A quiet neo-pro season of learning the ropes and carrying the bottles is no longer a thing.
A number of WorldTour debutants shook up the season and took it to their seniors in 2020, showing sparks of brilliance and the promise of bright futures as cycling’s generational shift rumbles on.
Here are five of the standout rookies of 2020 that are set to spark a flame in their sophomore seasons next year:
Brandon McNulty – UAE-Team Emirates (USA, 22)
What did he do in 2020? Phoenix, AZ-born Brandon McNulty didn’t need long to hit his stride. In his first race having stepped up from Rally Cycling, McNulty used his big time trial motor to leapfrog the field and finish up in fourth at the Vuelta a San Juan this January. Nine months later, he was at it again, climbing strong and emerging as one of the fastest in the world against the clock to briefly surge into fourth at the Giro d’Italia before hanging tough through the Alps to secure 15th overall.
McNulty has two more years left on his contract with UAE-Team Emirates and has earned his spot toward the top of the hierarchy of a burgeoning squad built around Tadej Pogačar. The 22-year-old’s ride in Italy this fall should see him sit on a similar standing as new-signing Rafal Majka as an all-out GC option at the Giro or Vuelta, or could have earned him a Tour de France debut as a top domestique for Pogačar. It’s a win-win situation either way.
“Overall, I’m very happy with my grand tour debut,” he said after the Giro. Four top 10s and a respectable GC result is really nice, and I hope to be able to keep improving over the years.”
McNulty has time on his side and talent in his veins. He could be the next great U.S. grand tour hope alongside Sepp Kuss.
João Almeida – Deceuninck-Quick-Step (Portugal, 22)
What did he do in 2020? You were watching the Giro d’Italia, right? João Almeida defied the odds and silenced the doubters by wearing the pink jersey for 15 days in his grand tour debut. Though he weakened at the last to end up fourth overall, Almeida’s ride through Italy was as much a post-race talking point as Tao Geoghegan Hart’s final victory. The Quick-Step ace never won a stage, but he finished top-five on seven occasions, and that consistency is a very good sign for the future.
Almeida marked himself as one of the WorldTour’s new GC stars at the Giro. The only problem he has is that teammate Remco Evenepoel, the hottest prospect in the whole of cycling, is set to make a comeback next year. Will Patrick Lefevere and Co. go with Almeida’s proven talent or Evenepoel’s massive potential when choosing GC captains?
“I am still young and will see what the future holds, but what I can tell you is that one day I hope to wear this iconic pink jersey again,” Almeida said at the end of the Giro.
Should Almeida back up his breakout 2020 with another top season in 2021, Deceuninck-Quick-Step may all of a sudden become classics kings and a genuine grand tour force. Whodathunkit.
Aleksandr Vlasov – Astana-Premier Tech (Russia, 24)
What did he do in 2020? New Russian hope Aleksandr Vlasov outclimbed Richie Porte to win the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge this summer, and a few weeks later, topped fellow neo-pro Almeida at the Giro dell’Emillia. The Astana breakout quickly bounced back from the disappointment of an early Giro abandon this October to finish 11th overall at the Vuelta a España, clawing back time through a series of top-class climbing performances that marked him as one of the best in the bunch when the road points uphill.
Vlasov’s eyes no doubt lit up a little when his team confirmed the departure of Miguel Ángel López this week. With no “Superman” to worry about, Vlasov has taken the driving seat as Astana’s grand tour future. And, as Jakob Fuglsang will turn 36 in 2021, the young Russian could soon be ruling the roost in the team bus and having first dibs when it comes to picking races.
“It was great to compete against the best climbers and to stay next to them at the hardest climbs of the race,” Vlasov said after the Vuelta. “I hope to come back here again with some bigger ambitions.”
Vlasov more-than proved his talents this season, and the door is open for him to crank those ambitions as high as they can go. Rumors still rumble that Vlasov may make a move to Ineos Grenadiers in 2021, in which case he’ll have the best boffins in the world behind him to continue his rapid progress.
Mikkel Bjerg – UAE-Team Emirates (Denmark, 22)
What did he do in 2020? It was a bit of a rollercoaster season for triple U23 time trial world champ Mikkel Bjerg. The burly Dane struggled through the winter season, but the momentum started churning with a pair of solid TT results at Tirreno-Adriatico and the worlds before he confirmed his prowess against the clock to score third-place in the Giro’s opening stage. The unpredictable trajectory continued from there – Bjerg went on the offense through the first half of the race in Italy to land another podium finish before his early exuberance got the better of him and he lost his legs on the roads toward Milan.
Bjerg is all-in on targeting the classics and rolling his time trial dominance from the U23s forward to the senior level in the coming years. Racing the Giro ruled him out of the main set of northern classics this autumn, so a block of one-day racing alongside team heavyweights Alexander Kristoff and Matteo Trentin will likely be his first request to team staffers when they pencil in race plans for 2021.
Andrea Bagioli – Deceuninck-Quick-Step (Italy, 21)
What did he do in 2020? Explosive Italian Andrea Bagioli’s major scores this year were in lower-tier races, with stage wins at the Tour de l’Ain and the Coppi e Bartali and top-10s at the Giro dell’Emillia and De Brabantse Pijl. Nonetheless, landing second overall at the Coppi e Bartali to take the final podium alongside Jhonatan Narváez and Portuguese teammate Almeida proves the competition was fierce. From there, he rode a solid Vuelta, taking 10th on the opening stage and third on stage 10 before bailing out on stage 16.
Bagioli has a contract through 2021 and is one of many youthful faces at the Quick-Step team. Having dipped a toe into WorldTour level grand tours and classics, the next year could depend in which direction the team decides to point him. However, his past results and punchy climbing chops could see him slot into the shoes left by the outgoing Bob Jungels as the “Wolfpack’s” option for the hilly classics.