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The Best Neo-Pros of 2006
By Andy McGrath
Date: 11/25/2006
The Best Neo-Pros of 2006

Turning professional is said to be the most difficult step in the sport of cycling. All those years of graft and racing on the amateur scene are ultimately for a professional contract. With the advent of the ProTour, making the step up from Elite-2 level to that of cycling’s top rung is now even more difficult – even for fully mature youngsters, it can take a number of years to fully adapt to the packed calendar and hectic lifestyle of a professional cyclist. Still, several “freshmen” from the ProTour and Professional categories have excelled, showing themselves to be quick learners and ones to watch out for in the future. For the first time in years, we’ve seen a neo-professionals in the leader's jersey at a Grand Tour, wearing national champions’ jerseys and taking several stages at ProTour-level events.

Janez Brajkovic puts on the gold jersey as leader of the Vuelta.
Photo © Unipublic S.A.U.

Perhaps the first-year pro to most catch the attention of the public this year would be Discovery Channel rider Janez Brajkovic. Joining in August of last year from Slovenian team KRKA-Adria Mobil, he made an immediate impact, with top 20 finishes in the World Championship time-trial and road race, as well as in the Tour of the Benelux. The fresh-faced Slovenian continued his progress into 2006, showing a seamless transition into ProTour racing, with fifth place finishes in the Tours of Switzerland, Catalunya as well as that of Georgia. Those finishes alone would earmark him as one to watch, but Brajkovic went on to take the gold jersey in the Vuelta a Espana, sensationally holding the wheel of a red-hot on-form Danilo di Luca on La Covatilla. Though he faded to 30th in Madrid after spending a couple of days in the gruppetto in the last week, it is clear that Discovery have a huge Grand Tour talent in Janez Brajkovic, and one they will be looking to hold on to. It will be fascinating to see how he progresses over the next few years.

There were ProTour victories for several neophrytes this year. The Tour de Suisse saw an impressive maiden pro victory on hilly home ground for Steve Morabito (Phonak), while Assan Bazayev (Astana) surprised the favourites in torrential rain to sprint to the first road stage of the Deutschland Tour.

Saunier Duval hilly hotshot Riccardo Riccò also secured a position as one of the hottest new kids on the block, with two top-three stages finishes at Tirreno-Adriatico before securing his first pro win in the fifth stage of the Settimana Coppi e Bartali, outsprinting no less than Paolo Bettini, a rider who appears to have a similar racing style to. After finishing the Tour de France in his first pro year, the Italian saw the season out with all guns blazing, finishing third in the GP Beghelli and winning the season-closing Japan Cup.

Gerald Ciolek in his rainbow jersey Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti

The best neo-pro outside of the ProTour has to be Gerald Ciolek, arguably the hottest property in cycling. Opting to ride for the more modest Wiesenhof-AKUD squad rather than take the leap into the ProTour, the 2005 German champion rewarded the team with several fine results, most notably the U23 world road race, a Deutschland-Tour stage (ahead of Erik Zabel, 16 years his senior), second in the Rund um Henninger Turm and fifth in the Vattenfall Cyclassics. Still barely out of school, having only just turned 20, fast man Ciolek now has a chance to fulfil his immense promise in his first year in the ProTour, with magenta giants T-Mobile. If burnout or a dip in form is avoided, cycling should have a bona fide star on its hands.
Fellow teammate and fast man Marcel Sieberg also enjoyed a fine year, albeit somewhat in Ciolek's shadow, winning the GP Jef Scherens and taking a host of podium finishes in stages of the Niedersachsen Rundfahrt and the Tours of Austria and Poitou-Charentes. The twenty-four year old has secured a contract with Milram for 2007, so keep an eye out for him in the bunch finishes.

One of the oldest neo-pros in the pack also had one of the most succesful seasons. After three years with the Marco Polo cycling team, mountain biker-turned-roadie Maarten Tjallingii took up a place on the pro scene with Skil-Shimano, at the late age of 28. Yet, the Dutchman has been one of their best riders, winning a stage and the overall at the Tour of Belgium after attacking solo and staving off a Quick Step chase, as well as taking a stage and the overall at the Tour of Qinghai Lake, which regularly climbs up to over 3000m.

Another high-altitude high-flyer is little Colombian Jose Serpa. The Selle Italia rider won the UCI America Tour, on the backs of numerous stage wins in the Vuelta al Tachira, Tour of Langkawi and the Vuelta a Venezuala, where he also took the overall competition. He also finished thirty-first in the Giro d’Italia after a solid showing in the mountains. After breaking into continental season so impressively this season, twenty-seven year old Serpa will be hoping to progress further in 2007.

Racing two Grand Tours in his first-year as a pro, Serpa’s compatriot Leonardo Duque showed that he is a fast learner, as well as a fast sprinter. After scoring several top-five placings in the Giro d’Italia bunch sprints, the Cofidis man went on to win the Tour du Limousin after making the break on the first stage; he also came sixth in the Paris-Camembert and finished the Vuelta a Espana.

In the Coupe de France, there were a host of good showings from French-based new riders keen to prove themselves on the domestic scene - Chris Sutton’s victory in the GP Cholet was best, while Cofidis teammates Tristan Valentin and (third in the Trophee des Grimpeurs) and Tyler Farrar also showed themselves, as did Remi Pauriol and William Bonnet (Credit Agricole) and trackie Mathieu Ladagnous (Francaise des Jeux) – the latter also won a stage of the Tour of the Med.

However, the Frenchman wasn’t the first neo-pro off the mark in 2006 – that honour went to Maximiliano Richeze, who triumphed in the opening stage of the Tour of Langkawi. After second-placed finishes in sprints in the Tours of Trentino and Murcia, the Argentinean speedster went on to post several top-five placings in the Giro, his best being second behind Robert Forster in the final stage into Milan. The South American is definitely one to watch, and could make the jump up to ProTour level if he enjoys another good season.

Sebastien Langeveld wins the GP Pino Cerami in April photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti

Other good rides which deserve mentions are Martin Pedersen’s stage and overall win in the Tour of Britain for CSC, Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom) taking the Dutch time-trial championship and victories for Rabobank-bound Sebastien Langeveld in the GP Pino Cerami, Mauricio Soler (Acqua & Sapone) in a stage and the overall at the Tour of Lorraine.

As for the new class of 2007... look out, in particular, for U23 stars Dmytro Grabovsky (Quick Step), Dominique Cornu (Davitamon-Lotto), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre) Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile), Oscar Gatto (Gerolsteiner) and Romain Feillu (Agritubel), as well as riders like Robert Gesink (Rabobank), who makes the transition from Continental to the ProTour squad.

Riders such as Serguei Kolesnikov, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Robert Gesink and Joao Cabreira were ineligible as they ride for Continental teams; only those in Professional or ProTour squads were considered.

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