It appears that cycling is going through its Alan Hansen moment. On the opening day of the 1995/96 Premier League football season, the Scottish TV pundit and former Liverpool footballer summarised Manchester United’s defeat at Aston Villa by declaring, “You can’t win anything with kids.” Having sold three of their most experienced players at the end of the previous season and replaced them with youngsters including David Beckham and Paul Scholes who had come up through their youth ranks, United proved that age was no hindrance to success as they went on to win a league and cup double that season.
Twenty-five years on, professional cycling is witnessing the arrival of an astonishingly precocious generation of riders. Leading the way is Egan Bernal, not only Colombia’s first Tour de France winner but also the youngest in the last century and the third youngest of all time. Two months after Bernal’s 2019 Tour coup, 20-year-old Tadej Pogačar delivered one of his own, finishing third at the Vuelta a España and winning three mountain stages on the way. Coming up very fast behind this pair is 20-year-old Belgian Remco Evenepoel, runner-up in the World Championships time trial last year and winner of both of the stage races he’s started this season, the Vuelta a San Juan and the Volta ao Algarve.
Behind these now well-established stars, more tyros are emerging, including new pro Brandon McNulty, whose three top five finishes at the Ruta del Sol put him in seventh place on GC, Quinn Simmons, the winner of the junior road title at the World Championships last September who has stepped straight into the pro ranks with Trek, and Ilan Van Wilder, the 19-year-old Belgian in Sunweb’s ranks who was one of Evenepoel’s principal rivals at junior level and finished top 20 on his pro debut in the Algarve.
Traditionally, new professionals, and especially those with pretensions as stage race contenders, have had to work their way slowly up through the ranks, learning the ropes by carrying bottles and setting the pace for their team leaders before being given the chance to target their own objectives. In the last few seasons, though, this model has rapidly changed. Youngsters are not only taking on the responsibility of leadership, but often winning as well.
Several explanations have been given for the emergence of this golden generation of riders. It’s been suggested that better anti-doping controls mean the playing field is more level when young riders take the step into the elite ranks. Another theory is that this new wave is simply the result of coincidence, with several freakish talents appearing at almost the same time. Yet, the fact that the trend is continuing points to something more fundamental taking place.
I’m swayed more by the argument made by TV journalist Dan Lloyd. According to the ex-pro, riders at all levels are benefiting from the improvement in training knowledge and methods, as well as the associated technology. They know how to train, when to train, what to eat, exactly how to prepare. As a consequence of this, some new pros no longer need to serve a long apprenticeship as domestiques. They arrive in the pro peloton almost fully formed, not only keen to race, but ready to compete, unafraid to make mistakes and learning quickly from their errors.
As a fan, watching these young riders contend for the biggest prizes on the pro calendar is enthralling. After his two wins in February, I’m relishing the prospect of watching Evenepoel chase his first WorldTour stage race victory at Tirreno-Adriatico, while also following Bernal’s concurrent defence of his Paris-Nice title, where Pogačar and McNulty are also set to appear. This coming weekend, Simmons is due to make his Classics debut at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. It’s unthinkable that an 18-year-old might win one of these famous races, but having seen the physical and tactical maturity he showed in winning the world title in Yorkshire I can’t dismiss that possibility entirely.
These youngsters are turning perceived cycling wisdom on its head, just as Manchester United’s golden generation did in the mid-1990s. As Alan Hansen was forced to admit back then, if you’re good enough, then you’re old enough.