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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Poole

British Riders to Watch in 2021

After Opening Weekend, the cycling world was abuzz with both praise and surprise at the performances of two British riders in particular, Jake Stewart at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tom Pidcock at both Omloop and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. It was only the start for Pidcock, who subsequently finished 5th at Strade Bianche and dropped Tadej Pogačar on the final climb into Piazza del Campo. With 2020 having brought the latest British winner of a Grand Tour, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and 2021 having brought some fresh faces to the fore, this season will be a fascinating watch to see how British riders perform. Will the old guard like Geraint Thomas and Mark Cavendish come good once more? Ahead of the Monuments getting underway and in the midst of Paris-Nice, we felt it was a good time to have a look forward at what this season might bring for the British riders in the peloton.

We won't be covering every rider, but we'll be taking a look at both the prominent names and a few young riders who are beginning to make their mark. One such rider is Simon Carr, who first captured the news with victory on the final day of last year's road season. In the lumpy one-day race, Prueba Villafranca-Ordiziako Klasika, Carr won solo ahead of the likes of Winner Anacona. It was not the strongest of fields given the compact 2020 calendar, but it was a first professional victory for the Nippo Delko One Provence rider. Coming into 2021, Carr made the move to EF Education-Nippo and has started the season in fine form. Although he was not succesful in the end, his debut at Grand Prix Cycliste la Marseillaise was certainly promising. On one of the final climbs of the day and with the gorgeous back drop of the Mediterranean Sea, Tim Wellens attacked and took Simon Carr with him. Over the course of the final 40km, Carr would consistently force himself onto the offensive, but ultimately the final bunch sprint did not suit him as a rider. Nevertheless, his performance meant he was a man to watch in the coming races and he subsequently backed this up. He was very active on the final day at Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var and launched a mini-attack on the Col de la Madone, before taking an incredibly impressive 11th place at Strade Bianche. Carr is scheduled to ride Tirreno-Adriatico this week and will certainly be a man to watch once more. He is riding in support of teammate Sergio Higuita and should be the Colombian's main lieutenant on the mountain stages, an exciting opportunity for the 22 year old.

Simon Carr was mightily impressive at Strade Bianche and surpassed all expectations in finishing 11th. © Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The British-born neo-pro is not the only exciting young Brit at EF Education-Nippo, with the American outfit also playing home to Preston's Hugh Carthy. The 26 year old enjoyed a breakthrough season last year, finishing on the podium at La Vuelta a España and only 1'15" down on race winner, Primož Roglič. His defining moment as a professional came on stage 12's mountaintop finish on Alto de l'Angliru, where he dropped all of the race favourites and snatched his biggest victory to date. It was a blockbuster performance and was followed up by a solid 4th place in the individual time trial that set up his comfortable finish on the podium. Still he was not settled and on the penultimate day he launched an attack in the closing kilometres, in an attempt to dislodge Roglič and Richard Carapaz. It was not to be, but his ambition shone through and looks to be the start of his bid to take a Grand Tour title. This ambition will lead him to the Giro d'Italia in May, where he looks set to lead the EF Education-Nippo team. Carthy has participated in three Giri d'Italia, though his latest venture in 2019 proved to be by far the most successful. He finished 11th on general classification, an impressive feat in itself, but his stage 16 performance was particularly notable. On the final climb of the day up the iconic Passo del Mortirolo, Carthy was amongst the group of favourites that included Vincenzo Nibali, Mikel Landa and eventual Giro winner, Richard Carapaz. Looking in no trouble throughout the climb (relative to his opponents that is- the climb is still bloody hard!), Carthy would finish 5th on the stage and secure an 11th placed finish overall. His season thus far has been relatively quiet on the bike, whilst his media presence has been much more sought after following his Vuelta performance. Donning the race cleats for the first time in 2021, Carthy secured a third placed finish at the Faun-Ardèche Classic and his first major race of the year should come at Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. He will have been pleased with the Giro d'Italia route announcement and could be a good outside bet to take another Grand Tour podium. Whilst Egan Bernal may enter the race as the big favourite, the chances are high that his back injury may cause him difficulty over the course of three weeks. In the absence of any overwhelming favourites, Carthy will have a great opportunity at taking the next step in his bid to win a Grand Tour.

Hugh Carthy followed in the wheel tracks of Alberto Contador in taking stage victory atop of the Angliru. © Getty Images Sport

With Simon Carr and Hugh Carthy amongst their ranks, EF Education-Nippo will be an exciting team to watch from a British perspective; that being said, no team rivals INEOS Grenadiers in their abundance of British talent. The aforementioned Tom Pidcock has begun the season in flying form and may be an outside bet to win one of the Ardennes Classics- he is scheduled to line up at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Flèche Wallone in April. At Strade Bianche he was in the first group on the road, that included two Tour de France champions, the Cyclocross World Champion, the former Cyclocross World Champion and defending champion, oh... and the current Road Race World Champion- not too bad eh.

"I was thinking like.. 'this is quite cool'... these are the biggest riders in the world basically. I'm there in the front group with those guys and it'll just take a few more races and a bit more experience and miles in the legs, and I'm sure I'll be there soon."
Tom Pidcock speaking after the conclusion of Strade Bianche

Pidcock is clearly a boy-turned-man who does not lack self confidence and as he said after the race, with a few more miles in his legs, he may well be fighting for victory at the pointy end of the Classics before we know it. Following his debut in the Ardennes, his season takes an exciting turn as he focuses on the off-road racing prior to the Olympic Games. All being well, Pidcock will have a chance at medalling in Tokyo and will return to his road bike for the Vuelta a España towards the backend of the year. It will be his debut Grand Tour and expectation has already been simmered by the INEOS staff, who insist it will just be a learning experience for the young Yorkshireman, as it should be.

Joining the 'Little Big Man' (thanks for that, L'Équipe) at the Vuelta is scheduled to be fellow new Grenadier, Adam Yates. The Lancastrian has started life on his new team in fine fashion with a dazzling display at the UAE Tour. Despite a frankly horrifying crash on the final day, Yates managed to secure 2nd place overall and his performance on stage 3's summit finish at Jebel Hafeet was incredibly promising for the season ahead. With 5.1km to go until the finish, Dani Martínez pulled off from the front group of favourites, drawing Tadej Pogačar to the fore. Reluctant to work in his position as race leader, Pogačar followed Martínez in peeling away, opening up the road for a Sep Kuss attack. At this point, Yates jumped on the American's wheel and after 800m of to-and-fro between the trio, the Lancastrian attacked and set the scene for the remainder of the climb. He made an initial gap which served as a hammer blow to the hopes of Kuss, whilst Pogačar closed the gap after a nervy few seconds. For the final 4km of the climb, Yates would persistently attack the reigning Tour de France champion and certainly had him in difficulty on more than one occasion. Although it was not to be for Yates, with Pogačar having mastered the sprint finish in the preceding months of training, he and his team could not have hoped for better in his first race as a Grenadier. Apart from the Vuelta, his race calendar remains unclear, but it has been made clear that his season will be built around coming into Spain in the finest possible condition to mount a GC push. He wore the maillot jeune for four days at last year's Tour de France and finished 9th overall. Although his GC challenges have not gone to plan over the past few years, Adam Yates has the pedigree to challenge for the Vuelta title and one only needs to look back to 2016 to see how big his potential truly is, where he finished a remarkable 4th overall, missing out on the podium by only 21 seconds.

Will 2021 be the year that Adam Yates turns Grand Tour top-10s into genuine assaults on the overall victory? © Tim de Waele

In the absence of Adam Yates at this year's Tour de France, three Brits in particular will be looking to shine, with all three being in different stages of their career. Tao Geoghegan Hart will be making his debut at the Grand Boucle, whilst Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome are nearing their final years as professionals. Despite this, Thomas looks a serious contender for victory in Paris, whilst Froome sadly looks like a shell of his former self- which is no surprise given his 2019 career-threatening crash.

"Given the time trialling, the nature of the climbing, the first week and the crosswinds, that element lends itself well to his skills and atrributes. On paper: it's a great Tour for Geraint."
Dave Brailsford has thrown his weight behind Geraint Thomas as the INEOS Grenadiers team leader at the Tour.

Tao Geoghegan Hart is currently competing at Paris-Nice and at the time of writing, he sits 38 seconds down on pre-race favourite Primož Roglič. It will be an important week for Tao as he builds towards the Tour de France. He will not enter the race as team leader, with Dave Brailsford already committing Geraint Thomas as their chosen man come June, but it is yet to be decided where he will rank amongst the pecking order, with 2019 Giro d'Italia champion Richard Carapaz also taking the start line as a Grenadier. One would expect Carapaz and Geoghegan Hart to be on similar footing in France, so as Brailsford regularly quips, their fate shall be decided out on the road. With both of these riders in support, alongside Rohan Dennis, Richie Porte and Luke Rowe- who will no doubt provide another excellent season in the support of his teammates- Thomas will start the Tour as one of the clear favourites (if everything goes to plan over the coming months). Last year can be chalked off as an anomaly for the Welshman and he certainly showed the form at the beginning of the Giro d'Italia to bid for overall victory, prior to his unfortunate crash at the whims of a bidon. With that in mind, his 2018 and 2019 Tour de France performances- 1st and 2nd respectively- will serve as great motivation for Thomas to give it all he's got at winning the Tour de France once again.

Meanwhile, Chris Froome looks some way off even competing for a stage victory in France, never mind taking a fifth victory overall. It pains us to say, but it looks as though a return to his former glory is just a simple fairytale, not something that could happen in reality. Despite their persistent statements that he will aim to win the Tour in July, Israel Start-Up Nation's staff have been consistently reluctant to give strong support to Froome when addressing the issue in the press. Their rhetoric has very much been one of hope, rather than one of conviction that Froome can return to his former best. This is unsurprising given his return to racing over the past year, and his big-money signing for Israel Start-Up Nation, is already looking like an expensive mistake for the team (though admittedly they are rewarded by the press coverage). 'Froomey' barely laid a glove on last year's Vuelta a España and his UAE Tour performance was mediocre, to say the least. Losing 38 seconds to Adam Yates on a flat time trial is not a good sign for the season to come, with Cherie Pridham (Israel Start-Up Nation's newest DS) stating that Froome's injury rehab is '99% complete'. I hope I am not too scathing of Froome, and I'd like it to be known that this disappointment is coming from a position of admiration. I would love nothing more than to see Froome have another shot at winning the Tour de France, but it is saddening to see the 2019 crash ruining the final years of his career. Overall victory may look off the cards at this point, but it would be fantastic to see Froome challenging for a stage victory this summer in France. We can but hope.

In contrast, whilst the rejuvenation of Chris Froome has some way to go, the comeback of Mark Cavendish seems well and truly on. Last Sunday brought excitement not only for the start of Paris-Nice, but for the 2nd place finish achieved by the Manxman at Grote prijs Jean-Pierre Monseré. 'Cav' had looked great at Le Samyn last week, only to falter in the final kilometre, but these problems were solved at the weekend and he was only bettered by the in-form Tim Merlier, who stormed to victory. Taking his first podium finish since the 2019 Tour of Turkey, Cavendish did not even get out of his saddle for the sprint, recognising that Merlier had bolted at the perfect moment and opened an unassailable gap. Nevertheless, Cavendish comfortably took his first 2nd place finish since 2018 and showed that his move to Deceuninck-Quick Step has revitalised his career. After suffering through 2020 amid a severe lack of race days, Cavendish's career looked dead and buried until he was thrown a lifeline by Patrick Lefevere. Joining Quick Step has clearly brought the spark back for the Manx Missile and whilst there are seemingly no plans to take him to the Tour de France, he is already looking a brilliant asset to the squad in one-day races. He will be a priceless teammate for young sprinters such as Fabio Jakobsen and Sam Bennett (who is not so young, mind), who will no doubt be delighted to serve alongside the greatest sprinter of all time. That being said, his performances thus far in the 'Wolfpack' (*cringe*) have been surprisingly promising and wouldn't it be lovely to see him cross the finish line first once again?

Mark Cavendish looked in fine nick at Le Samyn, with the Manx Missile often finding himself at the head of proceedings. It bodes well for the year ahead. © Getty Images Sport

Moving from one generation to the next, it is time to talk about one of the revelations of the season to date, Jake Stewart. The young Brit at Groupama-FDJ, only the third in their history (after Max Sciandri and Bradley Wiggins), has enjoyed a fantastic start to the season and looks set for big things in the not so distant future. Surprising almost everyone, including himself, Stewart left the Etoile de Bessèges with the youth classification and a 4th place finish on GC, alongside a tremendous 10th place on the final day time trial. Serving as his "Achilles heel" throughout his junior career, the time trial is not a discipline that Stewart expected to perform so well in, but it went to show his great form that the Coventry-born rider has taken into this year. Speaking to The Tour de Greaves Cycling Show ahead of Opening Weekend, Stewart appeared relaxed as he said, "I'm just excited to get stuck in". He cheekily quipped that he "probably won't make it to the finish", following his work for team leaders Arnaud Démare and Stefan Küng. Make it to the finish and get stuck in he did... Stewart walked away from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with a tremendous 2nd placed finish behind early season hotshot, Davide Ballerini. We mustn't let ourselves get carried away with Stewart's surprise opportunity at Omloop and place ridiculous expectations on the young man, it is clear that this season will be a learning curve for the Groupama-FDJ rider. His current race calendar sees him continuing to participate in the Spring Classics, with Ronde van Vlaanderen serving as the headline race in his schedule. Alongside the Ronde, Stewart will also be taking the start line of Gent-Wevelgem, a race at which he made his Groupama-FDJ (WorldTour) debut last season. Although he was initially scheduled to stay in the team's Continental outfit until the end of the year, Stewart was promoted to the WorldTeam mid-season, raising eyebrows and acclaim amongst the British cycling press. It turned out to be a rewarding experience for Stewart as he took a top-20 finish at last year's Scheldeprijs. We will certainly be keeping an eye on Jake over the coming season and it is fantastic to see yet another Dave Rayner Fund-supported rider achieving success on the continent. The Rayner Foundation was understandably exuberant with Stewart's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad result, given that the youngster has won the past two Dave Rayner Fund rider of the year awards. Here's hoping his good legs continue into the Spring and perhaps we will even see another surprise result for Stewart before long...

"More than anything, this year is a learning experience for me."
Jake Stewart spoke of learning the ins and outs of the Classics in his recent conversation with Andrew Greaves

Jake Stewart was not the only British rider to impress at Etoile de Bessèges, with Owain Doull and Ethan Hayter also placing in the top-10 on the final day time trial. Doull has been a solid professional for INEOS for a few years now and will seemingly always have an important slot in their Classics squad, whilst Hayter's time trial was particularly notable. The 22 year old sprinter beat his more experienced teammate Geraint Thomas by 37 seconds, a remarkable result given that Thomas is a former British National Time Trial champion. Despite crashing in the final couple of kilometres and ruling him out of the final sprint, Hayter impressed at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and had looked set to compete for victory on the day. He will be looking to take at least one victory this season for INEOS Grenadiers and he vocalised this belief to Cycling Weekly last week. After going close in multiple Italian races prior, Hayter achieved his first professional victory last season at the Giro dell’Appennino one-day race. It would have been intriguing to see how Hayter fared in the final sprint at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, but there is no point dwelling on the past and instead we look forward to his performances later in the season. He is down to start Danilith Nokere Koerse in a week's time, where he will compete against the aforementioned Mark Cavendish and Jake Stewart.

Jake Stewart, on the left of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad podium, will be lining up against Mark Cavendish and Ethan Hayter at next week's Danilith Nokere Koerse. © Getty Images

Before we come to the closing kilometres of this article, let us also mention a few more young Brits looking to make their mark on the 2021 cycling season. First up is a man who has arguably already left his initial mark, Matthew Walls, having taken two top-10 finishes at the Tour de la Provence. After impressing on the opening day and finishing 5th, Walls wore the young rider's jersey on stage 2. It was only his first race as a neo-pro and he bookended the week with 7th place in the final day's bunch sprint.

Matthew Walls looking chuffed with his young rider's jersey after his first day of racing as a neo-pro. © Bettini Photo

Also hoping to make their mark on the season will be two youngsters very much different from Walls. Whilst the young Bora-Hansgrohe rider has a future in sprinting, James Knox and Mark Donovan will be hoping to display their magic on the climbs- unsurprising seen as both riders hail from the Lake District. Donovan, born in Penrith, will be looking to build on an exciting 2020 that saw him announce himself at the Vuelta a España. Having taken two top-5 finishes in his maiden Grand Tour, Donovan appears to have the potential to climb amongst the best as his career progresses. His race calendar remains unclear, but Team DSM will take belief from an impressive junior career that saw him finish 11th at the 2018 Tour de l'Avenir. Ahead of Donovan at the acclaimed race were the likes of Aleksandr Vlasov, Iván Sosa and race winner, Tadej Pogačar. On the other hand, Kendal-born James Knox has by now established himself as one of Deceuninck- Quick Step's most dependent lieutenants in the mountains. He performed admirably in the service of João Almeida at last year's Giro d'Italia, with the Portuguese rider spending an astonishing 15 days in the maglia rosa. Prior to this, Knox had been sitting in 8th position overall at the 2019 Vuelta a España, until a late race slump resulted in a commendable 11th placed finish. The 25 year old Brit shone brightly at the recent Trofeo Laigueglia one-day race in Italy, finishing 7th amongst an elite group of Grand Tour contenders. This year he will once more go to the Giro d'Italia and no doubt play a part in the success of his team leaders, Almeida and Remco Evenepoel. Hopefully he will not receive too great a burden and may be allowed to float himself towards the top-10 of the general classification. Who knows, perhaps he will be nominated as the team's secondary leader, given the long road back from injury suffered by Evenepoel.

Joining James Knox at the Giro d'Italia will be Simon Yates, with the Lancastrian going in search of long-awaited redemption for his 2018 Giro collapse. Although the race was an incredible high in the blossoming career of Yates, the relinquishment of the maglia rosa on stage 19 will live long in the memory, as he succumbed to the historic onslaught of Chris Froome.

“The last two or three years haven’t gone as I would have hoped with a combination of bad luck and some mistakes along the way. All I hope for is to have a clean run in 2021 without these things and that I can show myself in the best way possible.”
Simon Yates looks to take his second Grand Tour title this season

Leading up to the Giro d'Italia, Yates will be racing an entirely Italian race calendar, including Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Alps. This build-up began at last weekend's Strade Bianche, where Yates made his debut at the race many are now dubbing the 'sixth Monument'. Although he suffered a crash and came home in 63rd place, it will have provided invaluable experience for the 2018 Vuelta a España champion, with stage 11 of this year's Giro including 34km of gravel roads, akin to the 2010 stage which provided scenes for the ages as Cadel Evans triumphed in the mud. This year's Giro route suits Yates to a tee, with only 38.4km of time trialling, offset by six major mountaintop finishes, of which he dominated in 2018 en route to taking three stage victories. This week's Tirreno-Adriatico will be fascinating to watch, with Team BikeExchange's Head Sport Director, Matt White, insistent that Yates will be aiming to retain his overall title that he won ahead of Geraint Thomas last year. Should Yates enter the Giro d'Italia without any lasting legacy from his Strade Bianche crash, he will surely be one of the favourites to win the race that he was forced to leave last year, after contracting COVID-19. For Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and Simon Yates, perhaps 2021 will be the year of redemption.

Simon Yates made his debut at Strade Bianche last weekend, suffering a crash for his troubles. © Team BikeExchange

Finally, I would be remiss to conclude this piece without mentioning our very own British rider on the continent- Charlie Paige. Last month we announced the Team U Cube 17 rider as our latest contributor to the website and he has already penned a couple of intriguing articles for us- thanks Charlie. This road season will be Charlie's second in France and he will be looking to kick on after a successful season that saw him sign a contract renewal with the French National Division 1 team. Just like Jake Stewart, and Adam Yates before him, Charlie is generously supported by the Rayner Foundation and is forging his path to becoming a professional on the continent. We urge you to follow his progress this season and we are looking forward to reading many more articles from the proud Lancastrian over the coming months!

Charlie riding at Essor Basque as his season kicks into gear. © DirectVelo

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