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The Best Neo-Pros of 2008
By Andy McGrath
Date: 12/4/2008
The Best Neo-Pros of 2008

Any young rider to earn a contract in the ProTour or Professional ranks will be eager and relieved to have finally “made it” and put their foot on the ladder, but nothing quite prepares even the best U23 racer for the new atmosphere they encounter. More often than not, an espoir racer used to leading his development squad finds himself in an auxillary position. The whole “back-to-school” effect does not help – new team-mates, new equipment, new kit. Out of the comfort zone, and into the cutthroat, brave new world of professional cycling. Unsurprisingly, it often takes years for youngsters to find their feet and gradually score some results. Still, every year, among the young bucks timidly hitting the big time, there’s always a few who blend seamlessly into the fold and pull out results that the most seasoned professionals would be envious of.

Roelandts outguns the rest to become Belgian champion. Photo © Yoni Peeters

Silence fast man Jurgen Roelants is one fine example of this. After several years on the feeder team for the Belgian squad, he burst onto the scene in 2008, with a level of success and, indeed, consistency that no-one could quite have expected. From late January all the way through to October, the Flandrian was there in the upper reaches of the results. From fifth in the season-opening Tour of Qatar, he was sixth in the Algarve and second at Nokere-Koerse. By the end of the year, Roelandts had collected three wins; among them were the prestigious Belgian national championship and a Tour of Poland stage, while he also took home the points classification in the Tour of the Benelux and enjoyed several high overall placings. Alongside his sprint, Roelandts is also very able on the hills. It is just a question of whether “second-season syndrome” will get him; undoubtedly, repeating this high level of performance will be the next challenge.

Another fast man making waves was Edvald Boasson Hagen, though his ability was not so much of a secret. After drawing comparisons to Thor Hushovd by bulldozing his way through field after field of older and more experienced opponents while still a teenager with Maxbo Bianchi, hardman Hagen has fulfilled the expectation. The Norwegian scored seven victories in his first year in the ProTour, including the Criterium International time-trial, a Tour of the Benelux stage and three stages in the Tour of Britain. Bigger and better things are expected from the 21 year-old Scandinavian on a Columbia squad bulging at the seams with young talent. Surely a Grand Tour debut beckons for this precocious talent, so that he can test his ability against the best in the world.

Martin leads team-mate Hansen over the line at the Hel van het Mergelland Photo © 2008 Bart Hazen

Team-mate Tony Martin also enjoyed an ideal first year of pro racing. A fine time trialist while also decent in sprint finishes, the German showed his calibre in early April, breaking away in the Hel van Het Mergelland with team-mate Adam Hansen in awful weather conditions, before taking a maiden victory. He finished his first Giro d’Italia, having been an integral part of Mark Cavendish’s lead-out train, while also finishing second in the race-concluding time-trial. The 23 year-old also took out victories against the clock in the Ster Elektrotoer, Tour de l’Ain and, most impressively, the Deutschland Tour. The huge engine is evidently already there, and it will be interesting to see if the former Milk Ras winner can improve further to concrete his place as one of the sport’s fastest time-trialists.

From one ox-strong time-trialist Martin to a namesake waif-like climber: English-born Irishman Daniel Martin has shone for Slipstream this year. Signed from VC Pomme La Marsaillaise, the lanky newphew of Tour winner Stephen Roche really showed his precocious talents in the mountains in the Route du Sud, where he snatched overall victory. His impressive climbing form has been particularly noted in the media, not only because of his famous family connections but also because neo-professionals showing such clear ability in the mountains are few and far between.

Francesco Ginnani with the Tre Valli Varesine silverware. Photo © 2008 Fotoreporter Sirotti

On the ever-strong Italian domestic scene, Francesco Ginanni (Selle Italia) and Mauro Finetto (CSF) have both made their presence felt in significant races over 2008. Ginanni had an incredible purple patch in August, winning semi-classics Tre Valli Varesine and the Giro del Veneto, and finishing fourth in the Coppa Placci. Finetto was similarly prolific in the closing months of the year, racking up several top-ten finishes: third in the Coppa Placci and Trofeo Melinda, fourth in the Tre Valli Varesine and eighth in the Giro del Lazio. Perhaps most pleasing and encouraging was his sixth spot in the season-ending Giro di Lombardia. Both men are staying with their teams for the coming season, but if they continue to perform so well, it is only a matter of time before a bigger team snatches them up.

The stand-alone best ride of the year must go to Martijn Maaskant. It is almost unfair to label the Dutchman a surprise after riding so impressively last year with the Rabobank Continental team - he led the European Tour for most of the year after victories galore - but nobody could have anticipated his showing in Paris-Roubaix, making the race with the world’s best Classics riders on the way to a hugely-impressive fourth. The 25 year old went on to finish his first Tour de France in the summer. Garmin will be hoping that he can step up another level for the 2009 cobbled Classics.

The French squads have benefited from an influx cf youngsters from Eastern Europe. Yuri Trofimov hit the ground running, winning a stage and the overall in the Etoile des Besseges before securing a memorable mountain stage victory at Morzine in the Dauphiné. Meanwhile, Belarussian bunch sprinter Yauheni Hutarovich also performed admirably for Francaise des Jeux, boosting their win tally with four victories, including two stages at the Vuelta a Burgos.

Fellow speedster Kristof Goddaert also continued his steady progression, finishing the year particularly strongly with second at the Tour de Vendee, fourth in the Omloop Van de Vlaamse Scheldeboorden and the Nationale Sluitingprijs and ninth at Paris-Tours. He even incurred the wrath of peloton patron Tom Boonen for erratic sprinting in the Sluitingprijs!

*A neo-pro is any rider making his debut in the ProTour or Professional ranks.

The Best Neo-Pros of 2006

The Best Neo-Pros of 2004

The Best Neo-Pros of 2003
The Best Neo-Pros of 2002
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