The breakthrough cyclists of 2020: Rouleur's review of the season

In a truly unique year for pro cycling, we take a look at the breakthrough riders who have proved the strength of the new generation

2020 was the year of da yoof. Yes, we know we and our ilk say that every year, but we mean it this time. Wait, we’ve got proof! 

In 2020, the average age WorldTour race winner - counting general classification winners, but excluding individual stages - was just 27 years, 269 days old. Last year, for those exact same races, the average was more than nine months higher, at 28 years, 185 days. In 2017 it was 30 years, 210 days.

Of the 21 WorldTour races completed this year, on only five occasions was the winner over the age of 30. In 2019, seven of them were; in 2017 it was twelve.  

Want more?

The average age of a stage winner at this year’s Tour de France was 26. That compares to 28 last year, and 27.5 in 2018.

In 2020, for the first time ever, two of the three Grand Tour winners also won the young riders competition.

Perhaps a more meaningful signifier than any of those is that Alejandro Valverde didn’t win a single race, or come top in any classification in one, for the first season since 2002. (Apart from the two seasons he was serving a suspension.)

Make no mistake, the kids are taking over, so get on board or get out of the way. But who, aside from the obvious candidates, have come the furthest and impressed us the most this season?

Marc Hirschi
Marc Hirschi had never ridden a Grand Tour of any kind before this year’s Tour de France. Some might have been intimidated or overwhelmed by the world’s biggest bike race, opted to get settled before seeing what they could do. Not Hirschi. In the closing kilometres of only the second stage he allied with Adam Yates and Julian Alaphilippe in a late attack. On the line he was barely a wheel’s length from taking his first victory.

He would come close again a week later. Riding solo for more than 80km, he was only caught by the GC favourites with 2km to go. His legs still had enough left to sprint him to third place. The win would not elude him for long however, and came just four days later in Laruns.

He followed up the Tour by coming third in the World Championships road race, then taking the win at Fleche Wallonne, before rounding out the week on the second step of the podium at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. What can the Swiss rider do next? The answer seems to be: anything he wants.

Filippo Ganna
Filippo Ganna is almost too talented for his own good. His abilities first came to our attention at the 2016 track World Championships in London, where he won gold with one of the most meticulously measured individual pursuit performances we’ve ever seen. Since then he has continued to develop, and held an almost vice-like grip on that particular rainbow jersey.

Although signed to first Lampre/Emirates and then Ineos, with the Olympics his primary target, road racing has taken something of a back seat since then. At least until this season. With Covid pushing Tokyo back a year, and the Giro d’Italia including more time trial kilometres than a Grand Tour has in years, Ganna had the chance to see what he could do on native roads. Few doubted he would win the three time trials - and he did, by 22 seconds, 34 seconds and 32 seconds respectively - but no-one expected him to claim a mountain stage as well. Ganna rode away from his companions on the Category 1 climb of Valico Montesicuro, and soloing to a remarkable victory in the rain. 

Jai Hindley
Jai Hindley began the 2020 season as a promising talent. He ended it as a player. 

His role when he started his third Grand Tour was originally supposed to be as a strong support to Wilco Kelderman. As he finished alongside his leader, or at least in the same group as his, on all but a few stages, he played that part note-perfectly. 

Until Stage 18, when Kelderman could no longer keep up. The Dutch rider did enough to take over the race lead from Joao Almeida, but the writing was on the wall. Sunweb’s leadership Giro may not have officially changed hands, but it was clear who the stronger rider was. In the end, Hindley’s weaker time trial meant he was unable to deny Tao Geogeghan Hart the overall title, but did manage to finish within a minute. A podium place at the Giro is not to be sniffed at. He certainly has it in him to go higher.

Dani Martinez
Dani Martinez first came to our attention at last year’s Paris-Nice. By out-climbing compatriot Miguel Angel Lopez on the Col de Turini summit finish, the younger Colombian showed he clearly had something about him. He didn’t manage much more in 2019, riding fairly anonymously at the Vuelta, his only Grand Tour of the year.

He was rarely anonymous this season. Martinez might have been the beneficiary of some good fortune at the Criterium du Dauphine, after race favourites Roglic, Bernal and Quintana were forced to withdraw at various points. Nevertheless, the way he won the race was all talent and racecraft. He waited when he needed to wait, chased when there was call to chase, worked with the right rivals at the right times.

Although Dauphine winners are usually among the favourites for the Tour de France, the GC was never really on the cards for Martinez. He was there for a stage win, and he got one. The product of excellently executed team tactics in the break, he was the EF rider with the legs to triumph over two Bora team-mates. The first of many, of that there can be little doubt.

Lennard Kämna
Lennard Kämna had looked like an exciting prospect for a few seasons before this one. As a junior he won regularly on the road and in time trials. As a pro, his fourth place on Stage 18 of last year’s Tour de France marked him out as a rider for whom it was more “when” than “if”.

Like Dani Martinez, the when was this year’s Dauphine, on the jagged Stage 4 parcours finishing Megeve. At the Tour, like former team-mate Marc Hirschi, he would have to experience the heartbreak of just missing out before he could feel the thrill of a first victory. At the second time of asking, he wasn’t going to hang around for any hitch-hikers, opting to go solo on the final climb. There’s nothing like an organised chase, and what was happening behind him was nothing like an organised chase. Kamna took the win by more than a minute.

It’s been a while since Germany had a true Grand Tour contender. It looks like Kämna’s mantle for the taking.

João Almeida
Second only to Ganna in the Giro’s opening time trial, the 22 year-old from A dos Francos, Portugal, took the Maglia Rosa on only the third Grand Tour stage of his career. At the time we all assumed it would be a temporary arrangement, rather than a serious GC challenge.

The joke was soon to be about how Quick Step and Ineos had swapped places. While the British squad were swashbuckling their way to wins on practically every other stage, the Belgian team kept their racing instincts in check, carefully guarding the pink jersey through the next fifteen stages. 

Almeida eventually gave it up on the Stelvio stage, but even then he did not give up completely. Instead he dug in, managed his effort and limited his losses to just four places.

He was able to regain one of those in the final stage time trial and finished, in the end, less than ninety seconds off the podium. Not a bad start to a Grand Tour career.

Jasper Philipsen
It’s been a while since a new sprinter arrived on the scene. Bennett and Ewan; Ackermann, and Demare; Gaviria and Groenewegen; all feel like they’ve been around for ages. Then there’s a certain Mr Sagan. Still, sprinting’s a young man’s game and it was only a matter of time before someone new joined the party. Enter Jasper Philipsen. 

While perhaps not as pure as some of those listed above, the Belgian looks like the real deal. His first WorldTour win came at the end of September, in the opening stage of the BinckBank Tour, but it was his Vuelta victory that put him on the map. On the uphill finish to the longest, most miserable stage of the race, Philipsen went earlier and longer than anyone else, to pip Ackermann to the line.

He'll be taking a step down a division next year, but that shouldn’t prove much of an obstacle. He’ll be joining Mathieu van der Poel at Alpecin-Fenix. Good company to be in.

David Gaudu
As most of the riders at Groupama-FDJ, David Gaudu has spent the majority of his career so far in the shadow of team-mate Thibaut Pinot. With the television cameras typically trained on his team leader, who was usually himself locked to Gaudu’s wheel, we have for some time speculated as to what the junior partner might be able to achieve if left to his own devices. 

After Pinot’s early withdrawal at La Vuelta, we were given the chance to find out. Two stage wins, both of which took place on the summit finishes to two of the longest climbs in the race, took him to a first Grand Tour top ten.  With Pinot’s future as a Grand Tour leader looking increasingly uncertain, the time is surely right for Groupama-FDJ to see what Gaudu can do as a leader in his own right. 

Shop now