Talking Tactics: Spotting the next generation

One of my favourite things about the Vuelta is that it is so often a springboard for the sport’s up-and-coming stars, despite it being the one grand tour not to have a best young rider competition. In the last two years the Vuelta has seen Chris Froome and Dan Martin blossom into top stage racers, Marcel Kittel win his first grand tour sprint and Argos-Shimano teammate John Degenkolb elevate himself to the major leagues with five victories. So who has impressed me so far in this race who we can expect to thrive in the future? I’ve highlighted three riders here.

Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE)

Image: Vuelta website

Image: Vuelta website

Nicknamed ‘Bling’ for his liking for jewellery, 22-year-old Aussie Michael Matthews is certainly no stranger to gold. He announced his talent to the world in winning the under-23 road race at the 2010 World Championships in Melbourne the week after his 20th birthday, beating John Degenkolb and Taylor Phinney in the process.

Even as a 19-year-old teenager, he had already caught the eye that year, winning two stages at the Tour de Langkawi and recording a couple of top-five overall finishes in Oceania Tour events. In two years with Rabobank (2011-12) he continued to progress, winning stages at the Tour Down Under, Tour of Utah and Vuelta a Murcia, and placing an impressive tenth in the hilly semi-classic Brabantse Pijl. After transferring to Orica-GreenEDGE this year, he has shown strong late-season form, winning two stages and the points jersey at the recent Tour of Utah and following that up with an impressive sprint win on stage five at the Vuelta.

Nominally a sprinter – he’s quick, but not in the Kittel/Cavendish/Greipel category – Matthews seems to like the more rolling race profiles or those with uphill finishing drags such as those we have seen at both Utah and the Vuelta. It will be interesting to see how he develops. Although lacking that final gear, he’s stronger than the pure sprinters and can get over punchy climbs. He could well become a rider in the Boonen or Hushovd mould, in which case watch out for him at Milan-San Remo and the Flanders classics. Finally, he’s also good against the clock – he has twice been third in the time trial at the Australian national championships – so perhaps something like the Eneco Tour could also be a future target?

Leopold König (NetApp-Endura)

Image: Vuelta website

Image: Vuelta website

We profiled the 25-year-old Czech climber over the weekend, after he had blazed his way to victory on stage eight. That win was the icing on the cake of a break-out 2013 season which has also seen him win the queen stage at the Tour of California. Since then, he has laboured somewhat on the last two stages leading into yesterday’s rest day – finishing 29th and 20th and losing 3½ minutes to drop out of the top ten – an indication perhaps of a shortfall in the stamina required to pace himself through a three-week grand tour.

Nonetheless, he has already shown more than enough attacking panache to suggest that he can become a regular stage winner and GC contender – and perhaps one day a winner at the Ardennes classics, San Sebastian or Il Lombardia – and he may prove an attractive target for some of the bigger teams for 2015. At the very least, with NetApp-Endura a strong candidate for promotion to WorldTour status next year, this will give him more opportunities to demonstrate his ability.

Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff)

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

You may remember that Polish youngster Majka enjoyed a fantastic Giro d’Italia, pushing Carlos Betancur all the way in the young rider competition and finishing seventh overall – including three top-six placings – at the end of a notably brutal race. But did you know that this is already his third Vuelta appearance? It’s an indication of how highly regarded he is that the 23-year-old is now a veteran of four grand tours. He finished 32nd overall last year in helping Alberto Contador to overall victory, and currently stands ninth.

Majka is a good all-rounder: a tough climber and a decent time-trialist. Although he has yet to finish higher than tenth on any one stage here, he has amassed five top-12 placings and has yet to have a bad day where he loses a big chunk of time. For a young rider to perform so well in two grand tours in the same year speaks volumes about his consistency.

I’ve been impressed by his metronomic riding and am reminded of Ivan Basso insofar that he’s not an explosive climber but he is a strong one. A bit like Denis Menchov, he strikes me as the sort of rider you don’t notice for days on end who quietly rides his way into the top five. He lacks the explosiveness to be a prolific winner – he is winless so far after nearly three years as a pro – but he will most likely become a strong GC rider in his own right or a top-rate wing-man in the style of, say, Roman Kreuziger.

Honourable mentions

Tanel Kangert (Astana), age 25. Currently 14th on GC at 4:42.

Domink Nerz (BMC), age 24. 19th on GC at 6:36.

Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), age 24. 37th on GC at 25:19, 6th on stage 1, 6th in mountains classification.

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