Features Insight

U23s: ten men to watch in 2021

Our selection of ten British male U23s to keep an eye on this season

In recent seasons we’ve seen waves of young male British riders joining the WorldTour.

Four of our 2019 under-23 riders to watch joined the pro ranks in 2020: Mark Donovan, Ethan Hayter, Charlie Quarterman and Fred Wright. They were joined that year by Ben Tulett, who jumped straight from the junior ranks to join Alpecin-Fenix, and Gabz Cullaigh, who was just a year too old to be counted as an under-23 but was nonetheless still regarded as a promising prospect by his suitors Movistar. This year, we’ve seen three of our 2020 under-23 riders to watch add their names to the list of British pros: Tom Pidcock, Jake Stewart and Matt Walls.

We’re rather late in naming our top ten this year but, as Conti team DS told us recently, for Conti-level riders and those in the under-23 ranks, it should be a backloaded season: “May is the new January”, he said.

Selecting ten riders this year has been more difficult than ever, partly because there have been so far opportunities for under-23 riders to race over the last year or so. It’s therefore been tricky to research to the form books. It’s also true to say that there is an abundance of young British talent, so much so that we could probably have filled this list two or three times over.

This list focuses on male under-23s yet to turn pro. In other words, under-23s riding at the Continental and elite levels. There isn’t an equivalent under-23 category for females but we’re working on another piece that will highlight young British women to watch too. That will be out very soon.

Lewis Askey. Photo: Groupama-FDJ Continental

Lewis Askey was our first pick for this list. Like Tom Pidcock, he’s a past junior Paris-Roubaix champion, winning the race in 2018 when he was just a first-year junior. The following year, he consolidated his position as one of the most exciting junior talents in the cycling world taking victory in the Junior Tour of Wales, the UK’s most prestigious junior stage race. The race is so often a marker for future success, with recent winners including Ben Tulett, Tom Pidcock, Fred Wright, Eddie Dunbar, and Hugh Carthy, to name but a few.

Last year, the Groupama-FDJ Continental rider put together a really solid season – his first as an under-23 – despite the interrupted race schedule. This included an attacking display in Le Samyn early in the season, and 10th in the U23 Paris-Tours towards the end of the year. In between times, he rode two of the toughest U23 stage races around: the Baby Giro – where he put in a fine display of teamwork – and the Ronde de L’Isard.

And this season, the Rayner Foundation-supported rider is already showing why he is future pro material. At the time of writing, three of his five race appearances have been for Groupama-FDJ’s WorldTour team – and he’s performed with aplomb – suggesting they believe he’s accomplished enough already to race in cycling’s top echelon. And once he gets the opportunity to race for himself this season, we’re sure he has the ability to grab some top results. We’re following Lewis’ progress this season on our podcast, and you can listen to our first chat with him here.

Jim Brown. Photo: HughMcManus | Canyon dhb SunGod

Third-year under-23 Jim Brown has switched to Canyon dhb SunGod this season after stop-start 2020 with French elite team CC Étupes. In our minds, Jim is one of the most under-rated young British riders around. He dreams of winning Roubaix one day but after a difficult first two years at the under-23 level, the Yorkshireman hasn’t yet had the opportunity to show his full potential.  

As a junior, Brown got plenty of top results without ever quite grabbing a big win. In 2018, for example, he was 2nd in the Keizer der Juniores, 4th in the E3 Harelbeke, 6th in the Guido Reybrouck and 7th in Gent-Wevelgem. A fine tally, especially considering that more often than not he was up against Remco Evenepoel that year. As an under-23, however, it feels like he hasn’t yet had the chance to get going. He spent his first year at the Great Britain Cycling Team Senior Academy but, as explains in our podcast interview with him, his season was interrupted by injury. He did however finish the year strongly, riding the Tour de l’Avenir (where he grabbed a top 10 on stage 4) and then being part of an impressively-drilled Great Britain team at the Tour of Britain that catapulted Matt Walls to some top sprint results.

2020 was a solid year, despite the interruptions, with Brown picking up a number of podium and top ten finishes in France. But the sprinter-cum-classics rider is hoping that this year is the one when he begins to get his first breakthrough results as an under-23.

Sam Culverwell. Photo: Trinity Racing

Like Jim Brown, Sam Culverwell is another rider that was on our 2020 list of under-23s to watch. He is a rider we championed in 2019 after a string of top results in his first senior year. At just 18 years old, a virtual unknown at the beginning of 2019, he capped an incredible first half of the season with 12th place in the National Road Championships men’s road race. That result had been preceded by no less than three National B race wins. The second half of the year was even better. Riding pretty much as a solo rider, he finished 6th in the South Coast Classic, 9th at the Ryedale Grand Prix and 2nd at the Bourne CiCLE Classic. He then finished his season with a stint in Belgium, winning two kermesses races and finishing 2nd in two others.

I’d say I am suited to lumpy, punchy courses. I’m definitely not a mountain goat! 

Sam Culverwell

Last season he joined Trinity Racing but the lack of racing meant he had little opportunity to build on his impressive 2019. He did, however, put in a solid if unspectacular ride at the Ronde de l’Isard on the kind of mountainous terrain that he isn’t terribly suited to: “I’m definitely not a mountain goat! “, he told us when we interviewed him.

He remains relatively inexperienced when it comes to international racing, although wins in Belgian kermesses in 2019 suggest he’ll be no shrinking violet when it comes to some of Europe’s tougher races. Hopefully this season he’ll have many more opportunities to show what he is capable of, particularly now that he’s in a Trinity Racing set-up that is longer concentrated on the tour de force that is Tom Pidcock.

Tom Gloag. Photo: Trinity Racing

Another Trinity Racing rider, Tom Gloag, was an obvious pick for us this year. Of all the British under-23s last season, his performances were by far the most impressive, Tom Pidcock not withstanding. Despite riding in the service of Pidcock at the fearsome Baby Giro, he finished 14th overall, including two top 10 finishes on the toughest two stages of the race. He then topped his season off by finishing 7th on Spain’s biggest amateur one day race, the Memorial Valenciaga.

The fact I had been able to stay with Tom for so long on the climb felt more significant than the final result for me

Tom Gloag

He’s yet another rider from the long list of talented graduates from the VC Londres factory (which already includes Ethan and Leo Hayter, Fred Wright and Jacob Vaughan, to name but a few). When we asked our former journal-writer George Jary (also a VC Londres graduate) about him, he said, “Tom is pure passion on a bike. A style reminiscent of Dan Martin, not scared to go long and a hunger to race. Never phased by setbacks Tom gets on with it and gets stuck in.”

As a junior, he took a stage win and finished second overall at the Kingdom Junior Classic, was third overall at the Sint-Martinusprijs Kontich Juniors stage race, and also took wins in the Spanish junior one-day races Zumarraga and Torneo Euskal Herria. He then capped the year off with a stage win in the Junior Tour of Wales (a race in which he also completely stuffed up him start in the time trial, losing nine and a half minutes in the process – a tale he recounts on our recent podcast interview with him). He’s spent his off-season in Colombia, racing and training with Esteban Chaves. If Chaves’ form at the Volta Catalunya is anything to go by, Gloag could be on course for another stellar season.

Leo Hayter. Photo: Team DSM

So much more than ‘Ethan Hayter‘s younger brother’, Leo Hayter is an incredibly strong and talented rider in his own right. There are certainly many similarities between the two, but as we highlighted in our recent interview with him, Hayter Jr. is very much forging his own path. He turned down the opportunity to join the GB Senior Academy as he stepped up to the under-23 level in 2020, instead opting for Development Team Sunweb (now Development Team DSM). Already proving himself to be a strong climber, he’s now focused on developing himself into a GC rider.

I think in terms of raw power – and this sounds a bit cocky – but I feel like I’ve got what it takes to be a pro rider. But I know there’s a lot more to it than that

Leo Hayter interview

Last year the Rayner Foundation rider showed flashes of his GC promise, despite the curtailed season. Despite not being fully fit, he took 12th overall at one of the biggest under-23 stage races of the year, the Ronde de l’Isard. In the process, he finished 8th on the mountainous stage 2 before helping the team to team time trial victory on stage 3. He was 4th overall going into the final day, only to slip down to 12th on a tough last stage.

He tells us he’s putting in some impressive power numbers already but still thinks there is work to do on his race craft – particularly his descending skills – before he can begin to think about turning pro. He’s not had the start to the season he had been hoping for but there are plenty of opportunities yet for the 19-year-old to pick up the kind of results which would confirm him as one of a new generation of Brits heading for cycling’s elite.

Mason Hollyman (right). Photo: Noa Arnon

Mason Hollyman has joined the Israel Cycling Academy development team this year after three years with the Zappi racing set-up. If all goes to plan, the move will give the 20-year-old the opportunity to guest with the WorldTour team in pro races this season, a significant step towards making his pro dreams a reality. He’s already started the season positively, finishing just outside the top ten in Italy’s prestigious under-23 race, the Trofeo PIVA.

The Rayner Foundation rider is a climber by trade, a talent that was already apparent during his junior days. He won a stage of the Giro di Basilicata in his first junior season. The following year, 2018, he was third overall at the Junior Tour of the Basque Country (won by Ineos Grenadiers’ neo-pro Carlos Rodriguez), fourth overall at the Junior Tour of Wales and won the Junior National Road Series to boot.

A successful season would be podiuming at a UCI stage race and winning either a stage or one-day race

Mason Hollyman

In 2019, he quickly adjusted to the step up to the under-23 ranks. His early-season results included 16th at the Trofeo PIVA (1.2U) and 12th GP Palio del Recioto (1.2U). He then claimed 20th overall in the Baby Giro (and 7th in the race’s youth classification), a fine way to start his under-23 stage racing career. Last year was disrupted but, despite disappointment at Baby Giro, he still came away with a ninth overall at the Tour of Bulgaria (2.2), and broke the British Everesting record in June (since bettered). Read our interview with Mason here.

Jacob Vaughan (right), riding for his new CC Étupes team earlier this year

‘Make or break’ is an overused phrase in sporting discourse but it’s one that seems apt for Jacob Vaughan this season. He’s now in his final year as an under-23, the point in a young rider’s career where the pressure to clinch a pro contract increases.

As a top junior, he won the British junior road race championships and the Guido Reybrouck Classic, as well as picking up plenty of other impressive results. That earned him a spot on Lotto Soudal’s under-23 team. But he endured a tough year out in Belgium, so he took the opportunity to return to the UK when Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes came calling. His 2019 started well. Very well. He won the Perfs Pedal road race, was second in the Severn Bridge road race behind teammate Alex Richardson, and then picked up 10th and 11th places respectively in two early-season pro kermesse races. But illness and bad luck meant he struggled to find form after that and his season ended early due to a bad crash.

I felt I needed to take this step to enjoy racing my bike again and prove to myself and others I can win and get good results

Jacob Vaughan

Last year he returned to Belgium with the Indulek-Doltcini-Derito team where the expectation was that would get plenty of opportunities to race for himself in UCI and top U23 races. Again his season started promisingly. He was the highest-placed Brit in the Ster van Zwolle in his first race of the season and then won the Lierde kermesse race. But Covid then promptly scuppered his season.

He’s now at top French amateur team CC Étupes (Adam Yates’ former team). We understand he is more motivated than ever, and has the backing of the team to boot. Unfortunately, however, he’s once again suffered a setback this time with a back injury that has left him out of action for seven weeks. He’s back in training as we write though. He should get an excellent race programme at CC Étupes, so with a clear run, he could yet get the opportunities – and results – he needs to prove his potential.

2020 UEC European Track Championships – Kolodruma, Plovdiv, Bulgaria – Great Britain’s Ethan Vernon wins Silver in the Men’s 1km Time Trial final. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

2021 could be a big year for Ethan Vernon. While most domestic riders had their seasons derailed by Covid-19 in 2020, Ethan had plenty to keep him motivated after a call-up in April to British Cycling’s Olympic squad. He was therefore able to use his time during lockdown to hone his track form. It seems the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics may just work in the favour of the rider who, as a junior, once held the best individual pursuit time in the world.

Whilst the track might be his main focus for now, Vernon has also demonstrated equally prodigious talent on the road. In 2019, his first season as under-23, he finished 2nd in the prologue in the Course de la Paix Nations Cup race in early June and then picked up a bronze later than month in the under-23 time trial at the National Road Championships, behind super-talents Ethan Hayter and Charlie Quarterman. This despite little in the way of specific preparation. He also bagged three wins, all from small group sprint finishes, in Belgium kermesses before becoming a key part of Matt Wall’s lead-out train at the Tour of Britain. His results were strong enough to gain selection to ride the under-23 time trial at the world road race championships, where he finished a creditable 21st.

Post-Olympics I’d love to spend some time on the road and explore that avenue. I’ll still only be a third-year under-23 after Tokyo, so there will still be plenty of time to learn and get race experience in the under-23 category

Ethan Vernon

Whilst he is now on the Olympic programme, he’ll still be racing on the road with the GB Senior Academy. It’s not clear yet how soon we’ll see Vernon racing on the road – and whether his track focus will hold back his road form – but we are sure nonetheless that he has a bright future on the road longer-term.

Sam Watson, 2020 European Road Championships – U23 Men’s Road Race, Plouay, Brittany, France. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

In road racing terms it’s been a barren time for riders in the GB Cycling Team Senior Academy. The squad is brimming with talent and yet they only had two UCI road race opportunities in the whole of 2020. No sooner had they got their season underway at the Dorpenomloop Rucphen in March than the season halted. After that, their solitary outing was the European Road Championships in Plouay. This year should see the men’s squad back in action far more frequently, and one rider we’re particularly looking forward to keeping an eye on is Sam Watson.

The Pidcock family were a massive help, they basically taught me everything about cycling I needed to know

Sam Watson

Sam is a Yorkshireman with close ties to the Pidcock family. One of the best juniors around when he was (ever-so-slightly) younger. In 2019, he won the UCI Guido Reybrouck Classic race (a race won by Jacob Vaughan in 2017) and finished 3rd in the junior Gent – Wevelgem. Other top results that year included a win in the Junior CiCLE Classic, a stage victory in the Junior Tour of Wales and third overall in the UCI stage race, Keizer der Juniors. And despite crashing out of two big targets – the junior Paris-Roubaix and the junior national road race championships – his results were strong enough for our friends over at First Cycling to rank him 5th in the world in their junior rankings that season.

Sam is now in his second year at under-23 level, and although he has had very few opportunities to race on the road, insiders tell us he is in very good shape and should be set for some good results this year.

Harrison Wood. Photo: SEG Racing Academy

SEG Racing Academy is arguably the most successful development team around. They are regular winners at the under-23 level and have helped numerous riders onto the WorldTour. This season they have added Brits Tom Day and Sean Flynn. But it’s their third Brit, Harrison Wood, who we think will be one to watch in particular this year. Ambitious and relatively new to competitive cycling (he’s only been riding seriously for four years), he has plenty of room to develop.

I’m an all-rounder with specific strengths in climbing and time trialling. I’m not much of a bunch sprinter at all but I can win from select small group finishes, which I think is a handy asset to have

Harrison Wood

Wood spent his first season as an under-23 – back in 2019 – in France at AVC Aix-en-Provence. Starting on their reserve team, he quickly impressed, winning a stage of La Multipôle de l’Étang de Berre. In June he was second overall at the Spanish stage race Volta a Castelló. He backed that up with 10th in the under-23 time trial at the national road championships. He rounded out the year with 9th in the under-23 Chrono Nations to underline his ability to time trial as well as climb.

Last season, he had a relatively big racing programme considering the short season, participating in the Baby Giro and Ronde de l’Isard, amongst other races. As you’ll hear in our forthcoming Baby Giro diaries podcast episode, sickness held him back in that race but he recovered somewhat to finish 27th overall at l’Isard and will no doubt be looking to build on that foundation in 2021. He’s certainly started well, finishing 8th in his first race of the season, the Rhodes GP.

Honourable mentions

As ever, this was a tremendously difficult list to decide on. Without being exhaustive, some of the many other riders we considered included our former journal contributor Joe Laverick (Hagens Berman Axeon), Oscar Onley (Development Team DSM), Isaac Peatfield (Crimson Performance Orientation Marketing), Joe Pidcock (Groupama-FDJ Continental), Oliver Knight and George Mills-Keeling (AVC Aix-en-Provence), Rhys Britton and Oscar Nilsson-Julien (and pretty much all of the Great Britain Cycling Team Senior Academy), Dan Tulett and Callum MacLeod (Canyon dhb SunGod), Tom Day (SEG Racing) and Tom Portsmouth (Carbonbike Discar Academy).