Kazuyasu Tayama is a master craftsman when it comes to making cast iron kettles, often important and cherished utensils in Japan, a land of tea and cold winters. When he started work as an apprentice at the age of 16 in a small workshop, it took decades before he was allowed to pour the molten iron to make a kettle. Metalwork requires practice but Tayama was expected to learn by watching and gradually assimilate the techniques needed.
If you’re wondering what on earth Japanese kettles are doing on a cycling blog, well watching TV a year ago revealed Tayama’s story and it supplied a remarkable example of lengthy apprenticeship. In cycling things weren’t as pronounced but there used to be an informal apprenticeship where riders would turn professional in their early 20s and take years to learn the trade, typically reaching their peak in their late 20s or even early thirties. Only as you read this you can probably hear the sound of an iron kettle smashing through a glass ceiling as today a crop of riders can turn pro out of the junior ranks, win World Tour races as a teenager and several still eligible for the U23 ranks stand on grand tour podiums.
Apprenticeships as a pro today seem almost over and in part it’s because of what comes before now. There’s recruitment and, for want of a better word, pre-recruitment. Once upon a time a rider might appear on a team’s radar if they got good results as a junior, they’d be followed and perhaps supported as an Under-23 rider and should the results keep coming, sign a pro contract. Plus each team would have a natural hinterland to hire from, Movistar for example could get the pick of Iberian riders because it knew the Spanish scene well. Now early results as a junior can still attract attention and open doors but now recruitment is often more about mining for the hidden gems rather than the polished diamonds. If this was motorsport, a team would love to sign a junior who can jump on a 125cc bike and beat their peers who ride 250cc engines as it would suggest skill and ability. In pro cycling the opposite is true: better to find the rider with a “big motor” who just hasn’t mastered it yet. So results can open doors but recruitment now is also dependent on power data from a rider from training and racing, and teams invite riders in for lab tests so their physiological data can be measured.
Teams hiring by numbers isn’t new though. A young Peter Sagan visited the Quick-Step team back in 2009 and set some amazing numbers in a lab test but they didn’t sign him. However the matrix of requirements was different, impressive numbers were part of the mix but so was the time, attitude and money as Patrick Lefevere said Sagan wanted too much money. Today teams get involved in bidding wars for juniors and physiological data has become the sine qua non.
The development process is shifted too. While a neo-pro was expected to learn the ropes, much of this is now moved to the U-23 and junior ranks who give riders structured training programs and more from an early age. Indeed this is testimony to whole shift in the sport where training rides are full of targetted efforts rather than just a long ride with some sprints or a couple of mountain passes along the way. Every pro rider has a coach today and this has moved down to other ranks too.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it
The key ingredient to win a bike race isn’t experience, although it helps. Instead it’s physiology, the ability to push the pedals hard. You can imagine an ironwork apprentice spends time making the tea for colleagues and it takes time to master metalwork. In cycling, why have someone with prodigious physical talents doing the equivalent of sweeping the workshop floor when they could be making masterpieces?
So many other things that used to be acquired knowledge are now shared and even programmed. Whereas once upon a time on a Saturday in March a rider would roll out of Milan with a belly full of pasta and the hope of making it to Sanremo, now each rider’s breakfast can be sized according to the efforts they’ll make in the day. The GPS bike computer can be programmed with regular alerts to dose gels and bars at set intervals. One way to beat your rivals was to learn the course of a race in order to exploit a change of wind direction, or to recon a climb in order to know what was around the next hairpin, now a lot of this can be computed via Veloviewer’s Race Hub.
One observation is the breakthrough of young riders seems to vary by type. A stage racer can reach the top sooner because of the set piece efforts required, a summit finish reduced to a watts per kilo contest, especially if preceded by wide roads. Sprinters seem to need more time, to learn the ins and outs of sprint trains and to build a rapport with their leadout. Fabio Jakobsen got some wins in his first year but consistency came later and his first Tour de France stage came in his fifth season as a pro although crashes and injuries probably delayed this, he and other sprinters don’t win big from day one. Sprinting is just less measurable, yes peak power counts but it’s also about delivering this after a five hour ride, and plenty of skills too, indeed you wonder if Mark Cavendish would be hired today as his power numbers were not stupendous. A time trial specialist has more measurable skills as the first ingredient is power, yet there’s research and development into the most aero position and testing out combinations of positions, clothing, helmets and other kit which is also an iterative process of refinement although funding hastens this.
If a young rider’s chances of winning are greater than those of the elder riders then it makes sense to back the newcomer. Easier said than done but teams can work to align interests, to make sure that if there’s a Vingegaard-Roglič scenario that the elder is happy to help the junior. This can be cultural but managers can also deploy win bonuses and other payments, things we don’t see on the outside but are nevertheless vital incentives. At the very top there’s a self-fulfilling role as a rider working for the likes of Pogačar or Evenepoel is contributing to wins that in turn attract sponsors which raises the team’s budgets and so the salary goes up, contract renewals come more easily.
Back in the day
Turning pro hasn’t involved a formal apprenticeship but 20 years ago a promising rider would be signed but typically kept away from the team doping programme for the first two years, an implicit apprentice system. Now that teams are not systematically “preparing” their riders this has gone so young riders start on a more equal basis.
Start early, finish early?
If success comes earlier, will other things follow faster too? It does make you wonder if by the time some riders reach the age of 28 instead of being in their prime they’ll be on the slide, feeling like they’ve done it all and the thrill has gone. The job is more intense today and the flipside of being 21 and a millionaire is having food portions weighed and every training ride remotely monitored by performance staff. Put simply it’s not as fun, there’s less room for improvisation. Perhaps Peter Sagan, him again, comes to mind as he arguably had his last bumper season aged 29 and by then already seemed to be a marketing mannequin for corporate brands rather than the upstart phenomenon. His asymmetric career arc does show something that a rider can burst onto the scene but the exit need not be as sudden as they’ve become an asset and don’t have to obtain the same results to be valuable.
You can see teams building pipelines, for example Jumbo-Visma have riders being lined up to replace Jonas Vingegaard in 3-4 years. UAE might have Pogačar but they’ve also got Juan Ayuso who is four years younger, and have signed Jan Christen until 2027 too.
For every wunderkind there will be riders who don’t breakthrough even if they have the watts. Maybe the job is not for them, or the subtle things they still need to learn don’t come easy and the palmarès proves smaller than the initial promise. Teams paying top dollar for promise are at risk for not being able to convert this if their budget is eaten up without the success the sponsors crave.
Experience still counts
Not everything is being swept away, there are still old orders. Nobody turns pro and takes a tilt at the Tour de France right away. There are bridges to be crossed, stages to be ridden. Even the grand tours have a pattern where a young rider might start the Vuelta as their first grand tour, they may do the Giro then as a team leader and if things have proved successful then graduate to the Tour.
If I was a magazine editor, I’d commission a long piece along the lines of “things I wished I knew before” where experienced pros could imagine advising their younger selves. Regardless of how much talent a rider has, experience and wisdom still have a place. Would Tadej Pogačar have won the Ronde van Vlaanderen without Matteo Trentin’s work? Probably not. Wout van Aert ought to win Paris-Roubaix or the Ronde one day and when he does, you can imagine a tale of patience and experience as well as brute force. Primož Roglič looks almost invincible in one week stage races but he did serve an apprenticeship as a World Tour pro, first able to win time trials but the road race wins came later after he’d mastered positioning. Remco Evenepoel had the legs but you can see how he’s grown mentally from the interviews he’s given and the Belgian media has touched on how he’s required psychological support to deal with the pressure… of the Belgian media.
White under Yellow
One aspect that hasn’t caught up is the various young rider competitions for the best Under-25 rider. The idea has been to highlight a promising rider while giving those considered physically and mentally immature a subsidiary target to aim for during a stage race. It’s not new that a rider wins both white and yellow, think Fignon in 1983 or Ullrich in 1997 but they were breakthrough wins, exceptions. Likewise in the Giro with Berzin in 1994 or Quintana in 2014 where this race has been a stepping stone to the Tour. But it feels like the days when the white jersey competition rhymed with anticipation are over, instead the competition can almost be invisible. Is it a concern for organisers, is the competition they host invisible and devalued? Or maybe it works in reverse, are sponsors delighted to see a champion in their jersey rather than someone almost unknown to the wider public? There ought to be some reflection among organisers and perhaps trials in smaller races of other contests, a subject to return to.
Tires are wider, clothes fit tighter, more is eaten. This might sound like the path taken by an ageing cyclist but it’s actually the evolution and rejuvenation of pro cycling in recent years too. Along with this, the pattern of turning pro and gradual improvement seems old and overtaken, although this is a vision distorted by the precocious success of a handful of riders. Many if not most riders still improve and experience can count. However the hunt for talent has intensified and riders are increasingly hired at a younger age than before, to the point where lingering the U23 ranks can be a sign of stagnation. Some of these riders are also winning in the pro ranks from an early of age.
Pro cyclists never served a formal apprenticeship, neo-pros could be discarded, but there was a period of learning by assimilation and gathering experience. Much of this is over, information that once required empiricism and absorption is now obtained online, or shared rather than preserved. Whereas teams would sign a rider and still learn plenty about them in the following two seasons, now they know plenty about them, whether through years of physiological data or via seasons spent on feeder teams. The result is riders who might have once targetted a white jersey competition are skipping that for yellow and teenagers are winning races. It’s a palpable shift.
While we make comparisons between the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Eddy Merckx, one thing that remains to be seen is longevity. Merckx appeared and dominated for years. The young riders we see at the top today may not want to stay around as long and could equally be swept aside by new replacements. So while Tayama-san served years learning about ironwork, maybe we should look to his kettles instead because no sooner has one masterpiece been created, he’s thinking about making a new and better one.