There’s an undeniable surge of youth within the peloton. It isn’t just one exceptional young rider, but a swarm. What do all these riders have in common? And how could they achieve so much so soon? Other than being fast and young, there are some interesting threads and commonalities. First off, many of today’s new stars have the right DNA. Many of today’s most astonishingly successful young riders also have unbridled ambition.
- Quite literally, they were born to race. Bernal’s father, though never a pro, was a top-rated amateur in Colombia, and gifted his son with his legendary VO2max that dips into the low 90s.
- Of course, van der Poel’s DNA is almost an unfair advantage. His father was Adri van der Poel, a fabled pro with a nearly 20-year career who won such races as Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. His grandfather is French legend Raymond Poulidor, whose career stretched across cycling’s glory days from Jacques Anquetil to Merckx.
- The riders of Generation Z are here, and they’re suddenly making an impact in every race they start. The leading lights of today were all born in the late 1990s. Or, in Evenepoel’s case, in 2000. The prodigiously talented Belgian is the first WorldTour winner born in this century.
- In many ways, today’s generation is the peloton’s disruptor. Today, Bernal, van der Poel, and those like them, look poised to turn cycling on its head. It’s too early to say how far this vanguard can go, but early indications suggest they could rewrite how we view modern cycling.
- The arrival of these young prodigious riders is disrupting the traditional inner workings of teams at another level. Team Ineos brought Bernal to the Tour last year even though he had never raced more than eight days in a row up to that point. Why? The numbers proved it.
- The flood of young, charismatic talent certainly comes at a good time for the sport.
- To attract a new generation of fans, professional racing needs young, exciting, charismatic riders. And suddenly the sport is overflowing with candidates to fill the void.
- What’s more impressive is the depth and quality of performances that today’s young riders have been able to deliver. It’s not as if they’re winning a stage at a second-tier event. They’re taking home the biggest trophies on the calendar.
- Cycling’s history is full of riders who make immediate and dramatic imprints in their rookie seasons. Eddy Merckx won the first of his record seven Milano-Sanremo victories at the age of 20. Greg LeMond finished third in his Tour de France debut at 23, and won two years later. And even the controversial Lance Armstrong won the world title at 21, still the youngest ever to earn the rainbow stripes.
Another key factor is that today’s riders are at the cutting edge of the incremental advances that have steadily improved human performance over the past 20 years.
- Better science, nutrition, and technology, which helps any bike racer, only acts as an accelerant when applied to today’s über-talented youngsters. Lighter frames, aero helmets and skin-suits, calibrated diets and recovery, coupled with the granular attention to detail in training programs means young riders can advance their racing development at a staggering rate. If they have the motor, and the skills to back it up, they can expect to perform almost immediately.
Many insiders cite a cleaner peloton for helping to clear the path for young talent to shine.
- The fact that a 22-year-old can win the Tour is viewed by many as a sign that cycling has leveled the playing field dramatically since the days of a peloton at two speeds.
- The world’s blossoming talent pool has delivered a Colombian, a Russian raised in France, a Belgian, and a Dutchman of royal pedigree, revealing the peloton’s ever-larger international reach.
Egan Bernal is poised to dominate the Tour de France unlike any rider in a generation.
- The mild-mannered Colombian has the skills, the temperament, the motor, and the team to potentially reel off one yellow jersey after another. Even Armstrong said Bernal could beat his redacted record of seven Tour titles.
- Egan pedaled into cycling nirvana, breaking the barrier to become the first Latin American to win the Tour de France, and becoming the youngest winner, at 22, since World War II.
- Bernal, is riding to heights unimagined when he joined Team Sky at the start of the 2018 season. Everyone knew he was good, but what he’s been able to realize in the first 18 months of his WorldTour racing career—winning Colombia Oro y Paz and the Amgen Tour of California in 2018, and Paris-Nice, the Tour de Suisse, and the Tour de France in 2019—is beyond words.
- Team Ineos astutely signed Bernal and Sivakov, and counts nine riders who are 24 or younger on its 29-rider roster. Ineos has been on a recruiting campaign the past two years to bolster its aging line of confirmed leaders.
- “At 33, 34, Geraint and Chris are coming to the twilight of their careers,” Brailsford said during the Tour. “I wanted a ‘new’ Chris Froome, basically. So I set myself the challenge of finding him.
Evenepoel ripped through the junior world championships last year, winning both the road race and time trial titles, he catapulted straight to the WorldTour, and bypassed the U23 ranks altogether.
- Something extraordinary happened in the final hour of racing on the twisting roads of northern Spain in early August. Remco Evenepoel, the swashbuckling 19-year-old Belgian phenomenon, rode everyone off his wheel on the final climb at Clásica San Sebastián. Despite a chase from some of the biggest motors in the international peloton, including Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and world champion Alejandro Valverde, Evenepoel tearfully crossed the line all alone, more than 30 seconds ahead of the charging group. The victory was as emphatic as it was astonishing.
- More than a coming-of-age moment, Evenepoel’s victory was a declaration of a new era.
- “This is exceptional,” said Eddy Merckx. “We know that Remco has a large engine. The fact that he is already showing it proves that he is mature early. He is ready for the big job. Can he follow in my footsteps? Maybe he will even get better. Remco has all the qualities to make it happen.”
Mathieu van der Poel has all the makings of a true international superstar for a new age. The Dutch phenom is so talented he can dominate any discipline he chooses. Perhaps van der Poel’s biggest challenge, much like Sagan’s before him, is to stay engaged and motivated (i.e. to not get bored) with the intensity and demands of performance at the highest level of road racing.
- That’s one reason why van der Poel, led by his father Adri and backed by a multi-year deal with Canyon bicycles, is creating a multi-discipline platform on which his prodigious son can perform.
- He’s already world champion in cyclocross, and is emerging as a dominant force in mountain biking. (He’s won three of six rounds of the XCO World Cup series.) This spring was just a taste of what lies ahead on the road for van der Poel, but first he’ll target the Olympic gold medal in mountain biking in Tokyo.
- Van der Poel is gleefully embracing the various roots and branches of modern cycling. It’s no longer only about the Tour de France. Performance and greatness can be measured not just in results, but in engagements, in interfacing with fans, and with the pure joy of racing.
Tadej Pogačar, the 2018 l’Avenir winner, became the youngest WorldTour stage-race winner at the age of 20, after coming out on top at the Amgen Tour of California in May.
- Similar to Bernal’s five-year deal with Ineos, Pogačar is under contract with UAE through the end of 2023.
- Perhaps it’s no mistake that Joxean Matxin Fernández, now lead sport director at UAE-Emirates, was a talent scout for Lefevere and Klein Constantia.
- “There have always been good riders coming up,” Fernández said. “The big difference today is that a lot more teams are investing in young riders and in developing talent. Before you had to prove yourself to get a contract. Now teams give riders a chance to grow.”