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 the monument classic winners for the past thirty years.

The average age of the monument classic winners for the past thirty years.

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.

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  1. rich_mutt - April 14, 2010 @ 5:50 am

    one aspect that might have a big influence on the average age getting lower in the peleton is that these days with race radios, the riders don’t have to think as much as they did n the past. the DS’s just shout at them and tell them what to do. all they need are the legs and the lungs. experience counts for less in the modern world.

  2. irishpeloton - April 14, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Completely agree with you. Funnily enough, I was watching a film called ‘The Road to Paris’ yesterday which is a behind the scenes look at the US Postal Team in 2001. Christian Vande Velde had this to say about radios:

    “You become dependent on these radios. You can’t think for yourself so you become braindead”.

    Johan Bruyneel seems to be in denial about race radios being phased out. But they’ve already been banned at certain race levels. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before they are banned everywhere (for race tactics purposes, I completely support race radios being permitted for transmitting info by race officials for safety reasons).

  3. rich_mutt - April 14, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

    a perfect example of race radio in action was what happened at paris-roubaix. it was revealed that bjarne riis saw that boonen was in the back taking shelter, and getting something to eat afer all of his attacks. riis ordered fabian to attack! this of course was the race winning move. this is not to say that fabian cancellera is a brain dead rider with no experience, in actuality we don’t really know how he is tactically as he’s always ridden with radios.

    do you actually think that the uci will go through with a race radio ban on all if not most of the major races?

  4. irishpeloton - April 15, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    I think they will do their best to try. Pat McQuaid seems fairly set on introducing it to the top races. But that’s no guarantee that it will happen. Sure we saw what happened last year at the Tour when the UCI tried to ban race radios for two of the stages. The riders just refused to co-operate and effectively neutralised the racing for most of the stage. If any race radio ban is to be introduced, for it to succeed it will need the backing of the rider’s association and the teams (no mean feat) otherwise it will be doomed.

    I don’t think there’s any doubt that the racing would become more exciting as a result of a radio ban. Consider situations like the 1987 Liege-Bastogne-Liege where Crequilion and Roche were ahead and then started playing cat and mouse thinking they had plenty of time to play with before being caught. But while they were marking each other, Argentin stormed past and took the victory. Situations like that make for highly exciting racing, but they just don’t happen anymore.

    I also wonder how many Tours Lance Armstrong would have won had there been no race radios. He, and all of Bruyneel’s teams since, seem overly reliant on the Belgian pulling the strings from the team car. Wasn’t it in the Tour in 2000 when Pantani launched an attack from miles out and Armstrong radioed back to Bruyneel in the team car, who rang Michele Ferrari to ask him his advice on whether Pantani would be able to sustain the pace he was going at until the end of the stage, Ferrrari did a few sums and the answer came back that no, he wouldn’t, which was then relayed back to Armstrong who declined to follow Pantani and the Italian eventually wore himself out. If there were no radios, Armstrong would have been riding on instinct, which is how it should be. The Texan may have then worn himself out trying to catch Pantani which may have left the door open for Ullrich, we’ll never know what way it might have played out.

    There’s also the issue of a knowledge of local roads. Riders who are willing to reconnoitre stages or who have prior knowledge of a race route have less of an advantage than they should because there’s a DS in the team car telling the riders what turns are coming up, what hills are coming up, whether there’s a chance the peloton might split due to cross winds.

    I really don’t think there’s any doubt that banning radios would make racing more exciting. The only argument for keeping them is the issue of safety. But this could be easily accomodated by allowing the race organisers to transmit one way messages regarding road furniture or other safety issues.

    I hope the UCI continues in their quest to have them banned, because I think it would improve the spectacle of racing immensely.

  5. rich_mutt - April 15, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    i agree. the argument that radios are crucial for safety would be satisfied by having one-way radios. will the riders and DS’s come up with another excuse?

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