Make way for the youth of today!

Last year at the age of 37 Lance Armstrong finished 3rd in the Tour de France. In doing so he became the oldest rider to finish in the top three of the Tour since, well, since Lance Armstrong in 2005. To find an older man than the ’05 Armstrong to have finished on the podium of the Tour you need to go way back to 1982 when Joop Zoetemelk finished 2nd at the age of 35. So will Armstrong’s exploits at such a ripe age encourage other G.C. hopefuls to extend their careers further than they had originally foreseen to continue their quest for Tour success?

Kim Kirchen certainly seems to think so. In a recent interview with Shane Stokes for Cycling News, when asked in relation to Armstrong’s form in his late thirties does he still have aspirations of a high G.C. finish at the Tour, Kirchen said this:

I am really close to the podium as well, everything is possible. I am not saying that it is possible to win the Tour [at this point] but I am saying that for me, it is possible to reach the podium. That has to be a goal and that will be in my thoughts for this year’s Tour de France. Longer term, I hope to keep improving further.

These are lofty long term aspirations for a rider who will turn 32 on the day of the Grand Départ this year. Classics riders have long been capable of challenging for honours right into their late thirties, just ask Seán Kelly, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle or Johan Museeuw, or try telling George Hincapie he’s ‘too old’ to win Paris-Roubaix. But classics riders are a different breed to Grand Tour riders. A classic is raced over six or seven hours whereas a Grand Tour is raced over 80 hours. As a rider gets older, his ability to recover from day to day decreases which makes it increasingly difficult to challenge consistently over a three week period. Historically, the Tour de France podium has been a relatively young man’s game. Outlined in the plot below is the average age of the Tour podium riders for the last thirty years:

The average age of the Tour de France podium finishers for the last 30 years

The average age of all the Tour podium finishers for the last thirty years is 28.2. I found this somewhat surprising having always thought that a Tour riders best years were his early thirties. However, the plot shows that since the early 1980s the average age of a Tour podium finisher has, in general, been climbing steadily.In fact, two years ago Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov with an average age of 31.33, made up the oldest Tour podium since 1980. Over the past thirty years, late twenties definitely seems to be the optimum age to win the Tour but recently, Lance Armstrong has been almost single-handedly bucking that trend. When he retired after his 7th Tour win he was nearly 34, this was older than many Tour winners were when they chose to retire.  Riders like Indurain, Roche and LeMond all called it a day when they were no longer challenging for the Tour and when they were younger than Armstrong was in 2005. Also, amazingly, Bernard Hinault was only 31 when he retired!

So will Armstrong’s achievement of a third place finish at the Tour at the age of 37 have any effect on the rest of the peloton? If more riders like Kirchen are inspired by Armstrong’s longevity and decide to prolong their careers, the next few years could see an upset in the balance of retirees and neo-pros in the peloton.

Imagine the amount of current professional riders as a volume of water flowing through a pipeline. The younger riders are the water at the start of the pipeline and the older riders are represented by the water which is about to reach the end of the pipeline. If older riders decide not to retire, this results in a blockage and the water does not flow freely out the end of the pipeline anymore. As a result all the water throughout the rest of the pipeline has nowhere to flow to and consequently no new water can enter the pipeline until the old water flows out.

If plenty of riders postpone retirement it will have the effect of lengthening the pipeline instead of the old water being flushed out. Until enough riders retire this will result in a large queue of riders waiting at the beginning for professional contracts until the new longer pipeline is filled by the old riders and the system stabilises once more. But if all this occurs, it will take a few years to regain a stable ‘one in one out’ system. Meanwhile plenty of young talent won’t be snapped up by professional teams because they won’t have the room on their rosters.

I think the idea of having an under-23 squad or a feeder team is great. It gives much better shape to the process of how one becomes a top professional cyclist. The Rabobank Continental squad and Trek/Livestrong are prime examples of such setups. The experience that the young riders on these teams are afforded by racing against top pros at races like the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Ireland is invaluable. But, if they’ve got nowhere to go once they’ve finished their apprenticeships at the feeder team, what’s the point?

It’s fantastic to see older riders like Jens Voigt and Robbie McEwen still slogging it out with the rest of them. It would also be great to see the likes of Evans, Menchov and Sastre still battling for a Tour podium place in 4 or 5 years time. But if it becomes more and more commonplace for riders like Armstrong to prolong their careers it will have an adverse effect on young talent emerging at Pro Tour level and it will take a number of years for the youth of the peloton to recover.

Related Articles


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *