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On the way up: Young guns poised in the classics

Cannondale's Peter Sagan leads a talented crop of young riders during this season's classics

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Fabian Cancellera took the first, and Peter Sagan the second. Score one for the elders at E3 Harelbeke, and one for the young guys at Ghent-Wevelgem.

Both Cancellera (RadioShack-Leopard) and Sagan (Cannondale) are capable of winning Saturday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders); that much was made clear by both in the preceding races and their respective pedigrees. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) pulled out of Sunday’s Ghent after a crash, and there’s no telling if the Belgian will come good in time to defend his Paris-Roubaix and Flanders crowns from last season.

Times won’t get any easier for the older classics guard in the coming races and over the coming years. A crop of young riders is ascending. Here’s who to watch for, both this year and in the years to come on the bumpy roads of Belgium and France.

Sagan, 23, is the obvious headliner. His time isn’t coming; his time is now. After coming close on a myriad of occasions at the classics last year, the prodigy scored his first classic win on Sunday by taking a flyer from a group with 4 kilometers to go. This was two days after the Slovakian watched Cancellera drift off the front of the sharp end at Harelbeke and stick a long-range attack. While Cancellara dropped out of the brutally cold Ghent-Wevelgem. Sagan rode a wheelie at the finish, power slid into the photographers’ pit, and wrapped up business as usual: smiling.

“I’ve been waiting to win one of the big northern classic races, which I rate the best of all and which really inspire me as they are made for riders like me,” Sagan said. “This race might not be on the same level as the Milano-Sanremo or the Paris-Roubaix, but all the same it’s my first major win in a classic and I’m very proud of it.”

Sagan is a known quantity. He’s expected to perform well. His contemporaries, like American Taylor Phinney, have a certain name recognition but not the expectations.

Phinney (BMC Racing), inflicted the pain face upon some of the sport’s best when he went to the front of the peloton on Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem, but he never factored in the later action. He said before the cobbled races that his goal was to support superstar teammates Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd, and that he was holding out hope for a huge effort at Paris-Roubaix, a race he holds dear.

“My biggest goal for this early season is being at a peak fitness for Paris-Roubaix and also learning as much as I can from guys like Phil, guys like Thor, Greg (Van Avermaet) at these Flanders classics,” he said. “I think that’s important in my development. And I’m also seeing where I’m at in regards to other riders.”

Phinney, 22, has the frame of a classics rider and the strength to boot: Last year, he finished fourth and second at the Olympic and world championship time trials, respectively. In his first ride at Paris-Roubaix, he finished 15th, and came in just behind the lead group in seventh at the 2013 Milano-Sanremo, bridging up in the closing kilometers of a race that saw two climbs chopped due to snow. His toughness is unquestioned at this point.

“I have a knack for pushing through something like that,” Phinney said. “And also, just the craziness of the day. I got caught up in it. While it was easy to complain … I just got caught up in the drama of it, and I started to love it and even though I couldn’t feel my hands for most of the day, it ranked into that whole category of epic.”

Sky’s Ian Stannard, 25, is another gifted young rider, as evidenced by his brutish ride at Sanremo, where he finished sixth after attacking in the final 2km. The current British national road race champ has the size (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and strength for classic success, though he will have to tune his attacks finer to beat the very best. In 2010, he took third at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. In 2013, he’s placed well at Sanremo and finished ninth at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Stannard’s teammate Geraint Thomas is also one to watch, both now and in the years to come. He pulled out of Friday’s E3 Harelbeke — Sky coach Rod Ellingworth said he wasn’t feeling well — but Thomas, 26, obviously possesses the turn of speed that’s handy in the classics, illustrated by a passel of results on the boards, including both world championship and Olympic wins in the team pursuit. He’s placed 10th at the Tour of Flanders (2011) and has taken two fourth-place finishes this year in Belgium, at Friday’s E3 and last month’s Omloop Het Niewsblad.

And the Sky list goes on, in Norwegian national champion Edvald Boasson Hagen. The 25-year-old is an absolute powerhouse of a rider, a super-domestique in July now loosed for his own one-day dreams. He rode to ninth at Harelbeke this year and wont Ghent-Wevelgem in 2009. He’s also won two Tour de France stages. There is no doubt the tranquillo Boasson Hagen is a physical wonder, but his one-day sharpness hasn’t been among the very best this season. At least not yet.

Boasson Hagen, Stannard, and Thomas will benefit in the long run from Sky’s classics focus, as the British team looks for successes in the season’s one-day races, where it’s come up short thus far. With the talent of these three and the dedication of the team to performance, that won’t last much longer.

Blanco’s Sep Vanmarcke, 24, sustained a knee injury in the fifth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico but is a clear prospect once he’s back to full gas. The Belgian (born in the region of these cobbled climbs) won the 2012 Het Nieuwsblad and placed inside the top 10 at last year’s editions of Harelbeke and Dwars. He was a non-factor at this year’s Harelbeke and didn’t finish Ghent-Wevelgem, but he will factor into one-day races again — that one can bet on. He’s said he hopes to return to form for Flanders and Roubaix.

Sébastien Turgot and Arnaud Demare are two more worth watching, if you’re not already familiar. Turgot, 28, rides for the scrappy Europcar team, and finished second in last year’s Paris-Roubaix and 10th at Harelbeke on Friday. His track pedigree is proof of a good kick, and he’s proven capable of being in the right place at the right time. The 21-year-old Démare (FDJ) has won the under-23 world road title in 2011 and a Tour of Qatar stage in 2012, and also took fourth at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Some of these names are lesser known than the others, yes. But as we’ve seen before, all it takes is one, and then everyone knows a name, and for years to come.