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Catching up with the Kids, Part 2

This is the second installment in an occasionally on-going series on young riders. There are so many talented kids in the sport, I can hardly fit them all into one post. So, I won't try. Instead, I'll revisit this topic sometime after the Tour de France, and see how some of these riders fared at the big French party, and highlight a few others worth watching that I haven't covered. Like say, last year's U23 World Champion. Also, I seem to have overlooked Spain completely in these first two installments. This, too, must be remedied. But not today. Enjoy!

Now with Andy Schleck!

Read on, below the fold...

Marc Madiot of Française des Jeux has predicted that Rémy Di Grégorio has the same potential in the high mountains as Philippe Gilbert has shown in the classics. Di Grégorio started out on the mountain bike at age 11, and also during his early career, loved cyclocross (he was a big fan of both John Gadret and Sven Nijs). Already at age 12, he knew he wanted to be professional, annd since switching to road full time, he has steadily accumulated results. In 2003, he won the French junior national championship time trial, and six months after leaving the junior ranks he signed his first pro contract with Madiot. In this Di Grégorio is a rarity: few, if any riders, turn professional without spending at least a season or two as an éspoir. At the age of 20, he won the 8th stage of the 2006 Tour de l'Avenir, while riding for Français des Jeux, a win he recalls as important, since it was two years as a professional before he achieved victory. He managed to win that stage while riding for team mates. More tellingly, though, that same year di Grégorio finished 15th on the Ventoux, and 20th overall, at the Dauphiné Libéré. His 20th on GC put him only four places down on Iban Mayo. As Madiot put it, "he wants to progress very fast." Di Grégorio counts the Dauphiné as his favorite race - he says it inspires him. It's easy to see why, as some of his best results have come at the June race. In 2007, he won the Maillot à Pois of best climber there, raising expectations for his Tour debut. Unfortunately, his Tour ended after stage 4 last year, when a crash left him with a broken elbow. He finished the stage all the same, seven minutes down on the winner, Thor Hushovd, prompting Madiot to call him "un courageux." Even as a junior he was known for his determination, once riding an 80 km solo break to ensure that he won not only the GC but also a stage during a stage race. This season di Grégorio has so far finished ninth on Mount Faron at the Tour de Med, and 3rd in the mountains classification at the Tour of Romandie.

Currently, di Grégorio is riding the Dauphiné, and is looking forward to the Alpe d'Huez stage in the upcoming Tour de France, where he is increasingly confident he will number among those chosen to represent FDJ. In a recent interview, he said he wanted "to give pleasure to the French public, so many of whom come to the Dauphiné and encourage him," and by all accounts, he enjoys seeing his name painted on the roads. Though he won time trials as a junior, he is focused for now on the climbs. "Maybe the rolleur will come back, but for now I'm a grimpeur," he says. The French press has called Di Grégorio the new Virenque, a label he finds flattering, since in his view, he has yet to acquire results on that level. Alas, he has no web presence whatsoever. Really, there should be a law.

A French sprinter, riding for Agritubel, Romain Feillu is in his second year as a professional. The very best thing about Romain Feillu? He blogs! (Or, at least, someone blogs for him.) Feillu finished second at U23 Worlds in Salzburg behind Gerald Ciolek. Feillu rode a fabulous first season as professional where he consistently placed in the Tour sprints (a pair of top 5 finishes and a top ten) and had four victories. A case of toxoplasmosis, which he was told would require six months recovery, has derailed his 2008 season. Feillu lost the first part of the season, but he proved able to return to racing in early May at the Tour de Picardie. He celebrated his first win soon after, at the June Boucles de l'Aulne, which he said "helped him turn the page," and left him "crazy with joy." Things were looking up. Then, Feillu crashed out of the Tour of Luxembourg, but not before finishing second in a sprint behind Juan Jose Haedo. Because of his long absence from racing, he was "hyper super méga giga" content with his second place finish. Though his injuries from Luxembourg required some days off the bike, they fortunately proved relatively minor and he is currently looking forward to the French national championship. In May, Agritubel announced that Feillu would not ride the Tour, because his preparation remained too far behind after his illness. Will they change their minds? Feillu is still hoping for a last minute invitation, if he rides well at the French championships. The Olympics? Too hard, says Feillu. His nickname is La Feuille, or "the leaf," and he has a webby and a bloggy and a very full guest book.

Speaking of sprinters, Gerald Ciolek is part of the sprinters' party over at Team High Road. Could one team assemble more talented young sprinters? No, I didn't think so. Ciolek won the U23 World Championship on the road in Salzburg, a year after he won the elite national championship in Germany over Erik Zabel and Robert Förster. He has 26 wins as a professional, no small haul for a rider who turns 22 in September. In 2007, his first year in the pro tour, he won three stages of the Deutschland Tour, 2 stages of the Tour of Austria, and the overall at the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt. More recently, he won two stages and the sprint jersey at the Bayern-Rundfahrt. According to his webby, his upcoming races include the Tour de Suisse, the German national championship, and the Tour de France. In his freetime, Ciolek likes to shop and relax. He could not possibly live without his celly or his winter vacation. Motto? Träume kann man leben! Taking a few liberties with the translatin', I'll say: Follow your dreams! Team High Road tells us that he is also very shy, but he looks pretty smiley here.

Also at Team High Road is Edvald Boasson Hagen who began riding in 1995, dividing his time between cycling and cross country skiing. He soon found he won more races on the bike, and has pursued a cycling career ever since. And a very successful career, at that. In 2006, at age 19, he celebrated ten victories in the U23s, including three stages (!) of the Tour de l'Avenir. In 2007, he won the Norweigian national championship against the watch. Now 21 years old, he rides for Team High Road, after several major teams came a-courting. His most notable result this season came at Critérium International, where he won the final crono ahead of team mate Tony Martin. He also won the GP de Denain in a four-up sprint against Frédéric Guesdon, Jimmy Casper, and Jimmy Engoulvent.

About cycling Boasson Hagen tells Team High Road, it is "so many things. It's exciting - so much can happen in a race, it's very tactical and you have to be persistent." Unfortunately, we do not learn his favorite past times, because he has no webby. Nor does he blog. But he is on facebook. All that aside, he has to be one of the most talented young riders racing now. Updated information is scarce on the High Road site, so it's unclear if he rides the Tour, or waits another year. Certainly, there is no hurry.

Is it me, or has Team High Road hired every talented young rider on the planet? Linus Gerdemann apparently has a deep aversion to the internet. What? No website? Alas. As an U23, Gerdemann won the German national championship on the road in 2004, and he is a product of the same German regional team, Team Akud-Arnolds Sicherheit, as Gerald Ciolek. Bjarne Riis called him the next Jan Ullrich (before that was a bad thing), and promptly signed him to CSC, only to have the wunderkind leave him for TMobile. At the time Gerdemann believed he'd receive more chances to ride at TMobile, since CSC was devoted to Ivan Basso's stage racing ambitions. (Some ancient history, there.) The cash that TMobile could offer certainly did not hurt either. Team soap operas aside, Gerdemann is likely best known for his stage seven victory at last year's Tour de France where he took over the race lead, and showed some serious grinta. In 2005, he won a stage of the Tour de Suisse, and in 2006, finished 7th overall.

Over the past two seasons, Gerdemann has proven an adept stage-chaser, but has found fewer successes in the general classification, though he rides consistently well both in the mountains and against the watch. All in good time. During his time with Riis, he worked with Cecchini, where he found that the style of training which emphasized interval work over long kilometers gave him good form. Once the Puerto scandal broke, Gerdemann broke ties with Ceccho, recognizing that the press would constantly criticize the connection. Gerdemann began this year well, finishing the Monte Paschi Eroica in third behind Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan. A nasty crash at Tirreno-Adriatico left him with a broken femur and an uncertain future, at least for this season. He is hoping to return in time for the Deutschland Tour in August. When not riding his bike, he likes going out with his girlfriend and friends, and needs to have fun to be happy. Motto? All for one, and one for all! And the other two museketeer are? (Thanks to the good people at Pez for these last few tidbits.) He also counts Jens! Voigt and Laurent Jalabert as his idols, because of their attacking style.

Yes, every talented young rider wears the High Road Jersey. Proof? Swedish rider Thomas Lövkvist rides for Team High Road and is definitely talented. In 2004 at age 20, he finished second in the Tour de l'Avenir, and won a stage and the overall at the Circuit de Sarthe. In 2006, he became Swedish national champion on the road, and the following year won a stage and finished second overall at the Critérium International. His most notable result this season is a third place finish in the GC at Tirreno-Adriatico. He reportedly likes video games and sports cars, and played hockey for nine years. During the winter, he enjoys long mountain bike rides in the snow. Currently, Lövkvist is 24, and is in desperate need of a website. Someone should also track him down and interview him. Information beyond results is scarce.

Or, maybe they don't all ride for High Road. Because Trent Lowe doesn't. An ex-national champion for Australia on the mountain bike and a junior world mountain bike champion (2002), Trent Lowe got noticed on the road for a stage win at Oak Glen at Redlands and a 2nd in GC in 2005. He was 20 at the time, riding for North American team, Jittery Joes, and still racing mountain bikes full time (He won Sea Otter that year, also). That result and his obvious climbing potential caught the eye of Discovery where he spend the 2007 season. The Tour-focus of the team and the lack of sponsor demands meant that smaller races, where young riders typically gain experience, were few and far between on the Discovery calender. Consequently, Lowe rode a light schedule and spent lengthy periods building his endurance on the roads around Varese with Cadel Evans, who also lived in the area at the time. All the same, he placed second in the second stage of the Deutschland Tour and third overall at the Herald Sun Tour.

This year, Lowe transferred to Team Slipstream, where he collected a second place finish at the Tour of Georgia, and rode to second place on the Brasstown Bald stage. He also took home the jersey for best young rider. Currently, Lowe is expecting to ride the Tour de France, a change from his original program which included the Giro instead. He credits his mountain bike racing background to his strength on the climbs, though he said it took a season of riding to pick up the necessary endurance to race well on the road. His size, 5'6" and 140 lbs, can't hurt either. By all accounts, he is at least the equal of Cadel Evans in talent. When he underwent physiological testing at the Australian Institute of Sport, he recorded the highest numbers they'd seen since Evans. Hobbies include fishing, hiking, and motor sports. Head over to Team Slipstream, where you can read through his stories from this season so far.

In his third year riding for CSC, 23 year old Matti Breschel has shown a talent for the cobbled classics and the sprints. In 2004, at age 19, he placed 6th at the U23 Paris-Roubaix and 6th in the U23 World Championship road race. He also won four races that year. His recent win in Philly was no accident. Breschel missed much of the 2006 season after a bad crash in the final kilometer, when he and Robbie Mac tried to occupy the same space at the same time. Never a good idea. Breschel returned to racing slowly, but in 2007 showed his talent with a 14th place finish at Paris-Roubaix. He is another young rider who once worked with Cecchini, but has since cut ties with the controversial Italian. He still lives and trains in Italy. He was hoping for a top ten in a major classic this season, which turned out to be overly-ambitious, but he did manage 20th at both Paris-Roubaix and Ghent Wevelgem . He also finished 7th at the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, and had two top fives at stage of the Tour of Romandie. Breschel has an English language daily news section on his webby, but unfortunately he has not updated it since before Tirreno-Adriatico. During this year's CSC survival camp, he tried skiing for the first time, and fell directly on his ass, he writes. Fun fact about Matti Breschel? Before turning professional on the bike, he worked as a model in New York and Milano. Ooh, là là! Plainly, we need a few more photos. Though his name has been mentioned in connection with the Tour de France, he is not expected to among those riders chosen to ride in July. His next race is the Ster Elektrotoer in the Netherlands, which begins on 17 June.

Though Rabobank lost Martijn Maaskant to Slipstream, they have kept climbing sensation, Robert Gesink, currently 22 years old and riding his second season as a professional at Rabobank. He began riding at 12 years old as a hobby, and his father bought him a mountain bike. As a junior he placed 8th at Worlds in Verona, and as an U23 he finished 6th at Worlds in Salzburg. That same year, he also finished 2nd on GC at the Tour de l'Avenir, and had four wins. This year, his second as a professional, Gesink made a strong start to the season, winning the young riders competitions at both the Tour of California (his second, there) and Paris-Nice. He won at stage and finished 9th in GC in Cali, and finished 4th in GC at Paris-Nice. He will not ride the Tour de France this year, heading instead to the Tour of Austria, a race which should suit his climbing talents well. He will ride the Olympics and then make his grand tour debut at the Vuelta à Espana. He updates his webby often, though it's Dutch language only. He writes that he is having a good ride at the Dauphiné, and is looking forward to seeing what he can do on the final day in the mountains. According to the Rabobank site, which kindly provides English language content, today's ride up the Joux-Plane at the Dauphine was his first time ever on the mountain. Gesink is also apparently quite the "voetball" fan, and today's news entry contains as many footy scores as bike racing results. He was also happy to fly business class on the way to Tour of Cali. His nickname is "Condor from Varsseveld." Rabobank is plainly impressed with his talent, as he has a contract with the team until 2012.

Gesink and Maaskant are part of an emerging generation of Dutch riders, which also includes Thomas Dekker. Dekker turned pro with the Rabobank team at the age of 21 (he'd ridden for the Rabo junior team since 2002), and is considered "the special one," in reference to his vast talents. In his first year as professional, he won four races, including a stage of Critérium International, the elite Dutch national time trial championship. He has shown a talent for stage racing, counting already wins in at Tirreno Adriatico and Tour of Romandie among his 44 victories. In 2007, he finished his first Tour de France in 34th place, after winning the Tour of Romandie and a stage at the Tour de Suisse. Last season he had a total of ten victories. So far this season, he has finished on the podium at both the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and the Tour of the Basque Country. He also rode well in the Ardennes classics, though he appears better suited to the stage races than his speedier rivals. The women reading should now click here. (You may also wish to browse about that site further, but perhaps not where your boss might catch sight of your screen. Some lovely scenery there.) Dekker maintains an extensive website, Thomas Dekker Magazine, which is sadly only available in Dutch. The photo galleries are well worth a look, all the same. Dekker rides the Tour de Suisse as preparation for his second Tour de France this July.

How can we forget Andy Schleck? Not easily, and really, he needs little introduction. "Baby Schleck" surprised the cycling world, though not his long-time coaches, by finishing second in this grand tour début at last year's Giro. Riders who so quickly achieve a big result in a major tour are few and far between, so much so, that Bernard Hinault in an interview once referred to such riders as the Superheroes of the sport. To be a Superhero, said the Badger, one must ride his first Tour by age 23 and finish well. Hinault had several other criteria, but in so far as the grand tours are concerned, Andy Schleck appears on track for Superhero stature. Perhaps more impressive than the final result was the consistency and focus with which Baby Schleck tackled the three week race. He never seemed to have a bad day, nor to waiver in pursuit of his goal (though he did nearly miss the start after setting eyes on a particularly lovely podium girl). A remarkable achievement for a rider just 22 years old. As a junior, Andy Schleck raced cyclocross and won the national cross championship in Luxembourg. His results as an U23 are surprisingly sparse, though he did win the éspoir national championship in Luxembourg for both road and time trial. But look again at his age, and well, when most riders are trying to win the Tour de l'Avenir, Andy Schleck very nearly won the Giro d'Italia. This year, though A Schleck has no wins just yet, he did a stellar ride at Liège in support of older brother Frank, and indeed, nearly stole the show with a solo move deep in the finale. Rarely have the bergen of Liège looked so easy. Currently, Andy Schleck is riding the Tour de Suisse, and will ride his first Tour de France this year. Reportedly, he will ride as gregario to Carlos Sastre and aim for a result of his own at the Olympic Games following the Tour.

Perhaps that is indeed the plan, but if Andy Schleck rides away from the field in the high mountains of this year's Tour, it should not come as a total surprise. Legendary DS, Cyrille Guimard calls Andy one of the four super-talents he has encountered in his career. The other three? Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and Laurent Fignon. Baby Schleck rode for Guimard for one year at VC Roubaix, an éspoir team, and Guimard had said that seeing Schleck ride for the first time was like seeing Zinedine Zidane make his professional debut at age 17. "There was no need for lab tests. You could tell straightaway he was a born winner," said Guimard. Guimard also argues that Schleck should be riding the Tour with a team to support him, not just for experience, but to win, because Guimard is convinced that the younger Schleck can win the Tour in his first attempt. Only Thomas Dekker comes close to Schleck's talent, in Guimard's view. Guimard is not the only one to praise Andy Schleck's talent. Jussi Veikkanen, who rode with Andy at VC Roubaix, said, "Somehow he was different to all the other guys... With Andy, the DS never had to tell him to be careful of a crosswind, or that there were attacks coming, because he seemed to have a sixth sense - he'd smell it." Concluded Veikkanen, "the kid was obviously born to race bikes." According to former team mate Andrea Peron, Andy Schleck can never sit still, and to him, it was clear from the start he had a huge talent. And at last year's Giro, Mario Cipollini raved about Andy's "unbelievable ability," and predicted he would dominate the grand tours for many years to come. The last rider from Luxembourg to win the Tour de France was Charly Gaul in 1958. Fifty years later, another just might equal his feat.

There is a fan club site devoted to Andy and Frank, and the photo album is a must-see. The news section is up-to-date also, though neither Schleck contributes to the site personally.

Last Word. At least for now. All the under 25 riders currently racing for a pro tour team (or teams formerly known as pro tour teams) share several characteristics. Obviously, they are hugely talented. But nearly every one of them has won a stage and placed well at the Tour de l'Avenir. Want to know who the next great rider is going to be? Watch that race very carefully (it's in August, by the way.) Also, nearly all have won national championship races, either on the road or against the watch or both, at various stage of their careers. You want a pro tour gig early? Win your national championship as an espoir. Less common, but no less important, are results at the U23 editions of the monuments - Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In Italy, the Baby Giro carries a similar weight to the Tour de l'Avenir. Again, if you want to make the upper levels quickly, you have to win important races early.

That's all, until next time!