Here are two theories about cycling’s potential, based on this year’s Giro.
i. Sam Oomen is twenty fricking two. He was a key domestique for Tom Dumoulin and still grabbed ninth overall. Miguel Angel Lopez had a snake-bitten first week and still finished on the podium, and he’s twenty four. Richard Carapaz only arrived on this planet ten minutes ago, and his paperwork says he’s twenty five. The future of grand tour cycling is exciting.
ii. Last year, Tom Dumoulin was the first under-30 winner of the Giro since Nairo Quintana, and he couldn’t back it up despite the people around him failing. Apart from Quintana’s two, Dumoulin’s Giro and Aru’s Vuelta, we aren’t seeing wins from the crew who are supposed to replace Contador, Nibali and Froome. This is turning into an old man’s sport.
The facts supporting both arguments are true. Of course, whether you think we’re seeing an old man’s sport or a young man’s sport emerge, a more nuanced analysis has to make room for Pinot and Yates. They’re in that 25 to 30 generation, and this Giro demonstrated that they’re very much in the conversation despite missing out on the final classification.
There is, I think, a third argument. I’ve hinted at it before, in trying to pick apart Sky’s approach to signing riders. I think (hold on a second while I shudder) Brailsford is absolutely right. There’s about to be a missing generation in Grand Tour winners. On that premise, my three Giro things.
1. The twenty-five to thirty year olds aren’t a match for the oldies.
In this story, anyone over thirty is old. Me very, very much included. I don’t feel good about this, but it is a useful cut-off point. Since the start of 2010, there have been 22 Grand Tours. Of those:
- Froome, Contador, and Nibali have won twelve of them (plus two in which Contador finished atop the podium but was ruled not to have won).
- Other retired riders have won eight.
- That leaves only the four I referenced above, won by the younger generation (Dumoulin, Quintana and Aru).
Look at podiums instead of winners, and things get slightly more complicated, but of the 30+, still active riders, you bring in Valverde, Uran and, trivia fans, Thomas de Gendt . You also bring in a longer list of names from the 25-30 generation: Pinot, Bardet, Majka, Chaves and Zakarin. If I’m being generous, let’s throw in Simon Yates, who hasn’t made a podium but is only just in the 25 to 30 generation and has done at least as much as some podium-finishers to show he’s a potential winner. (You also count Lopez as the first of the currently-eligible-for-white generation to make a podium.)
Still not a long list of “peaking” riders.
Look, Froome has demonstrated he’s extraordinary in his versatility, consistency and in the level of support he receives. With Contador, he is on the very short list of truly exception GT riders. I don’t think it is any kind of stretch to put them both in the top ten ever, and I’d have them both in the top five. Nibali has picked up 13 top tens in GTs, with wins in all three, and he isn’t done yet. Following this group was never going to be easy, they’re a golden generation of grand tour riders.
Still. If the younger crowd are going to start winning GTs in bunches, shouldn’t they have started by now? That’s what the stats say. The most entertaining read on the topic is this, courtesy of Ursula. It gives interesting if outdated stats on the subject, and although it is a few years old, I don’t think much has changed. Tl;dr - 27 is the magic age.
Dumoulin rode very nicely in this Giro, but did he ever look like winning it? Maybe, for an hour or so, midway through stage 19, when Yates cracked and we thought Froome would get reeled back by the bigs. He’s an exceptional time triallist, a very solid climber and a totally worthy winner of the 2017 Giro. I have no desire to knock him. But he’s also, probably, the best of the 25-30 group, and I don’t think he’s dominant.
2. The youth looks good… for now
Lopez, Carapaz and Oomen led the white jersey standings and finished 3rd, 4th and 9th in the GC. That’s a more than decent return. Last year was Jungels, Adam Yates and Formolo in 8th, 9th and 10th. I don’t know how many more times I can say that I see Lopez winning at the very top of his sport for years to come, but I’ll say it once more. He’s going to be very good.
I make jokes about Richard Carapaz coming from outer space, and of course that’s stupid, but he’s certainly a very lightly raced (just) 25 year old, and whether you count him as young or “peak” he’s obviously got more room for growth than most 25 year olds. Sam Oomen, too, is someone I’ve written about before and who has shown here a greater ability to ride for three weeks, and more “pure climbing” chops than I thought he had. A massive step forward.
Of course, there are young guys who weren’t at the Giro, led by Sky’s wunderkind Egan Arley Bernal (and there’s young guys I haven’t listed who were at the Giro and were promising). The list of potential winners is very long indeed. On the other hand, isn’t that always the case? I’ve long believed that pure climbing is a precocious skill, and the careers of Chaves, Aru, and Quintana offer a cautionary tale against assuming these guys will all continue on a steady and upwards trajectory until they hit 30. History suggests we’re already seeing the best form of at least one of the young tyros.
3. I don’t know where our next winner of multiple Grand Tours is coming from
Arbitrarily, let’s say that 3 Grand Tour wins separates the greats from the winners. Who is the next man that gets there? One man’s ranking of the likeliest contenders.
- Dumoulin. He’s the closest we have to the complete package right now. The question is whether he can avoid being out-climbed by more than he can claw back on time trials.
- Quintana. Simply because he only needs one more. On his day, the best climber around, but we haven’t seen his day for a while now. I’d like to have seen more last year.
- Lopez. 24, improving, absurdly talented. Needs to work on consistency and positioning, and on his TT, but there’s plenty of reason to think he can.
- Bernal. He’s got the furthest to go, and we still haven’t seen him even start a GT. Still, I wouldn’t rule this out. What more could you hope for from his California performance?
I don’t think there’s a fifth name that belongs on this list. Bardet remains focused on the Tour, the hardest way to win a GT, and is 27 now and hasn’t won. He could do it, but it seems unlikely, especially with a step back in his TT performances of late. Pinot and Zakarin are close to the elite, but not there, and it is hard to see them developing to that level.
Chaves and Aru seem to have dropped back from their exceptional best (again: it happens), but there’s nothing saying they can’t return to top form. There are two Yates brothers, plus riders like Jungels and Uran who can make some noise. Multiple GT winners, though? I don’t see it. You’d expect them to have got further by this stage of their careers.
Then there’s the kids. Can Sam Oomen keep improving? Possibly. What, you ask, about whomever you think is a talented climber with some all-round potential? My guy is Daniel Felipe Martinez, by the way, but the answer’s the same for all of them: maaaaaybe.
What is tricky, though is to point to someone other than Lopez and Yates, who is 25 or under and has answered questions at the top level. You probably have to come back to the 2018 Giro and put your faith in Carapaz, and on that basis he’s probably your best bet for fifth on the list above. Not a particularly likely outcome, I’d say.
So, what is my sweeping summary of what we learned from this Giro? Tom Dumoulin will be the bridge between the golden generation of Froome, Contador and Nibali, and the next generation of greats.
The youth movement starts now.