This year's Vuelta was a bit hit and miss, in terms of intrigue, but one thing is certain - it was a Vuelta where the theme of dominance was a talking point throughout, dominating the conversation, so to speak, at the expense of many other topics. It was hard to avoid discussion of Jumbo-Visma’s triple-headed approach to the general classification, resulting in a clean sweep of the podium, and Remco Evenepoel’s angry phoenix act, rising from the flames after a disappointing day on the Tourmalet to blitz the breakaways for the remainder of the race.
What of the other teams and riders in the hunt though - those that get lost beneath the headlines and forgotten amid the raging debate surrounding honouring the jersey, gifting wins, or team unrest. Teams with more modest goals, or riders simply aiming to make it from start to finish - in some cases for the first time? This post is dedicated to just a few of them.
Their first rodeo
Debut riders at Grand Tours face a steep learning curve, regardless of how much training they have put in prior to the event. Three weeks on the road, travelling, competing day in day out, the requisite nutrition, staying healthy - a plethora of challenges stand between the debutant and the finish line. And when they are young riders without the proven established baseline stamina, it’s an even tougher challenge; the pressures of just making it to the start line each day, as the odds grow ever longer of making it through a day of racing due to all the usual extraneous factors, potentially having a greater impact on less experienced riders than their seasoned colleagues.
The Vuelta is a good ‘starter Grand Tour’ though. It’s a great place to don the proverbial training wheels because it lacks the spotlight and pressure of the Tour and to a lesser extent the Giro, and conditions are usually more favourable. It’s more laidback, with less of a media circus, and coming late in the season, bodies are usually well warmed up and there’s potential for teams to try something different with their line-ups, having hopefully (maybe) accomplished their goals for the season.
It's traditionally been a proving ground for young riders and this year was no different. While the youngest riders at the Giro d'Italia this year were 21, and the youngest at the Tour de France were 22, six of this year’s 176 starters at La Vuelta were the tender age of 20 years old at the commencement of the race, and it was early that I set out my stall in support of three of them in particular.
When I posted this Tweet I wasn’t immediately aware that the three riders I’d chosen to lend my support to were, in fact, the three youngest riders in the race. Rather, the fact that it was their Grand Tour debut, and that they’d won my loyalty throughout the season with a variety of strong performances, were the primary drivers behind me throwing my support behind this trio of 20-year-olds.
After three weeks of ups and downs, both literally and metaphorically, all three of these debutants rode into Madrid on Sunday to complete their first Grand Tour, and there were highlights for them all which hint at bright futures and exciting times to come, as fans of the next generation. Let's look at their performances in more detail.
Lenny Martinez - Groupama-FDJ
Responsible for my favourite moment of the Vuelta this year (pictured below), the young Frenchman found himself in the hallowed red jersey following a strong ride in the breakaway on stage 6. Ironically, it was future race winner Sepp Kuss who won the day, but at the time, Martinez was the closest on GC so took control of the maillot rojo from Remco Evenepoel, giving rise to this astonished expression, and becoming the youngest rider ever to wear a Grand Tour leader’s jersey in the process.
Lenny spent just two days in red before relinquishing it after the individual time trial, and he had a difficult second week with illness, but he made it all the way to Madrid, recovering enough to enjoy a final jaunt in the breakaway on stage 20 and remind everyone that while his first Grand Tour may not have represented three full weeks of his best form, that he has enough in his locker to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Evenepoel in future years.
While he’s more of a pure climber in stature and will need to work on his time trialling skill, Martinez is the only one of this trio to have scored a pro victory, taking the win at the CIC-Mont Ventoux challenge earlier this year, and proving his climbing credentials beyond a doubt in the process. If he’s the future of French cycling, in a post-Pinot era, then things are certainly looking bright.
Cian Uijtdebroeks - BORA hansgrohe
What can you say about Cian? The smiliest, most well-spoken and humble young man in the peloton has eschewed the scrutiny and spotlight of the unforgiving Belgian media by signing for BORA and perhaps crucially by being lucky enough to be following behind Remco Evenepoel, and he continued his steady development at the Vuelta, showing the world his strength and maturity on the way to completing his first Grand Tour.
Though he is yet to take a pro victory, Uijtdebroeks is arguably the most complete GC rider of the three, and something of a known quantity, having won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2022. The race is often a good indicator of suitability for future leadership, and winners regularly go on to great things (Martinez came 8th in the same season). Nothing is a given in cycling however, and despite his experience he still had to go out and prove to his team and to the world why he should be given leadership in future Grand Tours.
And that’s exactly what he did, quietly going about his business, and riding into 8th position on the general classification in his first ever Grand Tour. He came 7th on the mighty Angliru, and whilst he was ably supported by his team, they certainly weren’t united behind him, as he seemed at times to be vying directly with Aleksandr Vlasov for team leadership. Vlasov eventually pipped him at the post, finishing 7thon GC, but Cian not only went the distance, but also offered hope for the future, for his nation and his team, and for cycling as a sport, which is in safe hands with characters like Cian.
Max Poole - Team DSM-firmenich
Perhaps something of an outlier in this company, the young British rider, while being less of a mainstream star, has still had something of a breakout season, often in the company of his teammate and compatriot Oscar Onley (Onley sadly crashed out of the race on stage 2).
While he’s been the quietest of this trio in terms of achievement, Poole has shown flashes of what he might be capable of in the future; flashes that make good on the promise he showed at a number of stage races this spring, including the Tour de Romandie and Tour of the Alps, where he showed extremely well on long climbs and summit finishes against seasoned pro such as Adam Yates, Thibaut Pinot and Damiano Caruso. In fact, his spring form probably exceeded his form at La Vuelta, where he was largely anonymous in the first two weeks of the race, beyond his team’s opening stage victory in the team time trial - technically his first pro win, though he still waits for his first as an individual.
It was on stage 18 where he made his mark, being the last man standing against Remco Evenepoel on what was touted by many to be the toughest stage of the race, with more altitude gain by distance than on any other day. Poole formed part of a breakaway group that went clear with Remco, and as the rest dropped away one by one, only Poole was able to remain with the Belgian, before he himself was dropped, though he put on a masterclass of descending skill along the way. He finished some 5 minutes shy of Evenepoel in the end, in 4th place on the day, but proved that he is certainly a name that we’ll be seeing more of in the coming seasons.
And that was that. Three riders to applaud on a job well done, and three riders who perhaps you might consider looking out for in future seasons - all gritty and determined, with climbing ability in spades, and the potential to go on to big things in the future.
With the Vuelta at an end, it’s time to drop the red curtain on Grand Tour season. I’ll be looking back on some memorable performances throughout the year in a future post, but for now, chapeau to the young guns who can proudly add a full Grand Tour to their racing resumes. It's high time I rolled out this meme on their behalf. First Grand Tour?