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Tour de France: 5 young debutants to watch

Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep), 24

Common sense dictates you shouldn’t expect too much from a recently-turned 24-year-old in his debut Tour de France, but Julian’s Alaphilippe’s career to date has hardly followed a standard script.

The Frenchman hit the ground running in his first season as a professional last year – with second at Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the Tour of California – and has since shown few limits to the breadth and depth of his talents.

Earlier this year he won California via victory on the summit finish stage before displaying his versatility at the Critérium du Dauphiné last week. 6th overall behind some esteemed names like Froome and Contador, he was 5th on the brutally steep opening prologue and in the top 10 on the mountain stages – at the same time as placing highly in the bunch sprints, finishing second and ahead of a certain Nacer Bouhanni on stage 4.

Alaphilippe, seemingly, can do it all and, although there are limits to what can be expected of someone as yet untested across a three-week race, it wouldn’t be considered a surprise should he surpass those expectations.

Marcel Kittel and Dan Martin are set to be the focal points of Etixx’s team, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Alaphilippe triumphing on one of the punchy stages, or winning from a break on a mountain day, or even finishing in the top 20 overall and contesting the white jersey.

Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet – and now Warren Barguil – have come through to embody the hopes of a French public hungry for the success of old, but excitement has understandably been growing around Alaphilippe, too. He seems to be one of the most versatile and precocious talents France as produced in some time, and the Tour offers him the chance to really capture the hearts and imaginations of his some public.

Dylan Groenewgen (LottoNL-Jumbo), 23

Such is the form shown by the 23-year-old Dutchman in his first season at WorldTour level, he has not only earned a Tour de France call-up but also warranted a proper leadout train in his first appearance at La Grande Boucle.

Signed from Pro Continental outfit Roompot-Oranje Peloton, Groenewegen hit the ground running at LottoNL-Jumbo, winning his first bunch sprint with the team at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and he has gone on to win on a further five occasions.

He was third in the bunch sprint behind at Kuurne-Brussel-Kurrne, edged out only by Alexander Kristoff and Nacer Bouhanni behind solo winner Jasper Stuyven – another Tour debutant. He won a stage the Three Days of West Flanders and a stage and the points jersey at the Tour de Yorkshire, but it’s his pre-Tour form that has done most to raise expectations. He won two one-day races back-to-back at Heitse Pijl and the Rund um Koln – where he beat André Greipel – before winning a stage and the points classification at the Ster ZLM Toer.

Groenewegen will be able to rely on Sep Vanmarcke and Maarten Wynants for support in the closing phases of the flat stages, though he is keen not to put any pressure on himself.

“We’re in a process in which we aim for a stage win in the Tour de France of 2018,” he said. “It went quite fast with the development of the sprint lead-out this season. Of course we want to deliver something beautiful in the Tour and when it’s up to me, it’s going to be something very beautiful, but I shouldn’t expect myself to be able to win a stage immediately.”

Groenewegen is untested across three weeks and as such he’s likely to focus all his efforts on the sprint opportunities in the first week.

Tsgabu Grmay (Lampre-Merida), 24

MTN-Qhubeka made history last year by becoming the first African-registered team to participate in the Tour de France – with Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus the first Eritreans to compete – and this year will see a further milestone in the progress of African cycling as Tsgabu Grmay lines up as the Tour’s first ever Ethiopian.

Much was made of South African Louis Meintjes’ decision to swap MTN (now Dimension Data) for the Italian Lampre-Merida team at the end of last season, but it was a move Grmay – a product of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre – had made 12 months previously. As he prepares to make history, he couldn’t be happier with his career trajectory.

“I am so so so happy. I still I can’t believe that I am going to do the Tour!” he said with his enthusiasm shining through a recent team press release.

“It was very long way coming from Ethiopia to race the Tour de France: few years ago, when you were thinking about coming from Ethiopia and participating in the Tour de France, it was something impossible for me and for all Ethiopian people. But now this thing is going to change… I am going to show that is possible and I am really really happy and proud.”

Grmay grew up at over 2000 metres altitude and is a natural climber. He recently rode the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he was an attacking presence throughout – finishing second in the KOM standings behind Teklehaimanot. That, along with his excitement at riding the Tour, might be a portent of what he hopes to do in July. Meintjes, himself just 24, will be the team’s GC leader, while Rui Costa will chase stage wins, but Grmay will no doubt be keen to showcase the green, white and red bands of Ethopian champion on the sleeves of his jersey wherever possible.

As well as Grmay and Meintjes, Lampre head to the Tour with two other young riders – and debutants to boot – in Jan Polanc, a stage winner at last year’s Giro, and Luka Pibernik.

Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), 24

The young Belgian made his breakthrough in the Classics this year with a sensational solo victory at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and is now set to make get his first taste of le Tour.

An absolute powerhouse – as he showed in holding off the sprinters at Kuurne – Stuyven should be a valuable ally for Trek’s GC leader Bauke Mollema on the flat but also possesses the finishing speed to be competitive at the sharper end of stages.

He won a stage at last year’s Vuelta a España, where he showcased that all-important Classics tool of being able to rise above – or punch through – chaos. He was caught up in a big crash with 50km remaining of stage 8, breaking his wrist, but soldiered on to make the selections on the late climbs before finishing it off in the sprint. In his post-race press conference he was keen to point out that he’d sprinted well the previous year, finishing fourth on three occasions in what was his debut Grand Tour.

Trek also possess two more young riders with fast finishes who may just be in line for a Tour debut, in Niccolo Bonifazio (22) and Edward Theuns (25). Stuyven, however, looks sure of his spot and the Tour will be an important step in his development.

He’d be much feared should he figure in a breakaway that makes it on a transitional stage, while his aggressive style may come into its own on the more chaotic and less formulaic finales.

Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale), 23

Another French rider set to showcase himself in front of the mainstream French public for the first time is Alexis Gougeard, who has made great strides over the past 12 months.

The Normand turned pro with AG2R in 2014 and scored a couple of wins on home soil before his race schedule became more serious last year – which was repaid with a storming end to the season. He won a stage and the overall at the Tour de L’Eurométropole but it was what he had done a couple of months previously that was his true announcement on the global stage. The Vuelta was his Grand Tour debut, and not only did he make it all the way to Madrid, he even won a stage, soloing away from a large breakaway on a medium mountain day.

Breakaways are where we can expect to see Gougeard. After all, he got in the break on his debut Paris-Roubaix last year, and spent a large portion of this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad out front, hanging on to finish fifth with the elite lead group that included Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan.

His main role, as with most of the AG2R squad, will be to put himself at the disposal of GC leader Romain Bardet but he will no doubt be going through the roadbook and bookmarking the stages where a breakaway is likely to prosper. Should Bardet give the nod, Gougeard will need no second invitation.

Other notable young debutants: Natnael Berhane, Jan Polanc, Luka Pibernik, Lawson Craddock, Petr Vakoc

Notable +25 debutants: Fabio Aru, Mikel Landa, Sergio Henao, Ilnur Zakarin, Domenico Pozzovivo

Notable young riders: Warren Barguil, Wilco Kelderman, Adam Yates, Bryan Coquard, Louis Meintjes, Eduardo Sepúlveda, Emanuel Bucchman, Alexey Lutsenko

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