Tim Merlier sprints to victory ahead of Olav Kooij and Kaden Groves on stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico.

Sprinting’s next generation on display at Tirreno-Adriatico

20-year-old Olav Kooij powers to runner-up honors on stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico with 23-year-old Kaden Groves taking third.

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Many of the biggest names in sprinting are in action this week at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, with the likes of Sam Bennett among the stars at the former and Caleb Ewan at the latter. As evidenced by the victories of Mads Pedersen and Tim Merlier on Tuesday, however, the days when just a handful of riders dominated cycling’s sprints are long gone. The list of contenders seems as long as ever right now — and that creates opportunities for a new generation to step in and establish itself.

At Tirreno-Adriatico in particular, the youth movement was on display on Tuesday’s stage 2, with 20-year-old Dutchman Olav Kooij powering to second behind Merlier and 23-year-old Australian Kaden Groves nabbing third. Both youngsters are riders to watch as the ever-changing landscape atop cycling’s sprinter hierarchy continues to evolve.

Despite their young age, Kooij and Groves are have been turning heads for some time thanks to their impressive showings in junior and under-23 races and in their first forays as WorldTour pros.

Kooij was still a teenager this time last year, but since then he has given his Jumbo-Visma plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his future. He moved from Jumbo-Visma’s development team to its WorldTour squad in 2021 and quickly won a stage at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali before coming close to taking his first WorldTour win with a second-place finish behind Fernando Gaviria on a stage at the Tour of Poland. He went on to land on the podium at the under-23 road race at Flanders Worlds, and then scored a pair of 2.1-rated stage wins at the Cro Race and an impressive one-day podium in Italy at the Gran Piemonte.

That last result was a particularly impressive one for the Dutch up-and-comer, considering he crashed 20km from the finish and suffered scrapes and bruises bad enough that he would later need stitches.

With only nine race days under his belt so far this year, Kooij has already registered two runner-up rides in WorldTour races, finishing second behind Jasper Philipsen on stage 5 of the UAE Tour. Wout van Aert’s presence at Jumbo-Visma means that Kooij won’t be the first option for fast finishes in most of the biggest races of the year, but it also means that he can develop and learn at his own pace rather than being thrown into the deep end too quickly. So far, he has made good progress, which is hardly a surprise considering his talent and the system in which he finds himself, riding for a Jumbo-Visma team that has helped Jonas Vingegaard emerge as one of cycling’s brightest young stars over the past year.

With his recent run of strong showings, Kooij knows that he is in form to contend for a first WorldTour victory.

“Considering the good legs I had, second place is a bit of a bummer,” Kooij said after stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico. “The UAE Tour had given me a lot of confidence and I wanted to go for the victory here. It’s a shame I ended up second.”

Groves has also made good progress in his first few seasons as a pro, and at BikeExchange, he also finds himself riding alongside established sprinting talent. With the versatile Michael Matthews already on the roster, the team brought in Dylan Groenewegen for this season. Groenewegen’s credentials as a four-time Tour de France stage winner put him atop the team’s sprint hierarchy, but Groves will likely see an increase the number of chances he gets this season as he continues to shine.

Groves joined Mitchelton-Scott as a stagiaire in 2019 and then joined the team as a full-time pro in 2020. The team has taken a gradual approach to giving him opportunities to nab results, but Australian fans got a glimpse of his prowess almost immediately after he made the official jump to the WorldTour as he rode to fourth at the Race Torquay, a national criterium title, and a pair of stage wins at the Herald Sun Tour in early 2020.

He has battled some injury issues, but Groves took a prologue win at the Tour of Slovakia last year to ensure that he would close out the season with at least one win on the docket.

Currently on a one-year deal with BikeExchange, he racked up a trio of top-three finishes at the Tour of Oman last month. His third-place finish on Tuesday was his best ever result in a WorldTour event.

As of yet, neither Groves nor Kooij has appeared in a Grand Tour, but with three three-week races on the calendar, those chances could be on the horizon. In the meantime, the one-week races offer prime opportunities for both of them – and for the rest of the sport’s many speedsters in the mix at the moment – to shine. Kooij and Groves are just two of the youngsters in the sprint field at Tirreno-Adriatico, with Alberto Dainese of DSM and Jordi Meeus of Bora-Hansgrohe also emerging talents worth watching.

Those four youngsters, along with stage 2 winner Merlier, Ewan, Peter Sagan, Pascal Ackermann, Nacer Bouhanni, Arnaud Démare, Elia Viviani, and Alexander Kristoff will all be on the very long list of names hoping to storm to victory on another likely sprint stage at Tirreno-Adriatico on Wednesday.

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