Should the Tour de l’Avenir be open to professional riders?

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Responding to the participation of WorldTour and Pro Continental riders in the Tour de l’Avenir, USA Cycling’s Under 23 team director Mike Sayers has called for a change in stance on this, emphasising how important the race is for developing competitors.

Regarded for many years as an amateur Tour de France – hence the name, which translates into Tour of the Future – the Tour de l’Avenir has been won by some of the top emerging talent in the sport, including Felice Gimondi, Joop Zoetemelk, Greg LeMond and Miguel Indurain.

The race has traditionally featured young amateur riders but now, with under 23 WorldTour riders allowed to take part, a shift has occurred.

The participants included Sebastian Henao of Team Sky and Marc Soler of Movistar. The latter ended up as final overall winner on Saturday, beating Australia’s Jack Haig and Russia’s Matvei Mamykin.

While Louis Vervaeke participated last season, he had only started racing professionally with the Lotto-Belisol [now Lotto-Soudal] team for several weeks beforehand. Henao has been part of Team Sky since the start of 2014 and rode the Giro d’Italia that year, netting 22nd overall. He also participated in this year’s Giro.

Like Henao, Soler also has experience in WorldTour events, having ridden the Volta a Catalunya this season. The first year pro was fourth on a stage there.

Sayers was overseeing the American competitors in the race and was clear about what he feels is the disadvantage experienced by those who the race has traditionally been about.

“The Tour de l’Avenir and the Nations Cups and the world championships should be for under 23 riders who are development riders,” he told CyclingTips. “It is only the appropriate way to approach development as a whole as opposed to looking at everything under a very microscopic view, which I think is happening now.

“It is not just about the WorldTour riders, it also includes the Pro Continental riders. The Pro Continental riders are going to be on the teams that are smaller. They are going to end up doing more 2.1, 2.HC, 1.1, 1.HC races than even the guys on the WorldTour teams. So they actually come in with a lot more fitness.

“Because of that, if you are going to eliminate the WorldTour riders – which I think they should – you might as well eliminate the Pro Continental riders as they are basically at a higher level than the WorldTour guys. It needs to be done, though; the race should be about the development riders in the sport.”

It is hard to argue with Sayer’s logic: the race has long been run under a certain formula and has been a very important event for highlighting which young Continental/amateur riders have the talent to become good professionals.

Reading the recent list of winners is akin to seeing a who’s who of pro cycling; in the past ten years riders such as Bauke Mollema (Rabobank Continental team), 2015 Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana and current Vuelta a España leader Esteban Chaves (both Colombian national team) have won and gone on to secure big pro contracts.

Now, with WorldTour and Pro Continental riders targeting the event, there is a danger in something important being lost for those who have not yet got pro contracts.

USA U23 squad

“I don’t think it is necessary to bring WorldTour riders here”

Sayers went into the race without several key riders and said that he already knew that the team couldn’t fight for the overall. His views about ensuring the race is amateur-only were unrelated to that; he’s been involved in the sport for a long time, firstly as a pro rider with a number of teams, then as a director for the BMC Racing Team and now in his role with USA Cycling’s Under 23 riders.

He believes strongly that the Tour de l’Avenir and other such races should remain as they have been, and not become part of a blurring between amateur and professional.

“I have got nothing to hide [in arguing for an amateur-only status – ed.]. Even if I had the absolutely best riders here [from his squad], I am operating with amateur and Continental riders. That is my stance.

“If riders are in the WorldTour, they are making good money and they are established professionals. I don’t think it is necessary to bring them here. I think they have already got their development programme through their WorldTour teams.”

Asked about his own team in the race, he explained that he lost his planned overall contender Alexey Vermeulen earlier this month when he crashed and fractured his scaphoid in the Italian Nations Cup race.

“When we lost him, I just don’t have any other GC guys,” he said.

“What most people don’t realise is that I have to share the best American under 23s with Axel [Merckx, the owner of the Axeon Cycling Team]. He always gets first priority because they are his riders. So if he is going to take his best guys to Utah, Colorado and Alberta, I have to go to the next group of guys.”

In addition to losing Vermeulen to his crash, injuries also complicated selection. Sayers had to take the tough decision not to select TJ Eisenhart, who has had a season below his usual level.

In the absence of Vermeulen and Eisenhart, the others on his team did what they could early on. Colin Joyce was seventh on stage one, while Will Barta was sixth the following day and was as high as fourth overall.

“Barta is the revelation of the year as he is only a first year [senior],” Sayers said. “I think he has already got 60 race days in his legs, which for a first year is incredible. He is a really good rider for how young he is.”

Bauke Mollema won the 2007 edition of the race
Bauke Mollema won the 2007 edition of the race

“I am all in favour of anything that is going to make the sport cleaner and more legit”

Sayers commented on a different aspect of the race earlier this week, stating on Tuesday that police had carried out searches.

Asked about this, he was frank that it was the right thing.

“My thoughts about it are all positive. They are trying to clean the sport up,” he said. “I have got nothing to hide, so I have got no problem if they want to search the truck.

“I do think the timing of it was a little bit difficult as it was in the middle of the stage and the soigneurs had a hard time getting to the finish. But, outside of that, I think it is a great development. I have got no problem with it.”

Asked if he would welcome such searches at other races, he was clear. “Absolutely. I am all in favour of anything that is going to make the sport cleaner and more legit,” he stated. “I think that is a good thing.”

So does he believe that things are better than they have been in the past and, if so, is he confident they will remain that way?

“That is a tough question,” he answered. “I don’t know. I can only go by my experience with my personal guys. This starts with guys like [Taylor] Phinney and [Peter] Stetina in the pro ranks who have set the standard that they are not going to do those things, they are not going to tolerate those things. That is where we are at.

“I know my guys are 100 percent clean. I am proud of them for that, I am proud that they haven’t been faced with the decisions that some of us have been faced with in the past.

“That’s why, even on the days when they struggle in the races, I am going to support them. I know they are doing it the right way.”

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