December 17, 2009 by Irish Peloton
The classic age of cycling
With the lack of road racing in full swing, to satisfy my craving I’ve spent the last few weeks watching repeats of last year’s races. I’ve just finished watching all five of cycling’s monument classics, which are Milan San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liége-Bastogne-Liége and the Tour of Lombardy. Having watched all five of the winners cross the line in the past few days it struck me how young they all were. Mark Cavendish, Stijn Devolder, Tom Boonen, Andy Schleck and Philippe Gilbert are all still in their twenties. None of the five monument winners this year have reached thirty years old, this is not something that has happened very often in recent years. It happened in 1988 but didn’t happen again until last year, and it happened again this year. So it got me thinking, have the monument winners been getting younger, and if so, why might this be? To illustrate, here’s a table of the winners of the five monuments for the past thirty years and the ages each of them were when they won:
The average age of a monument classic winner for the past thirty years is 28.54. Last year’s average age of 26 is the youngest of the past thirty years and a full two and a half years younger than the average winner. Gone seem to be the days of the old classics hard man socking it to the young pretenders. The likes of Andrei Tchmil, Sean Kelly, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Johan Museeuw all won monuments whilst over the age of 35. There are few riders in the current peloton over the age of 35 who are likely to challenge for the win at one of the five biggest one day races on the calendar. The only three names that come to mind are 36 year old George Hincapie who seems destined never to win his beloved Paris-Roubaix, 38-year old Davide Rebellin who has now doped his way into suspension (and probably retirement) anyway and finally Alessandro Petacchi who could challenge at Milan San Remo next March at the age of 36.
The average age of the competitive cyclist is definitely creeping down. In my opinion there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, riders are retiring earlier. There aren’t that many riders over the age of 35 capable of challenging for a monument classic because there aren’t that many riders over the age of 35 still riding. In the top 500 riders in the world this year (according to Cycling Quotient) only 34 of them are 35 or over. The second and more important reason for the success of younger riders, in my opinion, is that directeur sportifs are trusting their younger riders with more responsibility. I argued in a previous post that the peak age for a cyclist is not 29-32 as is widely suggested, but more like 24-28. The reason why cyclists in the latter age bracket fail to win as many races as the older riders is the idea of a pecking order within a team. A young rider is expected to earn his corn, ride at the service of his older team mates for a number of years, chalking up smaller victories when the opportunity allows. Only after a solid number of years as a domestique may a rider be considered expereinced enough and respected enough within his own team to assume the responsibility of team leader.
More and more, directeur sportifs are entrusting young riders with these leadership responsibilities in major races while the older more established riders instead ride as domestiques. Take Columbia HTC as an example, older more experienced riders like George Hincapie, Kim Kirchen and Michael Barry all decided to move on because they were no longer willing to devote themselves to the fortunes of younger riders. Perhaps this shift in team focus towards younger riders, in turn, is causing riders to retire earlier.
Apart from the monument classics, there is an abundance of young stage racing talent who will expect leadership status at their respective teams, Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali, Roman Kreuziger, Thomas Lovkvist, Robert Gesink, Luis Leon Sanchez and Tony Martin, none of whom are over 27. Riders who, if they aren’t given a leader’s role, will have no problem finding a team who are willing to build a team around a young stage racing talent.
What must be mentioned also is the abuse of EPO that was endemic in the peloton during the 1990s. The older riders who are still riding in the peloton would have been exposed to the abuse of this performance enhancing substance during this period. Obviously there are still riders willing to cheat but, it would seem, there are far less cheaters these days than there was in the 1990s. Perhaps, having not been exposed to performance boosters so early in their careers, younger riders are having to train harder and longer to achieve results, more than was necessary when the EPO was flowing. Therefore, the current crop of young riders are in fact, better cyclists.
Maybe, maybe not, but there is definitely a shift in focus towards entrusting younger riders with more responsibility. I think we will see more and more teams granting leadership status to its younger riders in the big races. It could be a long time before we see riders like Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle winning Paris-Roubaix or Joop Zoetemelk winning the World Championships at the ripe old age of 38.