When he crossed the line, hands on hips, at Brabantse Pijl with Wout van Aert looking on, a look of baffled surprise on his face, Tom Pidcock announced himself finally and fully to the world of road racing.
Pidcock’s incredible talents have been well-known for many years now. It feels like the better part of a decade since people – first in Yorkshire, then around the UK, and finally in Belgium and the rest of Europe – began talking up Pidcock as the next big thing in bike racing. Now, he has arrived.
He has had a fantastic spring on the road already, but the Englishman’s first pro win proved he can beat the best, and with that it felt like we have ushered in a new era in men’s professional road cycling. The last vestiges of the previous golden era are still clinging on – we see you, Mark Cavendish – and there have of course been standout performers who have emerged in the in-between-times, but not since Boonen and Cancellara, Contador and the Schlecks, has there been such a raft of amazing riders all emerging at the same time.
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It seems astonishing to be talking about Mathieu van der Poel (two years pro) and Van Aert (three years pro) as anything other than the future of cycling, but they were simply the forerunners, the surfers riding the swell ahead of a great tidal wave of talent.
Behind them, nipping at their heels, are a handful of super-prodigies, all still under 25. Tadej Pogačar and Egan Bernal, Remco Evenepoel and Pidcock, these are the names we will be talking about for the next ten years.
These riders’ skillsets are also reflective of a change in bike racing as a sport. The era of hyper-specialisation seems to be fading away, with this new breed of multi-hyphen marvels who can time trial, ride up mountains and even sprint. Last year Pogačar looked the strongest rider in the mountains then actually won the Tour on the strength of his TT, but also podiumed at the monument Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Pidcock, meanwhile, stands somewhere at the centre of a vortex of pugilistic one-day racing, adventurous points jersey pursuits in the Grand Tours, or even – possibly one day – a tilt at the maillot jaune itself. The days of pure climbers eternally being undone by their terrible TT, or of heavy time trial engines going backwards in the mountains are all but over, it seems. There are no longer any weak spots in the facades of these frightening phenoms.
If there is one thing that might slow this generation down it is fatigue, or maybe ‘attrition’ is a better word. The received wisdom has always been that young riders should spend time in the junior and under-23 ranks as their bodies acclimatise to top-level racing, but this group have not done that. Pidcock could, theoretically, have spent four more years in the U23s before going pro – instead he is winning 1.Pro category races for Ineos, the sport’s biggest team at 21. Evenepoel leapt straight from the juniors into Deceuninck-QuickStep’s ‘first team’, and won elite races in his debut season for them. This sort of meteoric rise must take its toll at some point.
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Egan Bernal won the Tour de L’Avenir, signed for Androni Gioccatoli, then moved to Ineos where he won the Tour de France at the first time of asking. However, he then withdrew from the next year’s Tour with a back injury, an injury which still lingers on to trouble him now. Of the four riders we have mentioned here, he is the oldest – and he might yet prove to be the canary in the coal mine when it comes to showing the potential risk of converting young talented riders into WorldTour pros too soon.
One thing is for sure, we would much rather spend the next decade talking about Pogačar, Bernal, Pidcock and Evenepoel for their wins – and not their career-stalling injuries and ‘what might have beens’.
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