Swiss rider is a powerhouse and he likes to apply that to the velodrome as well as the road. This winter, he hit the podium twice at the Track World Championships in Cali with a 2nd in the individual pursuit and 3rd in the Madison with Thery Schir. Kung isn't exactly new to the road as he won the Giro del Belvedere last year out of a 3-man break and won the Swiss U23 TT and finished 6th in the U23 Worlds TT in Firenze. After his track exploits this winter, Kung came to the Tour de Normandie with his BMC Development team and stormed the prologue and after losing his jersey, he joined a breakaway on the final stage of the race, which went along Omaha Beach, and thanks to some time bonuses, he won the overall. Kung is a time trial specialist and will be a favorite for the World U23 TT this year in Ponferrada but he isn't as one-dimensional as he comes off as he can still climb relatively well for such a big frame.

Hi-Diddly-Ho Neighbor-ooni, Welcome to Belgium

Thank you Ned Flanders. The perennial powers of Northern Europe are back again with a truckload of talent. Dylan Teuns is one of the new BCSes (Belgian Climbing Sensation) but he isn't as fragile as some other BCSes in recent memory like Kevin Seeldraeyers and Bart De Clercq. Teuns finished 2nd at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23 and won the queen stage at the Tour de Bretagne and finished 2nd overall, just 4 seconds behind Bert-Jan Lindeman, who is a World Tour talent slumming it on Rabobank Development to try and get a contract. Watch for Teuns at Ronde de l'Isard and other select hillier races through the year. Even though Tiesj Benoot has a really strange name, his talent is undeniable and he has been ripping it up again in his 2nd U23 season. The economics student at the University of Ghent just started racing in April at Triptyque Monts et Chateaux, where he was 2nd overall and was 2nd on 2 stages. He proved his multi-dimensional talent by 3rd in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 sprint and 5th in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23, where he was a big favorite but missed the late move and was only to able to catch up at the finish line but just a little bit short. Benoot fell ill at the Tour de Bretagne but should look good for the summer season. Belgium has another classics stud in the making in Jens Wallays. The current Belgian U23 RR Champion was able to capitalize on his breakaway mates marking Thomas Boudat at La Cote Picarde and attacked in the finale kilometer to win the Nations Cup, just ahead of Boudat.

Ickle Firsties

The first years always trying to be show offs and be all "Look at me! See how fucking talented I am and how I'm going to get a World Tour contract and you are going to be stuck on continental teams for the rest of your days." Assholes. Okay, maybe not assholes but every year it seems like a handful of first years do not need any adjustment into the U23 ranks. Probably the most prolific so far has been Australian Robert Power. The Western Australian, who was a near miss at January's U23 Nationals RR behind Caleb Ewan, came to Italy without missing a beat and in his first U23 race in Europe, he went 3rd at the Trofeo Piva Banca after making the race-defining split. Power went up against Silvio Herklotz at GP Palio del Recioto in late April and put up a valiant fight while Herklotz went up the road in the finale. Power ended up 2nd in the race after winning the chasing sprint. Just 5 days later, he made the grade at the GP Marmo where he finished 10th after going up against ex-World Tour Matej Mugerli and a bunch of Russians. Power just finished the Tour of Azerbaijan in 7th overall, which was good for the best U23. Power is an animal and on a selective course, he will be a force to be reckoned with. Caleb Ewan described him as the biggest talent he has raced with. Just watch out.

Andre Looij stepped up in his 1st UCI race in March, Ster van Zwolle, and finished 7th. Weeks later, he won the first stage of Triptyque Monts et Chateaux after a brilliant lead-out by Mike Teunissen. You could say he is a sprinter but he doesn't need a huge train to be brilliant. Take the Tour de Bretagne for example when he got into a two-man move with Jonathan Dufrasne and took out the win. Looij is pretty good in longer one-day races with a 5th in the GP de la Somme and he even dragged his carcass over the line in Tro Bro Leon, the cult classic in Bretagne, before the time cut. Pretty beastly for an 18 year old.

Much has been written about Tao Geoghegan Hart and for good reason. The Hackney rider was a sensation as a junior last year and while he hasn't raced much so far this year, every race has been with purpose. Geoghegan Hart started his season off with the spring Nations Cups and proceeded to go top 20 in both the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23, where he was caught up in a late crash and went 15th, and La Cote Picarde (20th). In just his 3rd race of the year, Geoghegan Hart attacked late and going into a three-man move in Liege-Bastogne-Liege that going towards the line. Joined at the last minute by Loic Vliegen, Geoghegan lead the sprint out on the Liege velodrome from the front and managed to hang on for 3rd place behind winner Anthony Turgis and Dylan Teuns. Just this past Sunday, he was in the breakaway at Tour of California and thanks to time bonuses, he was able to get the best young rider's jersey.

 Some other firsties that have done well in their first year include American Justin Oien, Frenchman Franck Bonnamour and Dane Michael Carbel. Oien has been consistent for the Americans in the spring, which has been a bright spot on a squad that is very young in some places, and was able to make the breakaway at the ZLM Tour and take 8th in the race. Bonnamour, who was the European Junior RR Champion in 2013, is the son of Yves Bonnamour, who was a pro with Super U and Castrorama from 1989 to 1990. The younger Bonnamour rode a very consistent Tour de Bretagne and was able to make the final day breakaway to secure 8th overall for his BIC 2000 team. Carbel is a hell of a sprinter and in just his 2nd senior UCI race, the Dorpenomloop Rucphen, he managed to win the bunch gallop ahead of Brit Dan McLay.

Ciao Tutti! There are some fucking fast Italians

A lot of my attention has been on the ongoing sprint battle between Zalf-Euromobil's Nicolas Marini and Viris-Maserati's Jakub Mareczko. Similar to last year's battle between Andrea Zordan and Niccoló Bonifazio, who were on the same teams as Marini and Mareczko respectively, these two currently have the most wins on the Italian amateur circuit with Marini on 7 wins and Mareczko 5. Marini had the upper hand early, winning around 70% of the races he entered but Mareczko came back in recent weeks, even topping Marini at the UCI Circuito del Porto on May 4th. Marini got a bit of a shell shock when he went up north for the UCI Nations Cup races and he definitely has a lot of work to do all-around. Expect more battles between these two in the upcoming months.

Team Colpack has been depleted with the loss of Davide Villella to Cannondale but fear not, some replacements have been trying to fill the void. Iuri Filosi won the Piccola Sanremo earlier this year in solo style to net Colpack's first win and along with teammate Manuel Senni, the duo attacked some of the UCI races through Italy. Senni got into the breakaway at Piva Banca and finished 4th with Filosi in 11th. The duo got into the winning break at GP Palio del Recioto but Filosi got a mechanical on the final summit and Senni managed 4th. Filosi was 5th in the GP Liberazione behind a streaking Shalunov but a big win was on the horizon. Colpack took a Spanish sojourn to the Bidasoa Itzulia in the Basque Country and they reaped the rewards. While two flats took Senni out of contention on the first stage, Filosi joined an attack in the last few kilometers and attacked solo with a few kilometers to go. He was able to post up for the win with teammates Davide Martinelli and Oliverio Troia coming in for the 1-2-3 finish. Was Filosi done with the solo attacks? Nope. The Italian climber won solo again on the next day as well but he was not able to hang onto the general classification 2 days later after Loic Chetout (more on him later) worked him over pretty hard and the Italian settled for 2nd. The Italian with the Russian name that could fit well into a spy novel is an incredible climber and must be watched (and handled) carefully.

Everyone else that should deserve their own title but we are getting to the end so they are all being thrown together...

If we are going for a most improved or standout performed, I think that Gregor Mühlberger from Tirol deserves the nod. The Austrian is just a 2nd year U23 but he has gone to another level. Following his prologue win and 4th overall at the Istrian Spring Trophy, Mühlberger got into a powerhouse break at Piva Banca with the like of Power, Senni and Foliforov and outsprinted them all for the win. He goes to the Carpathian Couriers Tour and in a very efficient manner, he wins the TT and then defends yellow for the rest of the race for the win. Mühlberger seems like a lock for races like the Thüringen Rundfahrt and he will be in the hunt for a top 5 overall.

The dude can be inconsistent at times but when he shines, it is bright. Dylan Groenewegen took out a stage at the Tour de Normandie when he just obliterated the competition in the sprint but was more or less invisible the rest of the week. Just 10 days later, he was able to lead out the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 sprint, avoid the carnage and pretty much wipe the floor with everyone. So if he makes it to the line, Groenewegen is one of the fastest guys. The problem is the staying with the pack part at times. He is a bit hot and cold for the pros but that is why he is a U23 right now.

Sven Erik Bystrøm & Kristoffer Skjerping make a pretty good Norwegian tag team for the sprints and one-days. Well at least on the national team since they ride for different trade teams. Bystrøm (Oster Hus-Ridley) is a bit more consistent on harder courses and likes to ride in breakaways. He registered 4 top 10 finishes at the Volta ao Alentejo, featured in the top 10 in Flanders (crashed) and the ZLM Tour (breakaway) and within the last 2 weeks, he has 3 top 10 finishes in UCI races including a 2nd at the Ringerike GP behind wunderkind Cort. Skjerping (Joker) isn't as versatile but has a stronger sprint on him, which led him to a 2nd place in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23.

A few more sprinters have been going quite well for themselves so far this year. Phil Bauhaus is one of the other faces of the Stolting squad. The Gelschinkirchen-based squad has been loving Bauhaus' production this year as the young German has ridden to 8 top 10's in UCI races this year including a win at the Skive Lobet over ex-World Tour Alex Rasmussen. Dan McLay started the season out strong with a 2nd in the Dorpenomloop Rucphen behind Looij and was one of the most consistent sprinters at the Tour de Normandie, where he nabbed a stage win and the points jersey for his Lotto-Belisol U23 team. He promptly decided to jump off his bike at Tryptique Monts et Chateaux and break his collarbone, which kept him out of action until the Carpathian Couriers Tour, where he mixed it up in a few kicks behind Eduard-Michael Grosu. The Romanian with Vini Fantini-Nippo-De Rosa has been very good in the bunch kicks this year. His best moment so far has been the Carpathian Couriers Tour where he was in the top 6 on every stage and won the final two stages on his was to 2nd overall and the points jersey. Now on the flip side, the competition at these races isn't the deepest and the performance need to be gauged accordingly.

So most of you know at least a few on this list but it is time to get more exotic. Salah Mraouni is a Moroccan that most of you that just keep a casual eye on U23 talent have never heard of but he has had a very consistent spring racing across the Maghreb. He began the season down in Gabon at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo where he made some decisive splits and ended up 10th overall and 2nd in the youth classification behind Florian Senechal. Mraouni then took part in the majority of the Algerian Grand Tour, which saw him get 13 racing days in 17 days and 7 top 10 finishes. He proceeded to start his home tour, Tour du Maroc, and hit the top 10 5 times and was close to a stage win on stage 6 but settled for 2nd. He ended up finishing 7th overall and the best young rider. Mraouni has been doing the Challenge du Prince one-day race the last week and has registered a 5th, 4th and 2nd after making the winning breaks in each race. He is an exotic talent but his results should be taken with a big grain of salt. As strong as the Moroccans and other North Africans are (ignore Algeria right now), they do not have a strong track record of successful pro careers. Tarik Chaoufi got home sick just a half season into his Euskaltel contract and ended up leaving. Rafaa Chtioui had a lot of promise as a U23 but the Tunisian has been bumbling around on some different teams the past few years. Soufianne Haddi is on SkyDive-Dubai and while he was a strong U23, the mix of a so-so schedule and not having a deep roster. The jump from the Muslim Maghreb to a legitimate pro cycling career seems to be more immense than any of us think.

Seriously, I'm nearly done here...just a few more guys that need to be mention. I swear.

Loic Chetout has taken a big step towards securing a pro contract for 2015. The French Basque rider from Bayonne was in the Euskaltel-Euskadi pipe for many years with their Naturgas Energia squad and even had a stagiaire last year with Euskadi. Since Euskaltel took a shit and died, Chetout transferred the the GSC Blagnac team, which is based in the French Basque region and includes riders such as Pierre Cazaux, Julien Loubet and Loic Desriac. The team has had 15 victories and Chetout has been an integral part in their success. Chetout won the one-day L'Essor Basque and a stage in the Essor Basque (pretty confusing) as well as 2nd overall. He was called up to join Les Blues for the Nations Cups in the spring and Chetout won the group sprint at the La Cote Picarde for 10th (they caught the breakaway on the line so it shows the same time) and then 10th again at the ZLM Tour but was playing the devout teammate for winner Thomas Boudat. Chetout just finished up a successful weekend at the Bidasoa Itzulia where he broke away on the final stage from leader Iuri Filosi and a select group of others and stretched his advantage on the descent into Irun, where he won by 23 seconds to take the stage and the overall win. Just because Pro Cycling Stats or CQRanking don't have their results, you need to dig a little deeper to know where the gems are.

Frederik Ludvigsson is Frederik Ludvigsson. The Swede has a lot of talent and he has been slowly chipping away at a big GC result. He has been top 10 overall in the Tour de Normandie (10th), Triptyque Monts et Chateaux (5th) and Circuit des Ardennes (10th + best young rider). He shit the bed at Tour de Azerbaijan but he should be a force at Thüringen Rundfahrt in the near future. Tanner Putt was the best young rider at Volta ao Alentejo and had front group finishes at the 1.1 Volta Limburg (16th) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23 (9th). The American is on a USA Tour with his Bissell team but should return to Europe for some summer racing. Lukas Spengler has been solid for BMC Development in the one-day races. The Swiss rider was 5th in the ZLM Tour (breakaway), 7th in the Giro del Belvedere (chasing group) and 5th in the Palio del Recioto (solo behind the winning break).

That is it. I'm done...for now. I know that I left out a few so give me a shout via email or @Vlaanderen90 on twitter and I'll think about making an edit if there are some worthy considerations. -CK

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