The Spring Classics usually throw up a surprise or two, and this season was no exception, especially at Paris-Roubaix where we saw rank outsider Mathew Hayman win from the early breakaway.
Spaniard Imanol Erviti was one of Hayman’s companions in that move, and the only other man in the break to finish in the top ten. The Movistar man’s ninth place came a week after an equally surprising seventh in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
So who exactly is Imanol Erviti, the anomaly among these top ten standings, otherwise filled with cobbled specialists?
The 32-year-old is one of a rare breed in cycling – a one-team man. Since turning professional in 2005, Erviti has stuck with Eusebio Unzue’s Abarca sports through its several different iterations. He’s not the first rider to stay with the team for such a long time, following in the footsteps of José Vicente Garcia Acosta (17 years) and Pablo Lastras (18 years).
Like those riders Erviti is a gregario, a worker, a loyal lieutenant to long-time team leader Alejandro Valverde. He has helped Valverde achieve some of his greatest victories, including the 2009 Vuelta a España and last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and was supposed to ride in his service at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
Instead Valverde went to an altitude training camp to prepare for the Giro. The rest is, for Erviti at least, history.
At De Ronde he became only the second Spaniard in history to finish in the top ten, the first since Juan Antonio Flecha in 2008. That ride included over 180km in the breakaway. At Roubaix he was out front for over 200km.
Speaking to Spanish newspaper Marca after Roubaix, Erviti said, “I have raced these cobbled classics many times and have returned disgusted, so the results are a surprise. However, my physical performance doesn’t surprise me.”
This spring saw Erviti race the two cobbled Monuments for the twelfth time, and with his previous best result being a 40th place at the 2009 Paris-Roubaix, it was a surprise to everyone. Of course, experience plays a big factor at these races, something that Erviti agrees with.
“Maybe [these results could have come earlier], but I don’t know. Clearly it’s a matter of experience and learning how to manage in these races,” he says. “The method is more or less trial and error. Maybe there are teams who are experts in these races and can teach you a lot faster, but they are not like Movistar in other aspects.”
“Everyone has their way and I do not regret mine.”
So there are no regrets about this late emergence, but does Erviti forsee a future in leadership?
“It’s a step on the way and what I need to do is to keep working so that it’s not the final step,” he says. “Being a leader is nice but it’s not easy in any race, and it’s a big responsibility.”
Erviti is not a natural leader, and even if he has done well on the cobbles he’s unlikely to lead a team again until next April. It’s his willingness to work for others that is of most value to his team, and this is something that has caught the eye of others too.
One notable man who has recognised Erviti’s talents is Spanish national coach Javier Minguez. The ex-Vitalicio Seguros DS has been in charge of World Championships team selection since 2013, and has selected Erviti in 2014 and 2015. It’s no small deal when a country like Spain could easily fill a squad of stars.
“Imanol is a very good rider, and he has very specific qualities to do the hard work,” says Minguez. “These are qualities that every leader wants to have at his side.”
Minguez wasn’t surprised about Erviti’s rides over the past few weeks though.
“He’s a rider with the quality to do very well in races like De Ronde. Usually his gregario mentality limits his thoughts about showing his personal brilliance though,” he says. “He has the physical potential that allows him to do extra work on behalf of the team.”
Minguez wouldn’t be drawn on whether these performances are likely to secure him another Worlds selection, but don’t be surprised to see him in Qatar, working for Spain’s stars once again. It’s a role that he’s comfortable with.
“I have been a gregario for a long time,” he says. “It’s what I’m good at and suits the qualities I have, so this is not something I want to change.”
After the highs of the cobbles it’s back to that supporting role for Erviti now, starting at the Amstel Gold Race before racing the other Ardennes classics. Then he hopes to ride the Tour de France, his seventeenth Grand Tour, in service of Nairo Quintana.
But first, the big question – which race is harder?
“They are both very demanding. You push your limits in both. Roubaix is hard for the enduring pain, De Ronde for the gradients,” he says. “The worst of Roubaix is undoubtedly the falls and danger, but the impact of reaching the vélodrome is the best.”
A POTTED HISTORY
Born in Pamplona, Navarre, Erviti started out at the local Ermitagaña Cycling Club. He rode in the amateur ranks with Bideki, the ONCE feeder team previously known as Iberdrola.
The team had previously brought through Alberto Contador and Juan Manuel Garate among others, but shut down in 2002. A move to Serbitzu-Kirolgi followed and steady results, including stage wins at the Vuelta a Valladolid and Vuelta a Navarra saw him secure a contract with Pamplona-based Illes Balears for 2005.
Since then Erviti has stayed with the team, helping them top the ProTour/WorldTour rankings in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015. It hasn’t always been about toiling away for the leaders though. In 2008 he won stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, outsprinting breakaway companion Nicolas Roche in Valladolid. Two years later came his next (and most recent) victory, again at the Vuelta and from another breakaway.
The spring Erviti the worker has proven his talent as a sometime breakaway specialist once again.
An interview with the man who knows Portugal’s big race as well as anyone
“I cry every time I see one of my wins.” So says David Blanco, a Spaniard, and five-time winner of the Volta a Portugal. “It’s hard to explain but even at the Vuelta, my home race, I never had the same motivation as I did when I raced the Volta.”
“It was a strange symbiosis, but perhaps the sum of many things – the weather, the mountains, the people,” he trails off.
Blanco has won the race more than anybody else since it was first run in 1927. In a twelve-year career, he missed just one edition. And yet the Volta is barely heard of outside of Portugal. Ask your average cycling fan for a podium prediction and it’s likely that you’ll be met with a blank stare.
The level at which Portuguese cycling is run is the primary reason. There are six teams in the country, all of which race at Continental level, the third tier of cycling, and rarely venture outside of Iberia to compete.
There are financial reasons for that, but this insularity is the main cause of Portuguese cycling’s solitary confinement. Names like Rui Costa, Tiago Machado and Sergio Paulinho are familiar to our ears, but what exactly is Paredes Rota dos Movéis?
“I started as a professional there in 2000,” says Blanco. “They invited me to ride the Volta a Portugal Futuro the previous year, and I finished third so they signed me.”
The team, now known as LA Aluminios-Antarte, boasted another familiar name at the time, Ezequiel Mosquera. “I chose them because Ezequiel (a fellow Galician) was there,” he says. “In Spain the level of talent was very high so it was tough to turn pro. Because of that, Spanish riders were cheap, which meant that there were around sixty riders in Portugal then.”
Blanco was twenty-five when he turned professional, late thanks to his time at university, studying business in Santiago de Compostela. Born in Berne, Switzerland to Spanish parents, Blanco’s family relocated there when he was five years old. Soon after his love affair with the bike began, inspired by 1988 Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado.
The Galician city, which Blanco still calls home today, is the end point for one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world, The Way of St. James. Hundreds of thousands of people set out on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, in a nod to their medieval counterparts, to visit the shrine of the apostle.
Blanco, a Catholic himself, sees a similarity in the Volta. “It’s like a party for everybody. The word I use is romería (a Catholic day of celebration and pilgrimage),” he says. “It doesn’t feel like any other race. People, even those who don’t care about cycling, visit as they would a party.”
That the race is held in August, a time when much of the public are on holiday from work, is both a help and a hindrance.
“The race’s place in the calendar is its biggest problem. Before the ProTour (now known as the WorldTour), plenty of big teams visited but now the Tour de Pologne and the Vuelta are too close. It will never be moved from August though.”
It’s something of a conundrum then. Whereas once upon a time the race could boast startlists featuring Lampre, Festina, QuickStep and more, Spanish ProContinental squad Caja Rural are the cream of the crop in 2015, while a smattering of foreign Continental-level teams will also take part.
In the mid-2000s the race enjoyed 2.HC status (it’s now 2.1), and there was a push towards the ProTour, but such a move would have been at the detriment of the local teams.
“Thank God they didn’t upgrade. Portuguese teams would’ve disappeared because they’re too small, too poor to move up,” says Blanco. “Just look at what happened in Spain. We have no races, no teams, no future.”
WorldTour teams do visit the country, but only for February’s Volta ao Algarve, a training race, closer to their home bases in northern and central Europe than the likes of Oman and Qatar. The race is a rare success story for Portuguese cycling in the wake of the global financial crisis, which hit both Iberian countries hard.
From a combined twenty-three teams (nine Portuguese) in 2006, the countries now share just ten, while numerous races have also disappeared from the calendar.
“Of course there’s less money in Portugal. Since the ProTour was introduced, it has been good for the elite teams but misery for the rest,” Blanco says. Disdain for the elite of cycling is a recurring theme in our conversation, with Blanco referring to the UCI’s top tier pejoratively several times.
“All my life I dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist. I achieved it, but when I saw what was behind the curtain it felt like a nightmare.”
“Portuguese teams have budgets of €300k or so. In my final year the salary was a complete joke,” he says. “I can thank God I earned good money before so that wasn’t a problem for me but there are many riders there earning €1k a month or less, sometimes not even that.”
Just as in wider society, a growing economic disparity is a problem in cycling, with the idea of a budget cap being mooted by figures such as Oleg Tinkov in recent times. One would assume though, that Tinkov had his own roubles in mind, rather than the financial security of riders.
Financial security was at the forefront of Blanco’s mind when he chose to join Spanish team Geox-TMC in 2011, his penultimate year as a professional. Yet despite the team winning an exciting edition of the Vuelta a España with Juan José Cobo, Blanco had bitter memories of the season, calling it nothing short of a disaster.
“I could never find good condition on the bike. Later I learned that I had a bacterial problem with my stomach that affected me all season,” he says. “The salary, along with my Volta wins, meant that I put too much pressure on myself, and tried to race far more than I was used to.”
“It was nice to win the Vuelta, even though in the end it helped nothing. To this day I still don’t understand why Geox left – perhaps Formula One is more chic than cycling.” Geox now sponsors the sports Red Bull team.
While undoubtedly a miserable time for Blanco, his experience with Geox was hardly the only dark point of his career. May 2006 saw the eruption of Operation Puerto, the biggest doping scandal to hit the sport since the Festina affair of 1998. At the time, Blanco was riding for one of Spain’s premier squads and the team at the centre of the investigation, Kelme.
He had finished tenth at the 2004 Vuelta whilst working for team leader Alejandro Valverde, who ended up fourth, while another teammate, Carlos Garcia Quesada was fifth. An opportunity to move to the powerhouse Banesto team followed, but Blanco remained at Kelme, a decision he calls, “the biggest mistake of my life.”
“Anyway, after Puerto I was destroyed emotionally. My teammates had stopped training but I decided that I had to do something special if I wanted to continue in the sport.”
“To tell the truth I never thought I could win the Volta, but I knew Portugal well and knew there were teams with good money who could offer me a future,” he says. “I was disappointed with what happened in 2006 and how the ‘elite’ reacted to me so I lost the motivation to race in the ProTour again.”
The rest was, as they say, history, with Blanco winning two stages on the way to opening his Volta account. Portuguese teams chased his signature, but Blanco instead chose to join a newly-founded team, run jointly by Russian footballer Valery Karpin and the local government.
As it happened, he never turned a pedal in anger for Karpin-Galicia. A meeting with Duja-Tavira, the Algarve-based team which has existed in some form since 1976, saw him rescind his contract and return to Portugal.
The late Xavi Tondo won that year’s Volta, with Blanco finishing fifth. He only had to wait a year to take victory number two though, beating future teammate Cobo, as well as a young Dan Martin.
Blanco’s third victory came in 2009, although he was second originally. Nuno Ribeiro of Liberty Seguros had won the race, but it was later announced that he had tested positive for CERA just before the start, along with teammates Isidro Nozal and Hector Guerra. The scandal saw the Spanish bank leave the sport for a second time in three years.
“I count it as a victory but what happened in 2009 was bad for everyone,” Blanco says. “I never felt the happiness of a win, and I think Portuguese cycling is still suffering from that stigma.”
If there is a stigma surrounding the sport, it’s an unfair one. The Portuguese Anti-Doping Federation (ADOP) runs its own version of both the Biological Passport and the ADAMS Whereabouts system, the only country in Europe with such a program in place for Continental-level teams.
With Ribeiro’s disqualification, Blanco not only won his third Volta, but he was also elevated to first place on stage ten, which finished atop the famous climb of the Alto da Torre.
Far from a single-lane goat path climb you might see in the Vuelta, the road to the top of the second-highest peak in the country is smooth and wide. The gradient constantly changes though, and at 27km long, it takes well over an hour to race up from the town of Seia.
“It’s a very special climb. You need to know it to be able to win. I suffered in the early steep sections,” he says. “The rest of the climb is for powerful riders – my favourite part.”
“I never understood why riders waited for those to attack, rather than the sections where I would suffer more. The only time they did that was when Tondo won in 2008,” Blanco says, smiling.
After 2009’s retroactive victory, he was first to the top again the following year, also taking the win at the other summit finish of the race at Senhora da Graca. Fellow countrymen David Bernabéu and Sergio Pardilla would join him on the final podium.
It was win number four, taking him ahead of Portuguese cycling legend Joaquim Agostinho, and level with Marco Chagas, who now commentates on the race for Portuguese television. His fifth would have to wait though, with the move to Geox meaning that Blanco would miss the race for the first time.
“After Geox I was just thinking about my happiness. I was about to retire after that fiasco, but I wanted to do another year, just to erase 2011 from my mind,” he says. “In January I decided that I would try and be the first to win five Voltas, so I started the search for a new team.”
Efapel-Glassdrive was the destination for his final season as a professional. Once again, he was victorious on the Alto da Torre, climbing into the lead on his favourite mountain.
“The last Volta win is my favourite. That year I enjoyed every race as if it was my last,” he says. “I cry just thinking about how happy I was. It really was a dream come true.”
Riding into Lisbon in the yellow jersey was his last act as a professional cyclist, and then Blanco was off. To Africa, specifically. He moved with his wife to Equatorial Guinea, where she worked. Blanco admits to “doing almost nothing” during those three years – a well-earned rest.
Now back in Santiago de Compostela, Blanco has grand plans in an altogether different sport, moving from one type of climbing to another.
“I’m currently working to open a climbing wall centre, with help from ex-World Champion Ramón Julián,” he says. “I started climbing thanks to my brother-in-law, and I loved it. Together we had the idea to start this project.”
Blanco will take some time out from working on his new project to visit the Volta once again this week. It will be a while before he sees anyone come close to his record-breaking five victories, but perhaps he’ll witness the beginning of a challenge.
If you were paying attention to the crowds lining the road in Milan today, you would’ve noticed a Costa Rican flag on the finishing straight. It’s a long way to come to show your support, but these have been a historic few weeks, with the country’s only professional riding to a surprising fourth in the General Classification.
Amador is his name, Andrey Amador Bikkazakova to be precise. It’s a strange one, thanks to his uncommon lineage. His mother, Raisa, is Russian, while father Rodolfo is of Galician heritage.
The youngest of three sons, Andrey turned to cycling in his teenage years. He followed in the footsteps of middle brother Ivan, who he would later ride with in three editions of the Vuelta a Costa Rica.
Amador started off racing both on the road and on mountain bikes, and was successful almost immediately, winning nine gold medals at the National Games. Junior National road race and time trial Championships followed, before joining Ivan at one of the top teams in the country, BCR-Pizza Hut.
He quickly overshadowed his older brother. As an eighteen-year-old he finished on the podium at the Vuelta a Costa Rica, as well as coming second in Panama’s Vuelta a Chiriquí later in the year.
With his mind set on turning professional he was advised that moving to Spain would give him the best chance of doing so, and midway through 2006 he did just that. Continental team Viña Magna-Cropu was his destination, where he linked up with future Movistar teammates Sergio Pardilla and Jose Herrada for the first time.
His results there, including a string of podium places at the Vuelta a Costa Rica, saw him noticed by top Spanish amateur team Lizarte. Costa Rica’s first professional, José Adrián Bonilla, helped Amador make the transition, introducing him to team boss Manolo Azcona, whom Amador would later describe as a second father.
Based in Pamplona in the Basque Country, the heartland of Spanish cycling, Lizarte have been a steady provider of cyclists to the pro ranks for twenty-three years.
Joseba Beloki is the biggest name to have raced for the team before turning pro, while other notable names include Claus Michael Møller, Isidro Nozal and Benjamín Noval. More recently Movistar riders Marc Soler, Enrique Sanz and Nairo Quintana’s brother Dayer have made the jump.
Amador won an impressive nineteen races with the team, including the Vuelta a Bidasoa and Vuelta al Goierri stage races as well as numerous classics and stage wins at the Vuelta Navarra and Vuelta al Palencia.
His finest result as an amateur was still yet to come though, going to September’s Tour de l’Avenir as part of an international selection alongside current pros Jarlison Pantano, Mitch Docker and Jacques Janse Van Renseburg.
Having already penned a pro contract with Spanish squad Caisse d’Epargne in August, Amador could ride without pressure. He won the opening 7.5km prologue by seven seconds, something of a yawning chasm considering the distance.
He was rarely out of the top ten for the rest of the race, riding a strong time trial and finishing ahead of future Tour de France contender Tejay Van Garderen on the summit finish at Guzet-Neige. He would end up fifth overall, with future teammate Rui Costa a few places above him.
His first pro season didn’t start off too well, with a broken collarbone in March impeding his progress. Before long though, he would settle into his assigned role at the team – that of a dependable role player, helping Luis León Sánchez to win Paris-Nice.
The next season saw him turn history maker, becoming the first Costa Rican to ride a Grand Tour, something Bonilla had never managed during his three seasons with Kelme. The 2010 Giro d’Italia was one of the more exciting GTs in living memory, with Amador’s teammate David Arroyo coming close to taking the overall win thanks to a mid-race breakaway.
Amador ended up forty-first in that race, with Arroyo hanging on for second. The Costa Rican had proven worthy of a new contract, but an incident in the New Year saw both his life and career hang in the balance.
While out training in his home country, Amador was mugged for his bike by a gang. He was left for dead, lying in a riverbed unconscious for six hours before he was found. Cuts and bruises were the initial diagnosis, but it was later found that one of his kidneys had shut down due to the severity of the beating.
Miraculously, he was back on his bike the following month, going on to finish fourth at the GP Llodio and Vuelta La Rioja in April before disaster struck again. This time it was another broken collarbone, putting him out of the Giro squad. Another landmark came later in the season as he became the first Costa Rican to ride the Tour de France.
After the annus horribilis of 2011, the following season, for the newly-sponsored Movistar team, was his best yet. Ninth in January’s Tour de San Luís was the strongest stage race result of his pro career, but it was nothing compared to what happened in May.
The fourteenth stage of the Giro was the first summit finish. Amador was in the breakaway for the second time in three days, having finished third into Sestri Levante on stage twelve.
On the road to Breuil-Cervinia he was not to be denied though, beating Jan Bárta and Alessandro De Marchi to the win, the first of his career. A solid twenty-ninth on GC showed a glimpse of his future potential.
A strong start to the following season, including an eighth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, was cut short in April. Another broken collarbone (his fifth), caused by a crash in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, meant it looked like it might be another year to forget.
He returned to racing after a month out and was showed enough form to make the Tour squad, helping Nairo Quintana to second overall. Later on bad luck struck again, as a bout of mononucleosis interrupted the second half of his season.
He was back at the Giro last year, part of Quintana’s triumphant campaign, while a team time trial victory at the Vuelta a España was another high point. This year’s edition has seen him break out as a big-time rider in his own right though.
A strong fifth-place finish in the team time trial was followed up by hanging with the big names on the early summit finishes at Abetone and Campitello Matese.
The windswept mid-race time trial around the Prosecco-producing Province of Treviso saw him finish fifteenth, catapulting him into the podium places. The next few days featured more mountain-top finishes, with Amador limiting his losses admirably on the stages to Madonna di Campiglio and Aprica.
For all his efforts, Astana’s Mikel Landa managed to wrest third place from him, but Amador managed to hold off a resurgent Ryder Hesjedal in the final trio of mountain stages to hold on to his fourth place.
Even Amador has been surprised at what he has achieved this month. He put his improvement down to weight loss, claiming that he’s five kilograms lighter than he was at Cervinia three years ago. But while he may be getting slimmer, his pay cheque won’t be – his contract is up for renewal at the end of the season.
Something else to note is the absence of team leaders Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. With the duo both focused on the Tour, it’s the first opportunity Amador has had to race a Grand Tour for himself.
According to journalists in the small Central American country, one of whom made the trip to Milan for the final stage, Amador has risen to the status of national hero back home. His is a star on the rise, and for a man who has so many firsts under his belt already, you have to wonder what his next might be.
It’s the second in the series and another Belgian – BMC staigiare Dylan Teuns. He has already signed a contract with the team, which will have a more youth-oriented feel next year as Joey Rosskopf, Manuel Senni, Campbell Flakemore and Stefan Küng join the likes of Rick Zabel and Rohan Dennis on the roster.
22 year-old Teuns hails from Diest in the Flemish Brabant, not too far from the hilly region of Limburg. Indeed the hills have been his favoured terrain thus far in his career, though he has had some strong results on the cobbles too. As a junior he raced for Avia, a team affiliated with Omega Pharma – QuickStep. In his two years there he showed his talent in the northern classics, beating the Yates brothers to take sixth place at the Junior Ronde Van Vlaanderen in 2009 and winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Juniors the following year.
2011 saw Teuns move up to the Continental Jong Vlaanderen – Bauknecht team. It was a tough first year, with no racing before April and no major results to speak of. Things improved season-by-season though – the following year he took fourth overall at the Ronde de l’Isard, an important race on the espoirs scene. He also raced the Tour de l’Avenir as well as getting a taste of the action alongside top pros at the Belgian Championships and Paris-Bruxelles.
The next edition of the Ronde de l’Isard saw another consistent performance from Teuns – finishing in the top ten every day and ending up third overall. Fifth place in Liège – Bastogne – Liège Espoirs was another highlight of 2013 as he confirmed his talent for racing in the hills. A stage win at the Triptyque Ardennais backed this up.
I know what you’re thinking – he seems a good prospect but a future star? I’d be inclined to agree but his performances in 2014 have been much improved. After three years at Jong Vlaanderen he moved to BMC’s Development Team at the start of this season. At Liège – Bastogne – Liège Espoirs he was narrowly outsprinted by Anthony Turgis in the velodrome (yes, it finishes on a velodrome). Winning the senior version of the race is his dream, and he certainly seems to have the characteristics to suit.
Later in the month, Teuns grabbed his first win of 2014 at the hilltop finish of stage three of the Tour de Bretagne. He finished second overall on GC after a consistent performance. Teuns’ next big result came in Belgium in July, where he lost out in a two-man sprint for the win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Beloften.
His last race before joining BMC’s senior team as a stagiaire was the Giro della Valle d’Osta. Stage 3 saw him solo away from his breakmates with 20km remaining to take the win on the undulating stage to Morillon. The Tour of Utah was his first race as part of the senior squad – he wasn’t eyecatching but took the young riders jersey nonetheless.
Soon after he took a win at the Tour de l’Avenir. On the summit finish of Carroz d’Arâches he attacked the peloton with 2km remaining and held them all off for his third victory of the season, and his first in the famous Belgian colours.
It was back to BMC in September and off to the Tour of Britain, a race he had a lot of praise for when I spoke to him on the final day. He was in contention for the podium until the stages in London, where he dropped down to tenth overall in the time trial. A highlight of the race was third place on the hilly finish in Bristol.
Sixth at the GP Wallonie followed (teammate Greg Van Avermaet was the winner), and he participated in the U23 World Championship Road Race for the first time. Teuns ended the season on a strong note, taking second at the Piccolo Giro di Lombardia and on the attack from the chasing group in the finale of Paris-Tours.
BMC looks like a good place for Teuns to go next season. With a new group of younger riders at the team and some veterans leaving there should be a good deal of chances for him and others to prove themselves in the WorldTour. Some of the best puncheurs in the sport (Gilbert, Van Avermaet) are already at the team and they seem like ideal mentors for him. If Van Avermaet can help Teuns out with his sprint then he could make a formidable package in hills in years to come.
In the first of a new series that will run through the off-season I’ll be taking a look at some of the potential future stars of cycling. Some are already racing at the top level and starting to make their mark, while others are poised to move up to the big leagues next season. One thing they all have in common is talent, and although that alone isn’t a guaranteed signifier of success, I think we’ll be hearing some of these names a lot in the future.
It’s been expected for a while, but the age-old team currently known as Belkin will continue next season as TEAMLottoNL. The Dutch squad have secured new sponsors in the form of the national lottery De Lotto and loyalty programme company BrandLoyalty.
What does this have to do with young cyclists? Well the first order of business for the team, according to Dutch newspaper Telegraaf, has been to secure the signature of promising Belgian youngster Tom Van Asbroeck from the ProContinental Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise team.
The 24 year-old is a cobbled specialist with a strong sprint, and he likes the hills too. Put these three qualities together and only one race springs to mind – the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Van Asbroeck rode the race for the second time in his career this season, finishing in 71st place.
He hails from the European cycling heartland of Flanders. The city of Aalst, situated halfway between Gent and Brussels, doesn’t have a massive cycling pedigree though. No major races visit and the biggest name to previously emerge from the town is ex-QuickStep rider Kevin Van Impe.
To rewind a few years, he rode as an amateur with the Van Der Vurst Development Team in 2011. Tom was consistent all season, rarely finishing outside the top ten. He only won one race, but it was a big one – the U23 version of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where he outsprinted a small group at the finish.
After a single season with Van Der Vurst, he was signed up by current team Topsport Vlaanderen. It’s the same place where future teammate Sep Vanmarcke started his pro career, while others like Björn Leukemans, Leif Hoste, John Gadret and Thomas de Gendt all got their starts there.
In his first season with the team, Van Asbroeck won the 1.2 ranked races GP van der stad Geel and the Beverbeek Classic, both in reduced bunch sprints. He also had the opportunity to ride his first WorldTour races, finishing both Gent-Wevelgem and the Eneco Tour, while he grabbed tenth place at his first Belgian National Championships.
The highlight of Tom’s season though, was a bronze medal at the U23 race at the World Championships in Valkenburg. After a tough race he sprinted to third place behind Alexey Lutsenko and Bryan Coquard, who are now at Astana and Europcar respectively.
2013 saw more progression as he rode the full complement of Flanders Classics. The man from Aalst experienced the Ronde Van Vlaanderen for the first time, finishing (an achievement in itself) 79th. There were to be no wins, though he did show his sprint prowess with several podium finishes in stages of the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen and the Tour de Wallonie.
Most of his August was spent in Norway, where he grabbed a couple of top ten placings on GC. He almost beat Thor Hushovd in a stage of the Arctic Tour, while in the Tour des Fjords he was never out of the top ten.
Onto this season, and it has been an incredibly successful one. As of the end of September, Tom leads the UCI Europe Tour after a very consistent past few months. Earlier in the season, he took the mountains jersey at the Vuelta a Andalucia before winning the hilly Cholet-Pays de Loire classic in March. A successful spring was rounded out by 6th and 7th place finishes at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
In July he took another win, this time at the Tour de Wallonie, where he sprinted to victory in Waremme en route to a 4th place finish on GC. Since August Tom has been a podium regular in the slew of classics he has contested (see below), and should he keep this form up it looks like he’ll secure his place at the top of the Europe Tour.
With riders like Lars Boom and Lars Petter Nordhaug leaving Belkin at the end of this season, it looks like Tom will get good chances to prove himself further at the top level with TEAMLottoNL. The team are certainly investing in the future, as 2014 Paris-Roubaix Espoirs winner Mike Teunissen is also making the step up. They are certainly ones to keep an eye out for next spring, with the talented Sep Vanmarcke leading the way.
Texas native Chad Haga is currently in the middle of his first season in Europe with Giant-Shimano. So far he has put in some strong time trial performances at the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, Tour of California and Baloise Tour of Belgium as well as helping his team to multiple stage wins at WorldTour races Volta a Catalunya and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
I talked to him last month to ask about his plans for the future, the difference between racing in the US and Europe and more.
Haga, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, came into prominence at last year’s Tour of California, where he beat the likes of Andy Schleck, Haimar Zubeldia and Leopold König to finish tenth overall at the race.
Chad moved to Colorado to join the domestic Rio Grande team in 2011. August saw him move to Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, where he stayed for two seasons. He showed his time trialling promise with prologue victories at the 2011 Mount Hood Classic and 2012 Cascade Classic.
His career in the US wasn’t all plain sailing though, as a pileup whilst leading a National Racing Calendar event in 2012 saw Chad break bones in his left wrist and right thumb. The injuries meant he missed out on the Tour of Utah, US Pro Cycling Challenge and also a chance to ride in the World Championships TTT.
He bounced back the following season though, and in addition to his Tour of California result he won the prologue of the Tour of Elk Grove – a race he podiumed in 2011. Earlier in the season, Chad finished second place overall at his first European race, the Volta ao Alentejo.
The future looks bright for Chad as he takes a step up to the WorldTour and the biggest races in pro cycling with the Dutch team, joining fellow ex-pats Lawson Craddock and Thomas Peterson.
I saw your strong TTs in Cali and Belgium, nice work. What have you got coming up this season in terms of races and goals?
The Dauphine was the last race before my summer break. For the second half of the season, my schedule is still up in the air a bit.
I don’t have any specific goals for the rest of the season as far as results at a target race–my goals are focused more on making the roster for certain races like the Vuelta or Worlds TTT. Those are both races that I would really like to do, but I have to prove that I can handle a grand tour and that I’m strong enough to be a good addition to the TTT roster.
Aside from those, I just really want to get a win before the season ends, so I’ll be on the lookout for any opportunity that arises at whatever races I’m doing
Are you noticing a lot of differences between racing in Europe and the US? I had always imagined it to be a big step up, even with the European teams coming over for Colorado and Cali, but you seem to have adjusted quickly.
Racing in Europe has a lot of differences when compared to the US, but also the ProTour races in general are different. The fields are larger and deeper in talent, the races are longer, the roads are narrower with more traffic furniture and turns. There are a lot of little things that, when added together, make for a big adjustment.
Add all that to a first season spent entirely in Europe, and it can be a real shock to the system. All that said, it’s still bike racing, so we’re hardly fish out of water.
With your time trialing abilities, are you looking to build your career around specialising in that discipline? Or is developing more towards being a GC contender in stage races the way you want to go?
I definitely would like to specialize in time-trialing, but it really goes hand-in-hand with developing as a GC rider as well. A lot of stage races are TT-centric when it comes to the GC (like the Belgium Tour, for example), so becoming a GC rider depends heavily on TT skills.
I’m not of the same build as the true TT specialists like Martin or Cancellara or Phinney, so it is less likely that I can become truly dominant at the highest levels of the sport in all time trials. I can use the time trials to separate me from other GC riders who might climb better than me, however.
Speaking of Phinney, you guys along with Tejay and a large number of the Garmin roster amongst others are all part of the new wave of American riders that have emerged in the wake of the USADA/USPS ordeal. From the outside it seems where there used to be pressure to dope, now there’s a pressure to be clean.
Is that the kind of vibe that you can feel throughout today’s peloton? Is there a definite pressure to prove things are different now?
There’s definitely a pressure to be clean now, for both the riders and the teams. Fans and sponsors alike have been burned by investing emotion and money into the sport, and are rightly timid now after everything that has come out lately. These people still love the sport, though, and the they look to the new generation of riders to cheer on.
I think the responsibility to prove that things are different now falls on those who have been involved with its shady past. For riders like me, all I can do is race and train honestly as the sport recovers. To that end, it’s fantastic being on an outspoken anti-doping team where I don’t have to worry myself about it.
Going back to the USPS scandal some of those older guys must’ve been role models of yours right? Were you kinda let down when it all happened or do you just feel that all just a product of that period in cycling?
I didn’t follow racing outside of the Tour until fairly recently, so I was never familiar with any of the big names in cycling besides Lance. I admired Lance as a bike racer, but he was not my role model. I was definitely disappointed to learn the extent of doping in the past, and I refuse to pass it off as just a product of that period. Regardless of what pressure they may have felt at the time, they were adults who made a decision to cheat.
So the team’s stance must have had a big impact in your decision to join? I know most teams are trying to be clean nowadays but there are several who stand out as being more vocal on the issue, Giant-Shimano included.
What other factors made you choose them?
Yeah, the team’s stance was a big selling point for me, peace of mind is a big deal when considering your employer. The biggest reason that I chose the team, however, was their enthusiasm for my development.
They didn’t want to just pull me up to the top level, plug me in, and hope for the best. They said, “Hey, we think you’d do well in the WorldTour anyways, but we want to take an active role in helping you reach your full potential.” It’s hard not to be excited when you hear that!
You can keep up with Chad on Twitter and his blog. Check out Giant-Shimano’s website here.
Its this blog’s first ever rider interview, and Francesco Manuel Bongiorno of Bardiani – CSF agreed to answer some questions after the Giro. His team won three stages and Bongiorno was in contention for the win on Zoncolan until a push from a fan ruined his challenge. There’s also a look at his career so far for those who aren’t familiar. Continue reading “Interview: Francesco Manuel Bongiorno”→
As we all know, this season has marked the first time that the boys from the Basque Country have had riders on the roster than weren’t Basque or hadn’t come up through the Fundación Euskadi youth system. Here’s a look at how these imports have done so far this season. Continue reading “Euskaltel’s foreign legion”→
Sunday saw the final stage of the Vuelta a España and with it the end of the career of French rider David Moncoutié. One of my favourite riders, he was one of the rare few in which you could put a great deal of confidence in from an ethical point of view. Continue reading “Farewell Moncoucou”→
Going by his career thus far it seems as though barely anything is out of bounds for this young prodigy. His surprise win in Tirreno-Adriatico yesterday, on a stage where most expected the finish to be contested by the like of Cadel Evans, Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali, saw the 22-year-old all-rounder came through to take the win ahead of Roman Kreuziger and teammate Vincenzo Nibali.
With this in mind, lets take a look at what Sagan has achieved so far, and what he could do in future.
We already know what he can do in what most people see as his favourite terrain – short sharp hills. In 2010, he burst onto the scene at Paris-Nice, beating Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador into Aurillac after the short sharp Côte de la Martinie. Good placings towards the end of the year in the Giro del Veneto, Giro della Romagna and GP de Montréal confirmed this promise, and last year his domination at the Tour de Pologne erased any doubt that he would be a star of the future on hilly terrain.
His sprinting talent is clear for all to see. From the points classification in his first Paris-Nice and his stage wins at the Tour of California over the past two years, to his victories in the Vuelta last year, his immense talent in this discipline has been obvious for some time. However, we have yet to see him prevail against the likes of Greipel and Cavendish in a flat-out sprint. With Milan-San Remo fast approaching, maybe we won’t have to wait long.
Sagan has, however, proven more talented at shorter TTs and prologues (as one would expect from a sprinter). Last year’s podium finish in the Tour de Suisse 7.3km TT and his showings at the same race and Paris-Nice one year earlier prove this. So far then, it looks as if hilly week-long stage races will be his playground in the future.
We haven’t really had much to go on so far in his professional career. At junior Paris-Roubaix in 2008 he finished runner-up to Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s now neo-pro Andrew Fenn, so there is certainly some promise in this area. Last year he made it to the end of his first ever men’s Paris-Roubaix, finishing in 86th place. We will have to wait and see how he progresses in this discipline, but the potential is certainly there.
Last, but not least we come to climbing. In 2010, we got a taste of his climbing ability when he stuck with the lead group on the climbing stage to Big Bear Lake and then won the sprint – this on a day when Boonen, Bos, Haedo, Cavendish, Renshaw and Chicchi all failed to finish or missed the time cut. While this stage wasn’t as strenuous a mountain-top finish as we see in the Grand Tours, it still showed that he could climb mountains as well as hills.
On the Tour de Suisse stage to Grindewald last year, Sagan put in yet another shock performance, hanging in with the lead group over the cols, before putting in a fantastic descent, and winning the stage. In the process beating riders such as the Grand Tour winners Damiano Cunego and Danilo Di Luca, as well as the Schleck brothers and climber Juan Mauricio Soler.
So there is no doubt that he has some talent when it comes to the big mountains too. However, tomorrow he will find himself in an entirely new position. Sagan is in 4th place on the Tirreno-Adriatico GC, surrounded by some of the world’s premium mountain climbing talent – names such as Horner, Kreuziger, Di Luca, Nibali, Rodriguez, Scarponi and Garzelli. This is the first time he will find himself going into a mountain stage with a GC place to fight for.
The final mountain is a tough one to race up this early in the season, with a 6.9% average, including a short section of 12% towards the beginning. This is the big test of Peter Sagan’s climbing ability, and while it sounds absurd to be judging a rider already at the age of 22, the result of the stage might give us some idea of whether this guy could be someone who can contend in pretty much any kind of race.
Peter Sagan can already be considered as one of the best all-rounders in today’s peloton, and to achieve what he has done already, at such a young age, is quite incomprehensible. But there will certainly be more to come. With his talents for sprinting and climbing hills, races like the World Championships, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the points classifications at Grand Tours should one day be well within his grasp.
We haven’t seen him properly tested on the cobbles yet, but he seems like the type of rider that could go well at a hilly cobbled classic such as the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. And how about Grand Tour GC aspirations? He isn’t currently the type of rider that one would expect to be fighting for the overall win at the Giro, Tour or Vuelta, but with so much talent it’s hard to rule anything out.
Today could give us an idea of just how many strings this amazing young talent has in his bow.