Too Much, Too Soon?

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Imagine being World Champion aged 17 or 18? For many it’s a dream, for a few it’s a reality. But is a junior rainbow jersey worth having? It could mean pressure on a rider, a label to live up to for the rest of their career. Also to focus on the road from such an early age means missing out on other things. But increasingly it seems junior success is an indicator of a successful pro career and more than ever riders who thrive in road races are enjoying themselves in other disciplines like cyclo-cross, MTB or the track and this can only benefit them.

One hypothesis behind this piece was that the junior worlds could throw up names who inevitable fade: they struck gold once but perhaps it was a case of “too much, too soon”. Maybe they were just advanced for the U-19 category, whether physical maturity or tactical skills and it would all level out? Or worse the rider wins big and gets a sense of entitlement and expects life to be as easy in the U23 ranks and then the pros and inevitably struggles. But glance at the road race results, and those of the time trial, and there are many familiar names on the podium. Only here are the podiums from recent years:

As you can see the podiums are packed with stars of the future. Good young rider turns out to be a good senior may not be a revelation but cycling is a complicated sport where aerobic ability counts for so much but the training load, the tactics, the ascetic life and more mean that simply revealing talent at an early age is necessary but not sufficient and presumably helps explain why it takes years for a wunderkind to start winning in the World Tour, like Matej Mohorič, the junior and U23 champion who has finally won in the World Tour with a Vuelta stage win in his fourth season as a pro… even if he’s still just 22.

Mohorič on his way to a Vuelta stage win

Or for the sake of an anecdote, take Lennard Kämna, the junior TT champion in Ponferrada in 2014, who was then bronze medallist in the U23 TT the following year, the “chocolate medal” with fourth place in 2016 and this year took gold as part of Sunweb’s team time trial squad. Of course there is the element of bias in that some names don’t succeed but as the screengrabs show plenty do. Still, only one rider has won the junior world champion title and gone on to win the senior title: Greg LeMond.

Ganna, Kämna, Cavagna are all in the World Tour teams already

Another reason to leave out the junior road race is that this is a good time to be doing something else. Hopefully there’s room for study and social life already, instead the alternatives are things like track, cyclo-cross and mountain bike. Spending your formative years doing these disciplines is only going to make for a better adult road racer. The reflexes and skills learned young on the track or in woodland are harder to gain as an adult. Take your pick from the likes of Fernando Gaviria (2012 track world champion ), Peter Sagan (MTB world champion), Mathieu Van der Poel (gold, CX and road worlds) and Julian Alaphilippe (silver, CX Worlds) for riders with something extra from their junior days… or Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot who have combined the road with more during their senior career and gain from the skills and physiological efforts.

Ban the junior road race? This would be a way to force a more balanced start for U-19 riders. But that’s surely too polemic, the junior events at the worlds are a surprisingly good guide to future success and if people want to ride, all the better. Instead the idea is more that other disciplines can offer plenty to budding road riders, whether learning track craft or skills from off road events. It’d be too hard to make selection for the road worlds dependent on riding, say the CX or track worlds. Similarly national selectors presumably want to pick the best chance of a winner on the day rather than pick from those who are multi-disciplinary.

But this brings us to the other disciplines as mere training for the road, an apprenticeship to serve. It should not be this way. But more than ever road cycling is paved with gold and the World Tour peloton is sucking talent out of the other disciplines thanks to long term contracts and high salaries. Which only reinforces the road as the ultimate career choice.

The juniors in Bergen have earned they’re right to be there. Just that if there was an ideal career path then perhaps a start on the track or off road is the way to make a prototype road rider as well as aiming for gold in Bergen?

It turns out the road is a good start and all the sport’s incentives make this an important race; even a market and the likes of Tom Pidcock, the new time trial champion, already have agents and sponsorship deals. To look at the results from the junior road race and time trial over the past years is to look at many of today’s champions. Screen these riders through a development programme and the proportion of those going onto enjoy continued success should be even higher. This suggests that many agents and team managers alike will be watching the results closely and even waving contracts about.


43 thoughts on “Too Much, Too Soon?”

  1. my observation is that the junior time trial appears to produce bigger names (or perhaps just names more recognisable to me) than the junior road race. also, to be a terrible pendant, kwiatkowski has won the junior and senior world champs albeit in different disciplines.

    • I think winning the junior time trial has a bit more significance showing possible future talent than the road race.
      It’s a normal one day race, everything can happen, it depends on type of course, number of team mates, strength of team etc, RR has more factors which could play a role in the results. You can end as 4th in RR by tyre width, few will remember the results, and end as Senior champion.

  2. Pidcock is incredible, although there are obviously no guarantees he will go onto perform as an elite senior, it seems more likely than not.

    For non-UK readers it’s probably worth pointing out he is already winning senior pro races (on junior gearing!) and is the outright UK criterium champion. He’s also UK, Euro and World CX champion and won this year’s junior Paris-Roubaix. I think he’s junior UK track champion too.

    Looking elsewhere I’d love to see Mathieu Van der Poel prioritise road racing. I realise those who prefer MTB and CX will disagree, but I’m a road man and he’s a great rider. He’d surely be a great classics rider, once he adapted to the distances involved, as the power is there. He’s a great rider to watch as well.

    • VDP blows hot and cold regarding road racing, he always says he wants to enjoy himself on the bike and he enjoys doing all the disciplines more than concentrating on one only. His nr 1 opponent in the icy mud, Wout Van Aert, is preparing to tackle a classics campaign next spring. I wonder how that’s going to play out after a tough winter battling VDP and the others but it’ll be interesting to see anyway.

      • Interesting to hear Wout Van Aert is having a go at the classics. I know he’s achieved some very good results already in road racing so that’s one to keep an eye on. I really enjoy watching WVA and MVDP in CX but you can’t help but wonder what they would achieve if they focused solely on the road. Both fantastic riders.

        • ‘ you can’t help but wonder what they would achieve if they focused solely on the road’

          I can! I hope that both riders ride cyclocross for many years to come. To be honest I am more interested in Pidcocks’s supreme cyclocross talent than his time trialling too, but as the article sets out, a road career is much more lucrative.

      • Mathieu has seemingly put his road plans on hold, to have a crack at the 2020 Olympic XC race. And who is to bet he can’t get a medal? He showed enough in the 4 races to suggest, if he tailors his training to XC he can be a serious medal hope. His technical skills will come on a huge amount, and I thought his performance at JingleCross already saw the improvement.
        I get the feeling his father, and grandfather are more keen on him moving to the road, than he actually is.

  3. Tom Pidcock’s domination across disciplines is crazy – and after the TT yes I was also wondering if his success is too much too soon. Best of luck to him – I hope he continues to enjoy himself.

    • 2 years ago (i think) the average age of the seniors WC in cx was actually lower than the one for the U23 race. That was amazing. Now a few years later nobody denies VDP and Van Aert are huge talents which are likely to successfully cross over to other disciplines of bike racing as well (insofar they already haven’t done so).

  4. Interesting to see the parallels between this piece about forecasting talent and the recent(ish) news about BMC pulling out a development team.

    Even if you look at these races to cherry pick talent, there’s no guarantee of future success and even if there is, you still have a long time and a lot of money to invest between winning a junior worlds and taking wins in the WorldTour.

    Mohoric is a fine example- four years as a pro before this first win. And a GT win at 22 is rare. For all the agents and sponsors, it’s not an obvious tactic to recruit talent so young.

    • I think one of the very few to turn pro at the tender age of 19 or 20 and started winning immediately was Franck Vandenbroucke, but he definitely turned out to be a sad case of too much.

      By contrast Philippe Gilbert turned also pro quite young (20 I think) and took a few years before starting to win.

  5. I think “too much too soon” only really applies to GC guys. Other disciplines are unlikely to lead to burnout, even if it does go to the head a bit. A gifted sprinter will always be a gifted sprinter, even if he self-destructs on Saturday nights. Over-indulged football stars seem to be testament to this.

    • Not really, the worlds have never had a GC or climbers course until next year and so have never been able to predict future GC contenders. While a race like the tour de l’avenir has had winners that include gimondi, zoetemelk, indurain, fignon, lemond, mollema, Quintana, Chaves and barguil. So I disagree that GC riders are the only ones who come too soon instead everyone is vulnerable of maturing too soon and collapsing later.

  6. If your country does not have strength in depth then even if you are a very gifted junior you are unlikely to win the road race.

    However focusing on CX or MTB as a junior, that relies on more individual skill/talent seems like a more sensible option. Excel in these disciplines to make your name as a junior.

  7. If you would compare a list of WC podium in the pros and juniors there is still very little overlap. The only one I see that won both is Kwiatkowski, and that was in different disciplines. It would be interesting to compare this to other sports. I very quickly tried to check with this list: . It only has one current top-20 listed tennis player in male or female (unless I overlooked someone)

    The idea to scrap the U18 championships is quite ridiculous. Most sports have championships for kids, why not cycling? The odd one is the under-23 category. I think in most sports you stop being a junior after the age of 18. Of course, in cycling athletes peak late but still it’s odd to have two different junior categories.

  8. And what about the women? Do we see a similar trend?

    Also, what are the comparative speed differences for the juniors to the seniors? What sort of step-up is required to win the WC title?

      • Anon… get your point, but it is a fair question in terms of increasing the sample size, even if @inrng doesn’t have the depth of knowledge / experience / inclination to answer.

        Ho hum.

    • Marianne Vos Junior Champ in 2004, Elite Champ in 2006
      Nicole Cook, Junior 2000&2001, Elite title 2008
      Amalie Dideriksen Junior 2013&2014 ,Elite 2016
      Pauline Ferrand-Prévot several Junior titles, Elite 2014
      and I only checked a few, ther are maybe more, and a lot had cross. MTB and track titles as well.

      Winning World Championships in Youth and Elite are much more common at Women’s. Less amount of riders at all, and there is no U23 in between.
      And I’m sure we will see this years impressive double winner Pirrone sooner or later on a podium in the Elite class.

  9. “Still, only one rider has won the junior world champion title and gone on to win the senior title: Greg LeMond.”

    This is only true within the same discipline. Even going back only as far as 2006, the results you list, there’s Kwitowski (Jnr TT and Snr RR) and Van Der Poel (Jnr RR and Snr CX).

    • Thanks for that! Good to see some real science being thrown at this*. Another prime example of the high level you can find in INRNG comments.
      * I haven’t yet read the paper, I assume they did it right. Although from my reading experience I can say that J Sports Sc publishes fairly poorly done research too.

  10. Physical maturation has a big say in these ranks. You have Peter Sagan who won his first stage in Paris-Nice at the age of 19, and then you have those guys who only started growing into men at that age.

    We always try to tell the kids to just have fun with it in my club, because they can always get serious soon enough. And it’s good for your physique to do other sports in your formative years, of course also in later years since cycling is basically deteriorating your body if you don’t do anything else.
    But you always have those kids who get paced by their parents, and some of them are really talented. And the pacing done by their parents can make them murderously good compared to a normal un-paced kid. It’s just that usually those talented kids end up leaving the sport, or they just don’t have the head for it when they get to decide for themselves.

    I’ve got two very young boys myself, and I have said to myself that I will never be their coach. There is a line there I think.

  11. “Too much, too soon?” is more of a philosophical question, rather than a physiological question, judging from Inrng’s reference to the “ascetic life,” and the ever-present burden of bearing the heavy pressure of matching such a monumental previous success. Why expose yourself to that at such an early age? It is a burden after all. And, later on, there is a mental price to pay as the young rider matures, and starts asking, “Is it all really worth it?” as time has passed him by, with the sudden realization that our ride on the Time-Space Compendium is indeed linear and unidirectional.

    And judging by the constant question posed to every winner of a Grand Tour: “And what’s next for you?” and the Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me lately?” past achievements are a fickle currency.

  12. Is a former Junior champion entitled to wear a rainbow collar and cuffs when he becomes a Senior rider, or does his entitlement cease when he’s no longer a Junior?

    • UCI Article 1.3.064: “… However, he may wear such a jersey only in events of the discipline, speciality and category in which he won the title and in no other event…”

      Note the “and category”. U19 is a category so the answer is: No, he/she cannot wear rainbow stripes on sleeves or legs once he/she turns U23/Elite

  13. Too much too soon : Yes. Adrien Costa – 2 time Worlds podium.

    Age 20 opted to stop his season in the middle of this year – and travel. I really hope everything works out really well for him. I don’t know all the details but this an article on Cycling news, perhaps one of his teammates passed away earlier this year influenced him.

    Viewed by many US fans as a huge talent with something like 16 wins in UCI events and another 17 podiums prior to the 2016 season.

    From a too much too soon perspective, apparently, he started with a personal coach at age 14.

  14. One of the benefits of this week is that the younger generation gets to interact with their ‘heroes’ – this can have quite an impact on their motivation to continue in their sports careers.

    I guess the UCI presidential vote merits a novel post…

  15. Pidcock is incredibly talented across disciplines but I think he is destined for the road.

    When he joined his amateur team PH-MAS Oldfield they were shocked to find he rarely rides cross in training as prefers to just ride on the road which shows how much a natural he is handling a bike. Future Sagan?

    One concern I have is the more of spotlight the junior side of the sport has shone on it, the more people around the riders (including parents living vicariously through them) might take advantage of their lack of maturity and make bad decisions for them – for example gambling the fact they will be a successful pro so letting education slide.

    In a small number of cases this might even push some to even be coerced or feel the need to cheat like we saw at the U23 cyclocross championships.

  16. Great post. in my experience in Italy in the late 80s and 90s, this was a conversation that many coaches at the junior level we’re having. Maybe not to the extent of what a rainbow jersey, but how hard should young riders be pushed versus what is appropriate for their long-term development, if arrival in the professional ranks is the desired result. The thought process back then was, many Italian riders were pushed too hard too young, that created very talented juniors, but by the time they reach the professional ranks many were as the Italians would say”spremuta”. Which roughly translated means, empty, done.
    Interesting post, don’t know the right answer, but there are many examples on both sides.

  17. Still, only one rider has won the junior world champion title and gone on to win the senior title: Greg LeMond.

    Hmm, what about Eddy Merckx? He won the “amateur” UCI World Championships in ’64. Then won the men’s/senior WC a couple of times.

    The “amateur” WC was last run in ’95, and the U23 started in ’96. The junior category wasn’t around till after Merckx – started in ’75.

    • You can’t compare the former amateur category to Junior. Aplles and orange like oranges.
      You can’t even compare to its successor U23, you could ride amateur in these days being older, the whole Eastern block was amateur.

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