In the last three months, I’ve written about every WT team’s performance in 2017 and the transfer market and opined on their prospects for 2018 (except UAE). Every time, my favourite bit to write was the “most intriguing rider” section. It isn’t always the biggest names, or the brightest prospects, but there’s always someone for whom the forthcoming season will answer some questions. If you’re not interested in the prospects of Degenkolb or Porte, in the development of Oomen or in the “what on earth is this?” of Willie Smit, then you’re missing out.
In the last three weeks, I’ve also pulled together two FSA-DS teams (men’s and women’s – play now!) an Editors’ league draft team, and even a one-and-two-pointers league team for which I had to set up a new league. I gave a lot of thought to all 18 of my intriguing guys from the WT teams, and picked a few, as well as some of the other lesser names that I raved about elsewhere in the columns. I thought and picked and thought again and picked differently. You would think, therefore, that I’m fresh out of opinions.
Don’t make me laugh.
You know what I haven’t covered yet? Pro-Conti teams! This is an interesting year for the group, as there doesn’t seem to be a squad with clear ambitions to step up in the manner of an Argos or a Cervelo, but there are fewer riders on each of the (mostly stable) World Tour teams. With more points than ever available in the world of FSA-DS, plenty of points will fall down a level, to a larger pool of good riders. Last year, Nacer Bouhanni parlayed a 20 point cost into a 1,335 return, and he’s back as the only restricted Pro-Contintental rider for 2018 at 18 points. Solid stuff, but how much do you wish you’d found Marco Canola (611 points), Mattia Cattaneo (485) or Egan Arley Bernal (470), all one-pointers in the Pro-Conti ranks last year?
I can’t promise to find superstars like that, and I can’t alas, find the time to review each of the Pro-Conti teams with full capsules. What I can do, however, is throw up five guys who have shown some talent and are intriguing prospects for the coming year. Each of them also represents a “type” of rider with a track record of doing well. I thought long and hard about picking all of them and eventually only one made it to my “main” team – see if you can work out which.
The Italian Climber - Fausto Masnada
1 point, Androni
This is perhaps the most obvious Pro-Conti category of all. The hotshot young climber on an Italian Pro-Conti team who is destined to pick up points all year and absolutely boss the autumn one-dayers at home. I don’t need to tell anyone about Colbrelli, Canola or Bongiorno There’s no problem recognising the type; the devil is in finding the right guy. To get into why Masnada is my pick, I have to take you into the world of horse racing.
There’s a skill in betting on horses that is relevant here; learning to spot the races that are better than they have any right to be – ordinary races that somehow attract the best horses imaginable. Once upon a time, two horses took the start for the first time in the same race. One was the second-best horse born in Europe that year - the other was the best horse who ever raced. There were two other future stars back in the field, for good measure. Uncanny. If you knew that at the time how good Frankel was, you’d have made a great deal of money backing the “losers” from that race.
In the same way with cycling, there are certain races that I look closely at because they seem to attract emerging talent and serve as meaningful predictors for success in bigger races. I like youngsters who race well in the U23 Liege and Lombardy races as well as at Valle D’Aosta, and I like young pros who go well at Tro Bro Leon, Turkey, and in Quebec, among other races. Oh, and as the step up in distance is so huge, I like to see riders who can finish monuments at a young age (hence my abiding love for Niccolo Bonifazio).
Masnada won the espoirs Lombardia (ahead of Ciccone) in 2015. Last year he was 3rd in Turkey, finished Milan-San Remo and raced well in Strade Bianche and very well in Lombardy (33rd). He raced a full season of tough races and, at 24, should be strong enough to step forward in 2018. To my untrained eye, Androni look unusually thin this year and I think he’ll get his chances. He could be the best one-pointer in the Italian pro-Conti ranks.
The Colombian Climber - Hernan Aguirre
1 point, Manzana-Postobon
If “Italian climber” isn’t enough of a VDS rabbit hole for you to lose yourself in, may I interest you in “Colombian climber?” You might have noticed yourself, but there’s a few of them. Of the pile, I would pick out Hernan Aguirre, about whom I wrote before the Vuelta. I have to say, given how badly my predictions usually pan out, I’m happy with that article. More importantly, this rider gets the Vlaanderen90 seal of approval.
Aguirre’s Vuelta didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but 37th at the age of 21 is quite the GT debut. There isn’t much more to add – he’s simply a very young, very talented climber. He’s been thrown in at the deep end and hasn’t drowned and this year he’ll have more experience and more strength. I don’t have any sense of where his ceiling is but I’ll be watching to see if he can start climbing with the bigs. Hopefully he’ll be in Manzana’s team for Catalunya next month and can get his season off to a good start. They’re in enough races for him to earn his keep.
The Reclamation Project - Sondre Holst Enger
1 point, Israel Cycling Academy
This is a harder group of Pro-Conti riders to define, but one that definitely exists. A varied bunch, the reclamation projects. Some riders get squeezed out by the numbers game (Raymond Kreder ended up at Rompoort after the Garmin/Canondale merger, and picked up 200 points in 2015) or by lack of opportunity (Van Keirsbulck picked up 210 points in his first year at Wanty, having been a small part of a huge cobbles squad at Quick Step). Some prove that they have more in the tank at the end of their careers than was expected (Gasparotto moved from Astana to Wanty and picked up 205 and 645 points in two years before moving back to the WT with Bahrain). Some, though, simply left a situation that didn’t suit them.
What to make of Sondre Holst Enger? 2017, on paper, was his big chance. After shining with IAM in 2016 (podium in a tour stage, 17 top-10s in the year, just 22) he moved to AG2R and a chance to become the lead sprinter for an exciting young WT team. It didn’t work out like that. He didn’t race after the Hamburg Classic in August (which he didn’t finish) and had endured a wretched year before that, with a 5th in stage one of the Boucles de Mayenne (no, me neither) perhaps his best result. AG2R unceremoniously dumped him, and he was picked up by the upwardly mobile Israel Cycling Academy, they of the Giro wildcard and ambitions for glory.
So, which Enger will we see? The 2016 version is fast, fearless and a sprinter to be reckoned with for the years to come. The 2017 version scarcely finishes a race and doesn’t trouble the podium. It speaks very well of him and his new environment that he finished second in Trofeo Campos (one of the Majorca races) on his seasonal debut, behind only John Degenkolb. It’d be great to see him back to his best and continuing that form through the season. Only takes a couple of good sprints and he’s very VDS-profitable, too.
The Caja Rural Star-in-Waiting - Yannis Yssaad
1 point, Caja Rural
You could make a case that Caja Rural do what they do as effectively as any team in the sport. You know what you’re getting with them – a traditional team, in ugly green jerseys, who show up at every Spanish race and always seem to end the year with two things – enough wins and places to stay relevant and financially liquid, and a couple of new stars. Their best guys tend to be young, and tend to leave. They also tend to be Spanish, and climby. Think Roson, Bilbao, Barbero, and Fraile, all of whom have now moved to WT teams. It is worth noting that one big former Rural-dweller is not Spanish – Hugh Carthy, who grabbed 180 points for 1 in 2016 before bolting to Canondale, where he continues to intrigue me.
So, I go looking for CJR riders each year, and I normally try to find their best climber. Last year, I also happened upon Rafael Reis, a promising Portuguese rouleur and chrono specialist who joined Roson on my team. This year, I couldn’t find a climber that intrigued me, but I did find Yannis Yssaad. Yup, a French sprinter on a reliable Spanish climbing squad. Colour me intrigued.
At 24, he’s reasonably experienced for this sort of rider, and has spent two years at the French Army team. His results in 2017 included a win at Paris-Troyes and four other wins, as well as a bunch of top tens. He’s been riding right through the junior ranks (3rd behind some guy called Groenewegen at the KBK Juniors way back in 2011) and has consistently produced decent results. But you can see all that in any database.
The intrigue, for me, is that Caja Rural have decided to pick him up. It is a gamble that takes them outside their comfort zone, twice (rider type and language). They’ve already sent him to San Juan and he’s currently in Oman, where he picked up 11th against some decent sprinters in stage one. More to come, I feel.
The Belgian Classics stud - Jordi Warlop
1 point, Sport-Vlaanderen
One last rider, one last type of rider with a record of Pro-Conti/FSA-DS success – the young Belgian cobbles hopeful. Before we get into young Mr Warlop’s bona fides as my chosen representative of this storied group, can we all agree that the future of cycling is in a good place as far as names are concerned? Every single one of these guys is rocking a superb handle, and Jordi Warlop might be my favourite of all. He just sounds like he’s going to be good.
Fortunately, he’s got the results to match the name. Just 21, this is his first year with the Belgian talent pipeline that is Sport-Vlaanderen Baloise, but his junior record is impressive. 3rd in Paris-Roubaix Espoirs last year, and 5th in Flanders juniors back in 2013 prove he can do what is expected of a young Belgian cyclist. Given the squad he’s on, he’ll get a chance to ride in the biggest classics, but also in races like Le Samyn and Handzame where such riders tend to thrive (and pick up points).
What sets Warlop apart, however, is his versatility. He’s seriously impressive in the hills, with 5th in last years U23 Lombardia (and I’ve said already what a useful yardstick I consider that race to be) among his best results. 11th in the Junior Worlds in 2014 (Ponferrada) shows he can finish with a kick after climbing, too. His results this year back that up – surviving the hilliest of the Majorca stages in the top-20, and getting top-10s on the flatter stages.
It is too early to say what this young man will become, but he’s demonstrated the ability to ride well on all sorts of terrain and all sorts of surfaces, and he’s riding for a team with a history of giving their riders development support and serious opportunity. He could pop up on any day this season and I am fascinated to see how he performs.