- - The UCI Looks to 2020 as Another Breakthrough Year of Racing

The UCI Looks to 2020 as Another Breakthrough Year of Racing

After 2019 when so many new faces rose to the pinnacle of UCI WorldTour racing, fans worldwide are rightly wondering if the new decade of 2020 will usher in yet more major sporting upheaval for men’s professional road racing.  Or will the ‘old guard’ regain the upper hand once more? Such was the scale of dramatic breakthroughs last season, it’s hard to grasp their full extent.

Perhaps most strikingly, all three Grand Tours had first time winners thanks to Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) in the Tour de France, Richard Carapaz (then Movistar Team, now Team Ineos) in the Giro d’Italia and Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma) in the La Vuelta ciclista a España. On top of that, Colombia, despite its long and distinguished history in cycling, had never previously won the Tour de France, nor had Ecuador nor Slovenia captured a Grand Tour of any kind before.

Multiple glass ceilings were broken in the Grand Tours in 2019, but this was also the case in the Monuments – where four out of the five had rookie winners. Only Paris-Roubaix, taken by former road race UCI World Champion Philippe Gilbert (now with Lotto Soudal, then with Deceuninck – Quick-Step), was the exception to the rule. It wasn’t just the UCI WorldTour, either. With so many new faces on the cycling block, by the time we reached the Elite Men’s road race at the UCI Road World Championships, it felt almost logical that yet another country would take an unprecedented win – in this case thanks to Mads Pedersen’s powerful small-group sprint to victory, and Denmark’s first ever Elite Men’s rainbow jersey. 

So given 2019 was such an eventful, surprising year for the UCI WorldTour, what does 2020 have in store? In the Grand Tours at least, one thing is certain: established stars of the ilk of Chris Froome (Team Ineos), Tom Dumoulin (Team Jumbo-Visma) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) all have to put a difficult – through no fault of their own – 2019 season firmly behind them.

For Froome, in particular, 2020 could be pivotal. After his horrendous crash in the Critérium du Dauphiné last year, the Briton is now determinedly and deservedly on the road to recovery and a historic challenge this summer: to try to become the record-equaling winner of five Tours de France. However, Froome is also battling to become the second oldest winner in Tour history after Firmin Lambot nearly 100 years ago. And quite apart from an ever-deeper field of rivals, Father Time could prove to be the toughest challenger of all for Froome, who will turn 35 in May, to beat.

The ever-tenacious Froome says his driving motivation during his long period of recovery from his Dauphiné crash has been and remains to reach the Tour next July in the best condition possible.  Yet nobody can ignore that part of the wave of new, younger talent now flooding into cycling can be found inside his own Team Ineos, one of whom won the Tour last year, another the Giro. Froome’s team-mates in 2020 include not only Bernal and Carapaz, there’s also the more veteran 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas, second in the 2019 race.  

In total, Team Ineos’ four stage-racing leaders can boast 10 Grand Tour victories between them. How, therefore, the British squad will structure its strategy for the Tour, Giro and Vuelta in 2020 and to what effect – perhaps aiming to become the first team ever to win all three Grand Tours in the same year – will surely be one of the dominant themes of the season.

Topping the list of challengers will most likely be the multiple leaders of Netherlands squad Team Jumbo-Visma, already a powerful GC force in 2019 thanks to Steven Kruijswijk, third in the Tour, and Vuelta winner Roglič. Team Jumbo-Visma’s off-season signing of Tom Dumoulin, twice a runner-up in the Tour and the winner of the 2017 Giro, combined with their confirmation that all three top racers will take part in the Tour, means that Team Ineos will possibly face their strongest opposition yet in 2020. Of the three Tour contenders in Team Jumbo-Visma, many think Roglič could well be the team’s best option, given it is an exceptionally mountainous race this July. But either way, come the summer, Team Jumbo-Visma will have plenty of firepower to use – and their motivation will be higher than ever, too.

So determined are Team Jumbo-Visma to win the Tour they have opted to take their sprinter, Dylan Groenewegen, out of the July equation. A winner of multiple Tour stages in the past, this year Groenwegen will make his debut both in the Giro and the Vuelta, in a bid to add stage victories in all three Grand Tours to his palmares, with the 2020 Vuelta’s start in the Netherlands an extra boost to the local rider’s winning ambitions.

There is every sign that in 2020, locally-born challengers will once again be in the thick of the action to win the general classification.  It barely matters that all-rounder Julian Alaphilippe, who spent 14 days in yellow last summer before slumping to fifth overall, has already said that he will not be challenging for the Tour’s overall classification again in 2020. The Deceuninck – Quick-Step leader has shown his compatriots that it is possible to wear the yellow jersey for a long period thanks to a singular riding style – aggressive, unpredictable, spontaneous – which has breathed much-needed new life into the Tour’s general classification battle. Other locally-born rivals will surely be keener than ever to follow his example.

The Frenchman who arguably looked like being the best climber and favourite for the win last year – until he was poleaxed by a muscular injury deep into the third week – was climber Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). Pinot was – and is – yet another example of how the riders had a collective change of mentality last year, with their increasing self-confidence and belief that the first French victory in over three decades in the Tour could be at hand pushing them into a more aggressive attitude in cycling’s biggest race. Within that context, a special mention should be made of Team Arkea-Samsic, the French UCI ProTeam whose signing of Nairo Quintana, three times a Tour de France podium finisher, places them squarely amongst the local squads to follow at the Tour.

France’s best-ranked UCI WorldTour racer Alaphilippe is set on raising his game even further in the Classics, with a long-awaited debut in the Ronde van Vlaanderen – Tour des Flandres due this spring. Already a double winner of the Ardennes Classic La Flèche Wallonne, Alaphilippe remains set on becoming France’s first winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège since Bernard Hinault 40 years ago, and his participation in the Flemish Monument could see one of the most versatile racers of recent years add yet another dimension to his talents.

However, one “veteran” seeking to stem the tide of change in one-day racing at least is Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) for whom, like Froome, the number ‘5’ will have career-defining significance in 2020. This spring Gilbert is looking to become the first rider to win all five Monuments since fellow Belgians Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck, with Milano-Sanremo his last of the ‘set’.  Should Gilbert take La Primavera this March, it would automatically propel the former road race UCI World Champion into the realm of all-time greats of one-day racing. But a racer as experienced as Gilbert, now 37, knows how hard that challenge will be.

In the case of another top former rainbow jersey holder – Peter Sagan – the record the 30-year-old Slovak star seeks to beat is already his own. After making his debut in the Giro this May, come the Tour de France the Bora-hansgrohe squad leader will seek to increase his record total of seven green, points jersey wins. It’s widely believed the very hilly Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games road race course in August will likely prove too tough for an all-rounder like Sagan. But a spell in the maglia rosa in the Giro, particularly given that the 2020 start in Hungary is so close to Sagan’s home country of Slovakia, could be a different question altogether….

The 2020 Giro will also see another established Grand Tour great, Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), aiming to fend off a host of young challengers. The winner of four Grand Tours, including the Giro in 2013 and 2016, Nibali is now 35. But his second place in last year’s Giro and an Alpine stage victory in the 2019 Tour strongly suggest there is a great deal of life in the Italian star yet. 

The team that finished atop the 2019 UCI WorldTour classification, Deceuninck – Quick-Step, are  equally unwilling to relinquish their long-standing status as the top-ranked squad on the cycling planet. It’s true that for 2020, the Belgian outfit has lost sprinter Elia Viviani – with nine UCI WorldTour victories last year – who joins the French team Cofidis, and that another star, Philippe Gilbert, now rides for Lotto Soudal, and that the Belgian outfit ‘only’ took 68 wins in 2019, five less than in 2018…  but Alaphilippe’s remarkable Spring Classics campaign in 2019 for Deceuninck – Quick-Step, taking Milano-Sanremo, Strade Bianche and La Flèche Wallonne prior to his equally outstanding Tour de France, bodes more than well for the Belgians. Furthemore, new signing Sam Bennett, with wins in the Vuelta and Giro in 2019, will surely be a major force in the bunch sprints in 2020.  Most importantly, though, is Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s enduring collective strength and consistency. Ever since one below-par year in 2012, the Belgian team has remained the reference point of the Spring Classics in Flanders, and despite losing Viviani and Gilbert, Deceuninck – QuickStep’s line-up for 2020 continues to contain firepower aplenty.

It is also logical that a team as successful as Deceuninck – Quick-Step is benefitting from some of the wealth of young talent currently punching its way upwards through the hierarchy of the sport. Denmark’s current time trial National Champion Kasper Asgreen, second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen – Tour des Flandres, at 24 years of age, last April, is one example of a fast-emerging Deceuninck – Quick-Step star. However, his Belgian team-mate Remco Evenepoel, who made his UCI WorldTour debut for the team last year, aged just 19, has already arguably had an even greater impact. 

Last year a spectacular solo in Spain’s biggest one-day race, the Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa, made Evenepoel the youngest-ever winner of a UCI WorldTour event.  As for 2020, the crowning moment of Evenepoel’s programme in Europe will be racing his first Monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, followed by his Grand Tour debut at the Giro less than a month later.

While another young Belgian star, Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma) looks set to shine again, a wealth of equally precocious talent from other ‘younger’ top cycling nations looks determined to make – or continue – their collective breakthroughs in 2020. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), for one, had a huge impact in his UCI WorldTour debuts with victory in the Amgen – Tour of California then displaying his talent in his first Grand Tour, the 2019 Vuelta, clinching third overall and three stage wins, aged just 20. He will try to up his game even further this summer in the Tour de France. Denmark’s Mikkel Berg, who won the Men Under 23 individual time trial UCI World title in 2017, 2018 and 2019 will be aiming to impact in his UCI WorldTour debut. And his compatriot, the reigning road race UCI World Champion Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), at 23 years and nine months the youngest Elite road race rainbow jersey-winner in two decades, will be determined to build on his 2018 runners-up spot in the Ronde van Vlaanderen – Tour des Flandres. In stage racing, Russia’s Pavel Sivakov (Team Ineos) stepped up notably in 2019 with victories in the Tour de Pologne and Tour of the Alps, as well as taking ninth in the Giro d’Italia, while 2019 Men Junior road race UCI World Champion Quinn Simmons of the USA will follow in the tracks of Evenepoel, missing out the U-23 ranks altogether and becoming the UCI WorldTour’s youngest professional in 2020, for Trek-Segafredo.

But if asked to pick one nation, rather than rider, whose impact on the UCI WorldTour is steadily greater each year, many fans would surely say Colombia. One indication of that is the number of riders in the UCI WorldTour: when the UCI ProTour, the UCI WorldTour’s predecessor, got underway in 2005, there were just four Colombians in cycling’s top league, a total which expanded to 18 in 2019 and has risen again, to 21, in 2020.

As for their effect on top-level racing, Bernal is doubtless spearheading Colombia’s challenge, and his triumph in the Tour de France in 2019 only confirms that. Predicted by many to be starting a new era in Grand Tour racing, at 22 years of age Bernal became the third youngest Tour winner. Should the Colombian repeat that victory this summer, he would still, at 23 years and five months old, be the eighth youngest rider in history to triumph in the Tour. Bernal would, for example, be a day older than five-time winner Jacques Anquetil when he claimed his first Tour in 1957, but he’d still be younger than Bernard Hinault, when he claimed yellow for the first time on the Champs Elysées.

It’s not just about the Tour, either: with victories in the Tour de Suisse and Paris-Nice last year, Bernal was hitting new heights even before the summer.  But in 2020, with team-mates Thomas and Froome by his side in the Tour, the young rider knows he cannot afford to rest on his laurels.

Bernal is the stand-out name of an impressive younger generation of Colombian riders, including climber Sergio Higuita (EF Pro Cycling), 22, sprinter Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), 25, and the highly-rated all-rounder Iván Sosa (Team Ineos), 22. With numerous more well-established stars such as Rigoberto Urán (EF Pro Cycling), Miguel Angel López (Astana Pro Team), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott), and Alvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) and of course Quintana, the Colombian youngsters certainly have plenty of top acts to follow.

Yet it is not just the continuing impact of the Colombians or other young riders who look set to continue changing the landscape of the UCI WorldTour in 2020. Two teams make their debut in the UCI WorldTour:  Cofidis, now well into its third decade and which rejoins the UCI WorldTour after several years as a UCI Professional Continental Team, and Israel Start-Up Nation, which began life as a UCI Continental Team in 2015.  

Cofidis’ star signing is undoubtedly former Deceuninck – Quick-Step sprinter Elia Viviani, who will nonetheless maintain the two main Grand Tour targets of the 2019 season, on his programme. Viviani will be aiming to end Cofidis’ long drought on Tour de France stage wins, as well as heighten their impact on the one-day Classics.

Meanwhile Israel Start-Up Nation’s success in 2020 will hinge significantly on the potential achievements of riders like Dan Martin, André Greipel and Nils Politt. If Martin succeeds in repeating earlier career victories in Grand Tour stages and Monuments like Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Il Lombardia, or Greipel returns to his winning ways after a disappointing season with Team Arkea-Samsic, or indeed Politt goes one better than his runner’s up spot in the 2019 Paris-Roubaix, then Israel Start-Up Nation will have made a more than satisfying debut in the UCI WorldTour.

2020, then, looks set to be another season of change, where a younger, new generation in Elite Mens’ road racing will seek to build on its breakthrough achievements of 2019.  As for the established stars, in the case of Froome and Gilbert at least, it’s not just about winning more races: 2020 could be their best remaining chance of making major cycling history, with five Tour de France victories and wins at all five Monuments at stake. All in all, cycling fans worldwide can rest assured there will be few dull moments in 2020!

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