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As the year comes to a close, we’re taking stock of the racing season that was while looking ahead to 2021. Among the many, many unconventional things that stood out from the year in cycling was just how many up-and-comers exploded onto the scene this year with breakthrough performances, performances that will potentially clue us in on what to expect next year.
With that in mind, we started putting together a list of the biggest breakthrough performers of 2020. Surprisingly, the hardest part of that mission was not writing cogent bike racing analysis during the holiday season; it was keeping that list succinct. We set out with a plan of giving you a nice round number of 10 names but you’ll have to forgive us for stretching that to 12 because we just couldn’t narrow it down any further.
And even with 12 names, we could have fit so many more in, like the 21-year-old who won the 2020 Tour de France – but considering Tadej Pogacar took three stages and third overall in a Grand Tour last year, we figured we’d focus on other emerging talents who stepped up their game this year.
Without further ado, here are (just) 12 of the breakthrough riders of the 2020 season.
–Dane Cash and Abby Mickey
In his first season at the WorldTour level, João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) wasted little time in proving himself a versatile contender on a range of terrains. He rode to ninth overall at the Volta ao Algarve, seventh overall at the Tour de l’Ain, runner-up honors at the Giro dell’Emilia, and third overall at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali before shining in his debut Grand Tour.
He spent over two weeks in the leader’s jersey at the Giro d’Italia, and although he ultimately settle for fourth overall, he left no doubt about his skill set as a three-week racer, delivering strong performances both against the clock and on the steep gradients. He was so regularly among the top finishers in stages across the entire race that he finished third in the points classification without having won a stage. Not bad for a rider who only turned 22 this August.
At Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Almeida may not have the level of stage race support that he might expect from other top teams like Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, but the other side of that coin is that he should have opportunities to continue showing off his talents next season.
With Annemiek van Vleuten leaving Mitchelton-Scott in 2021 the question of who would take the reins was a popular one, especially after Van Vleuten and Amanda Spratt crashed out of the Giro Rosa. Grace Brown, a member of Mitchelton-Scott for the last two seasons, threw down her cards as a potential leader of the team in the hilly one-day classics of 2021 when she finished off the 2020 season with a string of amazing results.
Picked up by Wiggle High5 as a stagiaire in 2018, Brown spent most of that season riding for the Holden Team, an Australian club team. That season she performed well at the Australian early season races attended by the big teams, mostly the Santos Tour Down Under. Given that her first year racing full time in Europe was 2019, it makes sense that she started coming out of the peloton and leading races in 2020.
Brown was second in the ITT and third in the road race at the National Championships in January. After that she didn’t race a ton, and if she did it was in a support role for Van Vleuten. In the Worlds ITT, Brown pulled off fifth place and sat in the hot seat for long enough to at least look like a potential podium finisher. Her really impressive performance was at Liège-Bastogne-Liège where she forced her way into a breakaway of incredibly strong riders and then was the only one of those to follow Lizzie Deignan when the former World Champion went on the attack. Had the race been one more kilometer, or even another 700 meters, Brown may have won. She reeled in Deignan, who had 30 seconds when Brown went for the chase, to within only nine seconds by the finish.
In retaliation for her almost-win in Liège, Brown went on to win Brabantse Pijl solo by 47 seconds three days later. With these two results, let’s hope Grace Brown is able to play next season and not just work for her other teammates. With the loss of Van Vleuten Mitchelton-Scott has a handful of really strong riders to chose from in 2021 to lead the team at the World Tour races.
Marta Cavalli, much like a Prius, silently prowled around the top of races for the majority of 2020. She was 5th at one of the re-season openers in July, Durango-Durango, and then basically just hung out around the top 20 all the way through the one-days up to the Giro Rosa where she was 4th on stage 7, the stage won by Lotte Kopecky. The 2019 Italian National Champion ended up fourth in the Young Rider competition, actually a wildly impressive feat given the talent of young riders at the Giro Rosa in 2020.
Into the later bits of the season, Cavalli sprinted to fifth at Gent-Wevelgem and was 10th at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Cavalli’s results were enough to get her picked up by FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope, the only new rider to join the French team in 2021. After four seasons with Valcar/Valcar Cylance/Valcar Travel & Service the move to FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope is an awesome one for Cavalli. She is already excited to get on the road with her new team and learn from riders like Emilia Fahlin and Lauren Kitchen. And at only 22 it could be a really exciting future for this youngster.
Another Équipe Paule Ka rider who turned heads in 2020 was Niamh Fisher-Black. Picked up by Bigla Pro Cycling in September of 2019, Fisher-Black has only had one full season in the professional ranks. Actually, barely a professional season, given how many races were cancelled in 2020. Still, the 20-year-old New Zealand National Road Champion had enough promise in 2020 to catch the eye of SD Worx for whom she will compete in 2021 and 2022.
Her most impressive result was on the final stage of the Giro Rosa, a hectic day for the breakaway, won by Évita Muzic (honorable mention as another young rider to watch). Fisher-Black outsmarted Juliette Labous, Katia Ragusa, and Ellen van Dijk to take second on the stage.
Apart from the Giro Rosa Fisher-Black hardly raced in 2020. She didn’t do the early season in Australia. She was not amongst the top players in the post-COVID19 one-days like Strade and Plouay, in fact, she didn’t finish either. It was after the Giro Rosa where she found her legs. Placing 15th at the World Championships RR and 12th in La Flèche Wallone. Looking ahead to next season she has a lot of amazing riders to learn from and an opportunity to take her climbing ability to new heights.
Ganna’s arrival as a bona fide road talent this season felt almost inevitable. He had the kind of power as an under-23 that made it clear to anyone watching him that he would be a force at the pro level, and with one year of seasoning (and an Italian time trial title) under his belt, the 24-year-old burst through to the next level this year in emphatic fashion.
Ganna defended his Italian TT title and won one in Tirreno-Adriatico before he stormed to a world title in the discipline. He followed that up with a brilliant Giro d’Italia. Again, consistency was the key. Ganna won all three time trials, he was a valuable domestique for Geoghegan Hart, and he won a challenging road stage from the break for good measure.
Moving forward, there’s little doubt that Ganna is the rider to beat in the biggest time trial challenges on the calendar, with plenty of potential to continue growing in other races (Paris-Roubaix?) as he continues to grow.
TAO GEOGHEGAN HART
The winner of the 2020 Giro d’Italia is a bit of an unusual member of this list because he has been a relatively well-known rider in the pro peloton, particularly for British and American fans, for a few years now. Tao Geoghegan Hart came up through the Axeon Hagens Berman program and joined Sky with plenty of excitement about his future in British media back in 2017. Three years later, however, he hadn’t really picked up the results he’d hoped for yet, with top 5s in races like the Tour of the Alps, Tour of Poland, Tour of California, and Vuelta a Burgos his biggest results yet.
He delivered another similar result with a third place finish at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana to start the year, and then, after that lengthy midseason wait that had all of us watching e-racing for months, Geoghegan Hart suddenly got his chance to lead the Ineos juggernaut at a Grand Tour when Geraint Thomas went down in a crash. He did not disappoint. The 25-year-old was strong through the race, consistently among the best on the climbs, with two huge stage victories, and solid in the time trials, ultimately topping Sunweb’s dual threat of Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman.
The big question mark now is whether he can deliver against higher-caliber competition, as it must be noted for Geoghegan and the others on this list whose biggest results were taken at the corsa rosa this year that the field at the Giro, at least by week three, did not have same same top echelon of stars that we saw at the Tour. Nonetheless, Geoghegan Hart is now a Grand Tour winner who will get his chances to show that he can compete against the best names in the sport. Before 2020, it wasn’t quite clear what Geoghegan Hart’s role would be moving forward. Now, he’s likely to be slated for leadership at a three-week race in 2021. That’s a heck of a breakthrough.
Mikayla Harvey really came onto the scene this year at the Giro Rosa when she dominated the Young Rider competition by almost five minutes. A member of Team Illuminate in 2017 and 2018, Harvey was picked up by Bigla Pro Cycling/Équipe Paule Ka for 2019 and 2020. While with Team Illuminate Harvey had a few results at smaller North American and Oceanic races, most notable the U23 races a the Oceania Continental Championships in 2018. Her first year full-time in Europe in 2019 she didn’t finish many one-day races but showed more promise in stage races like the Women’s Tour of Scotland and Giro Rosa.
Come 2020, Harvey really found her groove. She was 12th at Strade Bianche, a race where many of the best riders struggled in the heat, 13th at GP de Plouay, and 12th at La Course by the Tour de France.
Then the Giro Rosa happened, and that is where Harvey caught the attention of many. The most impressive result of her race came on stage 8, won by Elisa Longo Borghini of Trek-Segafredo, and where Anna van der Breggen of Boels-Dolmans took the leader’s jersey. The brutal climb to the finish started out with 12.6% slopes and proved too much for 97% of the peloton. Harvey held on to a group of riders far more experienced than herself and in the end pulled off 3rd behind Longo Borghini and Van der Breggen.
For the next two seasons at least Harvey will be riding with Canyon-SRAM, a team that has a great combination of young riders and experienced minds. She will learn a lot from the likes of Kasia Niewiadoma on when to use her abilities to her advantage and will be very helpful for Ella Harris in climbing heavy races in 2021 and 2022.
Sure, Jai Hindley was already seen as a promising prospect and he had already put up some results in UCI races coming into the 2020 season, including an overall win at the Tour of Fuzhou back in 2017 and runner-up honors at the 2019 Tour of Poland, but it seems fair to say that none of his prior performances foretold the magnitude of the breakthrough he’d have in 2020.
Hindley showed his great form to start the season with a win at the Herald Sun Tour before fantastic Giro d’Italia that saw him pick up a stage win and ride to second overall, narrowly missing out on the win to the aforementioned Geoghegan Hart after coming up short in the final time trial. Hindley climbed with the very best in the race on some serious mountain slopes, and showed the kind of consistency throughout the race that you don’t often see from youngsters.
It remains to be seen what DSM will do in the Grand Tours next year with Romain Bardet coming aboard, but Hindley has certainly earned a place among the team’s GC leaders for 2021.
Marc Hirschi is a pretty obvious inclusion in this list thanks to the fact that he enjoyed an excellent debut appearance in the biggest race on the calendar. As you may recall, Hirschi came oh-so-close to winning two stages at the Tour de France before he finally came through with a big breakaway win on stage 12.
But he didn’t stop there. He went on to finish third at Worlds, win La Flèche Wallonne, and nab runner-up honors at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Plenty of riders can put up a strong three weeks of jumping into breakaways but Hirschi really cemented himself as a new star with those brilliant one-day performances against some of the sport’s very best. Indeed, he may have even won Liège had it not been for Julian Alaphilippe’s relegation-earning swerve in the sprint.
Big things have been expected of Hirschi since he rode to an under-23 world title in 2018, but that’s been true for quite a few U23 world champions that haven’t ultimately delivered. Based on what we’ve seen across the season so far, however, Hirschi seems like a pretty good bet to keep delivering on his promise. With a big engine, an explosive kick, and a clear grasp of tactics even at just 22 years old, Hirschi looks like a rider to watch for years to come, and he has quickly established himself as the clear top option at Sunweb for the punchy races moving forward.
Alright, Lotte Kopecky has been around for a while. She first went professional in 2012 for Topsport Vlaanderen Ridley and has been riding for Lotto Soudal Ladies team since 2016. Kopecky’s 2020 season, however, deserves a mention. Kopecky is an accomplished track rider, and has won a handful of Belgian races up to 2020, but the 25-year-old took her first major win outside of Belgium at the Giro Rosa on stage 7.
This win came on the heels of a third and a second place behind Marianne Vos on stages 6 and 5. Kopecky then went home and won the Belgian National Championship road race, pairing a fancy jersey with the ITT suit she had already claimed earlier in the year. For the final five races of Kopecky’s season she never left the top 5.
What makes Kopecky an exciting rider to watch in the future is the fact that she is changing teams in 2021 for the first time in a while. Kopecky is one of two incoming riders to Liv Racing, formerly CCC-Liv. She might not quite fit in with the rest of this list, which is full of young riders (young in years on this earth or young in the sport of cycling) but if the tail end of Kopecky’s season means anything, she has barely scratched the surface of what she has to offer in this sport, therefore making her a very exciting rider to watch in the years to come.
Liane Lippert started 2020 with a bang, winning the first World Tour race of the year, when pro cycling was still living a pre-COVID-19 existence. She won the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race solo, 15 seconds in front of 2019 winner Arlenis Sierra, Amanda Spratt, and Tayler Wiles. A member of Team Sunweb since 2017, Lippert is not new to the professional peloton. She’s had a few other results, most of them in 2018, but 2020 was an impressive year for the 22-year old German.
Even before she won Cadel’s race, she was second overall at the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under, behind Trek-Segafredo’s Ruth Winder. After the racing hiatus, Lippert started the rescheduled season with a collection of top 20s, the best result being 10th at La Course by the Tour de France. During the Giro Rosa she was up and around the top 10 in five of the nine stages, ultimately walking away with 13th in the GC and third in the Young Rider competition.
Lippert also rode well at the World Championships Road Race, landing fifth place. A few days later, she was eighth at La Flèche Wallonne. Near the end of her season Lippert stood on the podium in second at Brabantse Pijl.
Lippert’s ability to have early season form and then still find herself among the top riders after coming out of the COVID-19 lockdowns at such a young age was very impressive. With a good uphill kick and a little bit of savviness she will hopefully continue to factor for years to come.
Aleksandr Vlasov had a season tailor-made for an end-of-season analysis article like this one. The 24-year-old Russian stormed to his first pro wins this year, his first season with Astana, taking a stage at the Tour de La Provence and one-day wins at Mont Ventoux Dénivelé and the Giro dell’Emilia. He also put in strong performances at Il Lombardia (finishing third), Tirreno-Adriatico (finishing fifth overall), and the Vuelta a España (finishing as high as second on a stage and 11th overall), among other races.
An all-rounder capable of contending in races of various lengths and profiles, Vlasov proved himself a clear talent for the future for an Astana team that is in major need of promising youngsters to carry the team forward as Miguel Ángel López departs and Jakob Fuglsang heads into the second half of his 30s.
As Astana gives him more and more chances to lead the way next year, Vlasov seems primed to continue progressing in 2021.
That’s it for our 12-rider list, but we know there were other big names putting in breakthrough performances this season. Did anyone else catch your eye?