Breakout Riders of 2014: A Look at the Rising Stars Who Made the Season’s Most Emphatic Statements

Fabio Aru

The cold-weather months may be light on road racing, but they do provide an excellent opportunity to take stock of the big performances of the past season with an eye for future potential. Looking at the big picture of races from January all the way up to October, we can get a pretty good idea of the riders that made the most emphatic arrivals this season, and also of those already-known up-and-comers who took clear steps forward into the spotlight with high-visibility results. This sort of prospective retrospective is always nice to have in the middle of the following season, as a barometer of which rising stars are on track in their progression, and which have fallen short of expectations.

It’s hard to see anyone other than Fabio Aru as the year’s most emphatic arrival. He had been touted as Italian cycling’s next big thing for some time (in last season’s post-year retrospective, I named him as a likely break-out candidate), but he’d never even been on the podium in a WorldTour race before this year. Hard to believe, given that he’s now a three-time Grand Tour stage winner and two-time Grand Tour Top 5 finisher at age 24. A pure climber with an aggressive streak, Aru has the right combination of talent, racing acumen, and guile to pick up victories with bold long-range strikes on the sport’s most challenging slopes. The long, flat time trials are a major weakness in his game, but as chrono-light routes become more and more en vogue, Aru should continue to thrive in the Grand Tours. Interestingly, he doesn’t have much in the way of one-week stage race results to his name, but his skillset would seem well-suited to those too. In short, Aru should be primed for plenty more success as he continues to develop, and continue to develop he will: he doesn’t turn 25 until after the 2015 Giro. Teammate Vincenzo Nibali may have gotten the lion’s share of Astana publicity this season (and his Tour de France victory certainly represents a worthy career progression), but Aru really took a quantum leap forward in his two Grand Tour appearances.

Where Aru made his arrival the in three-weekers, newly crowned World Champ Michal Kwiatkowski made his statements in the one-day and one-week races, racking up a slew of stellar performances in the early part of the season (winning in Strade Bianche and putting in big rides in Pais Vasco, the Ardennes, and the prologue of the Tour de Romandie, his first WorldTour victory) and then coming back with a vengeance in September, winning a stage in the Tour of Britain en route to 2nd overall and then, of course, taking the rainbow jersey in Ponferrada. It’s more of a giant step-up than an arrival, as Kwiatkowski did flash serious ability in 2013, but he turned Top 10s into podiums and victories this year. For all-around talent, Kwiatkowski rivals Alejandro Valverde in versatility. Pais Vasco was an early expression of that versatility for the young Pole: he was 2nd to Alberto Contador on the General Classification thanks to his climbing legs and his stellar ITT, but he also won the Points Jersey after being in the Top 3 in five of the six stages of the race. After narrowly missing out on the Top 10 in last year’s Tour de France, Kwiatkowski’s ride from Leeds to Paris this season was a bit of a disappointment, but it may be that Kwiatkowski just isn’t a Grand Tour GC contender at this point in his career, and with the way he has performed in the shorter races, that may be okay with him given his ability to contest all manner of one-day and one-week events.

Giant-Shimano’s Tom Dumoulin was another 1990-born all-round talent to take several steps forward this season. Dumoulin, like Kwiatkowsi, showed promise with several big rides in 2013, but he took his game to a new level in 2014, racking up a few time trial victories in big races (including the Eneco Tour) and taking third in the ITT World Champs, and also delivering several strong road race performances. Wins eluded him, but he came very close in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec, passed by Simon Gerrans just a few meters before the line. He also climbed well enough to hold onto 5th overall in the Tour de Suisse after getting into good position on GC early in that race with strong chrono rides. His time trial has been his biggest strength throughout his young career, but he made significant strides on the hills and at the finish line this season, and looks primed for big things on all sorts of profiles in 2015.

Alexander Kristoff has enjoyed a textbook progression over the last few years, steadily earning more and more success as he has carved out a niche on the road; in last season’s post-year impressions piece, I said that he had “established himself as a serious contender for hardman sprinter’s races going forward.” He delivered on that promise this season, winning a Monument Classic and two Tour de France stages and picking up plenty of other big results on the way. John Degenkolb, another hardman sprinter (who should challenge Kristoff on the tougher profiles for years to come), took a major leap forward this season as well. The German announced himself with five Vuelta stage wins in 2012 and had a strong 2013, but his victory in Gent-Wevelgem this spring, along with a runner-up ride at Paris-Roubaix, another collection of stage wins at the Vuelta, and several other major successes cemented his position as an elite rider on the tougher sprinters’ days. The emergence of Kristoff and Degenkolb will be a major challenge for Peter Sagan to overcome in the sprinter-friendly classics moving forward.

Stepping away from WorldTour teams, the Europe Tour provided a down-to-the-wire battle for overall supremacy between two of the year’s biggest arrivals: Topsport Vlaanderen’s Tom van Asbroeck and Bardiani – CSF’s Sonny Colbrelli. Both riders put in impressive performances at major WorldTour events early in the season (van Asbroeck in Gent-Wevelgem and Colbrelli in Milano-Sanremo), and top result after top result in the bigger Europe Tour races on the year.

Colbrelli

WorldTour-level action was limited for both of them, but the talent (and top-end speed) is there: Van Asbroeck has a bright future in the classics, especially those where fast finishes are likely, while Colbrelli looks well-suited for bumpier sprinter-friendly days. Van Asbroeck should have plenty of opportunities to go up against prime competition next year, having signed a two-year contract with Belkin, who will appreciate his addition to their classics squad with the departure of Lars Boom. Colbrelli will stay with Bardiani – CSF, but he should continue to have chances to shine in MSR and the Giro, among other races.

23-year-old Tim Wellens has been with Lotto Belisol since 2012, but something clicked for him this season. The Giro offered the first hints of an impressive puncheur’s engine lurking under the hood; Wellens was active in long-range moves in Italy and came close to victory on multiple occasions, though a pair of 2nd places was all he had to show for his efforts. However, he didn’t have to wait too long to make good on that promise. Sitting 16th overall and 49 seconds down on GC, Tim Wellens struck out for glory from afar on Stage 6 of the Eneco Tour and held on for a decisive stage win and, ultimately, the time gap necessary to secure overall victory. He again put those punchy legs on display with a Top 10 in Plouay, and a 4th place finish in Il Lombardia among very impressive company. Lotto Belisol will be able to mount a potent two-pronged attack with Wellens and Jelle Vanendert in next year’s Ardennes and other hilly classics.

Orica-GreenEdge was able to enjoy the highly visible arrivals of multiple squad members. The Australian outfit knew that they were getting a wealth of talent when they signed the Yates twins, and both showed ability this season, with Adam Yates in particular having a breakout year. The 22-year-old took a stage and the overall victory in the Tour of Turkey and kept the foot on the gas for his next several starts, landing 5th in the Tour of California and 6th in a hotly contested Criterium du Dauphine (ahead of Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali). He won Italy’s GP Industria & Artigianato and was in prime position in a leading group of five in the final kilometers of the Clasica de San Sebastian before a crash took him out of contention. With explosive climbing legs and a willingness to take chances, Yates had plenty of success in 2014 and looks ready for more in 2015. OGE saw yet another major breakout season with Johan Esteban Chaves, a pure climbing talent with an affinity for the tough mountains.

Chaves

Chaves had a promising 2012 but his 2013 was derailed by an early-season crash that left him with a number of serious injuries (including a fractured collarbone and cheekbone). He got back on track in style this year, climbing to stage wins in the Tour of California and 3rd overall in the Tour of Beijing. He likely still needs to get some mileage as a WorldTour pro before he can put in a challenge in the Grand Tours, but he’s ready to contend in the one-week races right now. Suddenly Orica-GreenEdge has multiple options in the mountains.

French cycling enjoyed a renaissance year, and Romain Bardet‘s emergence as a top-level threat was a big part of that. After a strong 2013, his progression wasn’t necessarily unexpected, but a nation of cycling fans was pleased to see him deliver on his early promise. His impressive climbing legs took him to 6th overall in the Tour (he was a flat tire in the final ITT away from 5th), and he also displayed a surprising knack for one-day success, landing in the Top 10 in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the GP Montreal. He has a surprising kick and should make waves in the shorter climber-friendly races as he continues to develop for the Grand Tours.

Cannondale may be going through a merger/takeover, but the final year of the team as we know it saw a few impressive stage racing performances from rising stars. Neo-pro Davide Formolo, just 22, climbed to 4th in the Tour of Turkey and then a month later, against several top GC-style riders nearing their Tour de France peak form, he finished 7th overall in the Tour de Suisse. He strung together a nice collection of results in smaller one-day races as well. He should continue to develop with the new Garmin-Cannondale squad. Meanwhile, another Italian talent wearing Cannondale green took major strides forward in the Vuelta. Damiano Caruso had never been in the Top 10 in the General Classification of a WorldTour race until this season, but he picked up his first WT Top 10 in style at the Vuelta a España, where he consistently hung with the best climbers in the bunch most of the way up that race’s toughest mountains. BMC, running a bit low on GC guys as Cadel Evans retires and Samuel Sanchez nears the end of his career, will be glad to have the infusion of talent as he joins them for 2015.

Speaking of BMC, Silvan Dillier put together a nice season, picking up results in a wide variety of races and contributing to his squad’s World Championship TTT ride as well. He thrives during hard days in the saddle and has a fast finish to boot. The same could be said (and more emphatically) of the skillset of Garmin-Sharp’s Ramunas Navardauskas. He picked up an impressive win with a late attack in the Tour de France, and he was 3rd in Quebec and 4th in Montreal. He’s always been an aggressive rider with a knack for getting clear on the harder profiles, but an improved finishing kick allowed him to contest a number of sprint finishes this year. He’s now won two Grand Tour stages, and at age 26, he’s just hitting his prime.

Michael Valgren of Tinkoff-Saxo gets the final mention. The 22-year-old has been a high-profile prospect for some time after delivering several big results in U23 and national events, but this season he sailed to a convincing victory in the Post Danmark Rundt and put in several other strong rides in big races. He was a visible figure at the Worlds Road Race, taking several shots from afar. He has a wide array of talents and a lot of raw power in the tank, and at just 22, he should be on track to land plenty more big results in 2015.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it makes for a useful catalog of the year’s biggest arrivals and most improved up-and-comers. For many of them, breakout success will lead to more focused scrutiny in 2015, which should offer plenty of interesting storylines for the upcoming season as these young rising talents try to cope with pressure to perform. To face that challenge, they will hope to get in as much recovery this offseason as possible, but January and the start of the WorldTour in Australia get closer every day.

-Dane Cash

Photos by Alberto Brevers and moz278.

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