How faster and harder racing is changing the peloton: 'We're getting five percent better every year'

Riders at the Volta a Catalunya discuss changing habits and approaches

Volta a Catalunya
(Image credit: Getty)

A bike rider saying that racing is harder than ever has become about as normal as a rider muttering that they are taking it "stage by stage".

The youngsters are winning, the racing's faster, there's no time to have a chinwag with your pal, and some of them "just piss in the middle of the pack", according to Peter Sagan.

"There's no use complaining about it!" is Simon Clarke's response to the accepted developments in the sport that is changing how races are ridden.

And, really, there isn't any point moaning. Because if you're not able to keep up with the demands of racing in the third decade of this century, you'll quickly find yourself unemployed. "If you're at 80 percent, you're gonna get dropped," Wout Poels assesses to Cycling Weekly at the Volta a Catalunya. "You'll be in the grupetto."

There's only one thing riders can do: "You need to go home, prepare harder and accept that every year the peloton is getting faster and you need to be better," Clarke, who only joined Israel-Premier Tech in January, adds.

"Every winter I go home with this mentality and try and be five percent better every year because the peloton is probably getting five percent faster every year and this year’s no different. It’s definitely fast racing but you have to train for that, you've got to adapt to it."

If a rider's bemoaning the lack of respite within races, perhaps they need to look a little closer to home. Clarke muses: "A lot of people comment on how hard the racing is without considering their personal form. It's very hard to calculate how hard a race is because you go off your own sensations, and that's more due to how well your personal condition is."

The changes have impacted the style and aggression of racing according to Thomas de Gendt who judges that the sizeable leap in performance witnessed last year hasn't repeated itself this time around, but that "the level is very high, it's staying the same."

"All these guys, they're just producing incredible numbers," the Lotto-Soudal rider says. "Look at the front group: it's not getting smaller, but it's getting even bigger. Some guys are getting almost to that level, so the front group seems to grow. It's just a high level overall.

"It's really difficult nowadays to be in a breakaway. I have a flag on my back anyway, but even still I really have to pick my point and pick the right time to attack. It's getting harder, but it's like that for everyone.

"It's not like we always let the same guys go. But if you can't beat Pogačar or Alaphilippe in an uphill finish, you've got to have an attack. But that means now there's 60 guys or more who are interested."

The idea of peaking one's form to coincide with a big season objective isn't new, but it's striking to Poels how every race there are dozens of riders in top shape.

"There are no races where we go really slow now," the Bahrain-Victorious rider says. "I was speaking with some guys at Coppi e Bartali and they all said it's full gas there too.

"Nowadays people are more focused on each race, so we see more training camps, and if people come to a race, they're in really good condition.

"We don't really have anyone doing race, race, race now. Before, we had one good race, one bad race, but now we're more focusing on each race. That's why it's a higher level."

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BikeExchange-Jayco's Christopher Juul-Jensen is not intimidated by the teenagers and early-twenty-somethings. "I'm one of the older pros now," the 32-year-old says, "and to see the young guys ride the way they do, it makes me want to hang on. It's motivating.

"The way the younger generation is taking off, I only view that as a good thing. It just shows how you can be one of the best amateurs and go straight into the pro tour ranks and start winning. To me, that is a positive thing."

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Chris Marshall-Bell

Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.

Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.