Spring Chickens: The WorldTour's Burgeoning Youth
"It's all that the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date".
George Bernard Shaw
"These young guys just don't seem to care," says the young Eurosport commentator Adam Blythe, as he dissects the race fought out by young riders in emerging races from a broadcasting duo which, still itself a little wet behind the ears, is astounded by the brilliance of today's blossoming crop of young riders. It's certainly become an undoubtedly common occurrence on the contemporary racing scene for a coterie of cycling's glitterati, hardly free from the shielding arms of puberty, to be bounding off down the road at outrageous speed. There is a certain mid 20th century-esque baby boom going on. When Tom Pidcock, Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar all shuffled themselves, along with some pretty feisty elder peers, off into a race defining move at Strade Bianche (a pretty juvenile event in it's own right), a less assiduous follower of bike racing could be forgiven for thinking he'd tuned into a Dad 'n' Lad gravel sportif across Tuscany's Crete Senesi. Little would this newbie know that the wee bains settled alongside their parents in the day's winning move had two Tour de France titles and a World Cyclocross podium splattered across their Winnie the Pooh onesies. And it's persisting. The barriers to lower age leadership are falling with every tootsie that's placed on a Monument's top step. It's becoming more and more apposite for a self-respecting elite team to have an eye to the future in a promising upstart amongst its ranks. So is this adolescent vanguard, in need of a good winding, merely revelling in a bit of play time? Or are we seeing an age-related cycling revolution being acted out in between a pillow fight and a session in the sand pit?
Like kiddies in a sweet shop, Pogacar and Pidcock battling it out at the head of proceedings. © Luc Claessen/Getty Images
One thing's for sure: this kind of thing has happened in the past, only not to the extent to which we are now enjoying. Since time immemorial, hairless sopranics have scampered off to many a race victory. Within the pantheon of legends: Jacques Anquetil - five time Tour ace - won the French National Road Championships at 18; Miguel Indurain - five time Tour ace - was the youngest ever wearer of the Vuelta's red jersey at 20; Eddy Merckx - five time Tour ace - won amateur races at 16 and the Milan Sanremo, in 1966, at 21. Lance Armstrong - *seven time Tour ace* - had ten one-day events and a World Championship under his belt by the time he was 22 and Mr Bianchi himself, the archetypal epitome of Italian razzamataz and panache, Fausto Coppi, triumphed at the last Giro before the Second World War, just beyond his 20th birthday. Other obscenely talented individuals: Pantani, Hinault and Contador have all seen success having barely left the sport's starting blocks.
Whilst at first glance then, the current dernier cri of boyish success might not be anything too revolutionary, nevertheless the inescapable common denominator of era superiority amongst the above selection is obvious. And it may well be that we are looking, over the next decade or so as our immature century drinks and smokes it's way into it's 20s, at utter domination from a tiny minority of jumped up teens. The culture surrounding team play and the methods used by our favourite squads to put themselves across the line first is also altering significantly. I am by no means an advocate for the parochial diligence often needed by a rookie or a neo-pro to climb a roster's ladder, it seems now that the formula is: if you're good enough, then you're old enough. No longer is a budding Grand Tour aspirant expected to become some servile plastic pack horse, heaving the day's comestibles up the Tourmalet on behalf of the incumbent leader; some 29 year old has-been that lacks both rhyme and reason.
This rings true outside our cliquey bubble of professional cycling. The wider world too, looks to be adapting, facilitating and even encouraging younger and younger people to apply their trade in competitive sport's top flights. Aside from the recent apoplexy around riches ruling football (who'd have thought it?), the beautiful game would appear to have it's own array of fledgling talent. Antwoine Hackford of Sheffield United, Dane Scarlett of Tottenham, Shola Shoretire of Manchester United and Liam Delap of Manchester City, are all Premier League participants that, were they to win a major trophy as part of their respective clubs, would be prohibited by law from guzzling the lavish pitch-side champagne. Kylian Mbappe, arguably football's most sought after asset of late, was brought on from Monaco's substitutes bench in 2015 when he was only 300 days above the country's age of sexual consent. Formula 1's Max Verstappen, who now fights Britain's Lewis Hamilton tooth and nail for the chequered flag every weekend, albeit at the primordial age of 23, was rounding bends at multiple hundreds of miles an hour and held an F1 super license before he could legally drive a regular car. Olympic sports such as Gymnastics and Diving also have well documented histories of medals being won by callow champions; 13 year old Marjorie Gerstring, for example, placed first in the 3 metre springboard event in Berlin 1936.
Is this toddler's takeover a sign of things to come?
Nobody knows where this juvenescence will end either. Will we soon have Junior teams whose status supersede that of their Senior brothers? Might the desideratum for a covetous rider soon become a signature on the dotted line for Axel Merckx's Hagens Berman outfit as opposed to a place on Ineos or Jumbo Visma? Could key stage race scouts be lining the grassy knolls of Parisian parks ahead of an U10 race, anxious to see which Herculean primary school superstar will put out some watt bombs and thus take the day?
The lines between Junior and Elite are becoming vague. © Davey Wilson
Of course I do not wish to ignore the late resurgence of Mark Cavendish (35), Peter Sagan (31) and Alejandro Valverde (40), who have made the last month their own with victories in Turkey, Catalunya and Estella. But these minor footnotes in either men's careers shows the extent to which much younger guys are disproportionately the cats that get the cream, and that in reality, a win from the old guard has to be conceived with them in mind - a tailored course with terrain that matches their skillset; a Deus Ex Machina thrown in at the last minute by the organisers to save the retiring thespians from a winless stage exit. Battered quinquagenarians left to shake their super stiff carbon-railed zimmer frames at the meddling kids that drop them with ease. The latter geriatric, Mr Valverde, has done his best to elasticise a successful cyclist's tenure, but there doesn't appear to be any other practising pensioners following in his slipper steps. As a young man yet to grace the fruitful fields of adulthood, I'm certainly glad to see the meteoric rise of Pidcock, Pogačar and co. But there is, rather ironically, a time-related caveat to investigations around young riders' readiness and ripeness, in that, by the time we've ascertained whether these young guns are any good or not, they themselves will be bed-bound 23 year olds, destined for the efficacy waste bin, in the flurried wake of the next ensemble of lycra clad yuppies.
Make it a nice Residential Primoz! One of those Bupa ones, with wholesome foods and a magician! © Sunada