Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
With the WorldTour fetishising young talent, are the days of serial Grand Tour winners gone for good, asks Jeremy Whittle?
It’s getting harder than ever to repeat Grand Tour success. In the past five seasons of Grand Tour racing, there have been 11 different winners of the 15 Grand Tour titles, of Italy, France and Spain. Only three of those eleven champions — Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič and Egan Bernal — have won more than a single GT. And with team leaders getting younger by the season, who can guarantee that any of those trio will win a Grand Tour again?
2022’s Grand Tour champions were all first-time winners. Jai Hindley (pictured) won in Italy, Jonas Vingegaard out-climbed Pogačar in France and, in the Spanish sunshine, Remco Evenepoel finally came through to thwart serial Vuelta winner Roglič. They all go into the 2023 season hoping to build on those successes, but conscious too that their window of opportunity may be brief, with countless other young riders hot on their heels.
In the previous five seasons, Chris Froome was the dominant Grand Tour rider, picking up all three titles in the years between 2011 and 2018, coming out ahead of podium rivals and fellow GT winners such as Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana. When Froome and Team Sky were in their pomp, the outcome every July seemed almost a foregone conclusion. But in 2022, with three new faces topping the podium, Grand Tour domination fully opened up.
The top tiers of WorldTour racing are getting more crowded by the season. Alongside those 11 past champions, there are others threatening to move into contention this season: Jay Vine, recent winner of the Tour Down Under, Tour de l’Avenir champion Cian Uijtdebroeks, GP Marseillaise winner Neilson Powless, French Tour hope David Gaudu, Ethan Hayter, winner of the Tour of Poland, and 20-year-old Juan Ayuso, third overall at last year’s Vuelta. How long will it be before these names replace the others?
Then there are even younger riders, such as baby-faced Irish climber Archie Ryan, fifth overall behind Uitjdebroeks in last year’s Tour de l’Avenir and second to the Belgian prodigy at La Toussuire, a rider who’s now with the Jumbo Visma Academy and whose youthful promise is reminiscent of the young Sepp Kuss.
So what has caused this seemingly never-ending churn of talent? There are several factors (although there will be multiple others) that have accelerated change in recent years.
The impact of the pandemic and its lockdowns, stalled the careers of some riders, while injuries and ageing impacted on the careers of others. For older team leaders, valuable seasons were compromised with some pre-Covid champions (Froome, Nibali, Valverde as examples) never again reaching their levels of their earlier success, so accelerating the process of retirement, recruitment and talent-hunting within their teams and thus the peloton.
Did younger riders adapt better to the physiological and psychological impacts of Covid? Whatever, there’s no doubt that the pandemic also accelerated the economic churn, of riders, sponsors and even races, thus changing the dynamic of the sport as a whole.
Fuelled by the wider growth of performance analytics and sports science, the margins between success and ‘failure’ are even more minimal. Then there’s the use of training platforms, apps and social media, all of which have further connected talent to the top teams and made elite performance more attainable and measurable than in the past. Vine, whose talents were recognised on a training platform during the pandemic, is a perfect example. His route into the peloton was through the Zwift Academy’s virtual talent search in 2020.
There is now also greater opportunity — and financial incentive — than a decade ago.
There are more big-budget super teams than in 2013, when Froome took his first Tour and Sky’s monopoly of the leading talent ensured the team’s ongoing domination. The presence of sponsors such as Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, UAE-Emirates, Soudal-QuickStep and others, such as Israel Start-Up Nation, which continues to fund Froome, despite his lack of results, is indicative of the wealth at the top end of the peloton.
The fetishisation of youth, allied to the ability of sports science to identity outstanding talent, such as Vine, has accelerated the development of young riders. The average age of Tour champions, between 2000 and 2018, was older than 30, but that changed in 2019 when 22 year old Bernal took his first win, followed by 21 year old Pogačar claiming his debut yellow jersey in 2020.
Then there is the pervasive influence of rider agents, another difference between today’s peloton and that of a decade ago. Careers can be forged — or undone — in these negotiations, usually over messaging apps, sometimes over coffee in the lobby of a team hotel. As the search for the new Bernal, or new Pogačar gathers pace, there has been an increased monetisation of the transfer market and a greater emphasis on realising maximum value for riders that may one day become GT winners. This has accelerated the churn, fuelling career progression for some, while speeding the path to retirement for others.
The old adage, that older riders, hardened by experience, make more likely Grand Tour winners has been thrown out of the window. Now we have ageing champions, such as Geraint Thomas, Froome and to an extent, Roglič, clinging on, and a stampede of young pretenders, elbowing their generation out of the way.
This churn, of constant renewal, is a trend that looks unlikely to change. When Bernal took his first Tour, he was expected to dominate for years to come. The same was said of Pogačar, yet even he was stalled last July by Vingegaard’s remarkable win. Incredibly, the Dane is, at just 26, almost a veteran. Now it’s already his turn to start looking over his shoulder.