Today’s stars expect to flame out

Today's superstars burn brighter, earlier. Does that mean they'll burn out earlier, too?

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

These past few years, cycling – all of cycling – has been spoiled by not just the talents who have burst onto the scene but the manner with which they race. Your Tadej Pogačars, Mathieu van der Poels, Wout van Aerts, Remco Evenepoels, Julian Alaphilippes. They race well and often with abandon. They inspire others to race their bikes properly.

Their style hasn’t just been for style’s sake. They’ve been winning too. A lot. Monuments, Grand Tour glory in various fashions, rainbow jerseys – by this point it’s only a surprise when it’s someone not in this upper echelon of the peloton with their outsized prowess that wins the race.

Today’s superstars burn brighter, earlier. Does that mean they’ll burn out earlier, too?

Dominance and superlative ability breed inertia, not in riders, but in the minds of fans. ‘Of course, Pogačar will win,’ many said before this summer’s Tour de France. We said it. You probably said it.

Although he did not, he still took an impressive 16 victories this season, as a 24-year-old. That included Strade Bianche and title defences of Il Lombardia and Tirreno-Adriatico. Even with three stage wins along the way, Pogačar’s Tour defeat was seemingly a blip, an appetiser for the fights to come between the Slovenian and his Danish rival Jonas Vingegaard.

That’s why an acknowledgement in Kate Wagner’s interview with Tadej Pogačar that he may only have half a decade of his career left was so eye-opening.

“Maybe the careers will not be shorter on average, but maybe the top level of the competitors will be less years,” Pogacar said. “We’re gonna see maybe five, seven years at the top level, maybe 10. But I’m more [expecting] the lower number. I think it’s going to have the effect that the younger riders are already racing at the top level and you just cannot—for me, I don’t see it for myself that I can do it for another 10 years at the same level I have done now for three years.”

Not just five more years of him being at the top of his powers, but of his professional racing of a bicycle. It’s the lower end of Pogačar’s own estimation, but that would see him hang up his bike at 29 years old.

This feels unlikely, yet the admission is indicative of the mental and physical pressures that these riders, those who we believe have the world at their feet, are going through. And if it’s this tough for the untouchable stars, just imagine what it’s like for those scraping by at the other end of cycling’s pyramid.

The morning that interview was released, I found myself at the start of the Giro del Veneto, and so did Mathieu van der Poel. While he was there because he was bored, he was also quite tired. Mentally as well as physically. I asked him what he made of Pogačar’s evaluation and whether he could understand where his sometimes rival was coming from.

“Yeah, for sure. I think it is the same. I also read in an interview with Serge Pauwels last week, I think, he said that the new generation is only going to last until their 30s, maybe 35, but not anymore like Gilbert and Valverde. I think that makes sense,” Van der Poel said.

“I think it’s the evolution of cycling. If you look at [Juan] Ayuso, as well, he’s 19 years old and already on the podium of a Grand Tour. For me, it’s not possible to do this for 15 years, but that’s talking for me. I can only talk for myself but I notice the same a bit as Pogačar says. As I’m feeling now, I will definitely not go on until I’m 40 years old.”

Van der Poel is 27, turning 28 in January, and his situation is slightly different to Pogačar’s. It feels like the Slovenian arrived on the scene mere minutes ago but has already won a lot of the top prizes on offer. Van der Poel has as well, but with a more measured introduction, taking steps up and up more gradually.

One man who has seen it all and can put some perspective to it is Matteo Trentin, one of the most eloquent members of the pro peloton and also Tadej Pogačar’s teammate. I caught up with the Italian the morning before he went on to win the Giro del Veneto about what insight he could give us from sharing the same bus as the prodigious Pogačar.

“It’s more about how much stress does he want [in order] to be at the top level again and again,” Trentin said. “He’s only 24 and he’s already won the Tour de France twice, Liège, Lombardia twice, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico twice. Basically he’s won everything a rider can achieve in a whole career and he did it in four years. More than getting passed by more talented riders it’s how much he wants to stress himself to stay on the top level. Because for sure he can stay there for longer, but it’s going to be harder and harder every year.

“You see at this year’s Tour de France. At the end, Jumbo with Vingegaard, they found a way to beat him. No one in the sport is unbeatable; you remember Sagan in the early years, he was the first sprinter going over the climbs and beating, actually, climbers – and now almost every sprinter can climb. He brought the sport to the next level because this guy came out of the blue who can climb and sprint, so how can you beat him? I need to be next to him every chance I can. So Tadej came, he can sprint, he can climb, he can downhill, he can time trial, so how to beat him? Just do what he does but in a slightly better way. I think people like him just push the sport onto the next level and we’ll have to see how much he wants to push himself to reach that new next level.”

The team dynamic comes into play as well. It offers respite, in some ways, and pressure in others. Trentin made an argument that compared to a few years ago there is now more pressure on the whole team for results rather than just one star rider.

“I think it’s more a team pressure than an individual. Because now with the points system you need 10 guys scoring points, not just one. I remember in the past at Quick-Step, in my first years we had Tom Boonen and we raced for Tom. Period. He was the single captain in most of the races,” the 33-year-old explained.

“And then okay, in most races everyone has a possibility but now with Tadej it’s like this, especially in the stage races, but as you can see in the Vuelta we have people like Ayuso, Almeida, and even next year we’ll have Adam Yates as well as Tadej. So you can see we could have two top 10s in a Grand Tour – it’s never easy but we could have two contenders in the top 10. Cycling is changing to ‘yes, we want to win, but winning is not enough anymore if you want to be the top team.'”

That last line says it all – winning is not enough anymore. There seems to be a curse to greatness. The only antidote, perhaps, is to cherish it during its always temporary existence.

Editors' Picks