Are young riders enjoying more success?

Are young riders enjoying more success?

Image:  22 year old Tadej Pogacar revelling in his Yellow Jersey ride to Paris.  Image: Dreamstime

 

 

The recent Giro d’Italia is the latest race to highlight the emergence of an impressive crop of young riders that are pushing the older generation hard, and maybe even toward retirement. 

So, is the media right to focus on this perceived shift in the age of top cyclists and what could be the possible factors behind such a change?

If 2020 has seen a greater coverage of young riders then the 2019 season had already flagged it up, including a Vuelta podium for the then 21 year old Tadej Pogacar (UAE) and the overall win at the Tour for 22 year old Egan Bernal (Ineos).  Pogacar then stormed further into the limelight with his win at the Tour de France earlier this year, including possibly one of the most spectacular Time Trials ever seen. 

Others in this crop to recently outperform their years include:

  • Remco Evanpoel (22, Deceuninck-Quick Step).
    • 2019 European Time Champion
    • 2020 Vuelta a San Juan 1st
    • 2020 Volta ao Algarve 1st
    • 2020 Vuelta a Burgos 1st
    • 2020 Tour of Poland 1st

 

  • Marc Hirschi (22, Sunweb).
    • Three podium finishes at Tour de France
    • Bronze at 2020 World Championships
    • 2020 La Fleche Wallonne 1st
    • 2020 Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2nd

 

  • Joao Almeida (22, Deceuninck-Quick Step)
    • 15 days in Leaders Jersey at Giro d’Italia 2020 and 4th Overall on Grand Tour debut

 

So, are the successes of exceptional young riders really something new or have there always been as many young riders punching above their years?  To try and analyse this question we looked at the age of the GC podium finishers at the three Grand Tours completed over the past decade i.e. 87 podium positions (with La Vuelta 2020 incomplete at the time of writing).  This provides a good metric over a reasonable timeframe to see if there is a trend in the age of the most successful riders. 
Average age of Overall Podium finishers at Giro/Tour/Vuelta

While this is still only a small sample and a snapshot of the successful riders in the peloton it appears that there is indeed something of a downward trend in the average age of podium finishers, from around 30 in the early part of the decade toward 29 and more recently toward the 28 year area.  Clearly another thing to draw from this is that even if the trend is moving downward the majority of the podium spots at the largest races are still filled by very experienced riders at what has generally been considered the peak riding age of around 28 years.

The oldest and youngest podium finishers over the past decade were the 42 year old Chris Horner at La Vuelta in 2013 and at half that age, Tadej Pogacar with 20.9 years old finished third at the same race in 2019.

So, if we believe that the average ago of the most successful riders has indeed been declining then what are the possible reasons?   As usual with such a subject the factors are numerous and difficult to value but we would suggest that the following may be important.

Youth Riding, Sport Science and Performance Metrics:  With the growth in popularity in cycling it seems likely that there are more young riders that are participating and then racing at a good level at a young age than there were say 15 and 20 years ago. 

Also, although equipment has improved incrementally over the years the access to very high-level equipment has also improved, meaning that there are fewer barriers to entry for up and coming riders to rise up through the levels of the sport and then for some of those to push higher into the professional peloton.  Similarly, advances in and the proliferation of quality Sports Science practices have increased, meaning that a promising teenage rider may be at less of a disadvantage compared to elite athletes than was the case in the past.  This may be a factor behind an increasing number of elite young riders eventually meriting their places in professional squads.   

As part of the development of Sport Science has come a greater focus on performance metrics.  It is possible that with greater use of these metrics has come a greater willingness by teams to blood young riders based on impressive performance metrics.  Interestingly, it may also be the case that the almost universal usage of power meters means that the benefit of experience gained over many years in pacing a long climb or a time trial has to some extent been neutralised by the power meter, again levelling the playing field for young riders compared to their more experienced competitors.

Budgets: The commercial structure of the professional circuit has meant that a number of teams have been put under increasing financial pressure in recent years.  This has led some teams to release expensive riders as they approach their thirties and instead give greater opportunity to young riders who early in their career are on lower salaries.   

2020 race calendar:  It is also possible that 2020 may be something of an anomalous year since the compression of the the racing season has meant teams have had to allocate their squads more widely, giving more opportunity for young riders to race and also to prosper as the perceived top riders have been restricted due to scheduling clashes. 

 

When all is said and done, its certainly exciting and intriguing to see new and young riders pushing the experienced household names, which can only be a positive for the sport.  If this trend persists it might be the case that the Best Young Rider competition age limit (25 in Giro and Vuelta and 26 in Tour) should be reduced, frequently the top riders in the GC are also holding the Young Rider jersey.  Reducing the age limit to say 23 would allow a little more limelight on the real up-and-coming young riders.