Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

27 July 2015

They've Gotta Start 'Em Young

Yesterday, Chris Froome won the Tour de France two years after he won it for the first time.  He deserves all of the accolades he receives.  Anyone who can finish the Tour is at least a world-class rider; anyone who can win it is among the sport’s greats.  And when a cyclist wins the Tour more than once, it’s hard not to compare him with the sport’s immortals.

He is 30  years old.  When Bradley Wiggins won three years ago, he was 32.  And, even though Lance Armstrong’s wins have been vacated, I will include him in this comparison:  He was a few weeks short of 28 when he wore the maillot jaune in Paris for the first time.

Now, every woman of a certain age has said, “Age is just a number!”  (I’m guilty as charged!)  In some contexts, it’s true.  However, the age at which a cyclist wins his first Tour—or, for that matter, at which he or she achieves his or her first victories or high placements—seems to have a lot to do with whether said cyclists becomes one of the dominant riders of an era—or of the history of the sport.
I couldn’t help but to notice that Bernard Hinault was 23 when he won his first Tour in 1978.  Eddy Mercx’s first victory in the race came at age 24 in 1969.  Other cyclists won major stage races and classics when they were in their early 20’s, and were winning (or at least finishing among the top riders) in professional and amateur races before that.

Eddy Mercx in 1969

Actually, riders like Mercx, Hinault, Coppi and other greats from the past were competing in lots of races at such early ages.  (As great as they were, they won about one out of every five races they entered during their careers.)  That gave them the opportunity to learn how to ride a variety of different races.  When they won, it helped them to build their reputations, which would lead to contracts with major teams that had the resources to help them elevate their riding.
By the time Coppi, Jacques Anquetil Mercx and Hinault won their first major races, they had already entered more races than most, if not any, of today’s riders will participate in during their entire careers.  And, as I’ve said in my earlier post, in riding (and sometimes winning) a variety of races, they developed a range of skills—mental as well as physical—on which they could draw throughout their careers.  As a writer, I liken them to a writer who reads and writes in a variety of different genres when he or she is young and develops a diverse repertoire before entering the apex of his or her career.

Bernard Hinault in 1978

To be fair, cyclists today can’t be blamed for starting later than their counterparts in earlier generations.  When Anquetil and even Hinault were competing, it wasn’t unusual for a young man to leave school at 14 or 16, depending on which country he called home, and start working.  Part of the reason was that jobs and apprenticeships were available; another reason was that those young men were working to help support their families, whether in a factory or on the farm.

Cyclists of the past usually came from the class of young men I’ve just described:  one that is disappearing.  Young people in western European countries, like their counterparts in North America and Asia, are staying in school longer.  Given that few colleges and universities have cycling programs, many would-be racers find it difficult to keep up their training—especially in the absence of support from a team or club—at the same time they’re studying.

That means that cyclists aren’t starting or resuming their careers until they’re just about the age at which Hinault and Mercx won the Tour for the first time.  They therefore have fewer years in which to compete, let alone amass victories, never mind to test their mettle in a variety of different kinds of races.  Mercx retired from the sport at 33, which is actually fairly late for an elite cyclists.  At that time, he’d been racing professionally for 17 years: more than half of his life.  (In contrast, Froome didn't turn professional until he was 22.)Few, if any, of today’s cyclists will have such long careers—and thus less of an opportunity to become the dominant rider Mercx was.  


  1. Whilst I can admire anyone who can ride a Tour de France or other major tour, I shudder at the competitiveness and worse all the nastiness which surrounds the tour. Each event is now a disjointed series of day races manipulated by the organisers to try and create the outcomes they desire all within the environment of rabid press and drunken lunatic spectators.

    Most interesting thing about the tour was that it was won using elliptical chain wheels which have been out of fashion for a while...

  2. Coline--I wouldn't disagree with your assessment of the Tour. I think that it's become a disjointed series of day races, as you say, in part because of some of the factors I've mentioned in other posts, including how changes in the structure and sponsorship of the sport have led to hyper-specialization.

    I've been around long enough to see elliptical chainrings come in, and go out of, fashion twice--at least here in the US. I guess it's time for them to come back. But I'm not going to hop on that bandwagon.