The 10 biggest breakthroughs of 2020

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If the 2019 season saw a number of young riders come to the fore, 2020 was confirmation of a generational shift, as Vincenzo Nibali called it

There are a number of theories as to why, but the fact is that the sport’s talents are stepping forward and making an impact at an unprecedentedly early point in their careers. 

This season has seen a number of breakthrough rides from first to second-year professionals, but there have also been huge strides made by some who’ve been pros for a few seasons already. 

Here, we look at 10 riders who really burst onto the scene this year.

Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana)

Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana) at the 2020 Vuelta a España

Aleksandr Vlasov placed 11th overall at the Vuelta a España after finishing second atop the Angliru. (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

This off-season has already seen reports about his agent Giuseppe Acquadro trying to engineer an early move to Ineos Grenadiers, and while he will see through his contract at Astana, Vlasov is set to be one of the highest-prized assets on next year’s market. 

The Russian made the step to the WorldTour a year early, having planned to stay with the Gazprom-RusVelo team in 2020, but his results have confirmed it wasn’t a moment too soon. Having won the 'Baby Giro' – the under-23 Giro d'Italia – and placed fourth at the Tour de l’Avenir in his final U23 season, followed by a string of promising results in his first full pro campaign, Vlasov wasted no time in establishing himself at the top level. 

His only race in pre-lockdown saw him win a stage and place second overall at the Tour de la Provence. He returned on French soil in August to place third overall at the Route d’Occitanie and showcased his one-day credentials with wins at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge and the Giro dell’Emilia, as well as placing third at Il Lombardia – won by his teammate Jakob Fuglsang – and fourth at Gran Piemonte.

When he placed fifth at Tirreno-Adriatico, we wondered if he could challenge for the Giro d’Italia in his debut Grand Tour, but he was forced to leave the race through illness on stage 2. Despite the disappointment, he bounced back and got a Grand Tour under his belt, placing 11th overall at the Vuelta a España, after finishing second on the stage that finished at the top of the Angliru.

João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep)

LAGHI DI CANCANO ITALY OCTOBER 22 Joao Almeida of Portugal and Team Deceuninck QuickStep Pink Leader Jersey Passo dello Stelvio Stilfserjoch 2758m during the 103rd Giro dItalia 2020 Stage 18 a 207km stage from Pinzolo to Laghi di Cancano Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio 1945m girodiitalia Giro on October 22 2020 in Laghi di Cancano Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in the pink leader’s jersey for a final day on the Passo dello Stelvio climb at the 2020 Giro d’Italia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

A product of the Hagens Berman Axeon production line, Almeida shone throughout the 2020 campaign, firstly in the shadow of Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Remco Evenepoel and later under his own spotlight. 

He was pivotal on the decisive summit finishes that led Evenepoel to overall titles at the Volta ao Algarve and the Vuelta a Burgos either side of lockdown, placing ninth and third, respectively, for himself. He went on to finish seventh at the Tour de l’Ain, in an all-star cast of Tour de France contenders. Evenepoel’s season-ending crash at Il Lombardia freed up Almeida for opportunities of his own, and he took them gladly. A brave solo move at that Giro dell’Emilia was ended only at the last minute by Astana’s Aleksandr Vlasov, and he finished on the podium at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. 

Still, few were seriously talking about Almeida as a contender for the Giro d’Italia – his debut Grand Tour. After placing second on the opening time trial, however, he took pink atop Mount Etna on stage 3 and wouldn’t relinquish it until 14 days later. The fairytale was ended by Ineos Grenadiers duo Rohan Dennis and fellow Axeon alumnus Tao Geoghegan Hart on the Stelvio, but there was no implosion from the 22-year-old. He placed seventh on that stage, before a fourth at Sestrière on the final mountain stage, and sealed fourth overall with another strong ride in the final time trial. 

Indeed, it was his strength against the clock at the Giro – placing second, sixth and fourth on the three time trials – that underlined what a bright future the Portuguese rider has in Grand Tours.

Liane Lippert (Team Sunweb)

Sunweb’s Liane Lippert wins the 2020 women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race

Sunweb’s Liane Lippert wins the 2020 women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The 2020 season was Lippert’s fourth as a professional, but she still started it at the tender age of 21. Her talent had been signalled from 2018, when she won the German road race title and the Lotto Belgium Tour, but this year she has developed significantly. 

After placing second at the Tour Down Under at the start of the year, she won the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race with a fierce attack on a late ramp. After the season re-start, she caught the eye with a string of top 10s at the Giro Rosa – where she was 13th overall – and went on to boost her Classics credentials. A fifth at the World Championships was followed by top 10s at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and then second at the Brabantse Pijl. 

With a decent sprint already in the locker, Lippert’s climbing has improved to the extent where she can get over a greater array of hills and has broadened her horizons when it comes to one-day racing.

Marc Hirschi (Team Sunweb)

SARRAN CORRZE FRANCE SEPTEMBER 10 Arrival Marc Hirschi of Switzerland and Team Sunweb Celebration during the 107th Tour de France 2020 Stage 12 a 218km stage from Chauvigny to Sarran Corrze 658m TDF2020 LeTour on September 10 2020 in Sarran Corrze France Photo by Sebastien Nogier

Marc Hirschi (Sunweb) wins stage 12 at the 2020 Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Winning the under-23 road race world title comes with its burden of expectations, and while there was evidence of Hirschi’s talents in his first professional campaign, 2020 was the year he truly broke out. 

There was nothing of note in the early part of the season, but he was simply sensational at the Tour de France. He signalled his intentions from the start, escaping with Julian Alaphilippe over the final climb on stage 2 in Nice and running him close in the sprint for the yellow jersey. Then came an extraordinary 90-kilometre solo breakaway in the Pyrenees, where he was agonisingly caught late by the overall contenders, and still managed to muster a competitive sprint for third. Victory finally came in the medium mountains to Sarran on stage 12, with a perfectly-executed solo move.

With a first Grand Tour in the legs, he went from strength to strength, claiming bronze at the World Championships road race in Imola, Italy, before winning Flèche Wallonne on his debut. He might have won his first Monument, too, were it not for Alaphilippe’s deviation in the sprint at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Still, you sense there’ll be more opportunities at the Monuments to come for Hirschi.

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)

TOPSHOT Team Jumbo rider Belgiums Wout van Aert crosses the finish line at the end of the 20th stage of the 107th edition of the Tour de France cycling race a time trial of 36 km between Lure and La Planche des Belles Filles on September 19 2020 Photo by Marco BERTORELLO POOL AFP Photo by MARCO BERTORELLOPOOLAFP via Getty Images

Wout van Aert crosses the finish line in fourth place on the stage 20 time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles at the 2020 Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Where the Belgian really broke through was uphill. His performances as a domestique for a general classification leader were astonishing. First at the Critérium du Dauphiné, then at the Tour de France – where he won two stages of his own – he led diminishing pelotons up a series of punishing climbs. It takes a special rider to win a full-on bunch sprint, or to place third on a mountain stage that goes over the Cormet de Roseland, Col des Aravis and Montée des Glières. That Van Aert did both in the same Tour points to potentially one of the greatest all-rounders the sport has seen for some time. 

Everyone knew Wout van Aert before this year, but we didn’t know just how much he could do. We’d already seen in 2019 that the three-time cyclo-cross world champion was among the world’s best Classics riders, so his victories at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, while being breakthroughs in the sense they were his first big one-day titles, were hardly surprising at all.

Mikayla Harvey (Équipe Paule Ka)

Mikayla Harvey of New Zealand and Team Paule Ka White Best Young Jersey Celebration Mask Covid safety measures Flowers during the 31st Giro dItalia Internazionale Femminile 2020 Stage 4 a 1703km stage from Assisi to Tivoli 237m GiroRosaIccrea GiroRosa on September 14 2020 in Tivoli Italy Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Mikayla Harvey of Equipe Paule Ka receives the best young rider jersey on stage 4 of the 2020 Giro Rosa (Image credit: Getty images Sport)

In amongst it all, Harvey managed to place fifth overall and take the best young rider’s jersey at the premier stage race, the Giro Rosa, where she was third on the uphill finish at San Marco la Catola. She’d already seen her top 15s at Strade Bianche, the GP Plouay and La Course as a big step forward, but leading a team and placing in an esteemed top five overall in Italy was something else. There’s more experience to be gained, but there’s clearly a very bright future ahead. 

The journey from New Zealand to the top level in Europe is a notoriously tricky one, and Harvey largely spent 2019 finding her feet and learning the ropes. Things were hardly less complicated this year, as the pandemic forced her home to New Zealand in the spring and her team sponsors dropped out, not once, but twice.

Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers)

MILANO ITALY OCTOBER 25 Podium Tao Geoghegan Hart of The United Kingdom and Team INEOS Grenadiers Pink Leader Jersey Celebration Trofeo Senza Fine Trophy Duomo di Milano Milan Cathedral during the 103rd Giro dItalia 2020 Stage 21 a 157km Individual time trial from Cernusco sul Naviglio to Milano ITT girodiitalia Giro on October 25 2020 in Milano Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) captured the overall 2020 Giro d'Italia title on the final stage (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

All it took was a couple of twists of fate. He’d bust a gut to try to make the team to support Egan Bernal on what would have been a Tour de France debut, but was forced to refocus on the Giro d’Italia. Still, he was there to support Geraint Thomas, and that much was clear in his reserved display in the opening time trial.

However, after Thomas crashed out on stage 3, 25-year-old Geoghegan Hart grew into the race and took the final week by storm. His rides on the Stelvio and on the final mountain stage to Sestrière were, he was told, among the top physiological performances in the team’s illustrious history. They’ll surely make a case for Grand Tour leadership in 2021, with Dave Brailsford having another GC contender to add to the pile. 

The Londoner has been regarded as a bright prospect ever since his under-23 days, but seemed like he might be heading down the domestique path. He formed a strong partnership with Bernal in 2018, and caught the eye helping Thomas to the Dauphiné title that year. Even when he won two stages at last year’s Tour of the Alps, it was his teammate, Pavel Sivakov, who walked away with the overall title. But Geoghegan Hart is now a Grand Tour champion.

Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers)

Team Ineos rider Italys Filippo Ganna rides during the fourteenth stage of the Giro dItalia 2020 cycling race a 341kilometer individual time trial between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene on October 17 2020 Photo by Luca BETTINI AFP Photo by LUCA BETTINIAFP via Getty Images

Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) wore his rainbow skinsuit as world champion during the 2020 Giro d’Italia, and won all three time trials at his home Grand Tour (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The big Italian was knocking on the door in 2019, with wins in the opening time trial at the Tour de la Provence and the Italian Nationals, plus bronze at the World Championships, but 2020 has established him as far and away the best time triallist in the world.  

He has the rainbow skinsuit to prove it, but also three wins from the three TTs at the Giro d’Italia, where he also won a road stage. That road to Samigliatello Silano was 225km long and featured a late, long first-category climb, where, having already dropped the rest of the day-long break, he dispatched fresher riders who’d attacked from the peloton. It was an incredible ride from the former track specialist, and one that hinted at future glories beyond time trialling.

For the time being, Ganna – who also broke his own pursuit world record with gold at the Track Worlds – will be fully focused on the clock. The Tokyo Olympic Games await in 2021, and Ganna will be the favourite for gold, even if Remco Evenepoel – the only rider to beat him in 2020 – will want to have his say.

Lizzy Banks (Équipe Paule Ka)

TIVOLI ITALY SEPTEMBER 14 Podium Elizabeth Banks of The United Kingdom and Team Paule Ka Celebration Champagne Mask Covid safety measures during the 31st Giro dItalia Internazionale Femminile 2020 Stage 4 a 1703km stage from Assisi to Tivoli 237m GiroRosaIccrea GiroRosa on September 14 2020 in Tivoli Italy Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Lizzie Banks (Equipe Paule Ka) won stage 4 of the 2020 Giro Rosa (Image credit: Getty images Sport)

Another one from the now-defunct Equipe Paule Ka – and you could highlight a third in Leah Thomas – Banks ends 2020 as one of the brightest prospects in women’s cycling.  

Having only taken up cycling in 2015, it has been an impressive rise that saw her race for UnitedHealthcare in 2018 before hitting Europe with Bigla in 2019. That year could already be seen as having been a breakthrough, with her breakaway stage win at the Giro Rosa, plus top 10s at the Tour de Yorkshire and the OVO Energy Women’s Tour. This year, however, she made a statement that she belongs in the finales of the biggest races alongside the biggest riders. She was sixth at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but was most impressive at the GP Plouay, where she kicked off hostilities with 35km to go and drew Trek-Segafredo’s Lizzie Deignan out into a successful two-up move before settling for second place. 

She then went back to the Giro Rosa and won another stage – this time a well-planned and perfectly executed affair as she initiated a break some 85 kilometres from the line before dropping her companion Eugenia Bujak on the steep final ramp. She went on to finish 12th overall and had enhanced her reputation to the extent that when the team announced it was ending, she wasn’t short of options for 2021, and will ride for Ceratizit-WNT next year.

Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling)

ALTODELANGLIRU SPAIN NOVEMBER 01 Podium Hugh Carthy of The United Kingdom and Team EF Pro Cycling Celebration Trophy Mask Covid safety measures during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 12 a 1094km stage from Pola de Laviana to Alto de lAngliru 1560m lavuelta LaVuelta20 La Vuelta on November 01 2020 in Alto de lAngliru Spain Photo by Justin SetterfieldGetty Images

Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling) won stage 12 of the 2020 Vuelta a España atop the iconic Angliru (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The no-nonsense Lancastrian has always been a talented climber, but 2020 was the year he came of age as a Grand Tour contender.  

The foundations were laid in 2019, when, in his third season in the WorldTour, he placed 11th overall at the Giro d’Italia and went on to win the 'queen stage' of the Tour de Suisse. The Giro featured some quality displays on certain stages, but was lacking in consistency. That was ironed out at the Vuelta a España, where he was in the mix from the first stage to the last. He was in the top 10 on eight of the 18 stages and claimed the biggest success of his career with victory on stage 12 atop the iconic Angliru – one of the hardest climbs in cycling. Equally encouraging was his stage 13 time trial prowess, where he placed fourth and dropped just 25 seconds to champion Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).

To go with the physiological side, he rose to the occasion with the nonchalance we’ve come to expect, and went on to talk of his credentials as a team leader and his ambitions as a Grand Tour rider. To think he nearly decided not to go the Vuelta because he thought he was cooked for the season.

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Patrick Fletcher
Deputy Editor

Deputy Editor. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2022 he has been Deputy Editor, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.