The men’s U23 road race takes place on Friday 24th September 2021.
The event was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, meaning the most recent U23 road race occurred in Harrogate, 2019. The finish was controversial, with Nils Eekhoff sprinting to victory at the finish line. However, the Dutchman was later disqualified for slipstreaming back to the peloton after a crash earlier in the race. Samuele Battistella was promoted to win the rainbow jersey, ahead of the likes of Stefan Bissegger, Tom Pidcock and Sergio Higuita.
Other recent former winners of the U23 road race include Benoît Cosnefroy, Marc Hirschi and Matej Mohorič, all of whom are competing to win the rainbow jersey in the elite road race this year.
Similarly to the elite men’s road race, the U23 course is defined by two circuits: the Leveun and Flandrien circuits. The riders depart from Antwerp, where after an 8km neutral section, the riders embark on a 62km journey to Leuven. The early breakaway will form on the flat terrain that is present in this phase of the race.
Leuven circuit profile
Upon arriving in Leuven, the peloton will tackle one and a half laps of the Leuven circuit. The lap features a plethora of short, sharp climbs, which will sap the rider's legs. The Sint-Antoniusberg hill features cobblestones and is narrow, so there’ll be a race for the front of the peloton here. The hills arrive in quick succession and all provide a suitable platform to attack.
After this, the riders head directly onto the Flandrien circuit. At 32.2km, this is more than twice as long as the Leuven circuit. In the U23 road race, it will be visited once, unlike the elite road race. The Smeysberg hill is the first ascent of six found on the Flandrien loop. It is 700 metres in length and features gradients up to 16%. This is soon followed by the Moskesstraat, which is arguably the most difficult climb on the course. With percentages touching 18%, the peloton could be decimated at the top.
After the circuit is completed, the riders return to Leuven to tackle the lap there two and a half times. The course totals 161km, which is more than 100km shorter than Sunday’s elite men’s road race.
Thibau Nys wins the European Championships in Trento ahead of Filippo Baroncini and Juan Ayuso (Image credit: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
19-year-old Juan Ayuso has taken the junior ranks by storm this season. The Spaniard won the general classification and three stages at the ‘Baby Giro’. Since, he has since signed with UAE Team Emirates, where he raced to a creditable top 20 finish in his first WorldTour race, the Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa. Ayuso also demonstrated recent form when he finished on the podium at the European Championships U23 road race in Trento. However, his skillset looks to be biased towards climbing and stage races instead of cobbled classics. Can he compete for victory on the cobbled, narrow roads in Belgium?
Eritrea is a cycling nation on the rise, and 21-year-old Biniam Ghirmay is at the forefront of that wave. After starting the 2021 season with Delko, Ghrimay signed with Intermarché - Wanty - Gobert until 2024 — a sign of their faith in his abilities. He has recent experience on Belgian roads too, notably at Druivenkoers - Overijse, where he finished seventh and in a group with Kasper Asgreen and Marc Hirschi. He can finish quickly and get over short hills, meaning he starts as one of the favourites.
The Ineos Grenadiers have recently confirmed the acquisition of Magnus Sheffield. He was third in the junior road race in 2019. The highly rated 19-year-old looks to be one of the United States’ contenders, though they have other options, too. Kevin Vermaerke currently plies his trade with Team DSM — he won the U23 Liège - Bastogne - Liège in 2019.
Belgium possesses new U23 European Champion Thibau Nys in their ranks. The son of former cyclo-cross star Sven Nys has a rapid sprint finish, and proved at the European Championships that he can resist a severe tempo on uphill gradients. Belgium has a range of options though, including WorldTour rider Florian Vermeersch. The Lotto Soudal man proved his versatility when time-trialing to third in the TT earlier this week. He is yet to record a pro win, but won the mountain jersey at the Tour de Wallonie and sprinted to a top ten on stage two of La Vuelta a España earlier this season.
Mick Van Dijke finished fifth in the U23 time trial earlier this week (Image credit: DAVID STOCKMAN/Belga/AFP via Getty Images)
The Netherlands also arrive with a team full of talent. Olav Kooij has developed with Jumbo Visma and races with the WorldTour team at 19-years-old, whilst Marijn van den Berg is riding with the Groupama-FDJ dev team. Both are fast finishers, so if they are in the bunch in the final kilometres, they have a great chance at the rainbow jersey. The Van Dijke twins — Mick and Tim — have demonstrated their potential this season too. Tim won the Dutch U23 road race, whilst Mick won the Flanders Tomorrow Tour and has signed with Jumbo-Visma until 2024. Both are likely to be aggressive, look out for them attacking early on.
Filippo Baroncini is Italy’s best chance, he finished runner-up in the European road race. Later, he finished fourth at Coppa Sabatini, where he was only beaten by Michael Valgren, Sonny Colbrelli and Mathieu Burgaudeau. The Italian is heading to Trek-Segafredo in 2022, where he’ll demonstrate his skills on hilly terrain and in reduced sprint finishes. Another option for Italy is Filippo Zana, who finished on the podium at the Tour de l'Avenir earlier this season.
Ethan Vernon rides for Great Britain after he finished seventh in the U23 time trial earlier this week. He won a stage at the Tour de l'Avenir; however, Lewis Askey could be the Brit's leading choice. Askey has signed with Groupama-FDJ next season and is proving to be a versatile rider with a good sprint.
Norway is another nation that boasts a range of capable options. Jonas Iversby Hvideberg was the U23 European Champion a year ago — he has signed with Team DSM for 2022. Idar Andersen demonstrated his strength when he battled for stage victory alongside Gianni Moscon at the Tour of the Alps earlier this season. He also finished in the top five at the Tour of Slovakia this month. The second set of twins on the start line are Tobias Halland Johannessen and Anders Halland Johannessen. Tobias won the Tour de l’Avenir in August, despite a rampant solo attack from Carlos Rodriguez on the final stage. He was also third at Liège - Bastogne - Liège U23 earlier this month.
Although he hasn’t shown stellar form since, Mauro Schmid won a stage at the Giro d’Italia earlier this season, so must not be discounted. Austria’s Tobias Bayer is another rider to keep an eye on. He's a strong puncher, but doesn’t have any teammates.
Favourites: Biniam Ghirmay, Thibau Nys, Juan Ayuso, Mick Van Dijke, Marijn van den Berg, Filippo Baroncini
Outsiders: Filippo Zana, Magnus Sheffield, Lewis Askey, Alexis Renard, Finn Fisher-Black
We are backing Filippo Baroncini to win the men’s U23 road race at Flanders 2021. The race is wide open, so many have a good chance of claiming the rainbow jersey. However, Baroncini's skills on short hills and in a reduced sprint make him one of the primary favourites.
Cover image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images