Commentary: Cycling’s generational shift on display at wild Vuelta
This year’s Vuelta delivered on many levels, but perhaps more than anything, the race was a fitting finale to what’s been season in transition. With a new generation of racers boldly pedaling into the fray, the final podium in Madrid represented the past, present and future of grand tour cycling.
Younger, brasher and incredibly talented riders are refusing to wait for their turn. A few aging warriors are reminding everyone why they’ve boasted star billing for more than a decade. And today’s procurers of pain keep applying the pressure to defend what is theirs.
This year’s Vuelta saw these generational conflicts play out in dramatic and stunning fashion.
The past? Obviously Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), the cagey, aging world champion who harkens from another era, one that cycling seems to have turned its collective page on. Yet there he was, at 39, racing with dogged determination to defy critics to reach what is his ninth career grand tour podium. Cheered on in Spain, derided by others, Valverde remains at once a lightning rod and a source of inspiration, quite dependent on one’s view of the man himself.
There was Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), ever the consummate professional, winning two stages before gallantly helping a leading light of Generation Z — teammate James Knox — suffer through the final mountain stage. Gilbert is changing teams in 2020, but he reminded everyone that cycling is a professional sport, when a rider races to win for the team that pays them.
Throughout this Vuelta, former winners-turned-helpers proudly rode for their younger captains. From Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, 34, and Luis León Sánchez, 35, helping Miguel Ángel López battle to the end with Astana, to Jumbo-Visma’s Tony Martin, 34, and Robert Gesink, 33 — two riders who formerly had top billing — showing there can be a third act with dignity in any racing career.
The present is clearly Primoz Roglic and his surging Jumbo-Visma team. The Slovenian raced a near-perfect Vuelta, and coolly deflected a string of crashes that might have rattled a less-focused rival. Backed by the ever-deeper Jumbo-Visma bench, the 29-year-old is reaching the peak of his powers. With third at the Giro d’Italia and first at the Vuelta, Roglic will now set his sights on the Tour de France. Packing the tried-and-true winning skillset of a strong time trialist matched by equally lethal climbing skills, Roglic has everything he needs to try to end Team Ineos’s Tour de France hegemony.
With the arrival of Tom Dumoulin, Jumbo-Visma has the power and depth to challenge for victory in every stage race it starts in 2020. Balancing egos and ambitions will be an off-the-bike challenge, but after the season it’s had in 2019 — with podiums in all three grand tours capped by Vuelta victory — Jumbo-Visma is very much part of cycling’s elite.
And the future? Boldly leading the way is Tadej Pogacar, the precocious 20-year-old who rode away with three stage victories, the white jersey and third place overall. No one expected this from the Slovenian at the start of what was his grand tour debut. A stage win? Sure. A top-10, why not? Saturday’s stage-winning long-distance attack was a stunning preview of what the future holds. Pogacar is a leading light in a new and unabashedly ambitious generation that does not yet know the humiliation of defeat nor the sometimes-suffocating pressure to perform.
Rejuvenation has always been a part of cycling’s ecosystem. The old is replaced by the new. That’s the natural current of any sport. This season, however, has seen something extraordinary. Patience is a virtue, until it holds you back. From the upheaval in the spring classics with Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, to the daring-do of 19-year-old Remco Evenepoel and Pogacar, to Egan Bernal’s sublime Tour de France, at 22, the future doesn’t seem to be patiently waiting on the sidelines for its turn. This new wave, encouraged and embraced by teams unshackled from the conventions of the past, is revolutionizing the sport right before our eyes.
Past, present and future — this Vuelta a España saw all three of these threads that have been tugging on each other all season long weave themselves into a brilliant quilt.
This Vuelta brought all those strands together. From the proud warriors from Gilbert, Valverde, Fuglsang and first-time stage-winner Ángel Madrazo, a journeyman from Spain’s old-school, to tomorrow’s stars, like Sepp Kuss, Sergio Higuita and Fabio Jakobsen, all first-time grand tour stage-winners, to Roglic’s top-to-bottom dominance in the here and now.
The 74th Vuelta was a fitting conclusion to what’s been a fascinating and unabashed grand tour racing season. The three grand tours all saw first-time grand tour winners, a first in nearly a decade. All at once, this Vuelta celebrated and merged the three competing undercurrents of the 2019 season.