As the era of British cyclists who built a decade of success begins to age out, a new generation comes hot on their heels, readymade for victory.
Today at the Volta a Catalunya it was the chance for another 21-year-old to announce himself to the larger cycling world, Mark Cavendish’s young Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team-mate Ethan Vernon. A rider who was only five years old at the time of Cavendish’s first pro win took his debut victory in the bunch sprint on stage five.
For every Chris Froome struggling with injuries worsened by the sands of time, there’s a Cavendish continuing to roll back the years in a bunch sprint at the age of 36, having taken his first victory in 2006 at the age of 21. But the next British generation is coming, and fast.
The British pair, who span the age demographic of the professional peloton, have been rooming together at training camps this winter just gone, with Cavendish passing on the sort of wisdom a neo-pro could only dream to receive. And it’s not just the proclivity for crossing the line first that has caught on, as Vernon won on just his 18th professional race day. On the run-in Vernon was tenacious, throwing an arm out as another rider rushed in as the bunch swung right, trying to steal the Arkéa-Samsic wheel he was following.
“When that first race comes round it’ll be dead nerve-wracking,” Vernon had said in January, before a kilometre had been ridden of the 2022 season. But in the final kilometre of stage five he showed patience, still sitting on those Arkéa wheels into the final corner, with the poise to nudge through as the Arkéa rider Dorian Godon unleashed his sprint, and the pure speed to ease past and take the win.
The joy spilled out as his wheel touched the line, his right arm windmilling in sheer relief at having ticked off his debut win so quickly.
In his winner’s interview, Vernon said he thought his day might have been done as the peloton split at the bonus sprint just before the last climb of the day. “I could see the front of the race miles ahead,” he said, but with the pedigree of team-mates at hand that Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl offers, the day is never done.
The catch was made, their sprinter positioned, who then proved quicker than the likes of Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious), Godon and Kaden Groves (BikeExchange-Jayco). Another winning rider wearing the white and blue of Patrick Lefevere’s team, and when they came calling last year, Vernon says, he didn’t think twice about signing the contract.
At the team training camp in Calpe in January, there was a quiet buzz around Vernon as attention was rightly poured onto the team’s superstars Julian Alaphilippe and Remco Evenepoel, as it always is. Tom Steels, it was said, couldn’t believe how quick Vernon was in the first few months of training, that he would be one to watch in the years to come as he developed. The Belgian veteran would have thought it unlikely he’d be proven right in just two months.
Alongside fellow Ethan, Ineos’ Hayter, and the likes of Bahrain-Victorious’ Fred Wright who continues to assert himself at the front of proceedings at WorldTour races, you can now add another British rider rising to the top of the sport.