Seven of the top 20 finishers of the recently completed Vuelta a España were 25 or younger and therefore eligible for the white jersey for best young rider in the GC. That was won by Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), who turned 21 on the next-to-last day of the Vuelta. Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ), who is 20, wore the race leader’s jersey for two days, defending Vuelta champion Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep) won three stages and the King of the Mountains jersey, while 24-year-old Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) won the Vuelta’s Škoda Green Jersey.
While Evenepoel has become one of the sport’s superstars, other up-and-coming stars of the sport are less well-known, though they should be. The problem for young riders eager to win a Grand Tour is that, like young tennis players coming of age in the era of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, they are racing against perhaps the best group of Grand Tour riders in history, in Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič (both Jumbo-Visma), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Evenepoel.
Of the young riders mentioned above, Ayuso appears to be the most likely to be able to compete on that level soon and perhaps win a Grand Tour. Despite injuries that hampered his progress, he has had a very good year, placing fourth in the Vuelta, behind the Jumbo-Visma juggernaut, and second in the Tour de Suisse while winning two stages in that race, including the ITT. However, as he finished third in last year’s Vuelta, he was not totally satisfied with the result.
“Last year was my first Grand Tour and I finished on the third step of the podium, which was … really really big for me,” he said. “This year, I came with bigger ambitions, but it wasn’t possible against a very strong team. But I think my performance has improved a lot since last year and I have to just think about that. For sure, being the best young rider is a nice reward. But we came for more.”
Bora-Hansgrohe’s 20-year-old Cian Uijtdebroeks was for me the big surprise of the 2023 Vuelta, with his climbing ability, aggressive riding and eighth-place GC finish. The biggest victory in his short career was the GC win in last year’s Tour de l’Avenir, which is restricted to young riders. But the young Belgian is very ambitious and is already comparing himself to champions.
“The difference between Tadej Pogačar and me is that he is really very explosive,” he told the Belgian RTBF TV station while training for the Vuelta. “One could say that I’m more like Jonas Vingegaard. But Vingegaard is very thin, Pogačar is bigger and I’m also bigger.”
His ambition is to win a Grand Tour, of course, and especially the Tour de France. So, while he said he was enjoying his time with Bora, “for the Grand Tours we’re not at the level of Jumbo, Ineos and UAE.” Therefore he is considering moving to another team when his contract expires in 2024. “Everything depends on the will of the team,” he added.
The 23-year-old Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain-Victorious) had an excellent year, finishing tenth in the Vuelta, third in the Vuelta a Andalucia and in the Liège- Bastogne-Liège, and winning a stage in the Giro d’Italia, to go with the Giro stage he won last year. His Vuelta finish was especially impressive as he also served as team leader Mikel Landa’s mountain support and helped him to a very good fifth-place finish. With Landa committed to riding for Evenepoel’s Soudal-QuickStep next year, we can expect to hear much more from the young Colombian in 2024.
Martinez had a disappointing second half of the Vuelta, his first-ever Grand Tour ride. But he impressed many observers with his performances in the early stages, which enabled the Frenchman to become the youngest-ever Vuelta race leader at 20 years and 51 days old, surpassing the record set by the great Miguel Indurain in the 1986 Vuelta, when he was 20 years and 283 days old.
“I’m still very young, I wanted to do my best and get the jersey,” he said after taking the race leader’s red jersey. “Actually leading doesn’t change my plans. I still want to see what I can do overall.” He will have been disappointed with his 24th-place finish in the Vuelta GC, but Indurain finished 92nd in that 1986 Vuelta and did not win his first Grand Tour until he was 26. Could Martinez be the rider who finally ends France’s now 38-year drought in its home Grand Tour? The good news is that by the time he is 26, Pogačar and Vingegaard – who have won the last four Tours de France – will be 29 and 31 respectively, old men by today’s standards.