There was a time when we would have expected very little from riders in their first seasons as part of the WorldTour peloton. Being a neo-pro used to come with barely any expectation at all – it was simply a time to learn the ropes as life as a professional rider and getting results in races was rare. However, cycling has changed in recent years, meaning that the talent competing at the very top of the sport is getting younger and younger. Now we’re seeing neo-pros win stages of Grand Tours and the European Championships.
Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone and there are plenty of riders who will develop at a steadier rate, reaching their full potential much later in their careers. However, there were some neo-pros who exceeded expectations during the 2023 season, showing skill, talent and endurance beyond their years. From Thibau Nys to Gaia Realini, these are the neo-pros who stood out this year.
With victories in prestigious under-23 races such as the Ronde de l'Isard and Giro Ciclistico della Valle d'Aosta, Lenny Martinez was destined for big things when he moved up to the WorldTour ranks with Groupama-FDJ this year. Coming from a family rich in cycling heritage, there has been plenty of pressure on the Frenchman’s shoulders as he’s moved up through the ranks of the sport, but Martinez has, so far, done an impressive job of living up to the hype surrounding his talent.
Image: Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency
The 20-year-old’s most high profile result this season was his second place on stage 6 of the 2024 Vuelta a España at Javalambre which also put him in the red jersey as race leader. With this, Martinez became the youngest ever leader of the Spanish stage race. He may only have spent one day in the jersey after he slipped down the general classification on stage eight when he was under pressure from an attacking Jumbo-Visma, but his result firmly asserted him as a star in the next generation of promising French climbers.
It wasn’t just during the Vuelta a España that Martinez proved himself every bit capable of riding in the WorldTour peloton, either. He also won the CIC-Mont Ventoux race ahead of Michael Woods earlier in the season, outsprinting his rival on the final slopes of the mythical climb. Add in his multiple strong results in shorter stage races and Martinez has had a neo-pro season to remember, even announcing himself as a potential future Tour de France winner, something that will be music to the ears of French fans.
Having only raced outside of Italy once in her career before making the move to Lidl-Trek, it was difficult to know what to expect from 22-year-old Gaia Realini this season. Credit should be given to the American team for spotting Realini’s talent last year in the Giro d’Italia Donne and they have already begun to reap the rewards of taking a risk on the young Italian. Image: ASO/Unipublic/Sprint Cycling Agency
Realini’s season started off extremely strong at the UAE Tour where she won the young rider’s classification and finished second to her teammate Elisa Longo-Borghini on the hilly stage to Jebel Hafeet – the pair were over one minute ahead of the rider in third place. At the time, there was controversy surrounding whether Longo-Borghini should have given the stage win to Realini who did the lion’s share of the work on the final climb. However, in the end this wouldn’t be the only chance that the 22-year-old would get during the season to get a win, she eventually took her own victories in one-day race Trofeo Oro in Euro, in a stage of La Vuelta Femenina ahead of Annemiek van Vleuten, and a stage of Tour de l'Avenir Femmes.
Speaking at Rouleur Live this year, Van Vleuten herself named Realini as the rider to watch in the women’s peloton in 2024 and, going by the Italian’s performances in 2023, we wouldn’t argue with this statement.
Racing as part of Canyon//SRAM’s new development team, Canyon//SRAM Generation, in 2022, it wasn’t surprising when the German outfit promoted Ricarda Bauernfeind to the WorldTour team this season. The 23-year-old became German U23 road and time trial champion last year, not to mention taking her first professional victory in the Visegrad 4 Ladies Race in Slovakia. Bauernfeind’s performances in hilly stage races like the Vuelta Ciclista Andalucía Ruta Del Sol last year proved that she has a talent for climbing, something that she has lived up to as part of the Canyon//SRAM WorldTour set up this season.Image: ASO/Thomas Maheux
Bauernfeind’s stand out result was undoubtedly her victory in a stage of the 2023 Tour de France Femmes. The young German took a stunning solo win on the roads to Albi, shocking the likes of SD Worx with her strength which meant they weren’t able to pull her back into the peloton on the approach to the finish line. It wasn’t just in the Tour that Bauernfeind impressed, however. She also showed her talent for stage racing with her fifth place finish in La Vuelta Femenina, as well as her sixth and seventh places respectively in both the Tour of Scandinavia and the Tour de Romandie.
Part of what makes Bauernfeind so exciting as a rider is her versatility, too. She’s also proved herself to be extremely reliable in hilly one-day races, finishing well in all of the Ardennes Classics – her best result was 13th place in La Flèche Wallonne Féminine. Bauernfeind also secured 16th place at Strade Bianche Donne to add to her already impressive palmarès, many of which she achieved while still working for Canyon//SRAM’s de facto team leader, Kasia Niewiadoma. Should the team decide to give Bauernfeind more of an opportunity to race for her own chances in the one-day races in 2024 – and considering the experience she has gained this season – there’s every likelihood she could turn her top-20 finishes to victories soon.
Another rider whose surname brings immediate expectation about his talent is 21-year-old Thibau Nys. The Belgian began his pro career as a stagiaire with Lidl-Trek at the end of 2022 (when it was then called Trek-Segafredo) and already seemed at home in the professional peloton. 2023 has seen Nys continue to balance his goals on the road with his ambitions in cyclo-cross and choosing to remain racing in multiple disciplines seems to be working well for the young rider so far.
Image: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images
While the one-day races he took part in at the start of the season didn’t set the world alight (perhaps due to residual fatigue from a season racing on the mud) Nys seemed to steadily improve as the year progressed. He took second place in the opening stage of WorldTour race Tour de Romandie, narrowly missing out on victory in a sprint to the line. He was also second in an extremely difficult punchy stage of the Tour de Hongrie a few weeks later, proving his versatility as a rider. It was in the Tour of Norway where Nys seemed to truly come into his own, winning stage two of the race in an uphill sprint to the finish line, as well as finishing third overall and taking the win in the points classification.
Solid results followed in races like the Baloise Belgium Tour and the Ethias-Tour de Wallonie, amounting to an impressive season for Nys overall. He’s already taken three victories so far this year in cyclo-cross too, including in the Waterloo round of the cyclo-cross World Cup. Whether the Belgian rider continues to balance road and ‘cross is yet to be seen, but his road results point to him as a rider who has the potential to flourish in the Ardennes Classics, as well as shorter stage races. Grand Tours shouldn’t be counted out for Nys either, though this could require greater specialisation from the young talent.
Coming from SD Worx’s unofficial development team, Parkhotel Valkenburg, Mischa Bredewold has undoubtedly made a name for herself in the women’s WorldTour peloton this year. It’s well known that SD Worx is a team full of superstar riders, meaning that even those of Bredewold’s talent can fly under the radar with the likes of Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky winning yellow and world champion jerseys. However, the 23-year-old Dutch rider should be highlighted for her impeccable season, one that few would have expected simply based on her results last season alone.Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
Bredewold began her season at the Belgian Classics, securing some solid and consistent results but mainly helping the likes of Vollering and Kopecky to the plethora of race wins that the duo secured in that part of the season. Still, her 12th place finish at the Tour of Flanders is a sure sign that Bredewold is one to watch at these races in the future. Although not a UCI event, Bredewold did get a chance of her own at the prestigious Volta Limburg Classic which she won with a stunning solo attack. As stage races began, more wins rolled in for the young Dutch talent – she took victory in stage two of the Internationale LOTTO Thüringen Ladies Tour and finished in third place overall.
While she did some solid work for her team at the Tour de France Femmes, it was in the latter part of the season that Bredewold truly came into her own. She took her first WorldTour victory at the Classic Lorient Agglomération-Trophée CERATIZIT (also known as GP Plouay) in a reduced bunch sprint. A few weeks later at the European Championships, Bredewold reigned supreme on the mythical Col du VAM, taking the race victory ahead of her compatriot Lorena Wiebes. Winning a European title in your first season as a professional is an incredible feat, and Bredewold will be seen in the jersey every race next season. She is another rider to add to the growing list of SD Worx super talent and is one to watch next season, especially if she is given more freedom to go for her own results.
Josh Tarling is the neo-pro who has garnered the most attention of them all this season, and for good reason. It’s fair to say that the 19-year-old has exceeded any expectations of him during his first year as a professional, repeatedly getting the better of far more experienced and well-known riders in time trials. A world champion as a junior, it was clear that Tarling had a talent for the discipline last year, but his performances at Championship events in 2024 were something that even he couldn’t have predicted when he pulled on his Ineos Grenadiers jersey for the first time back in January.Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
It was at Etoile de Bessèges at the beginning of February that Tarling first shocked many with his time trial performance, finishing in second place on the final stage’s ten kilometre time trial to Alès behind Mads Pedersen. If people thought that was impressive, though, they weren’t ready for what Tarling would do in a few months' time.
He began a summer of success with a dominant win in the British National Time Trial Championships, over one minute ahead of the rider in second place. Tarling then went on to finish second in the time trial at the Tour de Wallonie (just eight seconds behind Filippo Ganna), which also gave him second place in the race overall. The podiums continued as Tarling impressed with a third place at the World Time Trial Championships in Scotland, beating the likes of Brandon McNulty, Wout van Aert and Rohan Dennis to the medal. The Renewi Tour saw Tarling showcase his national champion stripes for the first time when he took victory in stage two of the race, only for him to upgrade the British stripes for a European stars a few weeks later. Tarling once again got the better of riders like Van Aert on the 28 kilometre course in the Netherlands, winning the European Time Trial Championships by 42 seconds. He finished the season with a victory in the starry jersey at the Chrono des Nations time trial.
For Tarling to end his first ever year as a professional with a World Championship medal and as European Time Trial champion is breathtakingly impressive. His season has been one that will go down in the history books.
A product of Team dsm-firmenich’s incredibly successful under-23 development team, British rider Max Poole has announced himself as another climber to watch in the professional men’s peloton. The 20-year-old had a good season last year as an under-23 with top-10 finishes in stage races like the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d'Aosta, and the Arctic Race of Norway (a race he competed in a guest of Team dsm-firmenich WorldTour team.) Despite his solid results, however, Poole’s performances last year didn’t necessarily set him up for the season he’s ended up having as a neo-pro over the last year.Image: ASO/Billy Ceusters
While he has largely been used as a domestique for some of the more established climbers on his team, Poole has still managed to get himself noticed with his consistency and strength in the mountains. He won the youth classification in the Tour of the Alps at the beginning of the season, finishing in 11th place overall after a solid showing in all of the hilly stages. Poole went on to finish in fourth place on the queen stage of the Tour de Romandie a few weeks later, just 20 seconds behind Adam Yates who eventually won on the slopes to Thyon 2000. The Tour de Hongrie saw Poole give another impressive performance when he finished in fourth place, but he really proved his ability to climb with some of the best during the Critérium du Dauphiné, ending up fifth on two stages and 13th overall.
Poole rounded out his season with a successful Vuelta a España, helping Team DSM to victory in the famously wet opening team time trial and then getting himself in the breakaway on stage 18 to finish fourth on the stage to La Cruz de Linares. Poole’s ability to perform well at the end of a long and hard race despite his young age is a good sign that the British rider is developing into a GC talent for the years to come.