A.K.A. 5 Neo-Pros to get your hopes up about and pick for VDS and then bang your head against the wall when they finish 2 spots out of the points and then eventually grumble about why you even picked them when you could have picked a more established pro.
Hello, everyone! It has been a while since I have been around these parts. I've moved a couple of times, been scrounging for part-time work and working on my blog, Espoirs Central. Hopefully I will be able to get back to some live threads here soon because I miss this place. In any event, I've come bearing VDS gifts...sort of. I have 5 first year professionals for you that might be able to score you some juicy VDS points. If they don't produce...well don't look at me. Read the fine print people. I am not liable for any VDS busts that I might have tipped in January. With that, let's get started.
Photo: tgsgirl (Promise I didn't steal)
1. Florian Senechal (France - Cofidis - 1993)
While Senechal is one of the youngest neo-pros for 2014, he is one of the most talented. As a junior, Senechal won the Paris-Roubaix Juniors in a FABulous solo breakaway ahead of Alexis Gougeard (now Ag2r neo-pro) and Maarten van Trijp. That same year, 2011, he also finished 2nd in the Ronde van Vlaanderen Juniors, won the Keizer der Juniores stage race and finished 4th in the Juniors Worlds RR in Copenhagen, where he won the group sprint ahead of Rick Zabel just behind a breakaway of three.
Heading into the U23's in 2012, Senechal joined EFC-OPQS, the amateur arm of the OPQS leviathan. With EFC, he kept developing his rouleur and classic skills and rode beyond his age. He had two early wins in Belgium at Brussels-Opwijk and a solo win in the Prijs Stad Roeselaere. He finished 10th in the difficult Tour de Bretagne followed by a 9th in the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs later that month. He got a call-up for a stagiaire spot with OPQS in the late summer and took advantage of it by finishing well in every race that included the Tour of Denmark and Paris-Tours. He transferred to the new Etixx-iHNed team in 2013, which is continental feeder team for OPQS. Senechal spent more time in breakaways in the early season but was still able to get some good results such as 2nd on the queen stage at Boucle de l'Artois (where he finished 9th overall) and finished 6th in the 1.1 Tour du Finistère. His spring continued on with a 12th in the 1.1 Rund um Köln and had strong rides at the Paris-Arras Tour and Thüringen Rundfahrt. He started to come into form in August where he won a Polish one-day race and then finished 5th in the first stage of the Tour des Fjords, where he won the bunch sprint behind the four-man breakaway. He finished off his season well with a stage win at the Okolo Jiznich Czech, which propelled him to the overall victory, a 2nd in the Kustpijl and then 4th in the Paris-Tours Espoirs. The Nord-Pas-de-Calais product has his heart set on the one-day classics but can definitely produce in stage races with breakaway stage wins along with small bunch sprints.
OPQS wanted Senechal to stay on Etixx for another year because they were full for 2014 but the young Frenchman was restless and decided to sign with Cofidis for 2014. He has already been producing at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, where he has three top 10 finishes in the first three days. As of now, he is down for nearly all of the classics including Omloop, K-B-K, Le Samyn, West Vlaanderen, Dwars Door, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem and could possibly ride Flanders and Roubaix, depending on how his form is after a heavy spring. He could definitely breakthrough at a French 1.1 race for some points but I wouldn't count him out of grabbing a few points at a bigger classic. Big talent this one.
2. Chag Haga (USA - Giant-Shimano - 1988)
Not all of these picks will be very young like Senechal. Chad Haga has been tearing it up in America the last few years with Jonas Carney's Optum-Kelly Benefits team. Studying engineering at Texas A&M. Haga started racing seriously while in college and is a product of NCCA racing. After a strong early 2011 that included a prologue win at Mount Hood along with a 2nd in the longer TT, he was picked up by Kelly Benefits mid-year and went on to finish 3rd in the Tour of Elk Grove. In 2012, he was up and down at the start of the year and actually worried about getting renewed for another year but after a time trial win at the Cascade Classic, he was safe for 2013. The day after his win, he crashed and broke his left wrist and thumb. Not knowing this for certain at the time, Haga kept plowing on and barely able to grip the handlebars, he came in 16 minutes down with a big grimace on his face.
Haga came out storming in 2013 with a 3rd overall in the Merco Cycling Classic behind Phil Gaimon (now Garmin) and Ben Jacques-Maynes, 2nd in the 2.2 Volta ao Alentejo behind Jasper Stuyven and a win in the opening TT at Redlands along with 2nd overall in the California race. Was he done? Nope. He went to Joe Martin in Arkansas and won the overall there ahead of Francisco Mancebo, who beat him at Redlands. At the Tour of California, Haga was 6th on the stupid hot Palm Springs uphill finish and after solid finishes the rest of the race, he hung on for 10th overall. Haga had done enough to get a contract with Giant-Shimano, along with fellow Texan Lawson Craddock, and looks set to get a few leadership opportunities at shorter stage races with time trials. So if you are looking for a nerdier pick, Haga is your man.
Anyone interested should listen to his Open Mic with Mike Creed podcast appearance. I'm a big fan of the show and seeing that Creed was his teammate for ~2.5 years, it is a very interesting listen.
3. Riccardo Zoidl (Austria - Trek Factory -1988)
While the rest of my picks have next to no VDS points from previous years, Riccardo Zoidl amassed nearly 300 points thanks to a win in the Austrian Elite RR and an overall win in the Österreich Rundfahrt. While I wouldn't count this big of a point scorer normally, Zoidl only had one pick last year and while his price will be jacked up this year, he definitely deserves to be mentioned. While not technically a neo-pro because he is outside of the age requirement, I'm bending the rules here. While many people's alarm bells were ringing about a 25 year old seemingly coming out of nowhere, I want to put to rest any fears that people might have. Riding for RC Arbö-Gourmetfein for the last seven years, Zoidl didn't sign a professional contract until 2012. He worked 20 hours a week in a sports shop and was also in school for a while as well but kept making fitness gains every year. He doesn't train with a power meter and is pretty steadfast about his diet; with one of his favorites being cereals in hot water. Yum. According to an older interview, he didn't mind training in cold, rainy conditions one bit during the winter. Okay, now that you are acquainted, let's learn about his cycling results.
Zoidl was a good U23 and had top 10 overall finished in the Thüringen Rundfahrt and the Tour de Berlin in 2010. In his first elite season in 2011, Zoidl won the summit finish at the Sibiu Tour in Romania at Balea Lac. This stage is famous because it goes up the Transfagarasan Highway, the infamous road that dictator Nicolai Ceausescu commissioned in the 1970's that has been described as the best driving road in the world by Top Gear. In 2012, he signed a professional contract (i.e. racing for a little money) with Arbö-Gourmetfein Wels and began to up his training. It showed as he won the Austrian National TT, won the Austrian Tchibo Cup (think NRC/NRS), won a stage of the Oberösterreich Rundfahrt (3rd overall) and had a breakout ride in the World Championship TT in Valkenburg, where he finished 14th, 2:58 behind Tony Martin and on the same time as Sylvain Chavanel.
In his 2nd professional year in 2013, Zoidl just came into his own and was a dominant force on the continental scene. He was hot early in the spring, finishing 5th in the Coppi e Bartali overall but heading into April, he just went to another level. He won the Circuit des Ardennes overall via a breakaway and strong TT. He won the Tour de Bretagne a breakaway stage win on stage two and then finishing 2nd in the TT to win the week-long race by nearly a minute. He was 4th in the Friuli Venezia Giulia and followed it up with wins in the Austrian Hillclimb Championship, GP Judendorf, the Oberösterreich overall (+two stage wins) and the Austrian Elite RR, all in the span of about 2.5 weeks. After a summer break, he finished 2nd, 5th and 4th on the big mountain stages at the Österreich Rundfahrt (Tour of Austria) and TTed just well enough to take the overall jersey on the penultimate day and won the overall by 33 seconds. It was a season to remember for Zoidl as he won the UCI Europe in commanding style along with winning the Austrian Tchibo Cup for the 2nd year running.
Zoidl is the most prepared first-year World Tour rider this year so do not be surprised if he gets a big result this year. A word of caution though. At the World Championship RR in Florence, Zoidl was involved in a crash during the big rain storm and cracked his pelvis, which put him off the bike for a month and a half. There have been no complications thus far but if his performance is down early, this might be one of the reasons why.
4. Gianfranco Zilioli (Italy - Androni-Venezuela - 1990)
Skeletor has returned. Gianfranco Zilioli looks like he could use a donut or two but his hollow cheeks and rail-thin arms, along with some strong legs, propelled him to 9 wins in 2013. Zilioli began to ride his bike at just 6 years old and it took a while for the Bergamo native to achieve some big results. In 2010, he finished 9th overall in the Giro della Valle d'Aosta, which is nestled in the heart of big mountain country. In 2011, He was 13th in the GiroBio and 10th in Valle d'Aosta while also doing well in some Italian amateur one-day races. He stepped up another level in 2012 in his final U23 season and won the famed Bassano-Monte Grappa mountain climb, won the hilly GP Capodarco one-day in a solo break along with stepping it up on the GC front with a 5th in Valle d'Aosta overall.
Zilioli came to a crossroads at the end of the 2012 season. He didn't have a pro contract and he faced the prospect of heading into the elite-amateur ranks, which many talented riders enter but few secure big pro contracts. He is also trained as an electrician so if it didn't work out he had something to fall back on. He decided to stay with Team Colpack, also the home of Davide Villella, who signed with Cannondale, for the 5th season in a row and it paid off. In the span of six weeks, Zilioli won seven races including an uphill time trial, four one-day races and a stage and the overall in the Giro della Valli Cuneesi nelle Alpi del Mare. With a stagiaire role with Androni confirmed, his 3rd place in the GP Capodarco more or less confirmed his contract for 2014 but the best of 2013 was yet to come. He rode well in Italian 1.1 races and then rode to 6th overall in the Settimana Lombarda, thanks to a 6th on a summit finish. Two weeks later, he rode to an impressive solo win the 1.1 GP Prato. After capping of his season with an 11th in the Giro dell'Emilia, Zilioli confirmed that he was ready for the pro ranks.
Zilioli is going to be getting a full schedule of stage races and Italian one-days and hopes to ride the Giro d'Italia, especially the stage finish at Monte Campione, which is close to his home base, but isn't holding his breath on anything.
5. Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands - Garmin-Sharp - 1992)
Limiting myself to just five riders is always tough so I'm sticking to my guns and going with my intuition on this one. Dylan van Baarle was the best U23 for the first half of 2013 and while there is the possibility that he could fall into the trap that other Dutch prodigies have gone into, I think his move to Garmin could be smart in the long run. After breaking his acetabulum in late 2012, van Baarle came storming into 2013 with a chip on his shoulder. After a DNF due to arctic conditions at the Beverbeek Classic, van Baarle won two races in a row, the Ster van Zwolle in a small sprint and the Dorpenomloop in a solo breakaway in the final 5 kilometers. He followed it up with a 3rd overall in the Tour de Normandie, where he narrowly won a rainy, hilly stage but was caught and passed by former Tour de France KOM winner Anthony Charteau in the final kilometers. He won the time trial in the Tour de Bretagne and finished 4th overall and won the Olympia's Tour for the 2nd year running after a long rainy breakaway stage win and a strong time trial. He won the Thüringen Rundfahrt by using his time trial skills and climbing just well enough. He won both the Netherlands U23 RR and TT and also did well in other one-day races such as the Omloop Het BlahBlahBlah U23 (9th), the Paris-Tours Espoirs (10th), the Münsterland Giro (5th) and the World U23 RR, where he finishing in 7th in the front group.
All of this results talk can tend to go through one ear and out the other. Van Baarle is going to be a classics rider that has the ability to win stage races that aren't too hilly and, most likely, have a time trial. Think about Lars Boom...Van Baarle is very similar to Lars Tree except he can climb a bit better. Van Baarle starts at the Dubai Tour this year and will be looking to shadow Langeveld and Nuyens at the Classics this year. He says his dreams are the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix so hopefully you will see him in there in a few years time.
So there are a few big omissions here so I thought I would pop some VDS bubbles and give some more hints out. Two riders that are able to score some points are Orica's Simon Yates and OPQS' Julian Alaphilippe.
From Manchester, Simon Yates has been one of the golden boys of the British system. As a first year U23, he won a stage of the Tour de l'Avenir. 2012 was quieter but included an 8th on the queen stage of the Tour of Britain. 2013...well he was napalming people left and right with some hellacious attacks. He won the World Track Points Race Championship in Minsk ahead of Movistar's Eloy Teruel. He was top 20 in all three of the spring Nations Cups including 3rd in the La Côte Picarde, where he launched the winning move that included Caleb Ewan. After winning the Arden Challenge, he was all over the top 10 in sprints and hilly finishes throughout the season and finished in the top 10 of such races as the An Post Ras, Thüringen Runfahrt, Fléche du Sud and the Tour de l'Avenir, where he also won two stages that both features hilly parcours. His biggest result of 2013 was the queen stage win at the Tour of Britain, which propelled him to 3rd overall. He was one of the hottest items on the market and was courted by SKY among others but Simon was looking to stay with his twin brother Adam, who finished 2nd in the Tour de l'Avenir, and the duo decided on Australia's Orica for 2014 and beyond.
Julian Alaphilippe hails from what I think is the exact center of France. Literally, he is from Saint-Armond-Montrond and it is 5 miles away from one of a few towns that claims it is the geographic centre of France. Alaphilippe made his name in cyclocross and was 2nd in the junior Worlds and has won the French U23 Cyclocross title twice but 2013 saw his focus shift to the road. Like Yates, Alaphilippe has a nose for the top 10 thanks to a good sprint and was seemingly always around. He won a breakaway win at the Tour de Bretagne, won the queen stage of the Thüringen Rundfahrt, won the GP Südkärnten and had three 3rd place finishes (prologue + two sprints) and a stage win on Plâteau des Glières, when he dropped Matej Mohoric. In hillier one-day races, Alaphilippe did well. He was on flying form at the Worlds RR but seemed to attack too early and when Matej Mohoric bridged up to him, he couldn't answer the Slovenian's power and was brought back into the fold and had to settle for 9th. Look for Alaphilippe in the attacks in 2014, starting at the Tour Down Under, along with some select one-day races.