Hey 2021... thanks for the meme-ories!
Ouch. OK, from that auspicious start, let’s take a look at some of the year’s talking points and where they will likely go in 2022. Speaking broadly, the sport remains engulfed in a youth movement that probably goes beyond anything seen before, if you can believe statistics about “youngest ever winner of this or that”. But while that is an ongoing theme, the details are constantly changing shape. Two years ago Tadej Pogačar took on the look of a future winner, then turned that future into the present in 2020. Egan Bernal just got done setting a modern record for youngest winner in 2019 before Pogačar raised/lowered the bar a year later. Good stuff.
We have also seen the Van Aert/van der Poel thing play out, albeit for so long that they don’t count as “youth movement” anymore. But some of their other... adjacent riders (can anyone else be considered their “rival”?) are having a say on the cobbles. And with wins to be had in the punchier classics and shorter stage races, new names are being added to the list of guys we will be watching for years to come. So the purpose of this column is to sort out some of the details and get ready for new developments just a few months from now.
How do you rank the young stage racers?
- Tadej Pogačar
Are we done?
Not quite. Not even close really. Because as dominant as Pogs has looked in winning two Tours de France as well as evolving into a Classics ace, it’s simply too soon and the competition is simply too good to close the book. Here is a potentially incomplete list of riders and some reasons why we might not want to overlook their chances against Pogs or at least their chances of winning races he doesn’t get to.
Egan Bernal: There is no higher ceiling than Tour de France winner, so you dismiss his potential at your peril. After Bernal’s win in 2019, which was sorta decisive even if lacking in signature moments, he slipped in 2020 thanks in part to back pain, and what is there to even say about 2020? And in 2021, he went to the Giro (and won), reestablishing his place among the very best and youngest grand tour riders, but expending enough energy to keep him out of the Tour. So we have two years since his win that you should just mark as incomplete.
Bernal is only a year older than Pogs, turning 24 in January, which is still absurdly young. But as high as his ceiling may be, his floor seems much lower than the Slovenian’s. Bernal’s back issue has to do with leg lengths, and will likely require constant careful management to keep it from dashing his hopes. I also don’t get a “killer” vibe from him the way you do from Pogačar, who never seems fazed by anything. [To be clear, I don't know Bernal and maybe his words just betray a lack of confidence in his back, and nothing more.] So Bernal may be capable of challenging Pogačar for the title in any given year, but only if his back and his mind are in prime condition. And the Tour is notorious for applying extreme pressure to a rider’s confidence and overall body condition. Bernal has the luxury of a team riddled with grand tour talent to support him... or crowd him out. Although at least they blew this year’s Tour decisively enough to probably turn the reins over to the Colombian this coming year. Stay tuned.
Remco Evenepoel: The Belgian wonderboy can't be dismissed as a challenger to Pogačar, for several reasons. One, he’s a year younger, so we can give him a year’s worth of benefit of doubt in his development. If there is something Pogs has done and Remco hasn’t, well, let’s wait another year at least before making up our minds. Two, his time trialling is on another level from Pogs, at least in idealized situations like the Worlds, where Remco got a medal and Tadej finished 10th. We know Evenepoel can climb too. We know he can do just about anything. He just needs to put it all together.
Far easier said than done, though. Remco has taken hits over his bike handling and his physical lack of preparation for the Giro, where he was good until they got to Abruzzo but then slowly faded and went home. Personally, I find this criticism all a bit overheated — not that he will be a great bike handler and that he will be up for the mental and physical challenges of three-week races, but the evidence against those things happening is just as thin. Yes, his Giro was a disappointment, but it happened as he rushed back from the horrific crash at Lombardia the previous year, with very little racing in his legs. Yes, his handling isn’t great, but last I looked, Geraint Thomas was a Tour winner. Yes, all of Belgium is dreaming on his talent when they make bold predictions about his future Merckx-like success, but the kid is 21, so maybe don’t rush to declare his limitations quite yet.
Jonas Vingegaard: Nobody had the (then) 24-year-old Dane as a podium favorite at the Tour, not when he was slated to support Primož Roglič at Jumbo-Visma and not when his previous body of work included just one grand tour, the 2020 Vuelta, where he finished a debutante-like 46th. But his team must have seen something in his numbers this past winter to have even selected him for the Grand Boucle, and boy did it pay off. As Roglič struggled with scrapes and bruises from a gnarly crash, eventually abandoning, the baton was passed to Vingegaard in time for the final two weeks of the race, and he delivered brilliantly, shadowing Pogačar in the Pyrenees and besting him in both time trials. The case for him challenging Pogs boils down to getting a chance to enter the Tour knowing he's the leader and receiving the support from day 1. Roglič is 32, so Vingegaard could get his chance as a leader before long, though I would expect some sort of split arrangement for next year.
Taking all the evidence together, the case for Vingegaard has none of the identifiable asterisks you’d assign to Bernal’s back and Evenepoel’s inexperience. The only reason not to buy in is the five-plus minutes he lost to Pogačar early on, in small bits plus several minutes on stage 7, though even there Vingegaard was dealing with a couple minor crashes which cost him some energy, and the uncertain status of Roglič, who abandoned before stage 9. Maybe Pogs was on cruise control from there and Vingegaard staying with him doesn’t reflect their relative strengths, but I’m really excited to find out next summer.
João Almeida: We are probably dropping down a level here in terms of dreaming on a guy’s ceiling, as Almeida is a couple years older than Pogs and has just a couple nice Giro performances to his name. I put him here, though, because he did a lot this year to prove that his 2020 season was no fluke. If anything, he showed that his surprise leadership at that Giro was a stepping stone, and the Portuguese evolved into a guy who got stronger as the 2021 Giro went along, not the other way around. He scored wins or podium finishes more consistently across the calendar, and enters 2022 as a guy who you probably wouldn’t picture making another huge leap, but it wouldn’t shock you either.
Buuuut... we might not know much about this in 2022, at least, as he’s transferring to UAE where for now he will have leadership in the Giro and Vuelta, rather than challenging or running bottles to Pogs at the Tour. It’s a good move for all involved, I think, since UAE have a deep enough roster and plenty of ties to Italy to give Almeida a real boost at the Giro. He strikes me as a Nibali type, not likely to overwhelm you but very likely to get the most from his abilities and to pounce if you give him an opening.
Tobias Foss: I’m trying to name someone from the unproven kids bin who might be the next rider to enter the conversation, and Foss is my opening entry. He’s 24, older than most of the guys on this list, but so is just about anyone with a track record. He has two seasons at the top level — one normal one — and two Giri, where he’s already made it to ninth on GC. He has both the climbing and time trialling ability in his kit bag. Maybe a year from now we are comparing his rise to what Vingegaard just did. But that’s a big leap. And also he’s on Vingegaard’s team so it probably won’t be in France.
David Gaudu: Choices are getting slim. I just want to throw him out as a guy who (like probably some others) is still reasonably young at 25 and seems to be improving each year. His Tour placements alone have gone from 34 to 13 to 11. Probably more informative is the fact that his world ranking keeps rising — now 11th at the Podium Cafe ranking and 14th at CyclingQuotient. He is consistently sticking with or near the big dogs, getting results, and occasionally winning. Where is this going exactly? Probably not much further, if you believe his time trialling to date is where he will remain, but I’m definitely keeping an open mind.
Anyone Else: If you want to dig through the rosters for young stage racers, be my guest, but there isn't anyone in this conversation hiding out there in plain sight. I flirted with a Tao Hart entry, but he’s about to turn 27 and really only broke through in the weird environment of 2020. Feel free to nominate some names of guys who might be worth talking about more a year from now. Obviously the sport is stacked with talent, but talent with a ceiling anywhere adjacent to Pogačar, that’s still rare.
So with that, I will rank the prospects as follows — in terms of who of this group will be the best grand tour rider for the next five years. Feel free to disagree. In fact, I would be worried if you didn’t.
How Should We View Wout vs Mathieu?
Always the running subject of discussion around here it seems, these two are fully well established in their careers now, Wout having just celebrated his 27th birthday and Mathieu about to do the same in a couple months. Both have spent the last couple seasons ranked in the top ten worldwide, with Van Aert slightly above van der Poel on point scoring but the Dutchman hitting back with some prestige wins, plus a rainbow jersey in cyclocross. They aren’t the new anything anymore; they just are.
They are probably best discussed now not so much as what they will become when they grow up but what they are in the middle of accomplishing, and if you want to slap a meme on them, the obvious one is that they are the new Boonen vs. Cancellara, circa 2008. By then, both riders were 27, firmly settled into their expected prime years, and drawing closer into the mano-a-mano(ish) duel that would go on to define their careers. Boonen continued racking up legacy wins until 2012, age 31+ for him, while Cancellara went one better, hanging on through 2014 at the top level (age 33). They alternated dominating performances, with crashes taking out one or the other often enough to blunt the impact of the rivalry, only truly squaring off at the very peak of their powers in 2010.
By comparison, the Van Aert/van der Poel rivalry is much more real. They have been literally facing off against each other repeatedly since birth, or sometime in their teens anyway, and it never seems to stop. Their clashes have regularly featured both riders at their best, enough so that we can say that overall van der Poel is probably the stronger of the two but not by much and Van Aert is the more versatile. In that sense, the head-to-head rivalry is more exciting more often than Cancellara/Boonen ever was... except for 2010.
The legacy rivalry, which happens both in and out of each other’s presence, is maybe more similar to Boonen/Cancellara. The Swiss Bear was the slightly more versatile rider, I guess, in that he won time trials, which in turn led to grand tour leaders’ jerseys, and rainbow stripes as well. Despite his powerful profile, Cancellara would occasionally turn up in places where you wouldn’t expect to find him, like second in the Olympic road race in Beijing, which featured more climbing than any race where you might see Tom Boonen leading out. Tommeke was a top sprinter for a few seasons, which was super cool, but otherwise was really confined by his skillset to the Classics.
Van der Poel won’t ever likely turn up at the front of a Tour de France major mountain stage, let alone winning it, as Van Aert did at Mont Ventoux. Of course, vdP honored his grandfather Raymond Poulidor’s legacy at the Tour this year by taking a punchy climber’s stage at the Mur de Bretagne from the likes of Pogacar, and his Strade Bianche win makes you wonder how long the list of climbs where he can win might be, but Van Aert’s is almost surely longer. And as fine a finisher as he may be, Van Aert now has three Tour sprint victories — plus a time trial — to his name. For all the battles van der Poel has won, Van Aert may still win the war.
OK, But Are They Going to Just Rule the Cobbles?
Haha yeah, sure. Wait... not so fast.
The ultimate barometer for cobbled success are the podiums at Flanders and Roubaix, and the most we can say is that in 2021 only van der Poel was present, and not on the top. There is little doubt that the two can dominate these races if set up properly to do so, but in April both Van Aert and van der Poel were starting to fade as de Ronde drew nearer, leaving room for the rest of the challengers to show up and let us know that maybe, just maybe, they were hardly ever more than a step behind.
First, Kasper Asgreen, from the same age class as Matti and Wout, showed up and won E3 and de Ronde, suggesting that there was always a bit more going on among those mid-20s guys. Then Tom Pidcock, all of 22, won Brabantse Pijl and was a tire’s width away from grabbing Amstel Gold ... off Van Aert, no less. Finally, in October, the rescheduled Paris-Roubaix not only saw van der Poel knocked down by Colbrelli, but by 22-year-old Florian Vermeersch as well.
Pidcock and his teammate Ethan Hayter are undoubtedly poised to disrupt the Vantriarchy (yeah I know) and make this a much more open season. Pidcock has already arrived with his win and near miss combo this April, and Hayter is said to be of a talent level that you would expect him to show up as soon as next year. Hayter racked up a ton of points in smaller stage races, which is nice but almost certainly a stepping stone as he finds his place among the bigger targets. They sent him to Flanders where he got his feet wet, and his 11th place in Dwars shows some comfort level by the 23-year-old. So all signals seem positive: he’s good at the classics, and he has proven to be a very strong rider overall.
As to others... my young rider roundup from a year ago included a lot of riders who fit these races, but between the capricious nature of the races and the endless line of older riders still aiming for them, I don’t want to get too caught up in naming names for the near future. Presumably a few names will pop for the first time in 2022, and we will have much to say about them then. You don’t need to know Eekhoff from Eenkhoorn just yet.
What about sprinters? Climbing classics guys? I am going to save this for next week...