This season saw the retirement of stars such as Alberto Contador and Tom Boonen, but it's time to start thinking about the new generation, and Cyclingnews has picked out 10 'neo-pros' to watch over the course of the 2018 season.
The UCI's official definition of a new professional, or neo-pro, is "any rider who joins a UCI WorldTeam or UCI Professional Continental Team for the first time no later than during his twenty-fifth year". Technically, such riders remain neo-pros for two seasons since they must be given contracts of at least two years, so while we could include the likes of David Gaudu, who has already made his mark in the pro ranks, we've compiled a list from those who are making the jump this winter.
Pavel Sivakov (20, Team Sky)
Winner of the U23 Giro d’Italia, the Ronde de l’Isard, and the Giro della Valle d’Aosta, Pavel Sivakov has been the outstanding rider on the men’s U23 scene this year. An off-day ruled him out of the general classification at the Tour de l’Avenir but he made up for it with another solo raid in the mountains on the final day.
There doesn’t seem to be a weakness in his armoury. He has more of a rouleur’s engine than a climber’s physiology but, as he showed this year, he can be devastating in the mountains. He also has a fast finish and is able to perform in one-day races, winning the junior Tour of Flanders in 2015 and finishing second at the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year.
Sivakov, of Russian descent but soon to be with French citizenship, came through the BMC Development Team but has signed for Sky, much to the chagrin of those at BMC, who have since shut down the feeder set-up.
There are question marks over how well youngsters can develop at Sky, not least any Grand Tour prospects, but after enjoying success with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome at relatively ripe ages, the British team is now wholeheartedly investing in youth. They’ve even signed Egan Bernal, the Colombian prodigy who won the Tour de l’Avenir. That in turn raises its own question marks over how he and Sivakov can progress jointly, but what's not in doubt is the almost limitless potential.
Bjorg Lambrecht (20, Lotto Soudal)
Sivakov struck fear into the whole of the U23 peloton this year, but there can’t be many riders he frustrated more than the Belgian Bjorg Lambrecht, who was forced to settle for second place at the Ronde de l’Isard and the Giro della Valle Aosta. In fact, Lambrecht was more often than not the bridesmaid in 2017, also finishing runner-up at the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc and Tour de l’Avenir, on those occasions behind Bernal. He was, however, able to raise his arms at the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Lambrecht is a product of the Lotto Soudal development team, and the plan had been for him to join the WorldTour team as a professional from July 2018, but after his performances this year that has been brought forward.
"I often hear about ‘the new Boonen’ or ‘the next Belgian Grand Tour rider’ when it comes to promising young talents, but I hope that he does not get that sort of expectation from the media and the outside world," said Lotto Soudal boss Marc Sergeant. "The team will let him all the time he needs to grow and to mature, and even if he shows some flashes of talent, the process will always involve falling and getting up, good and difficult moments."
Neilson Powless (21, LottoNL-Jumbo)
Another big stage racing prospect and, as is the case with Lambrecht in Belgium, there have been whispers of 'the next American Grand Tour rider' from a similarly starved nation.
Neilson Powless' rise has been remarkable, having started out in triathlon and having been a mountain biker as little as three years ago. 2015 was a learning curve as he hit the road with Hagens Berman, but after the merger with Axel Merckx's development team, he went from strength to strength, winning a stage of the Tour de l’Avenir and finishing ninth overall at the Tour of California.
There were also striking time trial victories at the Tour de Beauce and Redlands Classic. This year he raced more in Europe and finished third at the Triptych des Monts et Chateaux courtesy of a time trial win, sixth at the U23 Giro with a stage win, and second on the final stage of l’Avenir, along with one-day success in the form of a win at the GP Palio del Recioto and top 10’s in the U23 Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Like Sivakov, he can time trial and climb, and LottoNL-Jumbo have laid out a long-term plan for his development. He was never meant to end up there, incidentally, having agreed on a deal with Canndonale-Drapac before the team’s future was thrown into doubt. "They had four offers on the table within a week and a half," Powless told us of his agents’ move to line up a replacement. “That was really impressive on their end.” Surely, though, it says as much about him and his talent.
Lucas Hamilton (21, Orica-Scott)
There seem to be a healthy number of Australian stage race prospects coming through at the moment. Jack Haig and Rob Power have made encouraging starts to professional life, and Lucas Hamilton is the latest to graduate to Orica-Scott from the Michelton-Scott feeder set-up. Hamilton was second overall at the U23 Giro after winning the time trial, and he then won the Tour Alsace overall and finished fourth at the Tour de l’Avenir.
"Lucas is the cream of the crop at U23 level and obviously it is exciting for us to have a guy like that come through our feeder team," said Orica’s Matt White. “We've seen the results he has had on the road this year and it's going to be exciting to see him on board the professional team. He is a big talent. Where that talent will take him is our big challenge and responsibility to give him the right pathway through to the next level of professional cycling."
Hamilton’s stage racing abilities are obvious but it’s also interesting to note his potential as a one-day racer after some notable results in Europe this spring, with podiums at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, GP Palio del Recioto, Giro del Belvedere, and Trofeo Eil C.
Kristoffer Halvorsen (21, Team Sky)
Kristoffer Halvorsen’s talent has been obvious for some time now. He announced himself to the world 12 months ago with victory at the World Championships in the U23 road race in Qatar. Coming on the back of a stage win in the Tour de l’Avenir and the one-day professional race GP d’Isbergues, it was confirmation that the Norwegian sprinter has a big future in the sport. He stayed at Continental level in 2017, though the big teams were already circling and he was invited to train with Team Sky and Quick-Step Floors.
This season he claimed another pro win at the Handzame Classic before winning a stage and the points classification at the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing in the top five in the opening five stages.
“He’s a really promising sprinter and I think in the future he could be a good Classics rider as well. He already has some wins to his name and he’s a super fast young guy,” said Sky’s Norwegian directeur sportif Gabriel Rasch, even citing similarities with a certain Mark Cavendish. “He’s very calm outside of cycling, but when he sees a sprint he turns into an animal.”
With Elia Viviani moving to Quick-Step, leaving Sky without a top-level sprinter, Halvorsen may well find himself with greater opportunities and responsibilities than most other neo-pros at Sky.
Chris Lawless (22, Team Sky)
Another rider at Axeon, Chris Lawless has steadily gone about enhancing his reputation over the last 12 months. There was no shortage of interest in his signature but the Briton has chosen his ‘home’ team of Sky, becoming the latest sign of a concerted investment in youth.
Lawless picked up a number of victories racing with the British Continental team JLT Condor in 2016 and he confirmed his promise this year with victory at the ZLM Tour and a stage of the Tour de l’Avenir. He also finished runner-up behind Steve Cummings in the elite road race at the British national championships in a field with plenty of established pros.
Best known as a sprinter, Lawless produced late attacks to win solo at ZLM and Avenir, evidence of a versatility that could lead him towards the Classics as well. Eager not to pigeonhole himself, Lawless wants to “improve in every area” and become “a more all-round bike rider”, and having spoken to the three Brits who turned pro with Sky this time last year – Owain Doull, Jon Dibben, and Tao Geoghegan Hart – he believes he's in the right place to do that.
Eddie Dunbar (21, Aqua Blue Sport)
Another one off the Axel Merckx production line, Eddie Dunbar, has been spoken about as a future star for a few years now and after two years at Axeon he has signed his first pro contract. Interestingly, he’s not heading straight into the WorldTour, but at Pro Continental level with Aqua Blue Sport. It’s a move that makes sense given the Irish connection, and since the team has established itself with a strong debut season, there should be the necessary scope for development.
Dunbar is a true all-rounder, a natural climber whose lightweight frame doesn’t seem to have held him back on the time trial bike, finishing runner-up in the Elite Irish nationals TT in 2015 and 2016. This year he won the U23 Tour of Flanders with a long solo effort, and famously caught the eye of Eddy Merckx for his aggressive racing in a Nations Cup race in 2015.
"I do believe one day I’ll have the ability to win the Tour de France. It is a bold statement, but it is something I believe I can do,” Dunbar told Cyclingtips last year. “It is something I really want to do and I will give it everything I have to do it. I do believe it is within me to do it, it is up to me to find it within myself."
While the raw physiological ingredients are there, experience, bike handling and tactical nous will be priorities for someone who has been disrupted by crashes and injuries in the past three years, and Aqua Blue might, who should be able to offer a debut Grand Tour, might just be the best place for him.
Jai Hindley (21, Sunweb)
It's not always straightforward for two budding teammates to shine alongside one another, but Jai Hindley has stood out alongside Hamilton in the colours of Michelton-Scott and Australia this year. The climber impressed with second place at the pro-level Herald Sun Tour in February, and bookended his campaign nicely with overall victory at the pro-level Tour of Fuzhou in China. In between he won a stage and finished third overall – just behind Hamilton – at the Baby Giro, and had top 10 overall results at the Tour de l’Avenir, Tour Alsace, and Rhone-Alpes Isere Tour.
While Hamilton makes the natural step up to Orica-Scott, Hindley heads to Sunweb, who started to put together a concrete offer after the Sun Tour.
"Going to a foreign team can be a good thing for the experience so you don't get comfortable,” Hindley said of his decision to swerve Orica. "They put a big emphasis on really trying to develop me for the future and that there wasn't any pressure for the first couple of years or so. That really spoke to me and you can see from the riders that are currently in the team how good they are developing them. It's pretty impressive."
Benoit Cosnefroy (23, AG2R La Mondiale)
Along with the glory, the U23 world title always carries with it a great deal of attention and expectation, and this year it’s the turn of Benoit Cosnefroy, who follows Romain Sicard, Arnaud Demare and Kevin Ledanois as the fourth French winner in nine years. Cosnefroy had already officially turned pro before clinching that rainbow jersey, which he'll now never get to wear. He signed for AG2R La Mondiale as of August, having come through their feeder set-up, Chambery Cyclisme Formation.
Cosnefroy won the Worlds in a frantic two-up sprint just three seconds ahead of the peloton, and he’s building a portfolio of attacking displays. He won a stage of the Rhone-Alpes Isere Tour this year by attacking his breakaway companions and finishing alone five seconds clear of the bunch, while a week before the Worlds he won the GP d’Isbergues in a two-up sprint, seven seconds in front of a bunch that contained Mark Cavendish and Nacer Bouhanni.
“I consider myself a puncheur, but I don’t know yet if I’m more of a 'climber-puncheur' or ‘sprinter-puncheur’. I still don't really know my profile.”
Cosnefroy will be handed a diet consisting mainly of smaller races on French soil, rather than a heavy WorldTour programme, and it will be interesting to see how his aggressive style translates to the professional ranks.
Casper Pedersen (21, Aqua Blue Sport)
Casper Pedersen has made a name for himself as someone with a wealth of potential after a string of eye-catching performances on the road and the track in the past couple of years. This year, riding for Giant-Castelli after previously racing for Riwal Platform, he won pro races at the Flèche du Sud, the GP Horsens Posten, and the opening stage of the Tour of Denmark. The latter was really impressive, as he attacked with 5km go and frustrated sprinters such as Nacer Bouhanni and Phil Bauhaus.
He has the engine of an endurance track rider and there's excitement about what he can go on to achieve with a square focus on road racing. It's worth membering that he was runner-up in the 2014 junior Paris-Roubaix.
"It is a vote of confidence in our team set up that a huge talent like this would agree to sign for us," said Aqua Blue manager Stephen Moore."
This is a list of 10, but it could have been 20. As at Sky, there's a noticeable investment in youth from Patrick Lefevere at Quick-Step Floors. He prioritized contract renewals for the likes of Fernando Gaviria and Bob Jungels, and he has also snapped up three neo pros for 2018. Fabio Jakobsen (SEG Racing) could be the pick of the bunch, the Dutch sprinter having won seven races this year, and the national U23 title two years in a row. James Knox (Team Wiggins) has had a solid string of top 10 overall finishes in major U23 stage races, while Alvaro Hodeg (Coldeportes-Claro) won a stage of the Tour de l’Avenir and has been whispered as a new Gaviria – but that's probably only because they share the rarity of being Colombians and sprinters.
British talent Scott Davies (Team Wiggins) signed for Dimension Data. The Welshman has been national U23 time trial champion four years in a row but can climb well enough to think about a future as a GC rider. Logan Owen (Axeon Hagens Berman) has his WorldTour ticket with Cannondale-Drapac, after dropping cyclo-cross to make a determined push for a top-level contract on the road. Nicola Conci (Zalf Euromobil Désirée Fior), an Italian who can do stage races and hilly one-dayers, joins Trek-Segafredo after impressing on a training camp and then a stagiaire stint.
There are also a number of second-year neo-pros worth keeping an eye on. David Gaudu (FDJ) finished ninth at Fleche Wallonne and fifth at Milano-Torino this year in another clear demonstration that he’s on his way to the top of the sport, while you have two budding Italians on UAE Team Emirates in Edward Ravasi and Filippo Ganna. Enric Mas has been spoken about as the future of Spanish cycling and he showed why in his first season with Quick-Step.
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