Coming of Age

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.

71 thoughts on “Coming of Age”

  1. Only read this quickly but don’t think you mentioned how they handle set-backs. One reason that I have a soft spot for Roglic is the way he regroups after his many mishaps.
    In relation to Evenepoel I would have thought he was right up there with Chris Froome in terms of self esteem.

    • Really? What set backs? Being beaten once in a while is, I hope, what sport is all about. Life threatening injuries are an entirely different thing.

        • Exactly! Both he and Geraint Thomas have had repeated serious injuries, requiring quite a bit of time for recuperation. While these may not have been “life-threatening”, they still need mental fortitude to come back from.

          • Both he and Geraint Thomas have been responsible for many of these crashes – they’re both poor bike-handlers.
            If something keeps happening, it’s not just bad luck.

    • Roglic handles some setbacks well. With others he careers into a rider for no reason, and then continues – months later – to publicly berate this rider (Fred Wright, Vuelta 2022), despite it being massively obvious to any neutral that the crash was entirely Roglic’s fault. And the fact that Roglic does this to a young person is particularly harsh. He’s gone a long way down in my estimation.
      Matej Mohorič sums it up well: “It’s not appropriate and it’s not fair to make a statement like that toward Fred […] I think if you ask the peloton, everyone will tell you that Primož is more eager to push for position than Fred. We know that Primož crashes a lot and this is not the first time this happened.” I got that quote from Wright’s wikipedia page, which goes to show how much this garbage is still a big factor in Wright’s public perception.
      As ever with riders who crash a lot, sometimes it’s bad luck, but often it’s not. It’s their lack of skill that causes them to crash more often than others.

      • Well, ‘entirely Roglic’s fault’ is a bit harsh (oh, for an edit function).
        But this video shows it well:
        At 10 seconds into this video, Roglic and Wright are basically level (Roglic having come over from the left, for no particular reason, other than to endanger himself, seemingly). Roglic is on the white line. At 13 seconds into this video, Roglic has moved significantly towards Wright. It’s a racing incident – they’re both sprinting. It’s certainly no more Wright’s fault than it is Roglic. A clever rider who is riding for GC would have never got involved in a sprint that he wasn’t going to win, having just been caught following an attack, and would have simply followed the others over the line.

        • Well, it definitely is obvious that it was NOT Wright’s fault.

          Like many others, I’ve found Roglic’s reaction – continued well past any point of immediate-emotional-aftermath – to be unbecoming.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post.
    Kazuyasu Tayama had a trade for life, but riders are like mayflys in comparison, which makes me wonder, do riders nowadays have more pressure to win or not? Team sponsors are probably glad over start to finish TV coverage, but is there an increased pressure of wanting success?

  3. Great piece and great incipit.

    That said, I’m not sure the Giro 2014 can be defined “a stepping stone” towards the TDF for a rider who had already been the runner-up in France less than a year before in July 2013, dropping the maillot jaune on the last couple of uphill finishes – nor for Berzin, who’d duly tackle the TDF the following year… but only after having competed hard to a final 2nd place at the 1995 Giro. Despite early exploits, it looks like that same could apply to Enric Mas, or other competitors as Kelderman or Yates.

    Generally speaking, although as you explain a lot of things have changed recently in cycling, most of them favouring young talent (uhm, perhaps I wouldn’t include all and every team stopping systematical “preparation”, but those are just personal opinions…), yet I think we might be suffering from some biased perspective. Of course, we’ve had back to back white and yellow victories by Bernal, and then the repeated Pogacar, which is bound to have a huge impact on our perception, as is Evenepoel’s rise (or Almeida’s).
    At the same time, Contador, A. Schleck or Quintana – be them eventually 1st or 2nd or something in-between – were all already competitive at the highest TDF level when they got their white jerseys (we could debate if Contador 2007 TDF should be a 2nd place, or what about Schleck 2010, but my point is precisely avoiding to stick to the PCS effect with bare data).

    Not what I’d call “exceptions”, even if we’re speaking of exceptionally talented riders, of course.

    Indeed, that was a shift, no doubt, when compared to the 1987-2007 decades, indeed, when only two absolute monstres like Ullrich and Pantani could come close to that sort of result. The age of big business cycling, let’s see it like that, although surely somebody else would choose different names.
    Yet, it wasn’t that peculiar, before. We aren’t helped by the fact that there was no white jersey as such before 1975, but you can think also Lemond coming 3rd in 1984 behind his teammate Fignon and, well, Hinault. Hinault himself would have won twice the TDF general and young rider final GC, was the latter availabe The same feat would have been accomplished (once each if I get it right) by Gimondi, Merckx, Bartali, Anquetil… all huge riders, no doubt, yet it used to happen once or twice every decade or so.
    For some reason, I feel it was slightly more random at the Giro, yet you can add to the above names also Coppi’s (the war had an obvious impact on his TDF options as a youngster), and then Binda, Gaul, Saronni, Cunego and a handful of other Italian riders.

    The Giro maybe could offer us a different perspective on present times, too. It’s true that Tao won white and yellow in 2020 (if Wiki’s got it right), as did Bernal in 2021. But not only Tao actually looks like he’s still going through a progression of sort, as he was at the time, not really being a very top competitor outside that peculiar season -well, in addition to that, you can also find there riders like Carapaz or Hindley who apparently grew through a more traditional age path, as it had happened before them to, say, Dumoulin when compared to Quintana (or even Aru).

    The CX guys and Roglic should also factor in, given that we include them in the very top step of the current sport, although it’s evident they all followed some peculiar own path.

    All in all, we should check if the trend is actually a trend, that is, if it can be verified through a broader time interval and more riders, perhaps beyond those very special freaks like Pogi or Remco. Vingegaard himself surfaced young, but “normally young”, not young enough to get that white jersey, for example.
    What I’m sure of is that perhaps in the past there were more examples than we’d think (all of them notable champions, indeed), and that maybe we shouldn’t overlook some current athlete who’s good and having a traditional progression, only he’s eclipsed by the Big Guys… as the whole peloton.

    • There’s still value for some teams not to chase the best young talent and instead back talents who emerge slowly, especially as not all teams can win and instead they can be pleased with a podium or other rides.

      But each time I think of an example, something else comes along to contradict it. So I think Enric Mas as an example of a rider quietly improving but he did start out hot, plus Movistar seem very keen to have Carlos Rodriguez rather than wait, they’ve signed Ivan Romeo too.

      Or EF Education comes to mind but EF have already got links to Ashlin Barry (son of Michael and tipped as the next next big thing). Intermarché seems happy to hire thirty-somethings looking for a new lease of life but then again their development team is proving to be a good conveyor belt of talent. Plus while Jumbo-Visma seem to be kidnapping the best Scandinavians, one of their best signings has been Christophe Laporte too.

      What I suppose this shows is there’s obviously all sorts of ages and stories in the peloton and while more turn pro out of the junior ranks, obviously most don’t. Still every team, and agent, is looking for a big talent early and if they can find it, then they can start winning early. If the piece above was long enough already, I left out some thoughts about riders starting in the Pro Conti ranks before going into the World Tour, that’s becoming increasingly rare (think Bernal and Girmay) as a route.

      • The trend about hiring policies is no doubt there, just think that when Pozzato turned pro skipping the U23 full development phase it was seen as something quite notable indeed, although not unprecedented.
        My points are rather that, to start with, the change is more shocking for whomever isn’t familiar with the history of cycling until well into the 80s, because starting a cycling pro life as soon as legally possible was far from uncommon, for a broad variety of reasons, economic and physiological ones among them. KevinK also comments on the subject below.

        As a sidenote, I’m not sure anyway that it’s a good thing in contemporary society, sort of a children crusade as some Anon hints at below, and then today both the requirements of a pro athlete life *and* the formation for a middle to high level working life look to be more intense, be it only in quantitative terms, which means the trade-off is even more brutal and risky. Several top level young cyclists in Italy have quit this year after having just got their first pro contract… But this is a separate debate, I guess.

        Secondly, I’d separate hiring policies from physiological possibilities, be them natural or negotiated through technical intervention (training, feeding etc.).
        More aggressive hiring policies might depend simply on an oligopoly forcing its own reinforcement precisely through leverage. They can afford harvesting large… and wasting loads, plus some athletes will sign for them be it only because they feel those big teams are the best environment to grow and thus will accept worse condition just to “fullfill their dream” – or “to strengthen their personal brand”!, associating it with a success firm. Looks like what may happen outside cycling, eh eh eh.
        The fact that it’s less of a radical shift in bio-socio-physical terms, more socioeconomic ones, is highlighted by the sheer quantity of traditional careers which even under present conditions lead cyclists to the relative top. I won’t start listing, names have been made and more could be added (Izagirre, Ciccone, Powless, Küng etc. etc. etc.), but I’d dare to say that looking at sporting performance and/or results the shift, although visible (I’d say the *average* peaks may be coming 1 year earlier, 2 at most) is way less impacting than it appears if looking at “job careers”.

      • Makes me think of Sjoerd Bax. He was riding for a rather small continental team in 2021 (Metec) and made a step up to PCT and now WT at a relatively high age. He is 27 now and still improving a lot so it seems.

  4. “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.”

    Made me smile. And feel seen.

  5. Nice piece but you left out the elephant – radio earpieces. Since they’ve been adopted the need for an experienced road captain has been greatly reduced and these “numbers riders” can easily be programmed and directed from a director’s car equipped with radio to yell out instructions and a TV screen to monitor the race. Not much need for experience or apprenticeship when the boss is yelling instructions into your ear while you monitor the electronic gizmo on your stem…and maybe he does too, via telemetry? A simple thing that goes nowhere unless you pedal it has gotten way-too-complicated IMHO and the sport along with it…at least when it comes to “technology”.

    • I’m less convinced by radios, they’ve been around since the 1990s (and actually haven’t improved much when it comes to transmission and audio quality). They’re more a means than an end. Bike computers with maps showing the race course, including climbs with profiles on the screen with KM to go until the top, and algorithms that set pacing strategies for time trials have a bigger effect and more recent.

      • “…while you monitor the electronic gizmo on your stem…and maybe he does too, via telemetry?”
        I lump all this electronic gimmickry together but it’s taken not that long once every team’s DS had the means to direct his rider’s actions on-the-road vs the days of having to drive up alongside and relay instructions to the road captain who’d (they hoped) would then share them with the rest of the team. Races without radios often turn out far differently than those with them IMHO.

      • Having watched a number of recent cycling documentaries, I’m not convinced that radios offer any kind of help to a rider – at best the communication from the team car seems to be a load of unintelligible shouting; at worst it’s the advice of a Movistar DS

        • I take the opposite view of course, but if you are correct, it’s just one more reason to be rid of them (and IMHO the rest of the electronic gizmos). To those who claims the earpieces somehow improve safety there’s your point about unintelligible shouting…so why allow them?

    • Agreed! Think of the advertising opportunities for the “gray jersey”. The same stuff plugged on evening TV news programs – antacids, constipation remedies, ED drugs, anti-hair loss potions, prescription drugs to fix things you-never-heard-of…the possibilities are endless 🙂

    • I had the same thought. Why not a jersey for oldest rider in the top 20? or best riderover 35 as you suggest? Maybe even over 30 would be better as things stand currently. Best rider who could qualify for each UCI Master category where he (or she) not professionally contracted?

  6. My hat is off for any youngster who can master the new training regime. In my region of very amateur low level racing anybody who attempted the new style of focused training generally went backwards.
    Having to fit your riding to a schedule rather than just doing the group rides or other rides you enjoyed generally after a while seemed to be harder. People doing the fun rides generally rode more and it seemed to be more beneficial.

    • I ride and race at the lowest of low amateur level. I know quite a few people who have gone all in on the coaching. They all saw a dramatic uptick in results. The vast majority also sickened themselves and stopped cycling altogether.

    • If I recall correctly, Plapp recently spoke about this in a Podcast. Touched in the fact that he probably couldn’t ride for JV, due to their strictness in everything, especially nutrition & training.

    • Hence why Sagan has “declined”; as I recall from an interview with his trainer, he needs to have fun also during training, it is simply planned into his sessions. Otherwise he looses interest.

      • Turning humans into performance robots with data-based training and racing programs seems to work. The surprising part of it is that we still have a guy like Pogačar who seems to have fun, do the unexpected and wins races. I would think that this more professional, business-like way of running teams would lead to boring racing and boring racers. Apparently youthful bravoure is not a problem if combined with the right training.

  7. I love this article because it’s right in line with things I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. A little while ago I sat down and whiled away an afternoon looking at the patterns of careers of the all-time greats, and the recent trends you describe are clear. I will argue with this line, though: “… typically reaching their peak in their late 20s or early thirties.” That was something I heard and read again and again when I started closely following this sport, but except for the rampant EPO-fueled era from 1991 to the late ‘aughts’, the data doesn’t seem to support that. Outside of that era, the vast majority of the brightest stars in cycling first hit their peaks around 26-29, with some holding that peak to ages 31-32. Most were fading by 32, with rare exceptions. From the patterns I see, the most important factor when it comes to hitting one’s peak seems to be when the rider comes to prominence within the peloton. Later starters and later developers (like Roglic, the vans) peak later, early starters (Pogacar, Sagan) peak earlier.

    Interestingly, I discerned four career patterns:
    (1) Merckx – the outlier. A winner at age 20, a superstar from 21-32. No real peak, just incredible for 12 straight years. Only Pogacar has a pattern that matches, but of course he’s not even half way there yet.
    (2) Vintage old-school greats – start winning around age 23, have flattish peaks from around 26-31, last 9-11 years as superstars, and then rapidly fade. Note all started winning a bit later and had several years in the peloton of working their way up.
    (3) Burn early, burn bright, burn out – these rare meteors achieve superstardom earlier than group (2) (i.e., almost immediately, at ages 19-20), but don’t last nearly as long. Maertins and Saronni are examples of this group, as is perhaps Boasson Hagen more recently.
    (4) Modern greats (and very-goods) – the pattern we’re familiar with now – they come to prominence in their mid 20s, peak 3-4 years later (ages 27-31), and have 5-8 ‘great’ years. Compared to group 2, they get going a little later, and don’t last as long. In the rampant doping era the pattern is ‘right shifted’ (a couple of years older), while more recently it’s shifted a couple of years earlier (e.g., prominence in early 20s, peak between 25-29).

    Looked at this way, Merckx really did have a singular career, and Pogacar just emulating that for less than 5 years is incredible. And Sagan’s career starts to look a lot more exceptional, and his decline less exceptional. Very few riders started winning at age 20 at the highest level, and of those I can’t see any except Merckx who had more very good/great seasons (Sagan has had nine). Sagan’s peak at age 26 is actually unremarkable – most modern great riders peak somewhere between 26 and 28 (though it would be fair to argue he hit a peak at both 23 and 26).

    It appears there may be a physiological limit to how many great years a road cyclist can have. Merckx and De Vlaeminck had 12 amazing seasons, only a handful of other great riders had 10 or 11, and another handful 8 or 9. In this light starting to fade at age 29 doesn’t appear remarkable for those who started winning at age 20, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate losing the emotional drive to win (or some other supposed psychological mechanism). WvA are MvdP are interesting cases. They’ve been elite CX riders for a long time, but I’m not sure that a CX season puts nearly the wear-and-tear on the body the way a full road season does. Plus both of them have tended to have many fewer road race days per season than most modern star riders. That should argue for them having the physical ability to still be big winners well into their 30s. I’m skeptical, but it’ll be fun to watch.

      • Thank you. What’s particularly fun for me about this kind of analysis is that we have a bunch of excellent case examples racing right now (the fantastic five, plus assorted other super young prodigies) to test if this holds up.

    • Thanks for the in-depth analysis! These were a couple of old school intuitive ideas: that a rider would peak from 26-27 yo and that a pro career would hardly last a decade since the first races where top competitive level is achieved. Of course, there are well-known exception to both rules, notably by so many absolute champions in the case of the first one, and by riders known for their longevity in the case of the latter (Bartali or Gimondi or Zoetemelk back then, more recently Nibali or again quite obviously Valverde). I’d add that when considering what’s a recurring idea of some “earlier peak” in your post above, probably a “surprise effect” of sort is at work when a young rider, albeit known as a talent, is still underestimated by rivals and isn’r marked as much as you are once you’re a proven winner.

      Ps Gimondi fulfills the requirement of 12 great seasons more than De Vlaeminck under any POV, more quality and more steady too. And even more PCS points for the most part of those 12 seasons (De Vlaeminck clearly having a more impressive and neat peak when 26-29). Valverde should count 14 (2006-2019) if not twenty… Bartali had 6 (1935-1940) + 8 (1946-1953) = 14 top seasons, and the fact that there 5 years of WW in-between just makes it even more shocking.

      • ” a young rider, albeit known as a talent, is still underestimated by rivals”

        Or an old guy, underestimated as over the hill: Zoetemelk WC ’85, Amstel ’87. Both times the breakaway were staring at each other while Zoetemelk eased off the front.

      • I agree with a lot of the examples you cite. Just to clarify what I considered top years for a rider, I arbitrarily looked at years in which they were in the top 10 of PCS scoring. By that measure Nibali had 5 great years, Gimondi and Zoetemelk 10 each, and Valverde and Bartali real outliers [which I didn’t fully register] at 14) . Yes, it’s arbitrary, and we can quibble about PCS scoring, and quibble about what constitutes are really great year. I could see looking only at a top 5-6 ranking, or a top 20 ranking, but you end up with mostly the same list.

        Also one thing I noticed was that riders who had ‘off years’ embedded among their great years tended to have a larger spread to their careers, so while they had a great overall longevity, it ends up being extremely rare to be a rider who has more than a dozen great years, and in modern times it’s very very rare (i.e., Valverde).

        Ultimately, one of the key things I noticed is that in the time since WW2 it’s been incredibly rare for a rider to get WT-level wins (or whatever was the equivalent at the time) at age 20. Saronni accomplished this (his first big wins may have been at age 19, but I’m not sure how big those races were that he won at that age). Maertens and Merckx were winning big at age 21, and I know of few other examples, at least of riders who won very young and continued to win significantly. At least until Sagan won several WT races at 20. Virtually all of the other riders who had long and very substantial careers spent several years working their way up, with most not being big winners till age 23-24.

        The other thing is that there seems to be a trend towards early winners, the ones who just jump almost immediately to the top level, tend to have shorter careers. On this we will see.

        • More on this later, but I think that PCS (which I also used and use very often for this sort of things) needs a little more *arbitrary* – or, better said, “context-based” – corrections, in order to fully make sense.

          Just an example: Gimondi 1974 was 14th according to PCS – he mainly won the Sanremo, Agostoni (top 5: Gimondi-Bitossi-De Vlaeminck-Maertens-Merckx) and was 3rd in final GC at the Giro (30″ behind Merckx, who beat Baronchelli by 12″, that legendary Tre Cime Giro with Tarangu unchained and Merckx against the ropes), plus a convincing 2nd place in GC at A travers Lausanne with a stage win.

          Now have a look at the profile of the hyper-local and very prolific (the two things go hand by hand) Txomin Perurena who was 4th that season in general PCS ranking… a load of stage wins in Spanish races, only two of them at the Vuelta (GT), and, well, the Tour’s mountain jersey and the point one at the Vuelta. Fine, but…? Is that really just quantity prevailing over quality, or is it rather a deeper issue? The answer, for me, is checking for example GP Pascuas or GP Masferrer each of which brings to Perurena as many points as the Agostoni to Gimondi for the victory. Have a look at the albo d’oro those years, and have a look at whom they beat. Absolute nonsense. Agostoni was one of the *very very top* Classics, Pascuas or Masferrer weren’t worth a current .2
          Same for the very peculiar A travers Lausanne. Now we barely remember it because it’s been over for more than 20 years, but in the 90s it was still quite a big thing, as in the previous 50 years. A different racing format, no doubt, but with top champions going hard for it. Again, just have a look at the podiumers through the decades.

          5th place Lasa? Essentially, he won Itzulia and was 3rd in GC at the Vuelta. Full stop. PCS rewarding minor placings in GC like 4th in Dauphiné (when nobody seriously went for it, he fits among Santy, Danguillaume, Pingeon and Poulidor), 9th (!) at Pa-Ni or… 17th at TDF (!!!).

          Verbeeck and Panizza barely won a handful of minor race between them (the former winning Brabantse Pijl and the latter being 4th at the TDF some 11 minutes back, sandwiched by the KAS duo of López and Aja, being the absolute highlights).

          All in all, none of the above had a season as good as Gimondi with a Giro podium, a Monument and a major Classics – but…!

          Of course, it’s not PCS’ fault. They put on a system which tries to work the better it can. There have been experiment of rolling evaluation of races based on rolling success of eventual top-10, but that’s quite complicated. All the above just show how short a point system can come when you try to measure a cycling season. It’s nice to have a first impression, but if your final index is based on “counting seasons” on a magnitude of 10, you must check deeper, or you’ll discover that the natural “mistakes” occurring on a couple of seasons or so can change a whole perspective.

    • Great comment. Add Greg LeMond to the list of young prodigies. Tapie and Hinault flew over to the USA to sign him up, when he had barely raced outside of the USA – but gained attention via UCI juniors. He then got some good results in his first season at Renault-Gitane, then the next year Tour de l’Avenir and 2nd in the senior road WCs as a 21yo, and then road WC the next year as a 22yo.

      He might have gotten bigger results early on, if not for Hinault cleverly signing him young to work for him rather than risk having him as a competitor.

      • Coppi and Van Steenbergen also surfaced extremely young and had an impressive careers (all-time greats).

        (See also, sadly in this case, Monseré).

        Binda could be added, too, if one wants to consider him the first of a new age in cycling rather than the last heroe of pioneering “adventure” cycling. I’d tend to do the former.

        Remco started to hit big even sooner than Pogi…

  8. Just a follow up to my post on pressure, founder and CEO of Dstny, Daan De Wever, in an interview says,”We are not applauding for seventh place” about De Lie and, “If we don’t win a stage at Tour, it will be a big setback for us and we will actually have a shitty season. Tour accounts for fifty percent of all media attention. In Belgium and the Netherlands, people are starting to know Dstny, but our priority is European brand awareness.”
    European brand awareness … Also reaffirms the oversize influence of the Tour.

  9. My takeaway from this is that Lefevre couldve signed Sagan and didn’t. I’m pretty sure he’d have had a look at ‘the Vans’ at some stage too. I’m not convinced his arrogance is justified!

    Your article underlines a point I have always said. Cycling is a straightforward sport where you either have it (the physiology) or you don’t. People have tried to tell me its about hard work or suffering through the pain. Everyone is in bits when they get to the top of a climb or the end of a time trial. But some people go a lot quicker.

    • Padrino Pat had a shot a Wout, too, but he refused him because he wouldn’t let go CX, reportedly.

      If it was about pure physiology, Andy Schleck would have won more, same for Bugno, Landa, Pozzato, Motta, Purito, Ullrich and an endless list of other guys (Wout soon in the list?). Wout maybe enters a different list of riders who’ve been conditioned by programmation/team decisions and hence expressed and – even more important – *got* less (different from “winning less”) than what their physiology would allow, like Sagan or Valverde.

      Hard to say who’d have won less if it was watts or w/kg only, but Nibali comes obviously to mind, and Contador probably can be included, too, though not as obviously, then clearly the likes of Freire, Van Petegem, Savoldelli, Carapaz, Di Luca, Vinokourov etc.

      • I understand what you’re saying. In the professional peloton where everyone is a hitter and who wins comes down to the finest margins then having some sort of X factor may decide it in your favour. But all those riders were at the front of the biggest big races, and their engine got them there. Nobody gets a taxi to the front of a bike race. You could say Nibali’s descending won him 3 monuments. But he attacked from the front. You could say Savoldelli’s descending made up for his lack of climbing prowess, but so did his time trialling. I’m not convinced Di Luca or Vinokourov are the best examples bearing in mind what we know they did to make their engines more efficient!

          • Exactly.
            As in any pro sport, of course you need some physical requirement to compete, but once you’re able to ride among the pro peloton, cycling offers (more or less meagre) winning chances to a broader range of physical types, top-performance level, kinds of preferred performance etc. than most other pro sport. Is it about w/kg or pure watts? For how long? After how many hours of effort? After how many previous top efforts? On a predictable effort pattern or against an undefined set of intense efforts? All that variety gives room to such a complex matrix of possibilities that it’s more about finding *your* way to win (or to enjoy a meaningful pro career where you determine a team victory) rather than just surpassing the rest in physical prowess.
            In fact, the examples concerning Nibali or Savoldelli don’t work the way Richard S appears to understand them. It’s not about having part of the course where one of your skills allows you to go faster, although it helps and they put it at good use. Instead, it was all about management of time, where and how and for how long you use your energies against the rest. Nibali didn’s set any special time down the Poggio. It’s reading the whole contest, both the course and the action/reaction (or lack thereof) of rivals so that what you can throw into the game becomes just enough to take it all, irrespective of it’s athletically “less” than others’.
            Roglic was *not* the physically strongest rider in either stage race of that couple he recently won also harvesting stage victories along the way.
            Of course, a rider with a strong team will be able to bend the contest to what’s more similar to his or her field of excellence. And, of course, absolute and abundant physical superiority will tend to win a race, especially in GTs. Call it the AVV effect if you please (yet, check those last Worlds…). But you can also remember how the likes of Cancellara or Sagan were extremely vocal about not being able to win races where they were physically dominant and by far. It happened to Boonen, also, though he complained less. In GTs it’s not uncommon, either. Tao, Carapaz, Vinokourov, Valverde, Hejsedal, Contador, Froome, Nibali all won GTs without being the physically strongest athlete in the final GC… although of course the strongest athlete used to be close enough (obviously, it’s in the nature of GTs to reward overall fitness, and even so…!).

            Ps The point re: individual doping is rather moot, given that individual, little more than homemade, treatments just grant you that athletic level *still inferior to others*, which is just the starting point upon which the victories I have in mind were built.

  10. Have just been watching a 15 year old go around in an Australian Michelin Supersport race. He started on pole and finished second …is third in the overall.
    Can only assume that he will be bored with it all by the time he is 20!

    • “Can only assume that he will be bored with it all by the time he is 20!”
      Wouldn’t bet on that if the examples from the past apply – most of the moto champs were into it at young ages. IMHO most of ’em go out not because they’re bored with it all, but because they’re injured or just can’t cut it anymore and nobody will hire them. Casey Stoner would be exception #1 perhaps?
      In cycling there’s a danger of lumping guys like Saronni into some “got bored with it” category when you have no clue as to what happened. Some guys like Hinault call-their-shot and quit in their prime while others like Froome just don’t seem to know when to quit – but when some rich idiot is writing fat checks to you, it’s hard to argue with the idea of hanging up the wheels, especially if you have no other skills or interests…ala BigTex who is too old/banned so all he can find to do is flap his jaw about racing? I ignore the guy so maybe he is doing something else that I don’t know (or care) about.

      • The brain maturing to point where reality that the risks of lifelong niggling injuries are basically certainties, and risks of worse are non-trivial, must start to kick in somewhere after 25 – then mentally losing maybe a 0.5% off the ability to ride right at the ragged edge, must be a factor in many.

        In stoner’s case, it’s worth considering that he became a father early in 2012. And he had some hefty crashes that year too. Got to be factors…

  11. Great article. There’s the talented sportsperson and then the talented team around them. Are we in danger of focusing too much on those we can see rather than those in the background. In football the manager is so visible when things are going well they valet the praise for tactics or man management…. Surely these teams have become more sophisticated hence why you often not just the young superstar doing well but often the rest of the team chipping in with good results- UAE and JMV particularly.

  12. I believe that Silvio Martinello recently suggested that Italy should get rid of the U23 category for the sake of the national cycling movement.

    • Italy has such a great U23 scene, it’s one of the few parts left in Italian cycling to cheer about these days with riders from around the world coming to test themselves in races that have become reference points.

      • Indeed, but that’s precisely part of the issue… it’s become an objective in itself, which may not be the best route to middle term development of athletes.

        • To make my point clearer, just scroll through the results of Val d’Aosta, Giro Baby and Friuli, say from 15 to 4 years ago. You’ll notice a lot of Italian athletes, up there with the foreign ones. Now have a look at their respective subsequent careers.

          • And Tiberi is a case study.

            The piece above was long already plus I wanted to think more of the trend than the current cases but look at Trek-Segafredo hiring 2019 junior world champions Quinn Simmons and Antonio Tiberi and see what’s happened since, it’s not been a fairy tale to put it mildly.

            There are several examples but the likes of Ineos letting Carlos Rodriguez finish his education with a calendar to suit his classes is something worthwhile.

  13. Just to be Roland Barthes for a second: What would the sport be if it were all young riders all the time? No known characters, nothing for analysts and experts to pronounce upon?
    Any sport to be successful needs its media, its structures for the narrative to hold. For many years this was held in place by doping, as it allowed a fixed firmament of kapos so there could be rivalries over repeated seasons with only very few new faces ever able to break in to stories and threads around each fixture and the style of each race that came around. The mountain trains, the lies about training methods, the loyal lieutenants, the whole stage-management that broadcast packages required and got…
    These were extremes which eventually even those with noses deepest in the trough came to realise it would not survive the next midnight raid and exposé.
    We’re still in the phase where the sport and its media are settling down. Young riders have more tools to use in how they manage their performance, and of course some are better at this than others. The externalisation of objective measurement also enables better remote management such that it’s now down to team style and policy on whether this is seen as oppressive or liberating. Whatever, riders can only come at the sport based on what they offer in performance terms and this will mean that more come through earlier, with nothing that supposedly established riders can do about it, now they don’t have doping, and the access to it to control who gets to break through.
    So where before the teams, their doctors and the meds could manage a rider’s career starting from a rider’s young profile; now the process can only be immediate and based on actual performance plus training capacity. – If a rider has it at a younger age the teams must use it when it’s there.
    Of course what we don’t yet know is how long it will be possible for young stars to go on performing and the teams may start to become a lot less patient with riders who’ve crashed or simply peaked, and who need fallow seasons for recuperation. They might find it hard to build structures for teamwork with all riders who came in as young stars. And this is all before any discussion of ethics and contracts too, which is where this excellent article takes us.
    I guess I’m saying the sport was at the extreme for many years and it’s a relief to have it spring away from that but does it have structures to deal with the adjustment of age and peak performance to the younger end of the scale.
    I’m certainly glad to have an end to the ‘unbelievable’ performance and ‘total dominance we’ve come to expect each July’ as being the main narratives of cycle sport in the media. It should be a young man’s ( and woman’s ) game, so now it’s just a matter of us fans and the media catching up.

    • You make some great points, but I think you overshoot the mark. We appear to have a recent trend for what were once considered very young riders to be competing at the highest level in a way that was once rare. We see late teenagers getting onto WT teams, and not as dev riders, and we see 20-22 y/o riders competing successfully in some major races. But these riders are still relatively rare, and most that show extremely early potential still need 3-4 years of development to start consistently winning. As I pointed out above, for most riders through history this has been typical. In ‘the old days’ a rider would show promise at 21-22, start making waves at 23-24, start winning at 25-26, and reach relative peaks at 26-30. And of the relatively few who became stars, very very few had even 10 years of stardom. Now, for some but not all riders, this is shifted a couple of years earlier, and so far this is only for the riders who win, not for support riders, who don’t seem to be getting any younger as far as I can tell.

      I do think the changes in training and preparation has led to changes in the racing (more full gas), and this will likely lead to bodies wearing out sooner, so career lengths (as stars, not as domestiques) will probably shrink. I think the cleaner peloton, as you note, also plays a part in this, since older riders simply don’t recover as easily, and younger riders don’t need exogenous T and GH, etc, etc. But if there is a shift towards more selective programs (which we’ve seen in the road racing careers of WvA and MvdP), then overall career lengths for many star riders may not shorten as much as I expect.

      I think any fear that the sport may shift to only young riders, to the point that the ‘narrative’ of the sport is compromised, is impossible. First, as soon as a young rider becomes a star, they immediately become known characters, and the media and fans get to know them quite well. De Lie hasn’t won a single WT race, and I believe has but a single HC race victory, but he’s already famous in the sport and generating lots of narratives. It feels like Pog and Remco have been around forever, and both are still young by the sport’s standards. Secondly, there just aren’t enough of these athletes available to take up even a third of the rosters of a WT team. Imagine if a single WT team found a new Pog, Remco, Sagan, or De Lie every year. First, that would mean about about 20 different incredible 18-20 y/o talents entering the sport every year. Seem likely? No. There’s just nowhere for that many young road riders to come from. And even if there were, many would be retiring faster than new riders could enter. A team that truly wanted to do what you seem to fear (consistently have a very young team with few veterans) would have to hire 6-8 very young riders per year, relentlessly. What would they gain? They’d be throwing money at theoretical talent that, we know from the history of the sport, has a high likelihood of washing out for physical or psychological reasons, getting bored or frustrated, or not physically progressing. Meanwhile there would be plenty of mid-career and late-career aged riders willing to work for decent wages who can support the stars (young or “old”) just fine, or even better than fine thanks to their experience.

    • It’s a good point. In the past people had time to get to know, or just apply labels, to a grand tour winner, plus the rider themselves had become used to interviews and communications. Like a novel or TV series, a character had time to become established.

      By contrast it’s taken a while to get to know Pogačar a bit. Vingegaard is very low profile (that’s fine if he wants privacy) but we would have met him at more races in years past. Ayuso though seems very at ease with the media; Evenepoel wasn’t but is much more relaxed now even if as mentioned above he’s had to get help. Arnaud De Lie is almost the exception, young but rooted like some old guy, he said a while back he’s happiest on his farm and if he wants some time out then there’s nothing better than going to the local agricultural exhibition to see the livestock and machinery although he’s not No.1 in Belgium so he’s not public property either.

      • De Lie’s breakthrough win could come any day now – eg; Eschborn Frankfurt today – but he’s already a star thanks in large part to an old-style of media coverage where the journos try to inform the public who they expect to see on the podium soon. Sure the national lottery backed team Lotto DSTNY has its PR working on cases like this so the guy gets his farming background dragged on the scene as a photo opp…
        Wouldn’t it be better to let the guy win a bit and then get noticed? I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve coverage as a person and I am questioning the guy’s need for it, compared to the team’s and sponsor’s need. Eventually he may get the wins and coverage will come, but does this kind of punditry and backgrounding help him at all? This is the media and the marketing team clutching at the old ways.

        • I have a different take. My enjoyment of watching cycling races is usually proportional to how much I know about the key riders (as well as the history of that race). It’s crucial context. Knowing a bunch of rider’s histories, how they’ve been doing recently, who’s coming back from injury, who’s the youngster on the verge of a breakthrough, etc., etc. Part of me wants to enjoy it for the sheer spectacle, but to be very frank watching a cycling race without knowing that context is boring. Sometimes I’ll check out a smaller race that is broadcast in some non-English language, and even if the graphics make clear which group I’m looking at and what the intervals are, I find it impossible to be engaged.

          There’s a special pleasure in watching someone like De Lie win his first big WT race after having learned his bg, and watched him in lesser races, and seen him miss out a few times in the big races. It’s a little like going fishing. The joy of the process isn’t just in catching a fish (which is often rather anticlimactic), but in all that surrounds it. For example, I first heard about Brandon McNulty in 2014 on another cycling website when the father of a good teenage American racer cryptically mentioned that there was a new generation of American road racers who would make us forget about the prominent American racers of that time. When asked for specifics, one of the names he gave was McNulty, and so I kept an eye out for him ever since. It was a special thrill actually watching him take his first wins, and his first near misses were fun to be a part of (as an observer of course – I thinking of is ride to Hatta Dame in early 2018 as a 19 y/o).

    • Yes, I think that’s a lot of it. Also the erosion of traditional hierarchies and ‘old fashioned’ ways (and I write that having a tremendous fondness for at least some of those old-fashioned ways and traditions).

    • Science overtook folklore during the 80s, than art overtook science, than madness overtook art, than politics overtook madness, than money overtook politics, than geopolitics overtook money, than the small & nice nations conglomerate just overtook it all within the epic clash of Gianetti-Matxin vs. the Dutch school.

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