THE RACE FOR YOUTH
CYCLING WEEKLY|December 02, 2021
Young riders are signing – and winning – for the biggest teams more than ever before. CW looks at some of the challenges facing young riders in the WorldTour, and how we got here in the first place
James Shrubsall

It’s a weight on your shoulders, because you know you’ve got two years until you’re the same age as someone who’s won the Tour twice.”

It’s a thought-provoking view from the ranks offered up by British elite under-23 rider Tom Portsmouth. He’s talking about Tadej PogaÄar of course, and more widely the pressure created for riders of his age by seeing their peers win so big, so soon.

Referencing another prodigious early twentysomething, 19-year-old Portsmouth adds: “I’m nearly a year and 11 months younger than Remco [Evenepoel]. So my ambition is to try and keep myself in that mindset of trying to achieve the level he’s achieved at his age.

“I still believe in myself, I’ve got time,” adds Portsmouth, who rides for the Belgian Carbonbike-Discar Academy team. “But then you also don’t have time. It’s a kind of paradox.”

Teenage kicks

Less than 10 years ago, a teenager talking about not having time in a sport where the biggest races can still be won by riders in their late thirties might not have made sense.

But the last two or three years have ushered in a new paradigm – one of young hyper-talents and the biggest teams clamouring to sign juniors that hint at future greatness. Certainly in terms of age, it is as rider agent and Trinity Racing team boss Andrew McQuaid terms it, “a bit of a race to the bottom”. He adds: “These teams want the best riders and if they have to sign them at 17, 18, then that’s what they’ll do.”

Conventional wisdom has long had it that a pro rider would reach their prime towards their late twenties, having amassed enough racing experience to create a bulletproof engine capable of taking on a leadership role in the Grand Tours or the longest onedayers. Riders in their early twenties and at the beginning of their careers were generally held to be fragile and easily broken if pushed too hard. A Grand Tour education at that age usually meant a year or two of gathering experience, being pulled out at around the halfway point and zero expectation. In 15 seasons from 1990 to 2005, only one 21-year-old – Russian Dmitri Zhadanov – finished the Tour de France. But five have done so in the last four years, including PogaÄar, who became the race’s second youngest winner in history in 2020 (you have to go back to 1904 to find Henri Cornet, the only rider younger).

As for Evenepoel, of all the young Belgians touted as the next Eddy Merckx, this 21-year-old from Aalst looks like he might come closest to earning that impossible title. Despite spending a significant amount of his short career recovering from injury, Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl as Deceuninck will be known from next season have him on a five-year contract. And who can blame them, he started his WorldTour career with a bang, becoming the youngest ever rider, at 19, to win the Clásica San Sebástian.

“With Remco, we have nothing to lose. With him we opt for the long term,” Deceuninck boss Patrick Lefevere told Sporza, after re-signing him earlier this year.

You might think all this proves is that there are a few young riders winning some big races. And you’d also be right to point out that there are plenty of races still being won by riders in their late twenties and thirties – the traditional peak of a rider’s abilities. Neither does the women’s peloton match the trend – seasoned riders like Annemiek van Vleuten, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Anna van der Breggen have won most of the biggest races of the past two seasons between them. At the other end of the women’s age spectrum, the number of very young riders (under 22 years) in the Women’s WorldTour teams has remained fairly steady over the last few years.

Training and tech

It begs the question, is this just about Remco, Tadej and Egan Bernal – a collective blip on the ability readout? The answer is a resounding, yes – and no. It’s a simple equation involving two basic factors: access to training knowledge and tech for young riders, multiplied by the phenomena that are Evenepoel and PogaÄar.

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