Welcome to this week’s interactive awesomeness... the Memes for the Twenties Tournament. It’s January Madness at the Podium Cafe! And instead of actual results, we have speculative nonsense... and democracy!
Here’s how this works: I have identified the top 24 emerging themes for the new decade below, and we will pit them against each other in a seeded 24-”player” tournament, with a preliminary round where the top eight seeds have a bye, followed by round two featuring the 16 remaining entities in pure seeded knockout format, until only one rider/theme is left standing. See the bracket at the end of this post.
This post is an introduction to the contest. I will make a new post to start round 1, with voting. Once that round is settled, there will be a round 2 post, and so on. For now, get familiar with our candidates while I figure out how to put multiple polls in a single story.
A few notes, before we start...
- Wait, what am I voting for? The question in every contest is, which person or subject do you think we will be talking/caring/reminiscing about more in 2030 as we look back on this newly minted decade of ours? This question may be open to varying interpretations, but that’s more or less the objective and you can do what you want with it from there. With enough votes, I suspect something of a consensus on what exactly it means will emerge.
- Wait, I don’t agree with your seeding! Of course you don’t. Honestly, I’d be a bit worried if everyone thought I got it exactly right. But I will say that if anyone got left off this list, e.g. the guys or themes coming in 25th or 26th or so, there’s a pretty good chance they weren’t going to get past maybe the first round. As for specific seeding, like why is Sivakov ahead of Hirschi or whatever, there are two ways to go. You can invent a seemingly comprehensive formula for calculating seedings which still somehow manages to miss the point and make everyone mad... or you can just throw stuff at the wall and see how it sticks. If you know me at all, you can guess which method I chose. But fear not: it’s not like a lower ranking leads to tougher early round competition which unjustly wears out a guy as he progresses. It’s a theoretical exercise, and the cream should rise to the top regardless of what route it’s forced to take.
- What’s with the Cross guys? Yeah, I know. Discount them 60% for not being roadies... if you think they won’t be roadies. At least one name on this list is in line for a massive presence even if he never leaves the dirt. Anyway, like I said, that’s a rough outline but it’s your vote to use as you see fit.
OK, on to your Memes for the 20s participants! Listed in order of seeding.
1. Egan Bernal
Youngest and Colombianest winner of the Tour de France. It’s hard to talk about what he did last summer without making a mockery of everything we thought we knew about the grand tours. But good news, he’s very serious and will eventually get enough experience and training in his legs to finally win the... ah fuck. The worst thing you can say about him is that he will probably keep me from bringing up Ivan Sosa anytime soon.
2. Mathieu van der Poel
MvdP has been in our lives for a while and isn’t the springiest chicken on this list. He’s also taken a Godot-like approach to his road career, if Godot had left his friends hanging while he raked in appearance fees at existential mud-playing circuit. [Little-known, incredibly delicious fact: apparently Samuel Beckett hinted that the title character might be a reference to cyclist Roger Godeau, whom Beckett once waited for outside the Roubaix velodrome. I swear I can die happy now.] Anyway, van der Poel finally did get around to an actual effort on the road last spring, winning three races and finishing fourth (with a shot at the win) at Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem to boot. The classics are an old rider’s game... and he’s about to turn 25. Maybe also worth noting that Godot has also been interpreted as meaning just God. Indeed.
3. Tadej Pogacar
There’s scary young (Bernal), scarier young (Pogacar), and scariest young (more in a moment). Pogacar is 21 as of the new year, and has shown some interesting skills. He’s won both the national senior men’s time trial and the cyclocross title back in Solvenia... not unlike van der Poel. Except the part where he also climbs well enough to have bagged three major mountain stages and third overall at the Vuelta a few months back.
4. Remco Evenepoel
This is Scariest Young. All of 19, Evenepoel has already won a World Tour classic (San Sebastian), a major-ish stage race (Tour of Belgium), and came in second at the World Championships in the time trial. For perspective, a year ago, he won the world titles on the road and time trial... in the Juniors category. Apparently there were suggestions that maybe he’s not a polished bike handler, like at all, but so far Evenepoel has tended to resolve any concerns he has about pack-riding by just pedaling away from everyone and winning solo. So maybe people shouldn’t say mean things about his bike handling.
5. Pavel Sivakov
Ho hum, just a 22-year-old taking his second lap of the World Tour by beating Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour of the Alps and then looking ridiculously good at the Giro, before winning the entire Tour de Pologne. Should we be shocked? Both of his parents are former pros and he grew up in France. But there is nothing normal about these results.
6. Mads Pedersen
The only knock on being a cross fan is having inflated views of the riders who migrate over form there, sometimes to the detriment of a more objective view of reality on the road. Take, for example, young Mads. Remember how guys like me wrote about three dozen articles about how Wout and Mathieu would take over the Ronde van Vlaanderen eventually once they switched to road cycling? And how one or both would do something extra memorable like a world championship? Well, Mads has the latter and came within a dozen seconds of winning the former. And he’s younger than both those guys.
7. Evergreen Quick Step and Skineos
Everybody is officially sick of Team Sky, now rebranded as Ineos in a cheap attempt to trick us into rooting for them. That isn’t happening with the team engaged in a five-year stranglehold on the maillot jaune. But they aren’t anywhere near the most gluttonous winners in the sport — just the least colorful ones. No, the overall title for hoovering up victories is so thoroughly Quick Step’s that you have to go back to 2011 when the world was ruled by Bernie Eisel and Tony Martin and Cav and the High Road boys in Black and Yellow. Well, there was that one year, 2012, where they shared the victory lead with... Sky. But 2011 Team Lefevre bottomed out with an unfathomable six victories, total. Not for a weekend, I’m talking for the whole year! Sky and Jumbo-Visma are the only other team to top 50 wins, just barely. Which is pretty sweet, because Quick Step have had more than 70 each of the last three seasons.
Where is this going in the next decade? Welp, several guys on this list are signed up for one or the other, and Ineos’ money plus the Lure of Lef (for Belgians anyway) probably aren’t going anywhere.
8. Old guys won’t quit
Obviously this tournament, looking a decade into the future, is concerned mostly with guys who look ready to explode on the cycling scene, if they haven’t just done so already. But are we sure we won’t be looking back in 10 years and talking about a few more of the usual suspects? Obviously Davide Rebellin will still have a contract, probably racing for Pyongyang Cycling Academy or something, and Spain’s top rider will still be Alejandro Valverde. [The lack of Spanishness of this list is troubling, though if there were a 25th seed it would be Enric Mas. Lack of Australians us bugging me too.] Other guys currently in full flight include Rohan Dennis, who will probably bag some more jerseys before giving way to the youth wave; Sagan, Alaphilippe, Trentin, Lutsenko, and so on. Max Schachmann might have a few moments in the sun before giving way — he’s just barely too old to get seeded here. Anyway, more broadly, do we really believe in young talent? Historically there is way more pyrite than gold, and year after year the promising riders have come up only to lose to Philippe Gilbert again. But boy, does this new seam look like something special.
9. Thibau Nys
Sven’s kid has been around a while as well, following his dad around the CX courses during practice laps until he was allowed to pin on a number plate. Then, just about immediately, Nys things began happening, and I gather they haven’t stopped. About two months back, the day before his 17th birthday, he won the European championships in the juniors category, and put a spanking on the field again a couple days ago at the GP Dad, as they call it around the Nys household. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is headed. Oh, and the CX-only discount is all that’s keeping him from a first-round bye.
10. Wout Van Aert
Everything van der Poel is expected to do, we have already seen Van Aert pursuing with the tenacity of a wolverine, and with his fair share of success to boot. He may seem like Old Man Wout to the crossers, but he’s 25 and is coming off his Tour de France debut... the one where he won two stages. Back before people got completely sick of running out of superlatives, we were running out of them when watching the new Emperor of Herentals.
11. Tom Pidcock
Yet another babe in the woods, except that when he’s in the woods he wins a lot — for his age class. Just 20, Pidcock got bored dominating the cyclocross Juniors, moved up to U23, and dominated them just the same. [He’s not quite at winning speed in the Elite category this year, but give him time.] On the road, the story is about the same: junior Paris-Roubaix winner, U23 Paris-Roubaix winner and a few other nice results, including a juniors ITT world title. In four years will he be MvdP 2.0? Because... holy shit.
12. Sergio Higuita
Another crazy-young debutante at the World Tour (riding with Martinez at EF Pro Cycling) and another crazy set of results, including a mountain stage win at the Vuelta... plus third in Emilia and second overall at the Amgen Tour of California. If you’re getting a bit lost, maybe now is a good time to make perfectly clear... THESE ARE NOT NORMAL RESULTS! Guys age 22 do not win mountain stages of a grand tour, or at least they don’t very often, and when they do, it’s usually because they’re about to become huge stars. But here, with so many young guys lining up to win, well, if you’re in a pack of nine then someone is finishing ninth. I’m running out of ways to sound exasperated.
13. Filippo Ganna
What if there were a guy who just went around crushing time trials all the time? Oh, and what if he were... Italian?!? [Insert record scratching sound.] Ganna is a 23-year-old track kid who’s been winning titles since he could stay upright. Signed to Skineos through this season, he’s probably not going to stop being a power beast anytime soon. Sadly, he still has some track ambitions and this is an Olympic year, but Ganna is a maybe for the start of Paris-Roubaix, a race he seems built for and which he won at the espoirs level already. Oh, and third at this year’s world champs ITT, 45 seconds back of Evenepoel.
14. Mikkel Bjerg
And now let’s talk about a possibly even bigger time trial star in the making... this is getting truly exhausting. But Bjerg, now 21, has been wearing the rainbow stripes in the crono for three years. [Technically maybe not, since his titles were one junior and two U23 wins, but they’re in his closet.] He and Ganna were neck and neck at the Amgen Tour ITT in 2018, so at least one data point says the logical projection for the Dane is to accelerate up to the Ganna-Evenepoel level before long. Ganna gets one spot higher because of his senior medal, and because I can’t really think straight anymore.
15. Kasper Asgreen
Yet another young emerging star from the Flanders-time trialling-puncheur power package, Asgreen got his first full pro season under his belt at DQS aaaaand... snuck away from the charging peloton to take second in Flanders. He’s 24 — which is old for this post. I’m not entirely sure where his greatest talent lies, as he seems to have a lot of them to choose from. With Ans removed from LBL to give the power riders more of a chance, I’d put that in Asgreen’s sights.
16. Ivan Sosa
It’s hard to call anyone the next Colombian star when the current one, who just won the Tour, is only 22. Sosa, same age, is more of a Vuelta a Burgos specialist to date, having won that race in both of his pro seasons, but Skineos broke him in gradually this year at the Giro and he showed some real class in the Italian fall classics, taking second in Gran Piemonte and hanging around the finale at Lombardia, further burnishing his credentials. But my favorite result is his second place at the Vuelta a Colombia, a February race that must be taken with some skepticism due to the calendar, but still, he finished ahead of Dani Martinez, Bernal, Nairo, Rigo, Ala, Henao, Carapaz and a bunch of other top pros, only losing to Superman by four seconds. That result is no winter mirage — it was February for Sosa and his European race plan too.
17. Someone From the US Becomes a Star
Can this happen finally? The nice thing about writing a post on the next decade is that you don’t need to make very precise predictions. But American kids have been showing up lately in the strangest of places: on the podiums of major cycling events. This is a men’s racing post, so I’ll skip the ladies side for now (major shout-out Megan Jastrab and Chloe Dygert!). For the dudes, Quinn Simmons just got done lighting up the World Championships with a road race win and 20 seconds out of doubling up in the time trial. Ian Garrison and Brandon McNulty took medals in the U23 time trial, and Magnus Sheffield got third in the juniors road race. McNulty, now at UAE, is closest to being ready to make a splash, having just finished a senior level European season which included a win the the Giro di Sicilia against World Tour riders. Garrison got a smaller taste of Europe this year but it was enough to get him signed to Deceuninck Quick Step. Simmons and maybe Sheffield (who’s also a crosser of note) are the younger kids with the growing resumes, particularly Simmons, who heads to Trek with not just a rainbow jersey but a few GC wins and the juniors Gent-Wevelgem to his name as well. Someday this has to happen, right?
18. Alberto Bettiol
The Ronde van Vlaanderen has its share of one-off winners, but a somewhat more select list would be guys who won it at age 25 or younger — a list that is choc-a-bloc with greatness and only lightly sprinkled with “who dat” types, all from bygone eras. So Bettiol, now 26, enters his prime already at an elevated status. But it’s not just that one day’s effort; for years he was a rider to watch, bagging top finishes in the Quebec races and the Italian fall events, but no big breakthroughs until he won the world’s most beautiful race. That’s life as a classics guy, nothing, nothing, and then immortality. And if van der Poel is so great, then he will win the next Ronde and in doing so pull himself level with Bettiol’s record.
19. Marc Hirschi
Mostly this list is full of grand tour guys and cobbles studs, but here’s one from the puncheur’s side of things. The young Swiss rider — and by young we mean, as usual, absurdly young (21) — has already looked good on the cobbles of Flanders (Beloften Ronde and senior E3), as well as the shorter climbs (U23 LBL) capped by a podium spot in San Sebastian. Add Gilbert and Alaphilippe to the list of guys who should be looking over their shoulder.
20. Jasper Philipsen
Nor shall the sprinters go ignored here. I don’t know Philipsen well enough to label him a pure sprinter going forward or, more likely, just so fucking strong that he might as well do some sprinting. But it’s his sprinting that got him on the fast track to the pro ranks last year, at age 20, and if you’re going to throw around Boonen comparisons, here are a few reasons to send them in Jasper’s direction: he’s from near Mol; he used to go on group rides with Tommeke and the local pros (!); he’s built for the cobbled classics but can finish off the last 50 meters. Hell, he even started his career in the same unlikely manner, training up with an American squad (BMC Dev Team) before Hagens Berman, and now UAE. With any luck he’ll accidentally drop Kristoff at Paris-Roubaix next spring en route to the podium. Then the comparison will be complete.
21. Dani Martinez
Good lord, do they ever run out of pure climbers in Colombia? Maybe, because Martinez probably fits into more of a Bernal hybrid, the one where the guy can also hit the time trial. That’s a pretty good combination of skills, I hear. Martinez is still just getting started (he’s 23) but that win in Paris-Nice was at the expense of Bernal, Superman, Nairo and pretty much every Colombian star this side of Sofia Vergara.
22. Primoz Roglic is just an avatar
Roglic was the #1 star of the 2019 season, winning the Vuelta and coming third at the Giro, capping off a magical three-year ascension from his stagiare days to the sport’s pinnacle. Great story. Except... he’s 30 years old!!! You know all those dumb “he was a ski jumper” mentions? I predict that by the end of the 2020s this will be something uttered not in cackling smugness but anger and frustration. He WAS a ski jumper, a really good one, and it’s the reason he took up cycling about five years later than we are all going to wish he did. Still, I have him to thank for now knowing the difference between the Slovenian and Slovakian flags. That’s going to be important knowledge this decade too.
23. Superman Lopez
Entering his age-26 season, Lopez is on a suddenly very crowded list of Colombians who can climb like they were hand-crafted by the Gods of Cycling, but who otherwise come back to Earth when the deal goes down. Gifted climbers are the stuff of perpetual dreams, however, so with Lopez just entering his prime, and already well-practiced in the art of winning stages and top placings at the Giro and Vuelta, expect him to make more of a name for himself going forward, starting with his Tour debut this July. Oh, and spectators... don’t fuck with him while he’s trying to work.
24. Stefan Kung
One more from the track world, Kung looks all the part of a Paris-Roubaix future winner, although it’s a bit of a lonely pursuit. Of course, being Swiss means he just has to keep saying things like “I dream of winning Paris-Roubaix” and “to me, cycling is romance” and he’ll get a good long leash. But at age 25, Kung’s first for Groupama, he came in 11th last year and flashed that strength you need to win — and this after putting that strength to work (successfully) for Greg Van Avermaet. And he’s regularly in there with the top guys against the watch too.
Here’s how the bracket goes: