The next wave of classics aces

The next group of classics specialists has arrived. Look out for these riders in the classics this year and for years to come.

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You’ve already heard of Etixx – Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe and Lotto – Soul’s Tiesj Benoot, who both exploded on the scene in 2015. Alaphilippe, 23, finished in second place at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Benoot, while still finishing up his university studies at 21, powered to fifth at the Tour of Flanders and notched seven top 10s in other major one-day races across Europe.

So who will be the young, breakout riders in the spring classics of 2016?

Alexis Gougeard, 22, is a safe bet. The Frenchman and Ag2r La Mondiale rider had an impressive debut over the pavé in 2015, riding into the main breakaway at Paris-Roubaix and holding on to finish 26th. He also had a solo stage win at the Vuelta a España. Many tip the tough Gougeard as the best French classics rider in a generation. In 2016, Gougeard was in the breakaway on Omloop Het Neiuwsblad and was able to finish fifth.

“Alexis has the qualities to become a great classics rider,” says Ag2r trainer Nicolas Guillé. “We have seen his attacking spirit in Roubaix and in other races. He will only improve as he gains experience.”

Trek – Segafredo sport director Dirk Demol, a former mentor to Tom Boonen, is tapping Jasper Stuyven, 23, and Edward Theuns, 24, as Belgians to watch. Theuns was second last year at GP Scheldeprijs, while Stuyven won the 2010 Roubaix Espoirs. This year, Stuyven collected a massive victory at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, crossing the line before a field of sprinters to take a solo win. The day before, he finished ninth at Omloop. Theuns also collected two top-10 finishes in those races. He finished eighth both days.

“I am very excited about these two,” Demol says. “We will be riding for Fabian [Cancellara] this year, but these two riders have a big future in the classics. It takes time to develop the talent. We must be patient. Not everyone is like Boonen.”

Another rider to keep a close eye on at the northern classics will be 22-year-old Cofidis rider Florian Sénéchal, whose 17th place was the best performance by a Frenchman at the 2015 edition of Paris-Roubaix. The powerful youngster followed that up with a third at Tro-Bro Léon. Sénéchal already has a podium finish this season as well, a third at Le Samyn.

“He is a big talent for the future on the pavé,” says Cofidis manager Yvon Sanquer. “He has a strong character, and knows what he wants. Top 20 in his second Roubaix reveals that.”

Cannondale’s Dylan van Baarle, 23, a big Dutchman (171 pounds and nearly 6-foot-2), was third in Dwars door Vlaanderen and won the 2014 Tour of Britain. Expect to see him in the mix on the cobbles in coming years. He finished fifth at Spain’s Trofeo Pollenca-Port de Andratx on January 29.

“He has big potential,” says Cannondale sport director Andreas Klier. “He doesn’t even know how far he can go. He has big skills to do something special in the near future.”

Ardennes observers expect big things from BMC Racing’s new Dutch signing, 23-year-old Floris Gerts, and Etixx – Quick-Step’s Petr Vakoc, also 23. Last year while riding for the BMC Development Team, Gerts won the Rabobank Dorpenomloop Ruchpen one-day race, a stage of the Tour of Normandie, and racked up a series of top-10 finishes in lower-tier Ardennes-type races. “He came out of our development team, and he’s a promising classics specialist,” says BMC manager Jim Ochowicz. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on him, but he will get his chances.”

Vakoc, meanwhile, despite his young age, is already in his fourth season with Etixx and will be looking to build on a 2015 season that saw him win the overall at the four-stage Czech Cycling Tour, a stage of the Tour of Britain, and the Czech national championship road race. (He also finished third in the time trial.) So far this year, Vakoc has delivered more results than any of the others on this list. He has two overall victories, both during the same weekend, at Classic Sud Ardèche and Royal Bernard Drôme Classic. He also won the best young rider classification at the Tour Cycliste International La Provence and Haut Var, where he finished second and fifth overall, respectively.

“He was one of the best in the U23 ranks, and he was always there in the mix,” says René Andrle, the manager of Etixx’s feeder team. “He makes the big jump to the WorldTour, but he will do well. He is very concentrated.”

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