We are now all the way through the Tour de France and contract rumors are swirling, per usual. While the Tour de France might be the biggest job interview in cycling, there are plenty of other racers that are trying to break through the ranks and secure a contract for 2013. Every year we see guys make the jump from the continental ranks to the World Tour with some excelling while others need more time to find their feet. I'm going to present to you 3 riders (plus a few others) that I think should get recognized and get a big contract for next year. Now the majority of these guys are not young riders because this post for have 3 parts if I went through every U23 rider that deserves to get a WT ride. No, these guys are from more non-traditional cycling locales and have slogged through the continental ranks. You might know some of these riders but for the vast majority, I think some of these names will be new on your radar.
1. Reinardt Janse van Rensburg (MTN-Qhubeka/South Africa)
For fans, this is probably one of the names that you know best because of the amazing season he has had so far. The 23 year-old South African has progressively gotten stronger over the years with his MTN squad but over the last 12 months, Janse van Rensburg has exploded onto the scene. Beginning to ride in his mid-teens, JvR began to make a name for himself in his first couple years as an elite rider on the South African circuit, which mainly consists of mass-start cycle-tours, before being signed by the MTN-Energade squad for 2010. With a focus on Continental African races, JvR began to place high results in races such as the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, Tour of Morocco and Tour of Rwanda. Managing a stage win at the Tour of Rwanda, this is also where JvR ran into the one-man wrecking crew that is Daniel Teklehaimanot, who also beat him in the African TT and RR championships.
Beginning 2011, JvR hit it off with 6th overall at the Amissa Bongo but was denied a stage win by Teklehaimanot. While it might be surprising to those in the Northern Hemisphere, JvR's season didn't take off until the World Championships. Riding to a 17th place on a Copenhagen course that didn't suit him well, JvR then went to the Herald Sun Tour in Australia where he finished 4th overall including a stage win over the likes of Baden Cooke and Jonathan Cantwell. Not to be outdone, he then went 2nd overall in the 2.HC Tour of Hainan. His season ended with a sour taste in his mouth by being beaten by Teklehaimanot or another Eritrean in all three races at the African Championships.
JVR's upward trajectory continued this year with the diverse MTN-Qhubeka, which includes riders from all over Africa, and he went on a tear for the first half of his season. Winning the S.A. national TT championship, JvR went to the Tour of Morocco and proceeded to win 4 stages (his teammate Aaran Brown winning another 4) while winning the G.C. overall. With an expanded program for the 2012 season, MTN-Qhubeka sent JvR and teammates to Europe for a 2 month adventure that turned out to be fruitful. After finding his feet in some one-day races, JvR went on a tear winning the Tour de Bretagne overall, winning a stage on the Mur de Bretagne, and the Ronde van Overijssel overall. On this hot streak of form, JvR won the Circuit de Wallonie one-day race after powering over the steep wall at the end.
Janse van Rensburg finished up his season so far with a 10th place at the Fleche du Sud stage race in Luxembourg, along with the Points jersey, and a 4th place at the Tour de Gironde in France. In what was his crowning achievement in his season, and his career so far, JvR won the Ronde van Zeeland Seaports. After an attack by Luca Ascani with 20km to go, JvR followed a move by Lars Boom and madison World Champion Gijs van Hoecke. With Mark Renshaw trying to bridge, JvR and van Hoecke hit the gas and the group stayed clear to the line with JvR taking the sprint easily over Boom. With all-around skills that are ready for the World Tour (it was last rumored that 4-5 WT teams were after him), Reinardt Janse van Rensburg should be getting a contract with one of the big squads.
2. Robert Vrečer (Team Vorarlberg/Slovenia)
The Slovenian-strong man has taken a slow road to get to the top, which included a false start at the end of last year. Vrecer was set to sign with the Geox squad until the plugged was finally pulled late last year and Vrecer was left to find a team for the 2012 season. Vrecer did not sign with Vorarlberg, a former Pro Continental team that ran into financial issues and had to step down to the Continental level again, until March.
Vrecer was a late comer into road cycling after having won the Slovenian MTB championship on 4 occasions before coming to the road in 2006 with team Radenska-Powebar. Vrecer's progress was on an upward trajectory through his first couple of years until he found his stride in 2008, winning 5 races in Italy and the Balkans in small group sprints and solo finishes on mountains and in flatter territory, his talent was growing but after a dry 2009 which only included one win, Vrecer was out of a contract for 2010. It wasn't until the small Slovenian Continental Obrazi - Delo Revije squad signed him in March that Vrecer was able to show himself and show himself he did. 2010 brought a huge amount of success for Vrecer. In his first stage race just two weeks after being signed, Vrecer dominated the prologue in the Istrian Spring Trophy in Croatia over Wilco Kelderman. To stamp his authority, Vrecer also took out the mountainous queen stage and take the overall crown. After having to deal with a lack of race invites in the summer, Vrecer dominated the Tour of Slovakia by winning yet another mountainous queen stage and taking out the 20km TT to win the overall.
2011 would hold more of the same for the Slovenian. After switching to another Slovenian Continental team, Perutnina Ptuj (I have no idea on that pronunciation), which held soon to be World Tour rider Gregor Gazvoda (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Vrecer had his biggest year to date. Vrecer absolutely decimated the prologue at the Istrian Spring Trophy (he took out 25 seconds on U-23 TT stud Lawson Craddock in just 5.8 km) followed by winning the queen stage again and the overall. Continuing his reign of terror in the TT, Vrecer blitzed the TT at the Szlakiem Grodow Piastowskich at over a 48 kph pace to take and took overall honors again. In a tour that is growing in many respects, Vrecer took out the prologue in the Tour of Slovenia over guys such as Kristjan Koren, Vincenzo Nibali and Giovanni Visconti. Showing his uphill prowess as well, Vrecer took 4th on the queen stage to finish up 3rd overall. Strong results in Qinghai Lake (supporting Gazvoda to an overall win) and the Giro di Padania garnered a contract offer from Geox yet at the 11th hour, the team was left without support and left Vrecer out in the cold again. With his Perutnina Ptuj team folding, Vrecer did not find a contract until March when the Austrian-based Vorarlberg stepped up.
Not being able to ride his first race until March, Vrecer won a stage in the Tour du Loir-et-Cher (with a highlight video). Riding in the Tour of Hellas (Greece), Vrecer took on Davide Rebellin (Meridiana-Kamen) in a head to head duel and came out on top in the overall, courtesy of a stage win on the first day providing bonus seconds. In June, Vrecer was able to sew up his first Slovenian TT title after following short to Janez Brajkovic the previous year by mere seconds. After winning the Oberösterreichrundfahrt (yes, it really is all one word) stage race in June, Vrecer was able to show his stuff at the Tour of Austria by finishing 6th on the queen stage to the Kitzbüheler Horn behind legitimate climbers like Danilo Di Luca, Steve Morabito and Thomas Rohregger and beating guys such as Marco Pinotti and Jakob Fuglsang. Vrecer was able to gain time throughout the week and then defended himself against better climbers with great aplomb to finish 3rd overall.
After finishing 2nd in the GP Nobili behind Danilo Di Luca, Vrecer is punching his ticket to the World Tour. With good TT skills and climbing skills to hang with some of the better climbers, Vrecer could be coming to a stage race near you.
photo via www.bicisvet.com
3. Gediminas Bagdonas (An Post-Sean Kelly/Lithuania)
My first memory of Gediminas Bagdonas was from the Tour of Qatar in 2011. Coming into the final couple of kilometers, a stocky guy in a green jersey who I presumed to be Niko "Rambo" Eeckhout, came barreling up the side of the peloton, who was going full bore, and began to pull the peloton for a brief period before pulling off. Later finding out to be Bagdonas, I put him into the back of my head to be remembered for later. He would go onto win 14 races in 2011.
The now-26 year old Bagdonas came up through the track system with Lithuania with a focus on the pursuit and team pursuit along with Ignatas Konovalovas (Movistar) and eventually Aidis Kruopis (Orica-GreenEdge). With Lithuania not having any road races, the Lithuanians set up shop in Belgium and began to carve out a niche for themselves. Bagdonas began to win races in Belgium in 2006 and 2007 along with high places overall in such races as the Olympia Tour. Having abandoned the track, Bagdonas rode on the same team as Kruopis and Navardauskas for a 3 year stretch. At only 22, Bagdonas won the Lithuanian TT championship along with 2 overall GC's in Belgium. Bagdonas' style on the bike was brutal, breaking away near the end of races and powering his way to victories ahead of charging bunches, with Kruopis usually winning the bunch sprint. After a very light schedule in 2008 with the Kazakh Ulan team, the horde of Lithuanians were left out to dry in 2009 when their Italian-Lithuanian fusion team, Piemonte, collapsed and disbanded. 2010 saw the band get broken up and Bagdonas, the oldest of the bunch, having to find an amateur ride in Belgium with the PWC Aliplast squad, where he was able to win 7 races and earn a contract with An Post-Sean Kelly the following year
2011 turned out to be an incredibly successful year. After being thrown into the deep end of Belgian racing with racing all of the spring semi-classics like Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, E3 Prijs and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Bagdonas found his feet in the Belgian kermis scene with the help of veteran bad-ass Niko Eeckhout and soon began to get bigger results. Using his patented hardman technique of breaking away and using his quick turn of speed in the sprints, Bagdonas won both the An Post Ras and Ronde de l'Oise overall including 3 stage wins. To cap off his fantastic spring, Bagdonas won the Lithuanian TT championship over powerhouse Ramunas Navardauskas. In what was his finest win of his career, Bagdonas led a breakaway to the line in stage 7 of the Tour of Britain and took the sprint for the win. On the back of a strong Worlds in Copenhagen, Bagdonas was set to sign with Geox (funny how that name came up again) for 2012 before the straw house was blown down and Bagdonas, in need of a team, was back to An Post-Sean Kelly for another year.
2012 has been a good year for Bagdonas. One might expect a rider to lose some motivation after losing a contract but Bagdonas has racked up results in the first half of his season. In the early season, Bagdonas showed consistency with no DNF's until the brutal Volta Limburg. To cap off his spring, he went 2nd at Rund um Köln in some of the worst weather of the season. Being on a continental team, Bagdonas had a steady diet of kermis races and smaller races which he had to do with. After getting 3 podiums in pro kermises and winning 2 of them, Bagdonas racked up 2 stage wins at the An Post Ras, never finishing outside the top 10 on any stage. To cap off his 1st half of the year, Bagdonas won the Lithuanian RR Championship ahead of Navardauskas and Kruopis. Resplendent in his Lithuanian champions jersey, Bagdonas has his eyes set on the Olympics after an extended period at altitude.
Used under the Creative Commons License. Photo by Sum_of_Marc
4 Bonus riders
Sergey Firsanov (Russia/RusVelo)
Being on the new Pro Continental formation led by Henk Vogels, Firsanov has had a tremendous year. After 7 years on continental squads ranging from Latvia to Denmark to Russia, the 30 year old Firsanov has had big results all over Europe. He went 2nd at GP Adygeya to GiroBio strongman Ilnur Zakarin, 3rd at the Rund um Eschborn-Frankfurt, 1st overall and a stage win at the Vuelta a Madrid, 5th at the Tour of Norway, 4th at the Tour of Belgium and then 7th at Qinghai Lakes...astounding! Using a combination of strong time-trial skills and great climbing, Firsanov deserves a promotion to the World Tour
Marek Rutkiewicz (CCC Polsat/Poland)
Rutkiewicz, who came onto the scene in France and turned pro with Cofidis, was caught up in the 2004 doping affair and has been treated as persona non grata in the cycling world since then. As a rider who beat Richard Virenque on Grand Colombier in 2002, Rutkiewicz lost his new contract with RAGT Semences after being found in the possession of doing products. His license was suspended by the Polish federation but was able to ride that year's Tour of Poland. Since then, Rutkiewicz has been exiled to Polish teams but has been able to gain good results that would warrant a promotion. Nearly always in the top 10 at the Tour of Poland, Rutkiewicz has had contracts fall through with ISD-Neri and most recently, NetApp because of his shady past. After a big year last year and a steady year this year, I still believe the 31 year old Pole deserves another chance.
Ioannis Tamouridis (SP Tableware/Greece)
Hailing from Greece, Tamouridis might seem like the most off the wall choice in this list. Having done next to nothing on the road, Greece as a cycling nation is still behind nearly every other European nation but Tamouridis is a diamond in the rough. While getting his start in mountain bikes, Tamouridis switched to the road and track. Tamouridis racked up big track results with multiple medals at the world championships and world cups in the points and scratch competitions along with appearances in omnium competitions. Tamouridis began to focus on the road more and had steady results but had an exceptional season last year. With 33 top 10 finishes in races across much of Eastern Europe, Tamouridis showed incredible consistency in a rouleur package. This year, Tamouridis has had a similar year with incredible consistency in sprints, mountains and some time trials. With his focus on the Olympics RR this year, watch for the lone Greek competitor. I hope that he gets a shot on a bigger continental squad or on a Pro Continental team.
Adil Jelloul (Morocco)
The 30 year old Moroccan has been a stalwart on the UCI African Tour for the good part of the last decade. Riding in almost every UCI race on the African continent; Senegal, Burkinca Faso, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Rwanda and Gabon are just some of the places Jelloul has rode, where it is very uncommon to see him outside of the top 5, let along the top 10. There is a two part reason why I think he should be getting a promotion soon. Jelloul has a number of UCI points from high placings in the UCI Africa Tour that can be cashed in, especially with teams that are on the cusp. 2nd, Jelloul raced his first couple of European stage races in the Tour of Slovakia and Czech Cycling Tour, finishing 4th in the latter, which might be a hint that he is ready to move up. In any case, Jelloul does deserve a place on a big team, whether in Europe or not. Watch for him at the Olympic RR as apart of the Moroccan team.