Junior to Pro: A Tough Transition

At the 1998 World Championships in Valkenburg, the little known rider Oscar Camenzind tasted success in the Elite Men’s Road Race becoming the first Swiss rider to do so since Ferdi Kubler almost 50 years previously.  A few day’s beforehand, Abraham Olano was busy becoming the Elite Men’s Time Trial World Champion. Having previously won the road race in 1995, Olano remains the only rider to have won the Rainbow Jersey for both events. However, what’s more interesting about the 1998 World Championships are the Men’s under age events.

Winning under-23 and junior races is no guarantee of future success, there are plenty of winners of the Worlds Under-23 and Junior events who have never achieved further success in cycling (ever heard of Miguel Morras, Valentino China or Holger Loew?), but 1998 seemed to be an exceptional year. The winner of the Men’s Under-23 road race was Ivan Basso, now a double Giro d’Italia winner. The Men’s Under-23 Time Trial was won by Thor Hushovd, who rather significantly, won his second Rainbow Jersey in Geelong this year. The 1998 Men’s Junior Time Trial was won by a certain Fabian Cancellara, who would go on to become the most dominant time triallist of his generation, perhaps of all time.

The 1998 Men’s Junior Road Race however, wasn’t won by a future great. This is a race, which as has been already mentioned, has been won by riders who fell by the way side, but it has also been won by future Grand Tour winners such as Roberto Visentini, Greg LeMond, Pavel Tonkov and Damiano Cunego. However, in 1998, the race was won by a rider who can very much be placed in the ‘one that got away’ category – Irishman Mark Scanlon.

Irish rider Mark Scanlon, winner of the 1998 Junior Men's World Road Race

Scanlon did move onwards from his Junior world title to join the professional ranks as he rode for compatriot Nicolas Roche’s current team AG2R between 2003 and 2006. In his time as a professional cyclist, Scanlon’s best results were winning the Irish national road race title twice and taking a stage of the Tour of Denmark in 2003. He also rode and finished the Tour de France in 2004, becoming only the seventh Irish rider ever to do so. But in 2007, a combination of homesickness, a pregnant girlfriend experiencing medical complications and a general disgruntlement with the professional cycling season saw Scanlon call time on his professional cycling career at the age of 27. In an interview with Pro Cycling magazine in February 2008, Scanlon discussed how difficult the process of making the move to the senior peloton could be:

As an amateur I had more drive than any of the French guys because they were living at home – they weren’t under a huge amount of pressure. I was living in an apartment on my own and paying for it myself so I had more of a want for money than they did. That seemed to be a factor that brought me to the top quicker than any of them.
When you’re amateur, you’re dealing with guys in your age group and at your own level of cycling, so you’re not really too bothered if they’re talking down to you, saying that you are annoying them. But when you turn pro, all that changes. The social status on a team changes.

Scanlon goes on to say:

I was happy enough before I turned pro because I was doing my own thing. I was training hard…and I was getting really good results. But for some reason it seemed much harder to achieve those goals when I turned pro. The mentality of some pro teams is that when you’re giving 100 per cent you’re just getting the piss taken out of you, and they’re not happy if you do that. It’s like you’re making them look bad or something. It became a constant battle between me and the other AG2R riders. Eventually I fell into their way of doing things – just getting by, race by race, and having a bit of fun. It was the wrong road to go down.

For me, it was the same as getting hassle for doing well at school. You’re liked when you’re doing nothing and disliked when you’re doing well.

Scanlon is certainly not the only rider to have had trouble converting decent success as a youngster into success as a professional. If you take the top 10 finishers of any Men’s Junior World Road Race in the past and look at the names, the average cycling fan may recognise four or five names of the ten, but have no idea who the other riders are. The 1998 race won by Mark Scanlon is no different. But what becomes of those ‘other riders’?

A name you will definitely recognise from that top 10 in 1998 is runner up Filippo Pozzato, winner of the 2006 Milan San Remo and a multiple Grand Tour stage winner, including two stages of the Tour de France. Then there was Patrick Sinkewitz and Roy Sentjens who finished in 9th and 10th respectively. Both have had modest success as professionals but both have also been embroiled in doping scandal. Sinkewitz tested positive at the 2007 Tour de France for testosterone, while Sentjens tested positive for EPO in an out of competition test in September of this year. Those are the names you may know, but what about the rest?

Eighth placed finisher Coen Loos joined the Dutch continetal team Cycling Team Bert Story – Piels where he was a team mate of Niki Terpstra, but stopped racing after 2004. Seventh place finisher Harald Starzengruber had a stint as a stagiaire with Quick Step in 2004 before moving to the professional continental team ELK-Haus. His best result of his career was this year, when he won the Austrian Road Race title. The rider who finished sixth that day in 1998 is the American Ryan Miller. Between 2001 and 2003, he rode for the Prime Alliance Cycling Team, a domestically based American team where he could count the likes of Danny Pate, Chris Horner, Svein Tuft and Jonathan Vaughters amongst his team mates. He also made up a quarter of the United States National Team Pursuit Champions in 1999, an event which Taylor Phinney has been a winning part of for the past two years. Miller also rode for the Toyota United Pro Cycling Team in 2007, where he was a team mate of Mark Scanlon when the Irishman decided to step back from cycling.

In fifth place at the 1998 Men’s Junior Worlds Road Race was the Slovakian Matej Mugerli who is currently racing for a domestic squad in his home country. However, he did ride for Liquigas from 2005 and 2008, where he rode and finished the Tour de France and won a stage of the Volta a Catalunya, both in 2006. The third placed finisher in 1998 was a Russian rider called Eduard Kivichev who never raced professionally. Sadly, after winning the junior Giro della Toscana in 1998, the medal he received for coming third in Valkenburg that day was the pinnacle of his career, at 18 years of age.

Stefano Boggia - Finished 4th in the 1998 Junior Men's World Road Race, and like Scanlon, decided to walk away from professional cycling at a relatively young age.

The rider who finished fourth is the most interesting. His name is Stefano Boggia, an Italian rider who rode for Ceramica-Flaminia between 2005 and 2007 before retiring from the sport at the same age Mark Scanlon was when he decided to call time on his career. Boggia had no professional wins, but he has maintained a blog in recent years where I found this entry from April 2010, which I’ve done my best to translate from Italian:

I always get people asking me if I regret having stopped racing with the professionals. I can’t deny that I often think about it. After 20 years in pursuit of something that later proved to be far from what I imagined, it was still not an obvious choice [to walk away] and change my life. But I have found satisfaction in a new job, and I like it. Something which I could not say for cycling during my last few months of racing. It’s hard to explain to fans who see the races on television, but cycling is a job, and when this job has an unbearable environment, it is not enjoyable. But more importantly, it does not allow you to express yourself. For instance, the races I have been allowed to race for myself in four years of racing, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. What sense does it make to carry on? I am still convinced that I have chosen well.

As a cross section of the world of professional cycling, the top 10 of the 1998 Men’s Junior World Road Race has everything. A future monument classic winner, professionals who would be forced out of the sport due to doping infractions, riders who simply weren’t good enough to be offered professional contracts and riders who had thoroughly average racing careers. But saddest of all, are the stories of the two riders, Scanlon and Boggia, who became so disgruntled with the world of cycling that they simply walked away.

Neither rider explicitly mentions the use of performance enhancing drugs when discussing their decision to retire, but it would be folly to think that drugs were not an influence on their decision. The struggle of a rider to transition from a junior rider who wins races to a professional who is expected be a water-carrier is clearly overwhelming. Then, when a rider is promoted from water-carrier to team leader, the pressure to win must also be overwhelming.

To finish, a quote from Roy Sentjens, 10th place finisher in Valkenburg in 1998, after he admitted to taking EPO earlier this year:

My season was already a disaster. I did everything I could but I didn’t meet up to my own expectations. I couldn’t sleep anymore, thinking all the time how in the hell I could still improve, I did everything. But even that did not help and I fell into a depression.

Although doping must always be considered deplorable, I can’t help but picture an 18 year old junior simply struggling to make his way in the sport that he loves, struggling to compete, and struggling to find success; an 18 year old junior who eventually succumbed to the pressures of doping because of the inherent pressure to win.

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  1. Ronan - December 9, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    Scanlon’s problem was he joined a French outfit but wasn’t french. All the Irish and a lot of Uk riders have spoken of the constant bullying, bitching and undermining that you have to put up with from the French teams combined with their total lack of organisation and sense of entitelment (which has brought them very little lately). I’m sure the Italians are the same or worse in terms of the bitching. To me, pro cycling seems like the world of a professional beauty queen: it’s not as you’d imagine, a world full of dirty tricks, only the very strongest make it, the rest are shattered wrecks. You can’t go to a french outfit and expect support, far from it. This is what was so impressive about Roche. look at his results. How young was he when he won Paris Nice. and before that he had great succes in his first year. imagine how much that pissed off the older french guys on his team. then he goes on and rides against his team leader (an italian) winning the giro in the process. that man had cohannas. Scanlon sounds like too much of a nice guy for that world. Just look at how the french and italians behave at the worlds. There is no unity whatsoever. The italians win a lot because they have talent and dope like it’s going out of fashion. The french hardly ride at all. it’s great that there are now american, uk, spanish and other choices for the young irish talent. french cycling is dead and buried.

  2. irishpeloton - December 9, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    “Only the very strongest make it”.

    I completely agree. I remember reading some football manager’s autobiography before, can’t remember who, but he said the same about football. And indeed the football youth system (at his club anyway) was actually designed so that only the strongest make it. Living in digs, away from home at 15 years of age, getting £20 a week, cleaning boots etc. etc. was designed to crack players who didn’t really want it enough. What you’re left with then is a bunch of players who obviously have huge amounts of commitment. It’s no different in cycling.

    I also read an interview with Jonathan Vaughters recently in which he had some pertinent comments. In talking about his time with Credit Agricole as a young rider he confirms what you say about a foreign rider trying to make it in a French team, and also the lack of organisation:

    “I never minded the foreign culture part… But the only guy I really had a friendship with was Chris Boardman, and he left after my first year there. I mean, the communication between the French riders and the foreign riders is really minimal and the environment to really perform was never really there. There was never a pathway saying, ‘If you do this, you’ll do really well’. It was Roger [Legeay] saying: ‘We’ve got to do well, hurry up and do well’, and getting really stressed about the results not being there and not defining a clear method to follow to enable us to do well. So it was kind of a stagnant environment – I felt like my last couple of years there was a matter of waiting for my paycheck and the end of every month, and that was the only thing that was making me turn up.”

  3. Ronan - December 10, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    THat’s interesting, it was actually Vaughters in particular I ws thinking of when I look at the options now open to young Irish talent. Look at how slowly and carefully he’s brining along Dan Martin and the results he got out of Wiggins and now Hesjedal. You just wont see that kind of behaviour from the French teams. I get the impression they’re all waiting for the whole American thing to go away and then another period of Hinault like domination can begin. I think it’s clear that the American teams and riders are only going to get better and better and the French really need to wake up and smell the coffee. With a (much) better youth structure they could be successful again. Hinault said recently that he was at the u-23 worlds and not one French rider had ever even trained over 200km’s let alone raced it. They didn’t even train behind pace bikes so full race pace always came as a shock and they were dropped. He couldn’t believe it.

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