‘I’m going to get my head kicked in’: Meet the neo-pros about to embark on their debut Classics campaigns

A number of young riders will fulfill a career ambition as they get their first taste of the Classics this spring

Making your debut at the spring Classics gets one box ticked off many riders’ bucket lists. Whether that’s Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders or Liège, these are the sorts of races that it’s an achievement to have even taken part in, let alone win.

A number of exciting young riders will be making their first appearances in these prestigious races over the next few months, harbouring dreams of maybe one day taking home a Monument victory. For now, though, it will all be about getting to grips with some of the toughest bike races on the planet.

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Gabriel Cullaigh

Gabriel Cullaigh at the Tour Down Under 2020 (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

A product of Wiggins-Le Col, Gabriel Cullaigh begins life in the WorldTour as the sole Brit at Movistar, having signed a two-year deal.

The 23-year-old has won three stages over the past two years at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal, while also finishing in the top 10 on two stages of the Tour de Yorkshire, as well as sealing 16th in the GC.

Movistar describe Cullaigh as a “great rouleur”, and the Huddersfield-born rider says his career ambition is to focus on the Classics. The Spanish squad, who are more known for targeting Grand Tour victories, will likely give him the space to do so.

“Movistar’s perfect for me, I’ll go in there and hopefully get the races I like which are the Classics and with guys like Jurgen Roelandts and Alejandro Valverde, that’s experience enough for me, and then I’ll also learn enough on my own, the hard way,” Cullaigh told Cycling Weekly at the Tour of Britain last year after his transfer had been announced.

His Wiggins-Le Col sports director at that time, Simon Cope, is one person in the sport who sees a bright future for his rider, saying: “I’d like to see Gabs winning Classics, eventually.”

Cullaigh will be on the start line for the opening weekend in Belgium on February 29, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day.

Mikkel Bjerg

Mikkel Bjerg at the Volta ao Algarve 2020 (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Through torrential conditions in Yorkshire at last year’s Worlds, Mikkel Bjerg sealed a third straight U23 time trial title despite being only 20 years old.

Now 21, the Dane moves up to the WorldTour with UAE Team Emirates after two seasons at Hagens Berman Axeon, the Continental Team who count Alex Dowsett, Taylor Phinney and George Bennett among their alumni.

Bjerg has already completed two stage races for his new team, the Santos Tour Down Under and the Volta ao Algarve, putting in a strong time trial performance on stage five of the Portuguese race to finish 11th, beating Geraint Thomas (Ineos) by one second.

“Mikkel will add great value to our team against the clock,” UAE Team Emirates manager Joxean Matxin said, before adding that this strength will aid the team in other areas, such as the Classics.

“He is not only a great time trial rider: he can become a very versatile cyclist, strong on the flat and on the cobbles and can also do well on the shorter climbs.”

Fred Wright

Fred Wright at the Saudi Tour 2020 (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Fred Wright secured a pro contract with Rod Ellingworth’s Bahrain-McLaren off the back of impressive stage victories at the baby Giro and the Tour de l’Avenir in 2019.

He’s by no means been given a gentle introduction to the WorldTour, Wright has been expected to get straight to work, pulling on the front of the peloton at the Saudi Tour in his first race as the bunch successfully brought back former world champion Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) who had attacked off the front.

“I think I’m pretty set on being a Classics rider,” Wright told Cycling Weekly in Saudi Arabia. “My next race will be the opening weekend in Belgium. I’m going to get my head kicked in but I should learn a lot.”

Wright will then hope he makes the team selection for some of the bigger Classics, with the team taking it step-by-step during his debut season as a pro.

Quinn Simmons

Quinn Simmons at the Tour de La Provence 2020 (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Quinn Simmons is another young rider who announced himself at the Yorkshire Worlds, storming to victory in the men’s U23 road race with a sensational breakaway victory. The 18-year-old soloed away from the peloton with 33km left to race, eventually crossing the finish line nearly a minute ahead of the next closest rider.

In 12 race days already under his belt in 2020, Simmons has achieved two top 10 finishes at the Tour de La Provence, and is expected to continue gaining experience in a full-on debut season, having been pencilled in for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Strade Bianche, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

“Trek-Segafredo’s proven ability to develop young riders and a history of success in the Classics makes this the best place for me to continue my development,” Simmons said at the time of his signing. “Over the next two years, I hope to learn as much as possible and make big steps towards the goal of one day winning Paris-Roubaix.”

Simmons is clearly ambitious but Trek-Segafredo sports director Steven de Jongh is keen to harness this potential and mould him into a future winner of a big race.

“For the moment we are not sure just how many of the classics he will do,” De Jongh told VeloNews. “This year is a learning process for Quinn and for us. We have such a good team for the Classics and every rider must earn their spot. He obviously has tremendous potential in all of the classics, but that doesn’t mean he will do them all in his first year. We just have to see how he is recovering.

“Roubaix is obviously a big objective for him, but we haven’t defined his exact schedule leading up to that. We are not sure yet if he will do Flanders for example. We don’t want him to come to Roubaix tired. Obviously, if he is recovering well and riding strongly he could do Flanders and Roubaix, but we just have to see.”

After the opening weekend in Belgium, Italy hosts Strade Bianche on March 7th and Milan-San Remo on the 21st. Then it’s back to Belgium for Gent-Wevelgem on March 29th, before the Tour of Flanders on April 5th and Paris-Roubaix a week later.