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Hunting for the Tadej Pogačar of tomorrow: The WorldTour’s race for ‘the next big thing’

UAE-Team Emirates is leading a clutch of dominant squads signing increasingly young supertalents. They explain how and why they're doing it.

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The WorldTour isn’t holding back in its hunt for the next Tadej Pogačar.

UAE-Team Emirates and the WorldTour’s superpowers are scrambling to pen long-term deals with teenagers and young 20-somethings in a race to lock down the world’s next grand tour great.

“Signing young guys into long-term contracts is a new paradigm within all professional sport and definitely in cycling. It’s another expression of the fierceness between teams that have come up in the last 10 years,” UAE-Team Emirates lead sport director Allan Peiper told VeloNews.

“And because of that competitiveness to scout young riders, they’re just getting signed earlier and earlier.”

Also read:

UAE-Emirates has 22-year-old double-Tour de France winner Pogačar pinned down through 2027. The squad has also recently struck deals that will stretch several seasons with 18-year-old Juan Ayuso, 19-year-old Finn Fisher Black, and the 23-year-old João Almeida.

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Meanwhile, the past few months have seen Jumbo-Visma extend terms with 24-year-old GC sensations Jonas Vingegaard and Tobias Foss. Ineos Grenadiers has secured the 20-year-old prodigy Luke Plapp through 2024, and has anchored down 22-year-old ace Tom Pidcock for several years.

Bora-Hansgrohe has the teen topper Cian Uijtdebroeks signed through 2024, and Remco Evenepoel is with Deceuninck-Quick-Step on a deal that will stretch through 2026. The list goes on.

The search for the ‘next big thing’ has become the WorldTour’s new way of squeezing out an edge in a peloton where even the smallest of gains is hard to come by. Spending time sourcing young talent can pay off in just as big a way as hours in a wind tunnel or a tweak to bike tech.

The race toward youth is only just beginning.

From Ayuso to Plapp – finding the next grand tour great

UAE Emirates recruit Juan Ayuso dominated the ‘Baby Giro’ and is red-hot favorite for this week’s Tour de l’Avenir. Photo: IsolaPress

Peiper and the big-budget UAE-Team Emirates team are leading the youth boom. The squad has penned deals with riders of all ages and experience in a huge spending spree this summer, but it’s the young Kiwi Fisher Black and Spanish sensation Ayuso that is generating the most intrigue.

“Ayuso is capable of the same thing as Pogačar a few years ago – turning pro and almost straight away winning races like Algarve and California,” Peiper said in a recent telephone call.

UAE-Team Emirates has signed Ayuso through 2025 as it looks to fortify its long-term future around more than just Pogačar. The hotly-tipped Barcelonan was brought to the team through old-school on-the-ground outreach from staffer Joxean Matxin Fernandes.

The scout-turned-manager has been following Ayuso for several years, mitigating the risk of signing such a raw talent.

“There’s always going to be some gamble taking on riders as young and as unproven as Ayuso. But the riders you’re going to sign for four or five years will already have really good results in the junior ranks, and you will have watched them and contacted then,” Peiper said.

“Matxin has had contact with Ayuso for a long time – and we already know he’s pretty much untouchable in a lot of his races.”

Now a fully-fledged member of the WorldTour team, Ayuso will be guided and mentored through the next four years as UAE develops his junior prowess into senior podiums.

But it’s not just talent scouting and old-school perseverance. Teams are increasingly looking to tap into the work that others have started.

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UAE-Team Emirates recently signed Fisher Black after the New Zealander went through Jumbo-Visma’s development system. Ineos Grenadiers scooped Plapp after he spent his formative years racing with National Series teams and the Australian national track program.

Also read: Australia’s Evenepoel? Rising star Luke Plapp impresses

“That fierceness in signing these young guys also comes from poaching from other teams’ development teams and kids wanting to turn pro earlier – it all increases the competition between teams,” Peiper said. “And I think, in essence, all of that comes from the younger riders being prepared for the pros earlier – there’s better technology and understanding among these guys.”

Do big budgets now guarantee big wins later?

Gianetti, Pogačar and team president Matar Suhail Al Yabhouni Al Dhaheri do the paperwork on the Slovenian’s contract extension. Photo: UAE Emirates

There’s no coincidence that UAE-Team Emirates leads the way in the growing push toward young riders on long-term contracts. Big deals need big dollars, and not many have the coffers to match the state-backed super squad.

With Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers following in the fight for future talent, does that point toward a growing condensation of talent among the monied few?

There’s certainly a risk it goes that way. The Emirati squad has signed Pascal Ackermann, Marc Soler, George Bennett, Alvaro Hodeg, and rising GC star Almeida in the space of the past five days.

It’s all part of a long-term vision based around Pogačar and his budget-busting six-year deal.

“It’s no secret that our goal is to nurture young talents as we are doing with Pogačar, (Mikkel) Bjerg, (Brandon) McNulty, (Marc) Hirschi, Ayuso, and so many others,” said team principal Mauro Gianetti. “We are building a team for the present but also for the future.”

Also read: UAE-Team Emirates ride the youth boom

UAE’s huge contract push and its focus on youth could deliver a yellow jersey every year for the foreseeable future. But it’s not without risk.

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One or two off-seasons from an under-pressure youngster can see a highly hyped deal turn stale quickly. Marc Hirschi has gone on a low simmer since joining UAE-Team Emirates off the back of a standout season with Team DSM. Enric Mas fell off in his first year with Movistar after a standout spell with Quick-Step.

And big investments in extra-young riders may take many years to come to fruition, offering rival squads room to play catch-up in the meantime.

UAE-Team Emirates is playing the very long game with Ayuso, who dominated this year’s “Baby Giro,” and is a top favorite for this week’s Tour de l’Avenir.

“The idea is to give Ayuso time and space to develop as a rider and as a person,” Matxin said of his newly signed wunderkind. “The priority at the moment is that he enjoys the bike. It’s a five-year outlook with Juan and he is part of the long-term project we are building at UAE-Team Emirates.”

And it doesn’t take a multi-million, multi-year contract to guarantee future grand tour dominance.

Teams from across the financial spectrum have offered short-term stagiaire openings to young promises in the past months. Similarly, a number of riders have progressed from Jumbo-Visma, DSM, and Groupama-FDJ’s development teams to their senior squad. Any one of them could easily bloom into the next Pogačar, Evenepoel, or Egan Bernal.

Buckle up. The future is now.