Who are cycling's top five prospects?
This article originally appeared in the February issue of Procycling
Meet the class of 2012 – five young riders we think are destined to become future stars of the sport. We’re not talking about success this year, but half a decade down the line when they’ve lapped up the experience offered by the current generation and started to make their mark on the races that matter. Limiting ourselves to five was a tough task. There’s no room for promising climber Fabio Aru, winner of the Giro Della Valle d’Aosta; Jetse Bol, winner of the Olympia’s tour; Moreno Moser, double stage winner at the baby giro; U23 world champion Arnaud Démare; nor a host of others who could, and probably will, press in on the pro ranks when their time comes.
Picking riders to watch is a risky business. For every Vincenzo Nibali there’s a handful of Thomas Lövkvists who have burned brightly for a time but for one reason or another have never lived up to their early promise. Who’s to say whether one, three or all five of this lot will falter? Call it gut instinct but there’s something that makes them stick out – a run of big victories, a keen racing mind or a word from the people around them who say they have the spark of world-beating talent. The final choice is a mixed bag of TT racers, classics riders and future GC contenders. The only parameter we set was that they were not fully contracted to a Pro Continental or Pro team outfit last year – something which ruled out riders such as the Colombian Giro Dell’Emilia winner Carlos Betancur, who’s bound for stardom, or Johan Chavez Rubio at Colombia es Pasión. Welcome to our pick of the next generation.
As a junior, Andy Fenn used to head to Belgium to race. It was a tough playground but the roads, the races and the competition struck a chord with the youngster. Plus, says the 21-year-old, people tend to like what they’re good at and he’s good at riding cobbles. One rider who knows this is Peter Sagan – Fenn beat him in the Junior Paris-Roubaix back in 2008. Fenn spent two years under Max Sciandri at the GB Academy before deciding he was ready for a richer diet of UCI-ranked races, so Team GB Performance Manager Shane Sutton put him in touch with the An Post-Sean Kelly squad for 2011. The team’s manager Kurt Bogaerts remembers being impressed by him as Fenn was an aggressive, tactical rider who had an innate ability to read a race and “do the right thing”. In other words, he has the native wit essential for successful classics riders.
Fenn rode strongly at the tours of Oman and Qatar and, when he returned to Europe, he got in the break at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. When he wasn’t being aggressive he was being a good team player. “He feels the race and he knows what to do in each situation,” says Bogaerts. “He’s a good sprinter first of all but the number of races he can do well in is limited at the moment. He knows he can’t win them yet but he rides aggressively so he can discover the races – he’s got that intelligence.” At the Tour de Bretagne, he took his first victory on the final stage of the seven-day race. At the Paris-Roubaix espoirs he was in a break of five, but a slow puncture wrecked his chances of winning, something that he was easily capable of given his strong finishing kick. At the Worlds, he finished third behind Adrien Petit and the winner Arnaud Démare. By then he was ready for a Pro team, and Omega Pharma-Quick-Step made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
For him, 2012 is all about learning from the classics experts on the team. The squad might have diversified but with riders such as Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel on the roster, plus manager Patrick Lefevere, there’s all the experience to draw on that he could possibly need. Fenn sees the big classics – such as Roubaix and Flanders – as the territory of older men, patient riders who have served their apprenticeships and hardened up. The youngster from Hertfordshire has a way to go but all the signs are that he has the tools for the job.
They say: "I see a good future for him – he has a good mentality, he has the class and he works for it. He has a lot of factors that play in his advantage. He progresses every year and if he makes the step up he can do it.” Kurt Bogearts, team manager, An Post.
He says: “Maybe it’ll take a bit longer than [three years] – everyone says those sorts of races suit the older guys. Maybe I’ll go better in the smaller ones and hopefully be more of a contender by then. There’s a lot of guys on the team who have won races that I want to do well in, they know what they’re doing and so do the directors, so I think it’s a really good place to learn. I rode the smaller type of [classics] race in Belgium last year, and I performed better in them – I suppose there’s an element of liking what you’re good at.”
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Enrico is a distant relative of Giovanni Battaglin, the Giro and Vuelta double winner of 1981 who turned to frame building in his retirement. However, recently it’s the precocious young man from Vicenza who has been keeping the family name in the headlines. In fact, he started attracting attention at such an early age that the manager of Colnago-CSF, Roberto Reverberi, put him under contract four years ago.
The year he came to the fore was 2010, riding in the colours of Zalf Desirèe Fior, the same team that incubated Paolo Savoldelli and Ivan Basso. He won eight races including a stage and the overall of the Nations Cup event, the Giro Delle Regioni. He could have turned pro in 2011 but opted to play it slow and steady and spend another year building his strength and experience with the amateurs. The year passed and the wins kept coming. In August he finally stepped up to the Colnago-CSF Inox squad as a stagiaire and immediately made an impression by beating doping impenitent Davide Rebellin in the 1.1-ranked Coppa Sabatini. Arrivals don’t get much bigger than that.
It was a victory for the tifosi to savour. After a disastrous year for Italian cycling, which the Giro d’Italia’s director Michele Acquarone said was the worst since 1989, at least Battaglin’s late season success offered a glimmer of revival. The 22-year-old looks destined for a career as a classics specialist. He’s a punchy climber and can push big gears on the flat. These talents have led to inevitable comparisons with 1980s classics star Moreno Argentin but Battaglin is playing it down. In his own estimation at least, Battaglin – who holds a diploma in industrial graphic design and names his favourite television show as Desperate Housewives – has his feet on the ground. All he wants in 2012 is to find his place in the squad, he says. Italian media report Battaglin has a three-year contract with Reverberi, which speaks volumes about how jealously they guard him. Given the Sabatini win, it’s likely he’ll get his chance to lead the team alongside Domenico Pozzovivo and Sacha Modolo and he’s already down to ride Milan-San Remo and the Giro.
They say: “At Colnago-CSF Inox we pride ourselves on developing the best young Italian riders and we think Enrico has the potential to become a star of the future. He has a fast finish too, so he could be suited to races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy. Some people have said he’s a lot like Paolo Bettini. Let’s hope so!” Roberto Reverberi, team manager, Colnago-CSF Inox.
“He’s a huge talent and i think he’ll be the best neo-pro of 2012.” Ernesto Colnago
He says: “2012 will be my first full year as a pro with Colnago-CSF. I want to experience it and find my place within the team. For those who say I am a flash in the pan – I want to prove the contrary.”
Sergio Luis Henao
One of 2012’s most intriguing transfers was Henao to Team Sky. The 24-year-old Colombian has been on the fringes of the European scene since he joined Colombia es Pasion in 2007 but he hasn’t made the impact that his talent suggests he should have done because he’s hardly raced here. He’s been touted as specialist climbing support for Bradley Wiggins and Sky’s bevy of established stage racers but at this early stage, his race coach Kurt Asle Arvesen said they were keeping an open mind. Given his background, anything is possible with Henao.
Henao is indeed an explosive climber. His stomping grounds have been the dizzying passes in the South American uplands. What he’s missing in European race-craft is offset against lessons learned in the Andes. According to his old team’s website, Henao turned pro at 17 but he emerged at 20 when he won the gruelling Clásico Banfoandes stage race, a happy hunting ground for Androni riders José Serpa and José Rujano in the years before the race was discontinued in 2008. His breakthrough was overall victory at the Vuelta a Colombia in 2010. That year the 14-day race contained seven mountain stages and while riding with the non-UCI registered, awkwardly named Indeportes Antioquia-Idea-fla-lotería de Medellín team, he took two stages and the overall win, beating Oscar Sevilla and triple giro stage winner Rujano.
In 2011 Henao joined the continental squad Gobernación de Antioquia and his exposure to the highest levels of racing picked up a gear at the Tour of Utah, which he led for most of the event after winning the uphill opening prologue. In the end he was undone by his time trialling and ceded the lead to eventual winner, Levi Leipheimer. Two weeks later the pair duelled again at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge where Henao narrowly missed taking the win and the overall lead atop Crested Butte on the first mountain stage. When Henao’s Sky move was completed David Brailsford admitted that everyone on the team had been watching him since 2009 – or to put it another way, since Sky was being prepared for launch. There’s something about the rider that Team Sky really like and, given his relatively old age and high experience, we might see glimpses of it this year.
They say: “His performance in Utah… confirms our belief that he is one of the world’s biggest climbing talents and he has a very bright future ahead of him.” David Brailsford, Team Sky
“He’s an interesting rider and a huge talent. It’s a big step for him to come and live over here in Europe and it will be very interesting to see how he develops.” Kurt Asle Arvesen, Team Sky race coach
He says: “[Team Sky] had space for a rider who could do well in one-day and stage races, and they found these things in me. I have set myself a target to make a big impact in the Giro d’Italia – that’s my first great objective in my first year at the top of the cycling world.”
“Patience is needed but this is the successor of Eddy Merckx or at least Joop [Zoetemelk],” proclaimed a Dutch cycling forum member last summer after Kelderman took back-to-back overall wins at the Tour of Norway and the Thüringen Rundfahrt in Germany. Poor guy. He was still with the Rabobank continental squad and some fans were already lost in a daydream about the lad’s potential domination. Kelderman is probably not the next Merckx or the next Zoetemelk – at the moment he’s a 20-year-old with a love of hair products.
Nevertheless, he’s an exciting talent. He’s spent two years at the Rabobank continental team and has notched up landmark victories in races that matter. In 2010 he took the overall in the Tour d’Alsace, including the mountain-top stage up the Ballon d’Alsace. He backed this up with a solid 10th at the Tour de l’Avenir in the same year. Last year he was a crushing force in time trials, winning the event at the Thüringer Rundfahrt and the Tour de l’Ain prologue, where he saw off vigorous competition including Jérôme Coppel, Rein Taaramäe and even time trial specialist Svein Tuft. Incidentally, he also took a sprint on a testing stage of the German race after the pure sprinters had been shelled out of the bunch, so he’s no slouch on the flat either.
It’s not known what kind of rider he’ll turn into but given his all-round capabilities, stage races and hilly one-day classics seem the natural fit. Don’t expect him to make a high-profile entrance in 2012 though – Rabobank’s management will put him on a trajectory similar to Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema’s in their first season and that means no grand tours. Instead, he’ll be carrying water bottles for his senior team-mates and finding his feet in WorldTour stage races such as Tours de Suisse and Romandie. Rabobank’s squad is packed with riders who seem to be on the verge of a real breakthrough win. Gesink, for all his promise, hasn’t delivered yet and the time has now arrived for Steven Kruijswijk and Mollema to make a mark. Kelderman is a few years behind them but Rabobank staff speak of him in the same breath as them – and secretly they think and hope that he’s even better.
They say: “He’s a very complete rider at the moment. What we’ve seen over the last two years with Wilco, it’s possible we’ll see him in the big tours in the future – I think he could be one of the best riders.” Nico Verhoeven, directeur sportif, Rabobank
“He very good in the time trial, good on the flat and uphill he’s also very strong. He’s got a good head.” Arthur Van Dongen, assistant manager, Rabobank Continental
He says: “I see myself as a GC rider. I have a strong time trial and go well in prologues. This is because I take the corners faster than some other riders. I’m not very explosive but last season I did win a bunch sprint. I think I’m the same type of rider as Cadel Evans or Bradley Wiggins.”
When Luke Durbridge was growing up, Michael Rogers was one of his idols. In Australia, Rogers is the man: he has won the World TT Championship three times and his pro career stretches back more than a decade. At the 2012 Australian TT Championships in January, the 20-year-old Durbridge, in his first major senior TT, beat his hero by 16 seconds. Is Durbridge Rogers’s successor? Possibly, but in Australia there are three other riders aged 23 or under who might feel they’re on a similar path: Cameron Meyer, Jack Bobridge and Michael Hepburn. What, apart from his ‘Durbo the turbo’ nickname, makes him stand out?
His rise to the top of the national time trial heap has been exceptional. It’s not just the plethora of young talent he was up against but Mick Rogers and Richie Porte too. The Australian Championships aren’t always the best indicator because of their January billing but the World Championships paint an equally dominant picture in favour of Durbridge. Less than 18 months ago he lost out to Taylor Phinney at the U23 World Championships in Geelong by less than two seconds. He was 19 and became the youngest ever rider to win a medal in the U23 World TT. It’s a remarkable feat: the rider he took the record from was Fabian Cancellara. A year later in Copenhagen it was no surprise to anyone that he went one better and beat his nearest rival, Rasmus Quaade, by more than half a minute on the pan-flat course. In the run up, he had also shattered another record. At the Chrono Champenois, a pre-Worlds form tester, he broke the course’s previous best by more than a minute – on damp roads.
Now the neophyte comes to Europe with GreenEdge wearing the Australian champion’s green and gold in races against the clock. Success in the time trial rewards patience – it takes time to build up the physical and mental stamina required to push the really big gears that win elite World Championships and grand tour TTs. Just ask Phinney, Bobridge and, to a lesser extent, Adriano Malori, the three previous winners of the espoir event who are still finding their feet. Don’t expect to see a great deal of him on the road this year. As a member of the Australian team Pursuit squad – the one that took a fine World Championship victory last year – the first half of 2012 is geared around track duty ahead of the London Olympics.
They say: “It’s scary to think where he’ll be in the next few years.” Cameron Meyer, GreenEdge teammate
“Hats off to Luke, he was the strongest out there.” Michael Rogers, after the Australian National Time Trial Championships
“He’s a big-time rider, handles pressure really well and doesn’t get too overawed with things. He’s well disciplined. That’s why he is so good.” Gary Sutton, Durbridge’s former coach
He says: “Mick is one of my idols from when I was younger so for me to come up and beat him, I don’t know what to say, I’m stoked. This means just as much to me as the under-23 world title.” On winning the Australian National TT title
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