Today’s stars are expecting to pass away
In recent years, cycling – all of cycling – has been spoiled not only by the talents that have burst onto the scene, but also by the way they race. Vos Tadej Pogačars, Mathieu van der Poels, Wout van Aerts, Remco Evenepoels, Julian Alaphilippes. They run well and often with abandon. They inspire others to ride their bikes properly.
Their styling wasn’t just for looks. They also won. A lot. Monuments, Grand Tour glory in various guises, rainbow jerseys – at this point it’s only a surprise when it’s someone who isn’t in that upper echelon of the peloton with their prowess who wins the race.
Today’s superstars shine brighter, earlier. Does this mean that they will also turn off sooner?
Superlative dominance and ability breed inertia, not in the riders, but in the minds of the fans. “Of course Pogačar will win,” many said ahead of this summer’s Tour de France. We said it. You probably said it.
Although he didn’t, he still scored an impressive 16 wins this season, aged 24. This included Strade Bianche and the title defenses of Il Lombardia and Tirreno-Adriatico. Even with three stage wins along the way, Pogačar’s Tour defeat was seemingly a blow, an appetizer for the fights to come between the Slovenian and his Danish rival Jonas Vingaard.
That’s why an acknowledgment in Kate Wagner’s interview with Tadej Pogačar that she may only have half a decade left of her career was so telling.
“Maybe careers won’t be shorter on average, but maybe the highest level of competitors will be fewer years,” Pogacar said. “We’re going to see maybe five, seven years at the top level, maybe 10. But I’m more [expecting] the lower number. I think that’s going to have the effect that young riders are already racing at the highest level and you just can’t – for me I can’t see for myself that I can do it for another 10 years at the same level as I have done now for three years.
Not just five more years at the peak of his powers, but of his professional bike racing. That’s the lower end of Pogačar’s own estimate, but it would see him hang up his bike at 29.
It seems unlikely, but the admission is indicative of the mental and physical pressures these runners, the ones we believe have the world at their feet, are under. And if it’s so difficult for the untouchable stars, imagine what it’s like for those struggling at the other end of the cycling pyramid.
The morning this interview came out, I found myself at the start of the Giro del Veneto, just like Mathieu van der Poel. While he was there because he was bored, he was also very tired. Mentally as well as physically. I asked him what he thought of Pogačar’s assessment and if he could understand where his rival comes from sometimes.
“Yes of course. I think it’s the same. I also read in an interview with Serge Pauwels last week, I believe, he said that the new generation will only last until their thirties, maybe 35, but more like Gilbert and Valverde. I think that makes sense,” Van der Poel said.
“I think it’s the evolution of cycling. If you look [Juan] Ayuso, too, is 19 and already on the podium of a Grand Tour. For me, it’s not possible to do that for 15 years, but it speaks for me. I can only speak for myself but I kinda notice the same thing Pogačar is saying. As I feel now, I will definitely not continue until the age of 40.
Van der Poel is 27, he will be 28 in January, and his situation is slightly different from that of Pogačar. It feels like the Slovenian arrived on the scene just minutes ago but has already won many of the top prizes on offer. Van der Poel did this too, but with a more measured introduction, progressing more and more gradually.
Matteo Trentin, one of the most eloquent members of the professional peloton and also Tadej Pogačar’s team-mate, has seen it all and can put some perspective. I caught up with the Italian in the morning before he won the Giro del Veneto on what he could give us by sharing the same bus as the prodigious Pogačar.
“It’s more about how much stress does he want [in order] to be at the highest level again and again,” Trentino said. “He is only 24 years old and he has already won the Tour de France twice, Liège, Lombardia twice, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico twice. Basically, he’s won everything a driver can achieve in an entire career and he’s done it in four years. More than getting overtaken by more talented riders, it’s how much he wants to stress himself to stay at the top level. Because of course he can stay there longer, but it will be harder and harder each year.
“You see in the Tour de France this year. In the end, Jumbo with Vingaard, they found a way to beat him. No one in sport is unbeatable; you remember Sagan in the early years, he was the first sprinter to take the climbs and actually beat the climbers – and now almost any sprinter can climb. He took the sport to the next level because this guy came out of nowhere and can climb and sprint, so how can you beat him? I have to be next to him whenever I can. So Tadej came, he can sprint, he can climb, he can descend, he can time trial, so how do you beat him? Just do what it does, but in a slightly better way. I think people like him just push the sport to the next level and we’ll have to see how hard he wants to push himself to reach that new next level.
Team dynamics also come into play. It provides respite in some ways and pressure in others. Trentin argued that compared to a few years ago, there is now more pressure on the whole team for results rather than just one star driver.
“I think it’s more team pressure than individual pressure. Because now, with the point system, you need 10 guys to score points, not just one. I remember in the past at Quick-Step, in my early years, we had Tom Boonen and we raced for Tom. Period. He was the only captain in most races,” the 33-year-old explained.
“And then well, in most races everyone has a possibility but now with Tadej it’s like that, especially in stage races, but as you can see in the Vuelta we have people like Ayuso , Almeida, and even next year we’ll have Adam Yates as well as Tadej, so you can see we could have two top 10s in a Grand Tour – it’s never easy but we could have two top 10 contenders Cycling is turning into “yes, we want to win, but winning is not enough anymore if you want to be the best team.
That last line says it all – winning is not enough anymore. There seems to be a curse to greatness. The only antidote, perhaps, is to cherish it during its ever-temporary existence.