Dig the New Breed

Dig the New Breed

My friend Felipe, a proud Colombiano this week, tells me that the mountainous region 2014 Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana comes from is known for the quiet heartiness of its people who can come off as cold, aloof and unsmiling to those who don’t know them. These are also the characteristics of Brittany, in the north of France, where Bernard Hinault comes from, of County Waterford, in the south-east of Ireland, where Sean Kelly was born, and of  Navarre, in the north of Spain, abutting the Basque territories, where Miguel Indurain learned to ride a bike.

It’s easy to look at Quintana and think he’s just a tiny, specialist climber, but there is something far more compelling about him than his ability to accelerate in the steeps. His team manager speaks of the strength of his character, and of course all the while he is burying the field on a 17% grade, he maintains the demeanor of a New York bus driver on his day off, stone faced and calm. This is not to say that the young Colombian will reach the heights of Hinault, Kelly or Indurain, only to say that he has qualities that indicate he has the potential to be great.

Just as unregulated capitalism trends toward monopoly, pro cycling trends toward legend. We are always looking to crown the next Merckx, the next Hinault, but what is refreshing, not only about Quintana, but also many of his cohort is their potential to win, to shake up the pro landscape and make the racing ever less predictable, like a radio ban or a snow-covered mountain top finish.

Quintana is just one of the new breed, a young rider ready to put the old guard, Evans, Basso, Scarponi, et. al., into the shade of their late careers. Three years ago, I would have predicted that any stage race with Alberto Contador in it could only have one winner, but Quintana’s Giro win is perhaps evidence that the entire sea has changed in the intervening seasons. Not only has Chris Froome become the preeminent stage racer in the world, but now Vincenzo Nibali, Quintana, Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran have joined the fray.

Similarly, it appeared that Mark Cavendish would easily sprint his way into all the record books, sweeping every flat race before him, but instead we have seen the rapid emergence of the young German, Marcel Kittle, and the fast Frenchman, Nacer Bouhani, not to mention Bouhani’s teammate Arnaud Démare, and Peter Sagan with his penchant for taking hectic sprint wins away from the pure sprinters.

Sometimes the magic of youth is not in its strength or its resilience, but in a simple lack of cynicism. For a sport with decades of deeply engrained cynicism behind it, this new breed of riders, this next generation, is fun to watch. Let’s not saddle them with the task of restoring credibility or of crafting new legends. Let’s just enjoy watching them ride and remember what it’s like when the unexpected happens. All of Colombia, not just my friend Felipe, are remembering right now.


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  1. Bryan Lewis

    “Sometimes the magic of youth is not in its strength or its resilience, but in a simple lack of cynicism.”

    I love that.

  2. Gerb61

    Could this shift in the balance of power finally be the sign we have all been waiting for? Maybe, just maybe the sport is really cleaning up it’s act? Do we dare to hope? Perhaps we will see the emergence of some new faces and nations who never stood a chance during the dark years.
    I for one would truly love to see cynicism left behind.
    Nairo, Rigoberto, Chris, Fabio , Vicenzo And Marcel, please keep it moving forward and don’t look back.

  3. Dave Lytton

    What is to make us believe that this generation is any different than last. All they have to do it dope in there prime reap the financial rewards then confess years later when it doesn’t matter any more. These guys want to win as much as the Armstrong generation and they will continue to dope like the rest.

  4. Author

    @Dave Lytton – I specifically didn’t reference doping in this piece, because I don’t think we can have a constructive conversation about it as regards this generation of pros, and I don’t think it’s fair either to tar them with the brush of the past or to put the onus on them to clean up the sport. I do find it encouraging that there are so many riders capable of winning races now, and not just a small cadre of dominant old hands. It makes the racing better to watch.

  5. JohnK

    I hate to be cynical, but it’s still so hard to not question dominant performances. It really doesn’t seem like this generation of riders is going any slower than the last generation of dopers. Maybe it’s because they’ve gone gluten free, I don’t know, or that suddenly Darwin is on an accelerating curve. I do feel for the riders because they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. I always felt that the beauty of sport was its dramatic reflection of the human inability to perform consistently. And maybe that was Armstrong’s great crime — performing consistently. Where do we peg our hope now? That doping didn’t help that much?

  6. Robert

    “Sometimes the magic of youth is not in its strength or its resilience, but in a simple lack of cynicism”

    So true. Also for the fans and followers. It’s so hard for “us old fans” to look at Chris Froome’s dominance and not be at least a little bit cynical.

    A new generation of riders deserve a new generation of fans.

  7. Tom in Albany

    Like you, Robot, I’m pleased to see new faces and names that don’t have a tarnish. I’m going to wait and see on their integrity because, in the end, that’s all we can do. I will say, though, that if Merckx were to come along today, or Hinault, or Anquetiel, or Van Looy, or Lemond, we’d definitely paint them with the doping brush for their dominant performances after what’s just happened. As such, I think it is ridiculous to just assume the worse because someone is very good and better than the rest. After all, that’s what cycling has nearly always had.

    1. Michael

      But I’ve got to say that the racing, while still racing and still hard, feels different. I like that people are hiding in the early parts of the race and then coming on strong in the mountains and I like that the people who were flying in week two are struggling in week three. That feels real and is very different from the Armstrong years where the top guy’s team was essentially running week-long races x 3, topping off with new blood at each rest day.

  8. JohnK

    Gee Whiz, the doping topic has become so pernicious that you’re not even allowed to be a fan any more if you’re over a certain age. (Or use phrases like “Gee Whiz.)

  9. kurti_sc

    JohnK makes a swell point. Many of us have some history and know very well what has transpired over the last 10 – 20 years of cycling. Regardless if you are a rider or a fan. On one had, we do owe it to the current generation to use our experience and knowledge to guard the current and future fans from falling into the same fate. Cynic, pessimist, realist all speak to some range of necessary role that needs to be fulfilled so that others can be the idealist and optimist.
    Er, I may be stepping out of my comfort zone here (thanks Robot!). Back to my numbers and calculations…

  10. Pat O'Brien

    Thanks for a great post, Robot. I would like to move on and root for these guys again, the true “skinny ass hard boys.”

  11. SusanJane

    I have no idea how I missed this one. If nothing else there is another change in the peleton that few are commenting on. Since brute power attacks and stupid sustained speed are no long possible, people are using tactics and strategy. I picked up “Reading the Race” the other day and there they were. The old stuff. When Contador attacked Froome with teammates he didn’t look at him and dare a drag race, he watched and waited, then attacked around the back side of some road furniture. Loved it.

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