This week’s results have triggered a few daylight-deprived internet forum people discussions about whether the sport is being taken over by kids who may or may not have figured out how to shave yet. If you haven’t bugged your friends about Egan Bernal’s sudden golden opportunity to start his Tour-winning career a year early, it’s probably because you were too busy complaining that Remco Evenepoel isn’t on the Grand Boucle startlist (yet). Or you missed an important meeting while daydreaming about the brewing showdown between Wout and Mathieu at the Yorkshire Worlds. [It’s cool, my colleagues will understand.]
Maybe we are on the verge of such an era, one of those ages we will be telling our kids about someday, unless they are already right here and sick of hearing you talk about cycling, in which case we will be telling our grandkids. Maybe the next golden age of cycling is entering its dawn. But... how will we know?
We won’t, not right away. Or the internet will tell us but the more sage among us will insist on pumping the breaks for a while. [Obviously not a job I am suited for.] My bookshelf tells me there was one before from the 40s to the late 60s, and my memories are biased toward pretty much everything about the 80s, so with those examples, let’s proceed.
Defining a Golden Age
A golden age would be one where we are more excited about the results and the people earning them than we usually are. It’s not an absolute, by any means; it’s more of a relative assessment, that an era stands above other eras. I can think of a few prerequisites to calling something a golden age.
- Results you can believe in. Which means no doping, or at least not enough of it to make us fundamentally unable to appreciate the winners and their accomplishments. The Mulholland book marks the endpoint of the early golden age as 1967, probably somewhere around when Tom Simpson started wobbling on his bike on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. Point taken.
Doping ruins everything, at least if it’s above a certain level. Since we can acknowledge that there has always been at least some doping around, it would be silly to insist on a level of zero. Like I said, this is a relative thing, not an absolute.
2. Some all-time champions. This one has a few key elements to it. For starters, the Tour de France crowns a winner every year, so at any moment you either have a dominant winner or a large number of former winners active... maybe even both. But what separates an all-timer from just another guy who happened to win? Couple things:
- The identity of #2. A win is only as great as the identity of the #2 rider, amirite? I’ll take this further, however, and say that a truly golden era wouldn’t consist of just a two-man battle, like Anquetil-Poulidor or even Contador-Schleck, but rather an era where the true contenders run a bit deeper than that. Two-man battles might have been fun back in the days of radio, but we just went through a few years of Froome-Quintana and nobody had any fun, so I think we should raise the bar a bit higher.
- The comparison across eras. Ah, now we are getting into the weeds a bit. We need some sort of general agreement that what we are witnessing is somehow of a higher quality than another era where there was plenty of competition and plenty of winners because, well, someone always has to win. We need our top guys to seem extraordinary somehow. Some clues may come from overlap with the eras coming before and after, where you can test Egan Bernal against ... well, his teammates. Crap. Another way to distinguish them would be to have riders who win in a variety of ways, like Hinault winning the Tour and then taking the win at the detested Paris-Roubaix, or soloing in the snow at LBL. Stage racers winning in one-day races, or winning world titles, that helps. Stage racers who impress us beyond having one great skill, a la Froome or Indurain just TT’ing to glory. Something that makes us think the winner or winners are really special.
3. Champions across the landscape. This is partly why I am getting excited about what’s coming, the fact that we might see a significant uptick in the greatness of riders in both the stage-racing and classics arenas. It’s nice to have some epic battles at the Tour, but that is merely three weeks, and can get dull pretty fast if a crash or two starts thinning the herd. We want to feel real anticipation across the calendar if we are going to declare a time to be unique from the annual churn of results.
4. Depth. Depth not only in the types of talent but in the distribution of it. The Sky era (and Postal FWIW) hasn’t been fun for fans of other teams, and Chris Froome’s all-time great accomplishments will always be tinged by the regret that his team snuffed out their opponents so easily. Thankfully we are seeing an influx of South American talent, and not just pure climbers who can’t TT their way out of a paper bag. Australia and the UK have been sustaining the sport now for a decade. The talent from northern Europe, basically anything above Paris, is also exciting. But however international the peloton may become, teams still rely on advertising, which is still somewhat regional in its nature, which will still cause a tendency toward teams of a specific national character. Movistar is still Spanish, FDJ still French. And, well, dammit, we need French and Italian cycling to get or keep getting their shit together.
So that’s what I can conjure up for parameters. Let’s apply them.
When Was the Last One?
Mulholland’s book puts the golden age at 1946-67, citing the era spanning the Coppi-vs-Bartali stuff to the rise of Jacques Anquetil. It catches Koblet, Gimondi, Magni, Bobet, Poulidor and Gaul. It features 60 grand tours and 100 monumental classics, plus many of the classic bike-makers and technologies that retro-grouches try to sell on eBay to each other for five times what they are worth.
If you want to take this exercise more seriously, you’d probably split Mulholland’s span into two eras, the early post-war years and the 60s pre-Merckx. The former is a slam-dunk golden era: classics stars included the grand tour combatants, which checks a few boxes, plus Rik Van Steenbergen, Briek Schotte, Ferdi Kübler and Raymond Impanis. Magni’s exploits were legend. Bobet won three Tours and four of the five Monuments. The stories from that era are legend. Enough said.
The next decade is in the conversation but maybe a beat below. Anquetil dominated the Tour, which is an argument both for and against a golden age, but I’ll stay positive with guys like Gaul and Bahamontes breaking through, the latter actually defeating Maitre Jacques. Also the classics were loaded with Rik Van Looy — arguably the greatest ever— along with Fred De Bruyne, Jo de Roo, Miguel Poblet and Tom Simpson for additional color. The specter of doping looms a bit more ominously over everything here, but history hasn’t tried very hard to punish the greats of this time.
I Love the Eighties
For me, the last great age is surely one of the goldenest: The 1980s. I couldn’t be more biased here, of course, and if you’re under 40 and getting sick of hearing guys my age blubber on about these days. I fully understand. But let’s go down the line...
Believability: the 80s will go down as the last time it didn’t seem like doping was ruining everything, until further notice. Not to oversell it but these were better times. LeMond and Hampsten remain America’s most credible champions of the biggest stages of Europe (Grand Tours, Worlds). Hinault has no real association with cheating, I think, and Fignon, well, his dalliances seem irrelevant to his success. Delgado had to deal with a steroid masking agent positive in 1988, when all hell was about to break loose anyway, but before then things were mostly pretty good.
All-time champions: Hinault needs no introduction but in case you forgot, he won five monuments. More on the classics in a second but the point is, the stars of cycling rode all the big races back then, and it was awesome. Hinault alone at the top of the 80s pyramid (well, late 70s-80s), but the second step consists of Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon (who also competed in the classics), with Stephen Roche checking in from 1987 to say hi. The all-time pantheon of exciting grand tours is cluttered with 80s exploits: the 85, 86 and 89 Tours, plus Giro wins by Roche and Hampsten that were as crazy as they were historic.
Across the landscape: As for the classics, the stars were transcendent greats like Kuiper, Kelly, and Moser, with memorable stars like Raas, Simoni, Madiot, Criquielion, and Vanderaerden clocking in great wins. The grand tour guys were in the mix as well, a hallmark of the days before specialization ruled for a while. It fucking ruled, is a thing we would have said back then.
Depth/breadth of excellence: The geographical boundaries expanded in historic ways — don’t forget the Colombians showing up, and the memorable 7-eleven debut in Europe. The grand tours tended to pit three or more memorable stars against each other, or at least let them take turns, in the case of the Hinault and Fignon injuries. Delgado was the third Spanish Tour winner, following the first American and first Irishman... who had just become the first Irish Giro winner, to be followed by a different first American.
I will unapologetically put the 80s up there with the very best. On top of all the big names and interesting results was the drama — it seemed like every couple of weeks something happened that was worth writing a book about.
OK, after all that chatter, I have to ask... is there even such a thing as a golden age, or is it purely a matter of media perception, the likes of which doesn’t happen anymore now that we’ve transitioned from a few loud voices to a million of them shouting at each other across the internet? Are we capable of getting past the (richly deserved) cynicism enveloping the sport for the last couple decades in order to accept the idea that things in cycling aren’t just good but super-awesome? These are just some of the obstacles in the way of feeling like we have a new era to celebrate, should the evidence confront us about such a thing. I have high hopes that some of the kids coming up could be truly special, that the era is at least thoroughly intolerant of doping (if not capable of stopping it all the time), that the athleticism coming on-line covers the classics and the stage races and come from all over the world, and that racers have re-embraced a form of all-around glory that is a bit more like the 80s than the Postal or Sky years. Things are looking up. How high up? Can’t wait for those debates.