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Last weekend marked a long goodbye for some of the brightest stars in the elite men’s peloton.
Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), the last Belgian world champion until Remco Evenepoel and the rider who came closest to the “monument sweep” in the modern era, said au revoir at Paris-Tours.
Experienced veterans Niki Terpstra (TotalEnergies), Iljo Keisse (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), and Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education-EasyPost) all waved goodbye Sunday at different races across Europe.
The retirement class of 2022 also includes Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers), only the second Australian to hit the Tour de France podium, and Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma), the first Dutch grand tour winner in decades. Alex Dowsett (Israel Premier Tech) also confirmed his retirement.
Ben King and Nate Brown (Human Powered Health) and Antoine Duchesne (Groupama-FDJ) leave big holes in the North American peloton.
What’s happening? A changing of the guard, that’s what.
Riders come and go every season, but this year sees a unique string of high-profile retirements across the elite of the WorldTour.
How does this year compare?
As of the first week of October, there are about 30 riders swapping racing cleats for the couch in the elite men’s peloton in the WorldTour and ProTeam ranks.
Right now, riders joining the retirement club are relatively low. In 2021, for example, nearly 70 riders left the sport. Some 45 retired in 2020, and 60 called it quits in 2019.
More still could see their careers take an earlier than expected exit this year if they cannot land new contracts. A few riders, such as Mark Cavendish and Domenico Pozzovivo, still have uncertain futures, but those two are expected to land deals.
Also read: Gilbert passes torch to Evenepoel
More than a few, however, will be caught out in the never-ending game of musical chairs to remain at the top level of elite men’s professional racing.
Good news for job-hunters for 2023 is that there are no major teams closing down. The reported new arrival of a team backed by Doug Ryder could provide a soft landing for several pros on the bubble.
The bad news is that relegation/promotion wars will all but mean that Israel-Premier Tech and Lotto-Soudal will be bumped out of the WorldTour.
Those two teams could see riders and staffers leave when the teams lose their respective WorldTour status, assuming that the UCI will stick to its guns in the controversial system. The top riders from those teams will have freedom to find new rides, putting even more pressure on journeyman riders in the bunch hoping for one more season in the bigs.
No matter what age, riders without contracts going into late autumn can see their careers hanging by a thread. But there are always miracles.
Last January, Australian veteran Simon Clarke looked all but sure to end his career after Qhubeka closed shop and he couldn’t find a ride. Israel-Premier Tech offered him a lifeline early in 2022, and by February, he paid it back with a string of top-10s, and then hit the jackpot in July by winning the cobblestone stage at the Tour de France.
The team rewarded him with a two-year contract extension.
Leaving a hole after 2022
What’s unique about this year is how many marquee riders are leaving at the same time.
It’s partly coincidental, of course, but Gilbert, Dumoulin, Porte, Valverde, and Nibali were all standard-bearers from their respective nations.
Italy and Spain especially will be missing the star power of Nibali and Valverde.
Both countries are among the traditional power bases in European cycling, but neither have clear inheritors to their respective thrones. Spain sees Enric Mas, with Juan Ayuso and Carlos Rodríguez waiting in the wings, while it’s a bit bleaker at the top for Italy, where Filippo Ganna and Giulio Ciccone are expected to fill the Nibali void.
Both Italy and Spain have the cycling DNA spread across the elite peloton, but it’s harder for those nations as Spain only boasts one WorldTour team with Team Movistar, while Italy hasn’t seen a WorldTour-level team since Liquigas folded five years ago.
Valverde is the last of Spain’s “golden generation” that also included Oscar Freire, Alberto Contador, Samuel Sánchez, Joaquin Rodríguez and Carlos Sastre. Nibali is Italy’s last grand tour winner.
Porte was Australia’s top Tour hope in the post-Evans era, but now Australia brings Ben O’Connor, Jai Hindley, only Australia’s second grand tour winner after his 2022 Giro win, as well as the highly touted Luke Plapp.
Also read: Opinion — Valverde no hero to me
Valverde, whose controversial Puerto legacy will mar his otherwise world-class palmarès for some, didn’t want to retire last year as planned after he snapped his clavicle at the 2021 Vuelta a España.
Porte, Nibali, and Gilbert all wanted one last season, and all left at the top of the peloton. All three are well into their 30s, while Valverde hit 42 in his final season, proof that careers are lasting longer in the modern peloton if the drive and health are fully intact.
Dumoulin’s case was different as he simply burned out on the demands of racing at the pointy end of the WorldTour, and he retired at 31 when he could have raced a few more seasons at a high level if he wanted to.
Time to say goodbye,
End of an Era.
— Guillaume (@GuillaumeWatt) October 9, 2022
Most top-earning big names retire on their terms, and usually have packed away enough cash to not have to work as a sport director.
Nibali will have an ambassador role with cycling apparel brand Q36.5, while Valverde will stay on with Movistar in an advisory role. Neither said they want to drive in a team car.
Gilbert also said he’s not interesting in a sport director’s role. He runs a bike shop in Monaco, and has been linked in the Belgian media as possibly taking over Lotto Soudal following the exit of John Lelangue, but he confirmed this week he’s not interested.
Porte said he’s returning to Australia to spend time with his family, while Dumoulin also he might be interested in helping develop younger talent, but doesn’t want the day-to-day grind of being a sport director.
Also read: Dumoulin: Cycling’s butterfly that got away
There are a few retiring riders who will transition directly into sport director’s roles, including Langeveld at EF Education-EasyPost and Keisse at Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl.
Some say support riders who rode as road captains make better sport directors than the marquee stars, who were often at the center of a team’s attention, and can’t bring such a universal eye to running a team.
A few will try their hand at media, especially with Eurosport and GCN+ providing new opportunities for ex-pros to be pundits across the channel’s diverse languages.
Others will keep racing, but in a different discipline. Terpstra is the latest pro who said he will dip his toes into the gravel scene. Others move into the travel industry, running training camps or leading bike tours.
The wheel keeps on turning, and new riders keep moving up from below.
Philippe Gilbert retired today. His palmares:
National ITT Champion
11 GT stages
— CafeRoubaix (@CafeRoubaix) October 9, 2022