Monday, November 17, 2014

2014 Lookback: Top 5 Espoirs of 2014

It is finally the post that you all have been waiting for. No more looking at 1st years and riders who bombed. No, no. It is finally time to unveil Espoirs Central's Top 5 Espoirs of 2014 list. If you have read any of my other previous lists, you know that I have a tendency to be effusive and I'm not very good at sticking to just 5. As with every article, if you disagree or just want to congratulate me on my brilliance, then please leave a comment, tweet me @Vlaanderen90 or send me an email (look to your right for that).

1. Mike Teunissen (Rabobank Development - Netherlands - 1992)

This could very well be the Dutch's next classics star. Mike Teunissen won the U23 World Cyclocross Championship in Louisville in 2013 ahead of emerging stars Wietse Bosmans and Wout van Aert. This capped off a year that saw his win the European U23 Championship and win the Tabor World Cup. Following his successful 2013 campaign, Teunissen virtually gave up the dirt for a chance as a career on the road and he hasn't looked back since.

2014 saw Teunissen be a classics juggernaut. Anything from flat pavé to steep climbs saw the Limburger do well this year. Teunissen got started a little later with Triptyque Monts et Chateux in April but after keeping within striking distance, he went on a balls out attack on the final stage to try and take back the overall. Teunissen and his breakaway mates were gobbled up in the final lap but he was able to hang on for 2nd on the stage and 6th overall. The next weekend, he finished 5th in the crash-ridden finale of the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 where his Dutch National teammate Dylan Groenewegen won. The young guy even finished Tro-Bro Léon, probably my favorite French one day race that is the Bretagne cousin to Paris-Roubaix filled with farm tracks and shit conditions.

In any race the he runs, Teunissen seems to try and go for the win. He doesn't have the sprint to stay with any pure sprinters but he can out sprint many. He can't out climb every rider but he can hang on when many can't. He is also a damn good teammate. He finished 13th in the Tour de Bretagne overall when his teammate Bert-Jan Lindeman won the race overall.

The obvious gem of his season was his U23 Paris-Roubaix win in June when he just rode Tyler Williams and Bas Tietema off his wheel and soloed to a huge win in the Roubaix velodrome. It was a display of raw power that most will never be able to produce themselves and is a key sign that Teunissen is ready for the big leagues. Many could just rest on their laurels and ride out the rest of the season but he wasn't about to do that. He grabbed 3rd overall in the 2.1 Boucles de la Mayenne (best U23) and was 20th overall in the 2.1 Ster ZLM Tour. Then at the Dutch Nationals, his season hit the emergency brake. After 2nd place in the U23 TT to Steven Lammertink, Teunissen broke his collarbone on the final lap of the road race. Back to the drawing board...

His season was nearly derailed on his comeback. Teunissen came back in August with a good showing at the Kreiz Breizh Elites in 15th overall but following a DNF in the Tour de l'Ain, it was announced Teunissen would not be apart of the Tour de l'Avenir selection for the Netherlands. Ruh roh.

While it was a temporary disappointment, Teunissen built up for a strong cap to the end of his season. After a top 10 at the GP Jef Scherens, he repeated at the Rabo Baronie Breda Classic. He went on to finish in the front group at the World Championships on a course that wasn't quite hard enough.

To end his U23 career, Teunissen did what he does best. He broke away. With Sam Oomen and Martijn Tusveld, Teunissen did a 3-man TTT through the finale of the Paris-Tours Espoirs. In the finale kilometer, Teunissen broke away to take the solo win to cap off what was a great season and a preview of what is to come.

2. Robert Power (Australia - 1995)

I have written effusively about the 1st year U23 from Western Australia to the point that if I'm sure some of you could write an article about himself yourself. Robert Power made a name for himself as a junior but this year, he took himself to another level as a prodigious climber and as someone who isn't afraid to stick it into the big ring and ride people off his wheel.

While he had strong performances through the spring, the highlight of his season was a stretch through August when barely anyone could hold his wheel. He beat the Zalf-Euromobil juggernaut in Briga Novarese, he won solo in the GP Poggiana and then bridged up and dropped the breakaway at GP Capodarco to win solo. He even went up against Miguel Angel Lopez in the high mountains of the Alps and while he finished 2nd overall, he did prove his versatility in terns of different climbs.

You better savor him in 2015 because I'm guessing it'll be his last as a U23.

3. Magnus Cort (CULT Energy - Denmark - 1993)

I always seem to talk about Robert Power's trifecta or Louis Vervaeke's big stage race wins in l'Isard and Pays de Savoie but it is hard to get past how prolific Magnus Cort was in 2014. The Danish rider from the island of Bornholm had 11 UCI wins in just 47 race starts (including 1 TTT), which is a winning percentage of 23.4%. That is astronomical for a rider who isn't a bunch sprinter and in the his first 24 racing days of the year, he clocked up 5 stage wins, 3 one-day race wins and 2 overall victories at the Ronde de l'Oise and Istrian Spring Trophy. He had a 33% winning percentage through early June if you don't count his overall wins. Fucking insane. Yeah, it might just be the continental level but that level of success boggles the mind.

He scored 2 professional wins on the year with stage wins in the Tour des Fjords and Post Danmark Rundt, the former being a small select sprint ahead of Michael Valgren and Jerome Baugnies while the later was a bigger bunch sprint.

The one mark against Cort was that he didn't really produce in any U23 races where he was denied a stage win in the Tour de l'Avenir, having to settle for two 2nd places in a row, while his best U23 one-day race was 6th in the U23 Eschborn-Frankfurt, where teammate Mads Pedersen won. That is a fairly small mark considering his wins are arguably more important than U23 competition but he also did seem to peter out a little bit at the end of his season with a much more quiet finish than his beginning.

4. Miguel Angel Lopez (Colombia - 1994)

Heading into 2014, I don't know many people that had Miguel Angel Lopez on their mind. Having had multiple injuries and being racked with a stabbing attack while on the bike in 2010 that garnered him the monicker "El Superman", Lopez hadn't had much racing time and was a bit of an enigma.

I first became aware of Miguel Angel Lopez after his performance at the Vuelta de la Juventud, the U23 version of the Vuelta a Colombia. Lopez, riding for the Boyaca Lottery, took down overall leader Brayan Ramirez on the queen stage to take the overall lead and eventually the win. Lopez was dominant in Colombia this year with 12 wins in his home country including an uphill time trial win over dipshit Oscar Sevilla.

Lopez, in an interview with El Pais, came across as a very serious rider who seems annoyed with a lot of questioning and doesn't understand the need for lengthy interviews. His coach, Rafael Acevedo, spotted him as a junior and got a house for Lopez on his farm so he could keep a closer eye on his development. A little strange by some standards but Lopez, who comes from a farming family, showed tenacity and his engine when climbing was incomprehensible.

Lopez's first trip outside of Colombia was to Europe this year with the Colombian national team. While he DNFed the GP Capodarco, he put in a strong prologue at l'Avenir with 13th and was able to get through the sprint stages unscathed. Lopez's climbing was unmatched in l'Avenir. On the first climbing stage to Plateau de Solaison, Lopez dropped Robert Power and Pierre-Roger Latour to take 3rd on the stage and slip into the overall lead, which he would not relinquish. Lopez got his stage win on stage 6 when he broke away with Rob Power and out sprinted him for the win. With the overall win in hand, Lopez followed wheels on the final day and was the 3rd Colombian in 5 years to win the race.

Lopez is joining Astana for next season, which is going to be a sink or swim for the Colombian. He is young and not very tested over a long season. His climbing is great but how will be do on small roads for the majority of the year? I didn't think it was a good idea when it was announced but Lopez is tough mentally and if he can handle the isolation or being on a foreign team, then he should be able to improve off his l'Avenir ride.

5. Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Belisol U23 - Belgium - 1994)

If we were looking at the most consistent rider of the season, Tiesj Benoot might be at the top of that list. The only thing missing from his season was a win, which ranks him lower on this list.

His season started off electric with two stage podiums and a 2nd place overall in the Triptyque Monts et Chateaux followed by two top 5 one day performances with 3rd place in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 and 5th in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23, where he won the group sprint that caught the breakaway on the line. So he was close but no worries, a win should be just around the corner.

Well Benoot came with his Lotto-Belisol U23 team to the Ronde de l'Isard and was the right hand man for teammate Louis Vervaeke, who was gunning for the overall win. Benoot rode one of the best performances on stage 2 when on Bagneres de Luchon, he rode Vervaeke across a nearly 2 minute gap to get Vervaeke into the overall lead, which he would keep to the end. Benoot held on for 3rd overall and his took his only "win" of the season, the youth classification. Benoot showed more versatility with a 15th place overall in the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs, 5th in the Fleche Ardennaise (won the group sprint) and 6th in the European U23 Championships (3rd in the bunch sprint).

Benoot got a stagiaire ride with Lotto-Belisol and rode the Tour of Denmark in August. Benoot made a huge impression on the 3rd stage when he got 3rd place, which was just behind Matti Breschel, and moved up to 2nd overall. He held that spot until the time trial where he put in a good ride in 17th but he slid down to 10th overall. Benoot kept up the good impression with the pro team by going 4th in the GP Stad Zottegem.

He dropped out of l'Avenir after becoming ill. He again showed himself in the sprint in the World U23 RR Championship with 4th place, which was 3rd in the bunch sprint behind a solo Sven Erik Bystrøm. He put an exclamation point on his season by getting 8th place in Binche-Tournai-Binche, a 1.1 race, and 16th in Paris-Tours, which is a 1.HC.

I've been throwing out all of these results and many of you will begin to skim and get a glazed over look in your eyes. The point being about Benoot is that he isn't the first rider to be this consistent. There have been many riders get a string of steady results but don't breakthrough for wins. What do pro teams want? A rider that gets 5 top-5 finishes or a rider that gets 1 win? Benoot goes on to Lotto-Soudal for 2015 & 2016 and I think he is going to be a good pro but a winner? That remains to be seen.

5b. Louis Vervaeke (Lotto-Belisol U23 - Belgium - 1993)

Louis Vervaeke turned pro halfway through this season but the first half of his season was done as a U23. The way that he dominated in the mountains of France in the late spring and then later in the summer certainly warrant him to be on this list.

Vervaeke, who was 4th in both Tour des Pays de Savoie and Giro della Valle d'Aosta in 2013, started the season a bit slow but after a 5th in the Circuit de Wallonie, he showed he was ready to take on the Ronde de l'Isard. After showing himself with 3rd on stage 1, Vervaeke took advantage with a dominant ride on stage 2 with Benoot to move into the overall lead. Vervaeke  played defense the rest of the race and secured the overall by 1'22" on Maxime Le Lavandier.

He came back the next month in the Alps in the Tour des Pays de Savoie but had a little bit harder go of it. In the finale of stage 1, Dmitriy Ignatiev took off and took a minute out of the rest of the front group. Vervaeke blew up from chasing but came around and finished in 4th place, 1'19" down. With a sufficient hole dug, it was time to claw that time back. Stage 2 saw Vervaeke and 2nd place overall Jesus Del Pino crack Ignatiev on the climb to Plateau d'Assy, with the duo taking 53 seconds out of the Russian, who had a mysterious two-year break from cycling that I don't think was due to injury.

After trading some seconds in the split stage day, it came down to the final day where Vervaeke needed to take 28 seconds back from Ignatiev. The final day included two summits of the Col des Glieres with the final climb coming on the side of the Plateau des Glieres, which is famous for a brave stand by the Maquis (French Resistance fighters) against the Nazis. Vervaeke launched an attack an attack on the slopes of the Plateau and put Ignatiev on the back foot. Ignatiev wasn't catching him. Vervaeke had pulled off the coup. With his arms spread wide, he took the stage and by the time Ignatiev crossed the line, Vervaeke had 29 seconds. He cut it pretty fine but a win is a win.

Vervaeke had a rough transition to the pros due to some illness but came back for the Tour de l'Avenir. Vervaeke had up front in the mountains but he wasn't as dominant as he was earlier in the year. While his GC hopes were shot by the final doozy of a stage up to La Toussuire, Vervaeke through caution to the wind and bridged up to the breakaway on the first climb, the Col du Molard. He joined up with teammate Loïc Vliegen, who piloted him through the rest of the climb and at the foot of the Croix de Fer with 50 kilometers to go, Vervaeke went for it. Riding with the recent news of the tragic passing of Igor Decraene, Vervaeke went solo and didn't look back. GC hopes were out the window but he didn't care. He wanted something. Even as the gap plummeted, Vervaeke salvaged his race with a pretty damn awesome stage win ride and a great tribute to his fallen friends.

So Vervaeke was a U23 for half the year and he could have been higher up on this list but since he did turn pro, he is just being added because I like him.

Do you disagree? I know there are some that are very close on this list. Some of those include: Stefan Küng, Phil Bauhaus, Bernardo Suaza, Asbjørn Kragh, Simone Andreetta, Thomas Boudat, Dylan Teuns and others. I think I'm done talking about 2014. I want to look forward now. Look for stuff from the present and 2015. See you next time.

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