Cycling is always looking for a new star, someone who has risen suddenly yet meteorically to the top of the sport - this year, it's been Damiano Cunego and, to a lesser extent, Alejandro Valverde. Yet an even rarer occurrence in professional cycling, which becomes more and more specialised and tough with every passing year, is to be a first year pro who hits the heights of the sport. And while we still wait for someone with that ability, it's reasonable to say that only special riders show that capacity so early on in their career - riders like Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault.
It's evident, though, from this year's findings, that more and more neophytes are starting with smaller teams - and hence doing better in smaller teams, where there's usually a more tight-knit, family atmosphere. Also it appears that the 'mondialisation' of cycling has had a big effect too - the top seven riders come from seven different countries, with several from former Eastern Bloc states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
From the 'Class of 2004', there are undoubtedly some of cycling's future stars - we just have to wait and see who they are and when they come to the fore.
The Top Ten Neo-Pros of 2004
1. Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Costa da Almeria, Spa) 24 years old, 479.00 points, 95th in the UCI rankings
2. Emmanuele Sella (Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, Ita) 23, 385.00 pts, 131st
3. Maxime Monfort (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, Bel) 21, 365.00 pts, 138th
4. Thomas Lovkvist (Fdjeux.com, Swe) 20, 339.00 pts, 149th
5. Vladimir Goussev (Team CSC, Rus) 22, 323.000 pts, 161st
6. Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner, Ger) 23, 248.000 pts, 218th
7. Maxim Iglinskiy (Team Capec/T-Mobile Team, Kaz) 23, 223.00 pts, 253rd
8. Sebastien Siedler (Team Wiesenhof, Ger) 26, 205.00 pts, 279th
9. Sergey Lagutin (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, Uzb) 23, 197.00 pts, 290th
10. Paul Crake (Corratec Austria-Arboe, Aus) 27, 184.00 pts, 316th
Jose Angel Gomez Marchante
The best neo-professional of 2004 was Jose Angel Gomez Marchante, a rider with the Spanish squad Costa da Almeria-Paternina. The 24 year old obtained the majority of his points from his home tour, the Vuela a Espana, where sixth place finishes on the summit finishes of the lunar-like Calar Alto Observatory and the Covatilla contributed to an impressive eighth place finish overall, only 13 minutes behind winner Heras.
However, he also won a stage of the Portuguese GP CTT Correios (2.3) and took second overall in the Vuelta a la Rioja behind fellow young star Vladimir Karpets. Considering Gomez is good in group sprints, he could develop into a very good all-rounder (a-la-Cunego). As things stand, his next port of call is unknown - Phonak have shown the most interest in him, though Discovery Channel have also been watching him closely. Given the range of oppurtunities he has after such a good year, it does look unlikely that Gomez will stay at Paternina for 2005. If he does go, it will be interesting to see how he fares in a larger team where he probably won't be the leader and won't have so much attention focused on him.
Sella on the Giro podium
Baby-faced Emmanuele Sella has already delighted the tifosi and sent several female hearts a-fluttering with his good performances this year. Most notably, the Panaria man soloed to a brave Giro stage win in Marco Pantani country, prompting several comparisons to the late 'Pirata', on the way to twelth overall in his home tour. In August, he also took the GP Citta di Castelfiardo (1.3), soloeing away on the steep slopes of the final climb. With small stature but powerful legs, Sella is an excellent climbing specimen, and Panaria are very eager keen to keep him for 2005. However, Liquigas are also rumoured to be after his signature for next year, so watch this space.
Maxime Monfort - Courtesy of Capture the Peloton
Belgian Maxime Monfort is another rider to come off the Landbouwkrediet conveyor belt, which has already produced riders such as Yaroslav Popovych and fellow neo-pro Sergey Lagutin (who is also in this list). The second youngest rider in the top ten, Monfort took an oppurtunistic stage win in the Tour of Luxembourg, though most importantly he also took the overall as he clung to the lead. The 21 year old, who seems more comfortable on more rolling hills rather than the steep-pitching drags of his homeland, also finished fourth in the Ster Elektrotoer, compounding Dutch misery as four Belgians filled the top four places. Monfort, very young for a professional rider, will be staying with Landbouwkrediet for 2005. It's difficult to see where he can go from here, but starting so succesfully so young may mean burn-out in the future.
The same can be said for Thomas Lovkvist, the youngest neo-pro in the top ten at just 20 years old. The Swede has had a superb season with Fdjeux.com, wowing many with his exciting performances. Indeed, he won the last stage of the Tour de l'Avenir (a traditional showcase for young talent) at Grand Bornand showing some great climbing prowess and finished second overall by a whisker. Lovkvist also took a stage and the overall at the Circuit de la Sarthe (2.3) in the spring.
Another youngster, Vladimir Goussev, mixed Classics and time-trials impressively with CSC - the Russian finished in the top ten of Gent-Wevelgem and showed much versatility in taking World Cup top 20s in Paris-Roubaix, the HEW-Cyclassics Cup and the Tour of Lombardy respectively, though he also managed a second at the recent Chrono des Herbiers too.
Last year's Hamilton Espoir time-trial champion Markus Fothen had a solid year at Gerolsteiner, winning the GP Schwarzald in his home country while also taking third in the two-up Luk Cup time-trial (ahead of Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie). Sebastien Siedler made a great transition from track to road, as he was able to rule some of the domestic sprints in Germany and rack up the points with Wiesenhof.
Maxim Iglinskiy started off the season as leader of the all-Kazakh Division III team Capec, but his constant good performances could not be ignored by the big guns - fifth at the Tour de l'Avenir and a spell in the yellow jersey and sixth overall at the GP Cycliste de Beauce were among the best results from the 23 year old as he combined climbing and sprinting effectively. By the end of the season, Iglinskiy had secured a stagiare spot with T-Mobile, and his future is now looking a lot more assured, after having to race in far-afield races (such as the Tour of Chile and Tour of China) with his national squad.
Paul Crake deserves a mention for his impressive performances with an Austrian Division III club as well as for his 'circumstances': at 28, the oldest man in the list, the Australian switched from triathalon to full-time cycling only a couple of years ago! Nonetheless, he showed much enthusiasm with his Austrian club, as he won one of the most prestigous one-day races in Austria and climbed to sixth in the Tour of Austria, aided by a fourth place finish on the brutal stage to Kitzbuheler Horn.
Youngest Neo-Pro: Maxim Averin (Lokomotiv) Born 28th November 1985
Oldest Neo-Pro: Maurizio Carta (Miche) Born 25th July 1973
Other English Speaking Neo-Pros in 2004
David McPartland (Tenax, Aus) - Tour Down Under stage winner
Mark Renshaw (Fdjeux.com, Aus)
Darren Lill (Team Barloworld, Rsa)
Rodney Green (Team Barloworld, Rsa)
Thomas Danielson (Fassa Bortolo, Usa)