Feature: The Rise and Rise of First Year U23s

For a long time in the world of U23 cycling, the first year U23 was consigned to bottle carrying duties, learning and just in general, a year of suffering, much like the neo-pro in any WorldTour team. Even here at U23 Cycling Zone, we prefer to avoid featuring any first year U23s on our “Get to know” series, as usually the teams seek to keep the riders free of media duties and we believe in the riders having a full season of getting used to the division before they will have achieved big results and putting extra pressure on them, at least on the media side of things.

Yet something has begun to change. Last year, a quartet of 18 year olds named Jasper Philipsen, Robert Stannard, Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogacar began taking some big results, quickly establishing themselves as three of the biggest prospects in the sport.

Is this because riders are being coached better? Is it because some riders are going pro earlier, meaning a lot of the top 21/22 year olds are no longer able to compete against the younger riders? Who knows. Once thing that is for sure though, is that 2018 has already seen some top rides from some U23s that we will go on to break down. We are lucky enough to have a few of these riders commenting on their success as part of this article, so you gather some of their insight into why they have hit the ground running at this level.

There has already been a lot of riders racing for the first time in the U23 category who have been exceptional so far this season. It appears we have one of the most talented crop of riders in a long time on our hands.

Interestingly, of the seven riders featured in this article, only four made it into our 10 First Year U23s to watch this season list back in January, showcasing the fact that you don’t need to have been a hyped junior to be successful as an U23. Admittedly, some riders like Thymen Arensman, Tom Pidcock and Andreas Leknessund are yet to race as U23s, so have obviously not taken any big results. All the same, it is interesting that some of these riders were not mentioned often when they joined U23 teams, but they are definitely being talked about now.

Filip Maciejuk (Leopard Pro Cycling)

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Credit: Leopard Cycling Team

Filip Maciejuk had a strong junior season, including a bronze medal in the Worlds ITT. But the 18-year-old Pole, 19 in September, has taken to the U23 ranks like a duck to water. He made the front group in the Kattekoers, as well as the select chase group behind James Whelan in Flanders, as well as having a brilliant Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux. He did a great time trial (as expected), but then held on really well in the hilltop finish later that day to secure a fine 6th overall and the best young rider jersey. That result was really needed quite badly by his team, who have suffered a lot of illness and injuries in the early part of the season. Given his time trial ability, Maciejuk should be a contender for stage races that don’t feature mountains, as well as the cobbled races. Hopefully he doesn’t turn pro too soon, as he could be a very nice rider if he keeps his development up.

U23 Cycling Zone contacted Filip to get his impressions of his first four months as an U23, where he has been a shining light for a Leopard team hit by injuries and illness at times to key names, like Charlie Quarterman and Konrad Gessner.

“I am glad that I am adapting well to the U23 level. I had a very good winter in which I worked very hard. I always knew that I would be able to have some good results, but you never know what will happen in a new team and at a higher level of course. After the last races and the good results – for example at Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux – I can be very happy and I am curious to see what the future brings.”

Jake Stewart (100% Me, Great Britain National Team)

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Credit: VeloRacingNews.fr

Coming from a track background, without an official road team this year, what Jake Stewart has done this year has been borderline incredible. The 18 year old Brit raced to 2nd in the Katteoers, and anyone that thought that was a fluke was silenced just a week or so later, when he backed his result up with third in Trofeo Piva. Stewart is a great sprinter and can get over short climbs really well. However, a stand out result was actually 30th in the Giro del Belvedere. Despite the race featuring two laps containing two short climb and grades touching 20%, he finished just 90 seconds down on the winner. If Stewart can keep progressing and getting stronger, he could win any race he enters. He is a real talent for the future.

Maikel Zijlaard (Hagens Berman Axeon)

Maikel 2
Credit: Davey Wilson

When a team puts three riders in the top four on GC, you may think it is going to be hard for another rider on that team who didn’t do as well on GC to stand out, which is not easy to do anyway on a star-studded U23 team like Hagens Berman Axeon, but Maikel Zijlaard has really impressed in every race he has done so far this season. The young Dutchman, 18, was so strong on the opening stage of the Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux, that when he led Jasper Philipsen out, he was able to keep sprinting, with only Nils Eekhoff able to come around his younger compatriot. That was a really special ride and a deserved third place on the day, as well as a stint as best young rider. He also looked good in the TT, which was an added bonus, as he was known as more of a Classics rider as a junior than a TT specialist (although in Trofeo Karlsberg last year he showed he can do a good TT when he is in the fight for the GC). His success has been further highlighted by selection from the Dutch National Team for Nations Cup events in Flanders and the Kattekoers, something not usually offered to an 18-year-old. With Philipsen and Axel Merckx as mentors, there is no telling just how good Zijlaard will be, but he is already a top prospect on route to becoming a star.

A big thank you to Maikel, who was willing to provide some comments on the start to his U23 career. Here is what he had to say:

I was a little bit surprised, I did not expect to be on a podium already. Although, some races are still a bit too difficult for me and I have to try my hardest to finish them. To be riding for the Dutch team gives a super motivation boost and I am really proud that I got the opportunity that I could do these races.”

“The biggest differences (between junior and U23s, ed.) are mostly the pace and the extra 40 km’s and that’s what makes it harder.”

Julius Johansen (ColoQuick)

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Credit: ColoQuick-CULT

Dane Julius Johansen was never going to have a quiet offseason in terms of preseason hype, as he is the current junior World RR champion. He has been kept very quiet by his team, mostly racing some smaller races in his homeland. But they cut him lose at the Triptyque, and on a hilly opening stage, he powered up the final climb to the line to sixth, behind fast sprinters like Philipsen, Gabriel Cullaigh, Nils Eekhoff and Gerben Thijssen. It was a pretty special result, given he is not known for his sprint and had not raced any U23 races prior to that day. Unlike Maciejuk, he did fade as the race went on, but the power he showed on that stage bodes well for his future.

Daan Hoole (SEG Racing Academy)

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Credit: Petros Gkotsis

Another Dutchman who has impressed enough to earn national selection despite only just turning 19 is Daan Hoole. He too impressed at the Triptyque, where he was not the leader initially, but after bad luck hit his teammates, he soldiered on and took 22nd overall and 2nd in the Young Rider’s Classification. Hoole, like Zijlaard, Johansen and Maciejuk, made our pre-season list of riders to watch, and his ability as both a Classics rider and time triallist prove why. SEG Racing Academy are set to lose a lot of riders after this season as they age out of being U23s, but the future is bright, with a string of young Dutchmen waiting to take over, with none looking readier to lead the team than Hoole.

Daan was available for comments on his start to the season, which we thank him for. Here is what he had to say:

“I was able to do some races and the level it is totally different than the juniors of course, there are better and faster riders, but above all I feel that the way of riding it is different as well. What I do know is that no matter which age the rider is the level and speed of the U23 category is really high and that helps all the other riders to go deep and ride really hard.”

“I am happy with the results that I have had already. I think that if you are good in the junior ranks, then you can be also good in the U23 level, but you have to be patient because there are more good riders. As I said before, what surprises me the most is how fast the older riders can ride.”

Speaking on the U23 races he was picked for, he said “Those are really hard races and you race against the best riders in the category, but it is a great experience for me and it gives me great confidence to be in that spot.”

Andrea Bagioli (Colpack)

Credit: Team Colpack

They say that in college basketball in the US, there is no higher honour than to be recruited by Duke or Kentucky. The same applies in football, when Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United try to sign you. In cycling, for Italian juniors, there is no higher honour than when Zalf or Colpack come calling. For Andrea Bagioli, when Colpack came calling, there was no saying no. Despite the Italian media going a little crazy over younger talents, Bagioli had a quiet offseason in terms of press, perhaps because the team has three big leaders in Marco Negrente, Francesco Romano and Filippo Rocchetti, recruited from rivals Zalf this offseason. Furthermore, Colpack have a host of other riders they can rely on in smaller Italian races. But Bagioli has hit the ground running, securing 5th in his season debut in a smaller race, before taking an excellent 3rd in Palio del Recioto and 20th in Trofeo Edil C. Off the back of this, he earned his first call-up to Liege-Bastogne-Liege Espoirs, where he featured in the day’s break and bridged to Joao Almeida before he was dispatched just a few kilometres from home. However, he was able to keep going with one other rider and hold off the bunch, securing an amazing 2nd place, Italy’s first podium in the race since PCS began recording the stats in 2008. A typical Italian seemingly moulded with the qualities of Paolo Bettini, he gets over climbs with ease, but has a fast finish too, as well as a good head on his shoulders for racing. There may have been little hype, but the Italian tifosi have a new star to cheer for.

Mark Donovan (Wiggins)

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Credit: VeloVeritas

Donovan was a vaunted prospect (who we regretfully left off our ten first year’s to watch list). He started his season with 6th on GC in Alentejo, showing an ability to handle himself in the wind, on the climbs and on the TT bike. He also has one of the fastest times on Strava up the Coll des Rates in Spain, a frequent testing ground for pros. A natural climber, he led the team in the Italian races, recording two top fifteen finishes despite the parcours being not quite as hard as he would like. He then led the team at LBL Espoirs, featuring in the day’s break with Bagioli, and was only caught in the final 5km. a Real climbing talent for the future, the best Britain has produced since the Yates brothers. The fact he can TT makes him a very special prospect, as few Brits in the past have entered the U23 ranks as complete as Donovan is in terms of skillset.

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