Esteban Chaves, Moreno Hofland and Rohan Dennis wear the leaders’ jerseys in a race. A glimpse of the future? No, it’s a scene from the past: the 2011 Tour de l’Avenir. The race is on this week. There are several stage races for U-23 riders that matter but none more so than this one. It’s length, international field and mountainous profile make it an essential rendez-vous. If it didn’t exist we’d have to invent it.
A History of the Future
The race was started in 1961 by L’Equipe and more specifically Jacques Goddet. Often seen as a stern type from the old school, Goddet was an innovator and if this piece is about a new race, remember he renewed Paris-Roubaix with the innovation of cobbles around the same time too. Goddet told cycling journalist Jacques Marchand to make a race for amateurs that was open to all.
For years sport was split between amateurs and professionals and only amateurs could compete at the Olympics. It was a clear distinction, just look at a licence, but a false label. If riders behind the Iron Curtain were forbidden for dogmatic and economic reasons from joining a professional team, there was nothing amateur about their support. These amateurs were full-time riders with a support entourage and often enjoyed privileged positions in society, making them more equal than others back in their communist home countries. They enjoyed their own calendar with stage races such as The Peace Race and Goddet wanted to invite their best to France. Only it wasn’t easy for the politics, admin… and the mountains. As Marchand told L’Equipe, the eastern Europeans “were brilliant rouleurs but as soon as the road rose up they vanished.” Despite political tensions it was a moment for exchange with Marchand telling how he’d eat caviar for a week as the Russians brought goods in exchange for products they could not find at home.
But the format has never been settled. At first it was for amateurs and run simultaneous to the Tour de France, a few hours before the pros raced. By the late 1960s it was separate and held in September. It became the Grand Prix de l’Avenir in 1970, the Trophée Peugeot de l’Avenir from 1972 to 1979 and the Tour de la Communauté Européenne from 1986 to 1990. Nevermind the name changes, it was restricted to amateurs from 1961 to 1980, before opening to professionals in 1981. After 1992, it was open to all riders of less than 25 including top level pros and is now for U-23 riders racing for national teams. Perhaps the format was appropriate for each era as today’s race seems to offer the perfect chance for the best U-23 riders to compete and it’s part of the UCI’s Coupe des Nations (“nations cup”) series. Indeed if it didn’t exist you’d have to invent it.
There’s the Giro della Valle d’Aosta which has been see the likes of Fabio Aru, Thibaut Pinot and Dan Martin shine in recent years; the Ronde de l’Isard in the Pyrenees and sadly the now defunct Giro Bio. Finding a mountainous stage race with an international field is not easy. The Tour de France’s ASO had run this race but surrendered it to Alpes Vélo in 2012 but continues to support it with staffing. As the owner’s name suggests the race looks set to remain in the Alps and Eastern France but this year’s edition is unusually mountainous according to an article in L’Equipe this week. The time to get towns to sign up for the race coincided with municipal elections earlier this year and many mayors were distracted by the politicking. As a result the ski resorts, always willing for some action in summer made up a large chunk of the willing hosts.
It’s not just riders who get training. The UCI uses the race for commissaire practice and others do too whether police outriders or radio-tour operators.
Is the Tour de l’Avenir the place to spot new talent? Not really because the field is the crop of the world’s best riders on the U-23 teams. These are riders who have been busy all year in big races and made their national team. Take Julian Alaphilippe – pictured – who won a tough mountain stage last year. He was part of OPQS’s development team, on the French squad and his stage win was just a small step on a steady path to the pro peloton.
There are few discoveries but the race can reveal climbing ability and other attributes such as recovery. But it might be the first time you come across the names as the Tour de l’Avenir’s reputation reaches far. It’s also worth noting the race is not as always as selective as the bigger pro races. Today’s stage is a big one but typically the summit finishes are shorter, 5-10km instead of 10-20km long.
Yes the photo at the top is a glimpse of the future but it was taken mid-race in 2011. It’s suggestive of the future in largely because we recognise the riders. But the recognition is only because of hindsight, it’s only thanks to more recent performances that we know Chaves, Hofland and Dennis. Chaves would go on to take the yellow jersey and the mountains jersey went to Garikoitz Bravo, a rider who has yet to make a name for himself and rides for Portuguese UCI Continental team Efapel-Glassdrive.
For every star of the future there are plenty who vanish. Many winning amateurs go on to be competent rider but not a team leader. The hard part is to see if the Tour de l’Avenir is the summit of a career or just an intermediate point on a longer climb to the top. As such the Tour de l’Avenir is really about the present day, it’s hard to call who will go on to triumph and who will fade into obscurity. Take your pick of champions and domestiques from the table below:
Only four winners have gone on to win the Tour de France: Felice Gimondi, Joop Zoetemelk, Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain. Laurent Fignon did win too but this was when the race was the Tour of the European Community and for pros of all ages.
The format and name has changed over the years and the current version seems ideal for the calendar. A vital race but these days talent detection starts early and there are few surprises, if a rider can make their national team then they’re already on the radar for teams, agents, journalists and more. Scan the results this year and many will go on to have illustrious careers but working out which ones will succeed and which ones will fade is for the future to decide.