Faster, tougher, younger: Pro peloton hits warp speed in 2021

Veteran racers are feeling the pinch as professionalization and 'datafication' raises the game – but the old-timers know brains can beat brawn.

Photo: Getty Images

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Faster, tougher, younger.

That’s how the veterans feel pro racing is getting these days.

Rising professionalization and leaps in sports science have seen the men’s peloton get faster and more intense than ever before. Riders like Tadej Pogačar have reshaped what’s achievable in terms of both youth and performance, and power numbers have hit a high.

Also read: Pogačar dominates GC landscape at 23 years old

“There are no shit riders anymore,” Heinrich Haussler told VeloNews. “The sport is a lot harder – it’s so much more serious than it used to be.”

This year’s grand tours and classics hit an all-new level for the post-EPO era.

The Tour de France hit an average speed of 41.1kph, the fastest since 2005. Likewise, the 2021 Vuelta a España was the fastest since the depths of the doping age.

Advances in equipment, nutrition and training science make it a no-brainer that things have heated up. And with six-figure salaries on the line in every race, the pressure is on to either keep pace or call time.

“There’s ever heightened professionalism – it feels like it’s constantly evolving,” Joe Dombrowski said. “Riders are putting more and more in to be competitive, so you need to be 100 percent focussed all the time. It’s all self-perpetuating.”

More data, more watts

Van der Poel made two rocketship attacks to win Strade Bianche this year. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Science is at the heart of today’s warp-speed peloton. And it goes far beyond those now-seemingly “old school” power and heart rate numbers.

Team trainers scrutinize riders’ statistics on sleep, body fat, and heart rate variability in the quest to get performance gains from every aspect of the day. The recent rise of glucose monitors allows fuelling to be dialed down to the nearest gram and timed to the half-hour.

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“Everything is controlled, even like with the rings, we wear a [Oura] ring to see our sleep, see how fatigued, how fresh we are in the morning,” Haussler said. “We’re just trying to become like robots or better, stronger machines.”

With no athletic stone left unturned, power numbers are inevitably on the up.

Pogačar, Richard Carapaz, and Egan Bernal pushed 40-minute powers equating to 6w/kg day-in and day-out through this year’s grand tours. Stage-winning efforts regularly exceed 8w/kg for more than four minutes. Mathieu van der Poel’s rocketship attacks at Strade Bianche hit almost 1,400w – 18w/kg.

Also read: Power analysis: MvdP’s staggering Strade Bianche

Several veteran riders have spoken this season about how they’ve been blown away by the upping of the ante.

“When I was seventh in Tour de France in 2013, if I had the numbers I have now back then, I would have won the Tour,” Jakob Fuglsang told VeloNews. “We all say the same thing for the guys who have been around for a while, ‘I have my best numbers ever’ — today the whole level is so much higher.”

Greg Van Avermaet similarly lamented how even P.R.s weren’t keeping the pace at the Tour de France.

“I rode my better [power] numbers and was in the last group,” Van Avermaet told Sporza after stage 9 of the Tour. “The others just ride faster.”

Youth doesn’t always top experience

Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel among the remnants of the peloton
Evenepoel stirred beef among the Belgian team after his tactics at road worlds. (Photo: Alex Broadway – Pool/Getty Images)

Gen-Z superstars like Bernal, Remco Evenepoel, and two-time Tour champ Pogačar have become the norm in recent years. Team rosters are getting younger and podiums have become more baby-faced.

The rise of youth comes off the back of the increased accessibility of high-tech gadgets and training science. WorldTour rookies will have been training with power meters and a prescribed schedule for half a decade.

“When I turned pro [in 2004] I didn’t have an SRM, I didn’t have a trainer,” Haussler said. “I just went out and did five hours and if I felt good, I pushed the pedals if I didn’t, I just went easy.”

So is it all over for 30-somethings like Haussler, Van Avermaet and Fuglsang?

Far from it. Competing on the road is no Zwift race, and w/kg will only go so far.

Many rising GC riders suffer through inexperience, and Evenepoel stirred a high-profile Belgian beef through his questionable tactics at the road worlds.

“They [young riders] just have so much knowledge available, which could also work against them,” Mitch Docker said.

“These young guys are probably better coaches than I am, but they have no experience. I’m not saying experience is everything, but also knowledge and science aren’t everything. I feel like it’s tilting too much that way these days, to the science, data, and that side.”

So maybe there is hope for the old-timers?

There are still some high-profile veterans pushing against the trend. Richie Porte isn’t slowing down and Alejandro Valverde added three wins to his tally in 2021. Mark Cavendish’s beyond-belief Tour de France comeback is the perfect case-in-point.

“I don’t know that age is really as important as people think – it’s easy to focus on the young guys but there are guys winning across the age spectrum,” Dombrowski said.

“You see guys like Cav that have underperformed for a few years then, boom, he wins four stages at the Tour. Training, nutrition, aerodynamics, all of this stuff has gotten pushed to such a high level in the past few years – and it’s there for everyone.”

Brains vs brawn

Stage-hunter extraordinaire Dombrowski says it still takes brains to find the right move. (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Dombrowski claimed a standout breakaway win at this year’s Giro d’Italia and came a close second after surviving from the escape group at the Vuelta.

He said that no matter how fast the peloton is, you’ve got to be able to outthink it.

“It’s a war to be in that break. In the Vuelta sometimes it was taking 80 to 100km for the break to go at the pace we were going that’s nearly two hours,” Dombrowski told VeloNews.

“But to get in the right move? It takes a little bit of racecraft and a little bit of luck.”

Racing is getting faster and it’s only going to accelerate every year.

In the meantime, the grizzled old guys like Haussler will keep cool and wait for their chances.

“You can have the strongest legs possible but that’s not everything,” Haussler said. “If you can’t position yourself, you don’t know where you’re going, or you’re caught in a crash, you’ve got absolutely no chance.”

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