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UAE-Team Emirates ride the youth boom

VeloNews spoke with UAE-Team Emirates director Joxean Fernandez Matxín about new signings Joe Dombrowski and Brandon McNulty and his ongoing search for young talent.

Joxean Fernandez Matxín is back in the director’s chair, and what a team he has to direct.

The 49-year-old Spanish director is now calling the shots at UAE-Team Emirates, one of the fastest-growing and improving teams in the peloton. With riders like Tadej Pogačar, Fernando Gaviria, Fabio Aru, and Alexander Kristoff, the team promises to be in the mix across every scenario in 2020.

It’s a sweet comeback for Fernandez Matxín, who ran teams in the late 1990s. In 2005, he got his own team with Saunier Duval. The team folded in 2011, and he went on to work as a talent scout at Quick-Step. He returned to the DS role at UAE-Emirates in 2018.

Always with a keen eye for young talent, Fernandez Matxín was decisive in signing Pogacar for 2019 after the 21-year-old rode to third-place in this year’s Vuelta. Next season, Americans Joe Dombrowski (28) and WorldTour rookie Brandon McNulty (21) will ride in his colors. VeloNews recently caught up with him.

Pogacar blazed into the spotlight with his third place at the 2019 Vuelta. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

VeloNews: One of the biggest surprises during the Vuelta was Pogacar, did you see it coming?
Joxean Fernandez Matxín: It wasn’t a complete surprise but at the same time, it was, because no one expected things to go as well as they did. The team believed in him, and he believed in the team. We knew that he could do something important in the Vuelta. We came to the Vuelta to support Aru, but we always had Pogacar in our plans. We kept it a bit off the radar. What else can you say? Three stages, a podium in his first grand tour, the white jersey — chapeaux.

We came to the Vuelta with Aru as the captain, but we also had two leaders from the beginning. It’s always nice to play with two cards instead of one. To be on the podium with a rider like Roglic, who is the next big star in grand tours, and Valverde, who is a rider of reference in Spanish cycling and the world champion, to be behind them, at 20, he could almost be Valverde’s son, we cannot be prouder.

VN: How big do you think Pogacar can become?
JFM: Pogacar has all the qualities to be a grand tour rider. He has a strong personality to be a leader, but he also has maximum respect for his teammates and his rivals alike. He has proven he is capable of setting targets and not only achieving them, but surpassing them. What he did during the Vuelta is something remarkable, not only considering his age but that it was his first grand tour.

VN: The big news for Americans is the arrival of McNulty and Dombrowski. How did the deal with McNulty come together?
JFM: I first noticed Brandon at the Richmond worlds [in 2015]. I always follow the progress of the younger riders. That’s the first time I spoke with him, and Adrian Costa. I’ve always had a bit of contact with him, asking about his future plans, and how things are going. I always had an eye on his progress. Last year we already spoke with him and we were speaking about him joining our team, but he felt he wanted one more season at the Pro Continental level to continue to improve, and maybe it was the right decision. Now it’s the right time to make the move to the WorldTour. The message we kept passing to him was that we want him for the future. We never wanted to put pressure on him, but we wanted him to know that we had an interest in his future.

McNulty had been on Matxin’s radar since 2015. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

VN: During those negotiations, what are the key points to share with a young pro?
JFM: We are going to offer him all the tools he needs to improve. Not only a strong team and a good calendar, but also something that is not spoken about much in professional cycling, but cariño. We want to transmit to him this confidence that he will have our support and this belief that he can do great things in cycling. That’s why we offered him a three-year contract, not only for today, but for the future.

VN: What kind of races can McNulty expect in 2020?
JFM: For the coming year, I’ve already spoken with Brandon and we’d like that he can test himself in a grand tour, be it a Giro or the Vuelta. Later we’ll see his evolution. We want him to have the room to race in big races, without unnecessary pressure, but to be able to get a taste of these more important races. Just like we did with Tadej [Pogacar].

Brandon is a modern rider. He’s a climber who rides well in the time trial. On paper, he has all the potential to be a big rider. Right now, we want him to get a taste of everything, and he can tell us what motivates and excites him more, and we can work together in that direction. Looking at his characteristics right now, without a doubt, he could be a contender for one-week stage races. We’ll see after he tries a grand tour, to see if he has the important ability to recover to try to one day work to become a leader in a grand tour.

VN: How do you deal with new riders? I can imagine there is a mix of fear and ambition from the rider’s part. How does the team try to balance that?
JFM: We don’t want to push Brandon or pressure him into doing something that he doesn’t want to do or even perhaps he’s not capable of doing. But at the same time, we want him to push himself and take some risks just to see if he can fulfill his full potential as a rider. It’s a fine line between having pressure and having challenges and goals. Just look at Pogacar — he is a young rider who is getting chances to test himself, and he’s doing it without having unrealistic pressure or expectations. If a young rider doesn’t have his best day, that does not matter in the least. What’s most important is that they are trying, and he knows he can count on the full support of the team.

VN: You’ve always had an eye on young riders. You once worked as the top scout with Quick-Step. It seems like every WorldTour team is trying to sign the next Pogacar?
JFM: It’s something I’ve always done. Even though I am now with UAE, I still talk with the juniors and with amateurs, and sometimes I can help them out with small things, with material, with some tips on other teams. It’s true now that more teams are more interested than ever in young riders, but you don’t see the managers or sport directors at the young races. I am not sure where they are getting their information, but it’s true that teams are interested in signing young riders. Maybe just looking at the results sheet you can see who is successful. Riders are born with those qualities. Our job is to let the rider retain that winning instinct when they come to the WorldTour.

VN: What do you see behind this youth boom, of young riders like Pogacar, Remco Evenepoel, and Egan Bernal winning such big racers?
JFM: That’s a result of the information we have now at our fingertips. We know immediately at what power someone is climbing at. We know the numbers of what it takes to win on a certain climb. Now we can almost see the races in three dimensions. We can predict how many watts it will take to complete a stage, a climb or a time trial. So it’s easier today than ever to be able to spot young talent. You test them, you look at their power numbers, and it’s quite obvious. You don’t need as much experience as in the past to be able to perform. Before it was less scientific and riders had to ride on instinct to be able to measure their efforts or to dig deep. Now it’s more automated. Of course, it’s no guarantee that you will succeed. You still need to work, still need to be able to ride in the group, to corner, to fight for position, to work as part of a team – there is a lot more to being a successful cyclist than just power numbers.

VN: So it’s the power meters and better analytics that’s allowing teams to spot talent and let them race?
JFM: We have the power numbers available to us, and it makes the work completely different. Before it might take three or four years for a rider to perform, to gain experience and work into the hierarchy of a team. Now they can come into the WorldTour, and we know their potential right from the start. And when a team has this information, it can build a team to protect and ride for the riders with the most potential. That didn’t exist before.

Matxin feels Dombrowski has a lot of untapped potential. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

VN: Perhaps that’s one reason why we’re seeing some of the pros burn out so soon? We’re seeing riders race longer, but others seem cashed out before 30. What’s the balance?
JFM: There is another factor, and that is psychological. We have seen young riders with a lot of physical potential succumb to the pressure and mental stress that comes with the expectations. Everyone reacts differently to pressure. Some are overwhelmed by it, others are able to turn it into anger or use it to their advantage to motivate and push them. That’s where support and the backing of a team is critical. A team has to support its riders, create a positive environment, and not put too much pressure on them.

VN: Going back to Dombrowski, what do you expect from him next season?
JFM: We spoke with him last year, but things got a bit complicated due to space. I believe he needs a bit of cariño and confidence and space to move. When he has to work, he will, but I have this feeling that he has not given not even 40 percent of his potential. I’ve always kept an eye on him. This year he’s had a great season, and it was easy to make a deal, because both sides had the same synergy and ambitions. He has to keep growing and has a margin to improve and demonstrate his true capacity. I think for circumstances, for questions of health, he hasn’t been able to show his true qualities. I have no doubt that he will be able to demonstrate that. Here he will have strong support and a good base to take the next step in his evolution.