When is an athlete too old to race a bike professionally on the road? Is age the determining factor or are results the sole measurement of a rider’s capacity to make a positive impact? The answer isn’t clear in the modern pro peloton.
In fact, today’s Grand Tour winners are getting younger and younger. Phenomena like Tadej Pogačar (21) and Egan Bernal (22) are perfect examples, each adding a one Tour de France victory to their palmares at an age when most riders are cutting their teeth in the professional ranks.
Before this youthful generation exploded, the average age of the winner of the Tour de France was 28, a milestone when cyclists normally peak. So, have riders like Pogačar and Bernal reached their top physical performance before the age of 23? Or is there room to grow?
To date, the oldest Tour winner is Belgian Firmin Lambot who stood on the top step of the podium in 1922 at 36. And despite Pogačar’s tender years, he is not the youngest. That title goes to Frenchman Henri Cornet on the eve of his 20th birthday in 1904. He was crowned victor after the four riders that finished before him were disqualified by the French Cycling Union following rampant complaints of cheating.
The trend in the sport is finding a needle in the haystack – the prize of a young and up-and-coming rider with the skill, maturity and stamina of a more seasoned veteran. But there are a handful of older cyclists still making their mark despite their age. Let’s look at a few examples.
Alejandro Valverde, born in 1980, has been a professional since 2002 and is still going strong at 41. He has been the oldest rider on a professional World Team level for the last two years.
He holds 129 victories to date, including several prestigious one-day cobbled Spring Classics, multiple Grand Tour stage wins, and even the 2018 World Championship title. When El Bala (the bullet) rides into 2022 at 42, he’ll be on par with German former pro Jens Voigt as the oldest World Team rider to compete in the Tour de France.
The 2021 Vuelta is Valverde’s 30th Grand Tour. He is ranked 9th in the 2021 UCI rider rankings and 7th overall. Impressive stuff! Look out for him on his home turf in the upcoming Vuelta.
If you followed this year’s Tour de France, you saw the Manx Missile make Tour and cycling history by matching Eddy Merckx in TDF stage victories (34). Cav is 36 and was in the twilight of his career before being called up to the TDF last minute to replace Sam Bennett as Quick Step’s sprinter.
The media coverage associated with his four stage wins and the Green Jersey appeared on sports pages everywhere. He must have savoured proving to himself and his competitors that he was still a threat as a sprinter. It remains to be seen if Cav will continue into 2022 but I suspect he’ll want to go for that 35th victory and a record. What do you think?
Philippe Gilbert is a Belgian cyclist with close to 20 years in the pro peloton. Born in 1982, the 39-year-old has accumulated an impressive list of victories during his career that include a World Championship title in 2012, the overall UCI points standings in 2011, several Grand Tour stage wins, and prominent one-day Classics.
The Lotto-Soudal rider has announced his retirement at the end of the 2022 season. “At some point, I have to stop”, he said. Even though concrete results have not come in the last few seasons, he remains an influential member of the Belgian squad who impacts races and the team’s overall success.
The 36-year-old Australian has ridden for some of the most affluent teams in the peloton. He served as a super-domestique for Team Sky between 2012 and 2015, and his contribution helped secure the TDF victories of champions Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Chris Froome (2013,15).
Porte left Team Sky to assume the role of a team leader for BMC between 2016 and 2018, and Trek-Segafredo from 2019 to 2020. During this time, he won the Tour of Switzerland, placed second at the Tour of Romandie, and finished third in the 2020 Tour de France behind Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič. He performed so well he received a two-year contract to ride for Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky).
This move was rumoured to be a conscious decision to return to his roots as a super-domestique with the green light to ride for himself in certain races. In 2021, he won the Tour of Catalunya, the Criterium du Dauphiné, and was a contender for the TDF but lost significant time after being caught up in the many major pile-ups that took place in the first week of action.
Although he no longer rides for a World Tour team, the Italian Davide Rebellin is by far the oldest rider with a professional contract. At 49, he was contracted for the year 2021 by the Italian UCI Continental Team Work Service Marchiol Vega. Rebellin is now riding in his 29th consecutive year as a pro as he turns 50.
He was born in 1971 and turned professional in 1992, competing against the likes of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche. The list of his achievements is vast, crowned by a stage victory in the Tour of Italy (1996), Tirreno-Adriatico (2001), Paris-Nice (2008), and diverse one-day races and classics such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel-Gold, and La Flèche Wallonne in 2004. He went on to win La Flèche Wallonne two more times in 2007 and 2009.
Kudos go to the American Chris Horner who is retired but became the oldest winner of a Grand Tour in 2013 at 41 while riding for Radio Shack-Leopard Trek. He solidified his lead against Vincenzo Nibali during an epic stage on the mythical Angliru, with the battle coming down to the last kilometre.
There is also a strong female contingent defying age stereotypes, athletes such as Dutchwoman Annemiek Van Vleuten who rides for the women’s Movistar World Team. At 38, she has won the Rosa Giro, was crowned World Champion in 2019 and most recently took home Olympic silver in the women’s Road Race, gold in the Individual Time Trial in Tokyo and the Clásica de San Sebastián immediately after.
Maví Garcia (Spain, Alé Ljubljana) and Trixi Worrack (Germany, Trek-Segafredo) join Van Vleuten as the more mature riders in the women’s peloton. Maví is 37 and a multiple Spanish Road and Time Trial Champion. At 39, Trixi is a former 2003 German National Road Race Champion and the 2005 victor of the Primavera Rosa (the women’s Milan-San Remo).
So, what’s their secret? It isn’t just about avoiding the natural effects of ageing but being able to handle the mental and physical demands of long-term professional racing. Some are born with physiological gifts that make them exceptional. But I believe the answer lies in a more holistic approach, that of a combination of mental toughness, a profound love of the sport, the camaraderie and the thrill of competition.
What do you think? Let us know who is your favourite rider that is still going strong after years in the professional peloton.