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Top ten neo-pros of 2011

By:
Daniel Friebe
Published:
November 22, 2010, 21:50 GMT,
Updated:
November 23, 2010, 9:51 GMT
Michael Matthews (Australia) celebrates his victory in the U23 Worlds road race.

Michael Matthews (Australia) celebrates his victory in the U23 Worlds road race.

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There's always excitement at the prospect of another season commencing but for these talented young riders there's the added anticipation of beginning life in the professional ranks.

John Degenkolb
Nationality: German
Age: 21
2011 team: HTC-Highroad
Stars: ****

You may not know the name, but John Degenkolb could well turn out to be HTC-Highroad's best acquisition for a couple of seasons.

The 21-year-old won 10 times in 2010, most notably in two stages of the Tour de l'Avenir and the general classification at the Thüringen Rundfahrt. He then rounded off his season with a silver medal in the Under 23 world championship road race.

Those in the know use adjectives like "withering" to describe both Degenkolb's finishing kick and his ambition. "In some ways he's a bit like Edvald Boasson Hagen, although probably not as good in time trials," says HTC chief Rolf Aldag. "The thing about him, though, is that he absolutely knows what he wants to do.

"With most neo-pros, it's usually the managers who do most of the talking and ask most of the questions. With John it was almost the other way around: he was asking us lots of questions about, for instance, the bike, the make-up of the team in the Classics and so on. He has real leadership qualities.

"Talent-wise, he wants to focus on the Classics and short stage races. He's not a major tour rider. We told him that he'd have to earn his place if he wanted to ride Flanders and Roubaix in his first year, and he said that was fine; he expected to do exactly that."

Taylor Phinney
Nationality: American
Age: 20
2011 team: BMC Racing
Stars: ****

Is Taylor Phinney's the most eagerly anticipated graduation to the pro elite ever? A glance back at gurgling Belgian newspaper reports of a 12-year-old Frank Vandenbroucke climbing Alpe d'Huez on a Tour de France rest day may suggest otherwise, but Phinney's junior and amateur careers have nonetheless inspired kilometres of newsprint, not inches.

Until this year and particularly after he snaffled gold in the individual pursuit then silver in the kilo at the 2009 world track championships, Phinney was presented as cycling's equivalent of Kelly LeBrock's ravishing superhuman in the cult '80s movie Weird Science.

Talk of Phinney being a future Tour de France tyrant, sprinter and Classics maestro rolled into one may seem a little far-fetched after some of his performances in stage races in 2010, but still no-one disputes that this child of two former Olympians has huge potential. Certainly not BMC, who are reportedly paying Phinney an unprecedented salary for a neo-pro...

Andrea Guardini
Nationality: Italian
Age: 21
2011 team: Farnese Vini-MCIPOLLINI
Stars: ***

Andrea Guardini wouldn't be the first sprinter to emerge from the Italian amateur ranks dripping in hype and victories, only to struggle in the pro ranks. As Under 23s, Alberto Loddo, Francesco Chicchi and Danilo Napolitano were all touted as new Cipollinis or Petacchis, but have never truly lived up to that billing.

Guardini is already different: not for him the label of future "Lion King" or "Ale-Jet" - instead they call him the "Italian Cavendish". Similar in stature to the Manxman, Guardini rattled off an astonishing 19 wins in 2010 - a stat made more impressive by the fact that the Italian Under 23 calendar is hardly over-endowed with opportunities for sprinters.

Guardini will turn pro next year with what will become the Farnese Vini-MCIPOLLINI Professional Cotinental team, whose manager Luca Scinto has been tracking him since his junior days. Verona's fair city has already given cycling a "Little Prince" in Damiano Cunego; in Guardini, it may also be about to provide the heir to Mark Cavendish's sprinting throne.

Michael Matthews
Nationality: Australian
Age: 20
2011 team: Rabobank
Stars: *****

Rabobank has signed Australian prodigies with alliterative names before. Now the Dutch squad will hope and believe that Michael Matthews can fare considerably better in their colours than William Walker did in 2007 and 2008. Like his countryman, who quit the sport in 2009 due to a heart condition, Matthews has shown strong pedigree on all terrains during an amateur career capped by victory in the Under 23 world championship road race on home turf in October.

The 20-year-old's record of achievement in 2010 had already been remarkable: eighth overall in the Tour de l'Avenir - having finished third in the prologue and sixth in a pair of mountain stages - fourth overall in the Tour of Japan, second in the U23 Tour of Flanders, a stage win at the Tour of Langkawi... the list of highlights went on.

"Right now I see myself as an all-rounder," Matthews said before the Worlds, "but I think next year I'll just focus on sprinting because it's pretty difficult to be an all-rounder in the ProTour." Based on recent conversations with team managers in that category, perhaps even more than Phinney and Degenkolb, Matthews was the rider they all wanted on their payroll in 2011. Rabobank got him and it's their manager, Erik Breukink, who's now rubbing his hands.

Antonio Santoro
Nationality: Italian
Age: 21
2011 team: Androni Giocattoli
Stars: **

The first of two Androni Giocattoli signings to make our selection, in the words of his agent Alex Carera, 21-year-old Santoro is a "rare climber in an ocean of young sprinters in Italy at the moment".

Consistently strong this year in what must rank as the ultimate test of climbing in amateur cycling, the Giro della Valle d'Aosta, Santoro is the kind of rider who didn't necessarily dazzle as an Under 23 but who could thrive over the tougher and longer courses that he'll find on the pro circuit.

Climbs don't much harder than the Colle Fauniera, and it was on that mountain that Santoro set up his most prestigious victory as an amateur, in the Giro delle Valli Cuneesi last August "We chose Androni for him because there he'll get to do the best races and often have the freedom to ride his own race," Carera told Cyclingnews. "At that team, he might be able to make an impact straight away".

Thomas Bonnin
Nationality: French
Age: 21
2011 team: Skil-Shimano
Stars: ***

Skil Shimano is developing a knack of beating France's top teams to the best Gallic talent. It happened 12 months ago, when Alexandre Geniez signed for the Dutch sponsor and went on to impress in the spring, and it may have happened again with Thomas Bonnin.

Having outshone Geniez and Romain Sicard in the mountains at the 2008 Ronde de l'Isard, just over a year later, it was Sicard's victory in the 2009 Under 23 world championship road race that persuaded Bonnin he still had a future in cycling. His 2009 season had been wiped out by illness and injury and, by his own admission, Bonnin wanted "to get a proper job and stop cycling".

His friend Sicard's world title changed all that, and this summer Bonnin proved what a wise choice he'd made with an epic breakaway stage win at the Giro della Val d'Aosta. A stagiaire with AG2r-La Mondiale for the final two months of the season, he then finished 11th in the hardest stage of the Tour de l'Ain, before returning to the Under 23 ranks to notch a seventh place in the Tour de l'Avenir.

Caleb Fairly
Nationality: American
Age: 23
2011 team: HTC-Highroad
Stars: **

Caleb Fairly is precisely the kind of rider who, in the long run, may prove more effective in the pro ranks than he was an amateur.

Not that the 23-year-old Texan didn't impress as an Under 23. In fact, Fairly already had a contract for Garmin in 2011 way back last winter, even before winning the Tour of the Battenkill in April, but ended up at HTC-Highroad when things got a little congested after the Garmin-Cervélo merger. "Fairly's father also raced, but was very good at stepping away and telling us that we knew what we were doing with Caleb," HTC-Highroad team manager Rolf Aldag says.

"We were also lucky in that we had Tejay Van Garderen who raced with him when they were younger. The good thing was that Tejay described him in exactly the same way as Caleb had described himself. That gave us a lot of confidence. From the tests he's done, he looks like someone who could do well on short, steep hills, so in races like Flèche Wallonne and Amstel Gold. We'll also get him into the wind tunnel to see what he can do in time trials. He could develop into a GC rider."

Yonathan Alejandro Monsalve
Nationality: Venezuelan
Age: 21
2011 team: Androni Giocattoli
Stars: ***

A stage winner at the 2010 baby Giro and its more mountainous Italian cousin, the Giro della Val d'Aosta, Monsalve probably would have been lining up for Movistar in 2011 had that wily old fox Gianni Savio not snapped him up first for Androni Giocattoli.

South American riders aren't renowned for their descending, but Monsalve's agent Alex Carera reckons that is just one of many disciplines in which his 21-year-old wunderkind excels. "He's a decent climber, goes downhill really well and has a good finishing kick," says Carera. "He's also very mature for a 21-year-old. He has to be, because he already has a wife and young daughter".

In 2009, while still a teenager, Monsalve underlined his potential by winning two stages of Venezuela's most prestigious stage race, the Vuelta al Tachira, one in a sprint and the other courtesy of a searing solo attack.

Yannick Eijssen
Nationality: Belgian
Age: 21
2011 team: BMC Racing
Stars: ***

There are those who will tell you that Yannick Eijssen isn't even one of the strongest young riders in Belgium, let alone the world. The argument goes that the 21-year-old won two major Under 23 stage races in 2010, the Tour de l'Avenir and the Ronde de l'Isard, and that both wins were the fruit of pure opportunism.

In the Ronde de l'Isard, it was an attack before the final climb to Ax-3-Domaines on stage three that set up overall victory; at the Tour de l'Avenir, Eijssen relied on a canny effort on a descent in the Massif Central. The fact remains: win both races Eijssen did, and, in any case, since when has a gift for sniffing out the right move penalised anyone, pro or amateur?

QuickStep, HTC-Columbia, and BMC certainly saw enough in the flamboyantly coiffured youngster from Leuven to covet his signature. Eijssen finally choose BMC "because they're the team which allows me most freedom to develop as a climber".

Petr Ignatenko
Nationality: Russian
Age: 23
2011 team: Katusha
Stars: **

It wasn't too long ago that a gregarious banking and beer magnate named Oleg Tinkov wanted to place Russia at the epicentre of a world cycling revolution, and his protégés Mikhail Ignatiev and Ivan Rovny on the top step of Classics and Tour de France podiums.

Alas, Tinkov and his team are now long gone, Ignatiev and Rovny have fulfilled but a fraction of their promise, and Russian hopes of international domination now lie with Katusha and a new crop of gifted youngsters. One such rider is Petr Ignatenko, winner of the 2010 Giro della Val d'Aosta, otherwise known as the purest test of climbing ability in amateur cycling.

"Petr's an excellent climber and rouleur and we're convinced that, in time, he'll have success in the pro ranks," says Katusha boss Andrei Tchmil. "He's a product of our youth system, and not the only one who will make his debut in the ProTour next year. That's a sign that our development programme is starting to bear fruit."

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