Four breakthrough riders to follow in 2018

Each season, young riders emerge from the peloton with breakthrough victories. Were they one-off blazes of glory? Are they simply prelude to even bigger successes? I picked four riders and neatly pigeonholed them into categories (for better or for worse): Cobblestone classics, Ardennes classics, sprints, and grand tour GC. We can expect big things from them in 2018.

Cobbled classics: Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors)

Yves Lampaert
Yves Lampaert is one of Quick-Step’s rising cobblestone stars. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

If you were sleeping on Yves Lampaert in 2017, I’ll give you a pass. After all, he was riding on Belgian superteam Quick-Step Floors, during the spring when Tom Boonen rode his farewell Paris-Roubaix and Philippe Gilbert returned to glory, winning Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold Race.

Now, it’s time to forget about those aging Belgians and look to Lampaert, 26, who had an incredible 2017. He won Dwars door Vlaanderen, his first maiden WorldTour victory. Then, he won Belgian national time trial championships. And finally, Lampaert finished the season with a flourish, winning stage 2 of the Vuelta. He appears to be quite versatile, but bet on him to prioritize the classics. He was fifth in the 2015 Paris-Roubaix and won a stage at Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen that season.

What to expect in 2018: Another spring classics win, but perhaps not a monument, a couple stage wins in one-week races.
Dream scenario in 2018: Two second-tier classics wins, the overall at De Panne-Koksijde, a stage win in a grand tour.

Ardennes classics: Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing)

Dylan Teuns
Dylan Teuns had an unbelievable run of victories in late July and early August. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Although Teuns is a Flandrien, it seems the Walloon hills are his destiny. The 25-year-old punched onto the podium in Fleche Wallonne, third to Dan Martin and winner Alejandro Valverde. He was quiet at the Giro d’Italia. Then, Teuns had a magical three weeks in late July and early August. He notched his first professional win at the HC-classified Tour de Wallonie, stage 3, and went on to win stage 5 as well as the overall. He went on to win three more stages and two overall titles in the Tour of Poland and Arctic Race of Norway, both WorldTour races.

What to expect in 2018: Another Ardennes podium, an overall win in an HC-classified stage race.
Dream scenario in 2018: Wins an Ardennes classic, wins a grand tour stage (but probably not the Tour), wins another week-long stage race.

Bunch sprints: Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo)

Dylan Groenewegen
Dylan Groenewegen won the crown jewel of sprinter races: The final stage of the Tour de France. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

He had us English-language headline writers groaning when he won the Tour’s final stage, but really, we’re excited to see a fresh sprinter come to the fore in Dylan Groenewegen. That victory on the Champs wasn’t a one-off, either. The 24-year-old Dutchman was third in stage 10 and second the next day in Pau.

Sure, Groenewegen wasn’t an unknown quantity this season, having won 2016 nationals and a stage at the Eneco Tour. However, his victory on the biggest stage in the world is on the next level.

What to expect in 2018: Wins a spring classic (likely Dwars door Vlaanderen or Scheldeprijs), wins another grand tour stage.
Dream scenario in 2018: Earns 10 victories — two spring classics, a Tour stage, and a handful of stages at major one-week races like Paris-Nice.

Grand tour GC: Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana)

Miguel Angel Lopez
Miguel Angel Lopez won two stages at the Vuelta a Espana. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Like Groenewegen, Lopez showed his stuff in 2016. But the man who won Tour de Suisse and Milano-Torino that year is now a legitimate GC hopeful for the grand tours. The Colombian they call “Superman” won stages 11 and 15 at the Vuelta en route to an eighth-place overall result. If you’re keeping score at home, he was more than 10 minutes ahead of Astana teammate Fabio Aru, who was supposedly the team leader in that race.

If I were running the Astana squad, Lopez would be first in line to lead a grand tour squad — perhaps even at the Tour de France. After all, this year’s route will favor an aggressive climber like the 23-year-old. And wouldn’t Aru prefer to race the Giro anyway?

What to expect in 2018: A stage win and top-10 overall result at the Tour de France.
Dream scenario in 2018: Wins another one-week stage race, two Tour stages, and finishes top five at the Grande Boucle.

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‘Superman’ López living up to nickname

In Colombia, they call him “Superman” after a young Miguel Ángel López fended off knife-wielding thieves who were trying to steal his bike during a training ride.

Despite getting stabbed in the leg, the then 16-year-old López not only saved his bike, but later raced with it during the Vuelta a Colombia Juventud, a national junior bike race. The TV announcer recounted the story, saying he was flying up a mountain just like Superman.

The nickname stuck, and throughout the 2017 Vuelta a España, the 23-year-old Colombian is racing like a real-life super-hero.

On Sunday’s long, grinding climbing stage that was reminiscent of the unending, high-altitude climbs back home, the Astana climber reconfirmed his nickname, and more.

“It was a magnificent day,” López beamed at the line. “It was a long attack, and a long climb, and I really suffered above 2,000m, but I had the legs to make it. And here we are.”

Just like he did when he beat back the would-be bike thieves, 23-year-old rode fearlessly to win the stage, and surge into podium contention.

López followed a long-distance attack from Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) with 26km to go. He later dropped the soon-to-be-retired Spanish superstar, and reeled in an early surge from Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) with 4km to go. He then soloed home to his second stage win of this Vuelta a España.

It was vintage Superman, a rider whom many are already comparing to the best years of his more famous compatriot Nairo Quintana, during 2013 and 2014 seasons when “NairoMan” could drop everyone in the peloton.

“When you have a natural climber like López, you don’t hold him back when he is feeling good,” said Astana sport director Bruno Cenghialta. “We already knew that López has quality. Now he is showing it.”

López came into this Vuelta impatient to prove himself in a grand tour. The winner of the 2014 Tour de l’Avenir crashed out of his debut in the first week of last year’s Vuelta. Other crashes slowed his progress, but now back to full strength, he’s showing signs of only getting stronger as this Vuelta unfolds.

On Sunday, an on-form López backed up his stage win at Calar Alto on Wednesday and his second-place Saturday in dramatic fashion to prove he’s the strongest climber of this Vuelta.

Astana came to the 2017 Vuelta with Fabio Aru as their GC captain, but the team is obviously giving López space to fly.

“We were following team orders to help Fabio, but they gave me freedom to go with some early attacks,” López said. “The team is helping Fabio, but they are also showing confidence in me. After just missing the stage win yesterday, I couldn’t let them down today.”

After winning Sunday, López jumped from 10th to sixth overall, now 2:51 behind race leader Chris Froome (Sky). In little more than a week, he’s climbed from 20th to sixth, just 43 seconds off the podium. He’s now 33 seconds ahead of Aru on GC.

Is Sky getting worried about López? So far, they’ve been content to let him ride away because they didn’t view him as a direct GC threat. Now that he’s closer, they won’t be so generous. With two more hard climbing stages on tap — stage 17 to Los Machucos and stage 20 up Anglirú — Sky won’t giving López any more rope.

By attacking near the bottom of the long, final double-climb to the summit at 2,500m, López revealed he’s not afraid of any mountain or any rival. Last year, he won the Tour de Suisse in equally spectacular fashion.

“When I went early with Contador, I had my doubts, because it was so far away,” he said. “I am still too young to win a grand tour. Maybe in the future, why not? Right now, things are going well.”

López already leads the young rider’s category, and could win one or maybe even two more stages. And with the way he’s climbing, the final podium is a realistic goal. At 23, he’s the revelation of this Vuelta.

Just like Superman? Everyone back in Colombia already knew that years ago.

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