First Egan Bernal, now Tadej Pogacar - why are cycling's winners getting younger?

Youthful zest, bike-handling, and fearlessness of the Tour winners give other young riders encouragement they can do the same

Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar wearing the best young's white jersey rides during the 20th stage of the 107th edition of the Tour de France
Tadej Pogacar changes the course of the Tour de France in Saturday's time trial which he raced largely 'on feel'  Credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

When Egan Bernal won last year’s Tour de France at the grand old age of 22, there was a feeling that this was a generational talent who could win the next eight or nine editions if he could only stay fit. The Colombian, at that point the youngest Tour winner in over a century, and the third youngest of all time, looked set to rule the roost. He had the physical ability, the mental aptitude and the might of the richest, most powerful team in the sport - Ineos - behind him. Then along came Tadej Pogacar.

Slovenia’s first Tour de France champion ripped up the rule book with his stunning victory this year at the age of 21. Not only did Pogacar win at a younger age than Bernal, by 196 days, he did so without a strong supporting cast around him. UAE Team Emirates’s highest placed domestique came in over 2hrs behind Pogacar in the general classification, which means the 21 year-old had effectively been left to fend for himself in the mountains day after day after his team mates were dropped. 

Far from being cowed, Pogacar seemed to thrive without any pressure, attacking constantly, refusing to go away. When he lost 1min 20sec in the crosswinds on stage seven, he shrugged it off. “It’s only a minute,” he said. He gained half of that time back the next day with a bold attack on the Peyresourde. Pogacar rode the final climb in Saturday’s time trial, La Planche des Belles Filles, without a power meter or a computer, preferring to ‘ride on feel’ rather than constantly check his power or heart rate data.

The interesting thing is that Pogacar and Bernal, far from being exceptions, now appear to be the rule. Everywhere you look in cycling, young, brash riders are making waves. Many of them race across multiple disciplines. Wout van Aert, 26, is a three-time world cyclocross champion. Mathieu van der Poel, 25, is another three-time world cyclocross champion who has won world bronze in mountain bikes. These guys have been ripping it up for the last few years. At this year’s Tour we saw the emergence of 22 year-old Marc Hirschi [Sunweb], whose cavalier approach won him a stage victory and the overall prix de combativité. Coming up on the rails are riders like 20 year-old Belgian Remco Evenepoel, already a world silver medallist in time trial and winner of a host of stage races. Or 21 year-old Tom Pidcock, a junior and U23 world champion in cyclocross who is about to be announced by Ineos Grenadiers as their next big thing. 

And it’s a virtuous circle. Their youthful zest, bike-handling, and fearlessness give other young riders encouragement they can do the same. Peter Sagan, three years ago the undisputed king of pro cycling, looks like yesterday’s man at 30. Even Julian Alaphilippe, the dashing D’Artagnan of French cycling, suddenly looks a little less dashing at the age of 28.

Wout van Aert is a three-time world cyclo-cross champion Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Research by ProCyclingStats reveals the average age of winners in pro cycling is coming down across the board. Two years ago the average age of the winner of the Tour de France stood at 28.5. Bernal and Pogacar have lowered that considerably. 

Interestingly, the paradox of modern cycling is that there appears to be room for riders at the both ends of the scale. Trek-Segafredo’s Richie Porte, who rounded out this year’s podium, is 35. Alejandro Valverde, who finished 12th, is 40. 

There is no doubt, though, that winners are generally becoming younger. Why? Perhaps in the post-EPO era, with a more level playing field, young riders are able to reach the physical level of their senior counterparts that bit quicker? Perhaps the bike-handling developed in disciplines such as cyclocross gives them skills older ‘roadies’ do not possess? Or perhaps the likes of Pogacar, Hirschi, Pidcock, Evenepoel et al are simply less cowed? Sir Bradley Wiggins commented on Eurosport during this year’s Tour that the younger generation don’t seem to show the same deference to the senior riders in the peloton that he would have done coming through. They just back themselves and go for it. If that means bold attacking riding from young generational talents, long may it continue.