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The 20-year-old UAE Team Emirates rider grew up watching some of his biggest heroes, like Alberto Contador, winning the Tour multiple times and he wants to do the same. But, taking on cycling’s biggest race is a long-term project, and he believes it could at least another year, maybe two, before he gets a chance to go for glory at the Tour.
For now, Ayuso is happy to wait and take the opportunity of learning from Pogačar while the Slovenian goes for a third, and potentially fourth, Tour title.
“I’m a very ambitious rider and I want to try and win the Tour. It’s nothing new. I think every rider that is in my position has had this ambition. It’s something that I’ve been seeing since I was seven years old,” Ayuso said at a UAE Team Emirates training camp in Spain this week. “When I started seeing cycling it was Contador trying to win the Tour, so for me, the Tour is this one race I want to win.
“It is really hard to say but I don’t know, maybe if in 2024 Tadej is still one step above me, then I go to start learning the race, and then in 2025 I can try and go and win. It’s really hard to say, maybe even Tadej in 2024 wants to do the Giro and doesn’t go to the Tour. My ambition is to one year try and go to win. I have to keep on progressing because my level now… I’m not able to win the Tour yet.
“I still need some work to do. I still know Tadej’s the best and I have no problem saying that. What I have to do is learn from him and then keep improving to try and one day be at the Tour to try to win.”
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Ayuso would like to follow in the footsteps of his superstar teammate by taking his first grand tour victory the year after claiming a podium-place finish in his debut.
In 2019, Pogačar stormed to third place overall at the Vuelta a España, his first-ever three-week race, and he would take victory at the Tour de France the following year in dramatic fashion. Ayuso matched Pogačar’s Vuelta ride this year with his own third-place finish behind the overall winner Remco Evenepoel.
Ayuso is not going to go to the Tour de France next season unless something surprising happens. Instead, he’s scheduled to tackle the Vuelta a España for the second year running and he’s got his eyes on taking the red jersey.
“What Tadej did is incredible now that the podium and then he went to the Tour, and he won it and then he went to the Tour and won it again,” he said. “I don’t know how many riders have done it but I don’t think much. Of course, I understand there are many comparisons I’ve also done a podium and my first Vuelta.
“Tadej wants to go to the Tour again to win, which is, of course, completely normal. And he asked to do it, and I think he can. For me, I think the most logical step is if I did third is why not try and win La Vuelta before going to the Tour? Of course, it’s impossible to say here that I’m going to win or not the Vuelta, you know, first I have to train, and then I have to get there in form and then try and get the result.
“I’m a Spanish rider so I’m going to really enjoy going back to the racing here. And then if things go, well, then 2024 I think is the year I will go to the Tour.”
COVID and the Vuelta
Ayuso’s podium performance at this year’s Vuelta a España almost didn’t happen for him after he tested positive for COVID-19 midway through the third week. It was the latest setback for the Spaniard following a season that was plagued by one illness or another.
Fortunately, the UCI had changed its rules about COVID positives ahead of the Tour de France. It allowed riders to continue racing if their viral levels were low enough. Ayuso’s were and he avoided the fate of 10s of other riders during the event that had to go home with the infection.
“The season had a lot of ups and downs because I was sick a lot. I started the season with COVID. So, I did an altitude to camp, and I missed a lot of races because of COVID. Then after Catalunya, which was a good race for me, I got sick and I spent like nearly one month trying to recover, and then all these races that came after I was really struggling,” he said. “At the Dauphiné, I was quite good and then I had to go home also because I had stomach issues. It was always when I was in good form, and I was thinking I could achieve something again. Then, at the Vuelta, I had COVID and I thought I cannot go home please then luckily with the PCR machine we have the doctor said I was fine to keep racing.”
For Ayuso, the positive had come at the right time — if there is such a thing — as he had been feeling unwell a few days earlier and would have gone home if the little red line had come up.
“It was very strange because the day I was really feeling sick was the rest day and then we had time trial the day after. I told the doctor that I was doing bad and he said okay, we have to test and all the tests came back negative so that’s why I did the time trial,” Ayuso said.
“For me, it made no sense because if they would have told me I was positive on the time trial I think I would have gone home. Once you know you’re racing with COVID and you feel bad then you say okay, I have to be cautious because it’s my health.”
The youth boom
The 2022 season saw some of cycling’s youngest riders dominating the grand tours again with 26-year-olds Jai Hindley and Jonas Vingegaard winning the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France respectively, while 22-year-old Evenepoel won the Vuelta a España.
It used to be the case that winning a grand tour was largely reserved for riders in their late 20s and early 30s, with a few exceptions. While there were some older riders on the final podiums this year, like Geraint Thomas at the Tour, and Richard Carapaz and Mikel Landa at the Giro, the top step is increasingly becoming the domain of the young rider.
Ayuso believes that technology and the sheer amount of information available has played a big part in putting young riders coming to the forefront.
“Before, you needed experience to win and I think now cycling is becoming more modern. I speak on my side, maybe I don’t have the experience other guys did to be able to achieve results but what I do have in comparison is I have more information now,” he said. “Nowadays there’s so much information to be able to learn. Before, even if you wanted you couldn’t know but now with power meters, heart rate monitors, nutrition, with everything maybe you don’t need so much, and only at points in the race you need that experience.
“Maybe [experience] can decide one stage in a grand tour or something like this, but now you need the information. The information is something you can learn. You don’t need years and years of learning like you do to get to achieve experience. Modern cycling now there’s so much more information that it’s making the young guys able to compete with people that have been 15 years at the top of the sport.”