Never too old? Age and Grand Tour Stage Winners

Under 27.04? Then good news! You are still below the average age of a grand tour stage winning rider: your hopes of turning pro and becoming a star still have a glimmer of hope. However, whilst your youth may give you some cause for optimism, you’re probably pretty unlikely to take home the record for the youngest ever win, however, which sits with Italian Fabio Battesini, who took home a stage of the 1911 Giro d’Italia at the tender age of 19 years, 4 months and 13 days.

 

fbatt
Messr Battesini

There is some solace in that Battesini is one of just three riders to have won a Grand Tour stage under the age of 20, with the other two being:

 

henricornet
Cornet, seen here with some very hipster wheels, is also the youngest ever winner of a Grand Tour overall

Henri Cornet, born 4/8/1884, won two stages of the 1904 Tour de France, the first aged 19 years, 11 months, 9 days. Technically he only won them after the original winners were disqualified in the infamous December judgements.

Olimpio Bizzi, born 1/8/1916, won a stage of the 1936 Giro d’Italia aged 19 years, 9 months, 25 days.

 

Perhaps, though, you are more advanced in your years, and hold out hope of evoking some sort of Chris Horner-esque revitalisation to snatch victory back from the young whippersnappers. Well, it would appear that you have until the age of 41 – the most advanced age at which anyone has ever won a Grand Tour stage. Only two men have managed this:

cerami41

Pino Cerami, born 28/4/1922, won a stage of the 1963 Tour de France aged 41 years, 2 months and three days.

Chris Horner Vuelta
Horner had 41 years to come up with a decent celebration and could only come up with some eagle-esque flappy hand thing.

Chris Horner, born 23/10/1971, won two stages, and indeed the overall title, at the Vuelta a Espana, the latest aged 41 years, 10 months and 10 days.

Age and Cycling

After that tortuously long introduction, let’s get onto the point: age in cycling. As part of my ongoing project into Grand Tour analysis, the scope of which seems to grow everyday, I’ve collated the ages of every stage winner of a Grand Tour stage win on the day of said win, in order to find not only the average age of the winners, but find some trends in how the age of winners develop.

Predictions were that youth would prevail as the most likely to take a win – after all, we are forever hearing of “fast twitch” muscle fibres so exalted by sprinters being the preserve of the young, and sprinters have, until ASO decided every other stage needed to be lumpy, usually been the section of the peloton most blessed with winning opportunities.

However, cycling is, when distilled, an endurance sport, and endurance is typically seen as a capacity developed with age. The adage that the sport is also “chess on wheels” also suggest an inherent maturity and thoughtfulness that it is arguable is only gained through experience, and logically, the older you are, the more experience you should have.

So which would come out trumps? Unsurprisingly, the results are rather dependent on a few things…

gtages

This snazzy coloured chart counts the number of wins by each person in each decade for all of the three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain. If, for instance, a 24 year old won 4 times in one decade, 24 would get an entry of four and so on.

age
The same chart, but by percentage of the total number for the decade.

What it shows is that 25 years olds have the most wins, with 654, but that there is a sneaking trend for older riders to win more. For instance, the noughties saw an increased number of wins for 29 and 30 year olds – 136,impressive given nobody in this age group won in the equivalent decade a century earlier (that’s the “nineteen noughties – 1900-1909 – for those confused.)

25-30

The above charts show that whilst there is no solid trend for the under 25s (a slight downward trend, but not much more), the over 30s’ numbers have certainly sprung up in the last 25 years. Why this is is open to interpretation – better training techniques, extended desire to compete, and, of course, doping, are all possible explanations. Doping in particular is one to be investigated – the 1990s rise coincides (but doesn’t necessarily correlate with) with the advent of the EPO era, perhaps boosting the older, savvier riders and compressing the youth, but another argument could be that the relative absence of doping after, say, 2008 helped older riders extend their careers by not having to compete against pumped up competition.

winhab
The graph of total number of wins by age suggests that winning tails off pretty quickly once riders tick over to 30 – perhaps influenced by a greater likelihood of being on domestique/road captain duties

Still, the original number chart shows a pretty solid base for the 25 to 30 age group as the “core” winning time, and this is has remained relatively unchanged throughout the sports history, with the only change being that the tail that once went into the lower twenties now extends deep into the thirties.

rank
This chart showing the relative rankings of the % of total wins by age against one another suggests that 24 to 26  has been the traditional most frequent winning age, but the later twenties have, in the last couple of decades, began to take over the reigns.

Average stage winner age by Grand Tour, by year

The below graph plots the average age of stage winners for each individual grand tour against time. It should really be a scatter graph, but the lines help show the flow a bit better.

What is shows is that post WW1 and WW2, it was the riders who had been riding pre-war who returned and cleaned up, hence the peaks in average age of winners as these experienced men returned to the fray. It also shows that from 1980 to 2005, there was a steady rise in the average age of grand Tour stage winners, with a post war peak at the 2006 Tour of 30.29 (nearly matched by the 2015 Tour at 30.25). When the 2014 Giro recorded an average of 25.85, it was the first Grand Tour to have an average age in the 25s since the 1990 Giro.

aveagestagewin

Post 2008, there has been a drop off (again, the easy insinuation is that 2008 was the last major doping scandal, and that, naive as it may be, this is perhaps a point where it has reduced in its dispersion through the field), and things have returned to a state of statistical normality.

Since 2009, just 5 of 24 Grand Tours have an average outside of one standard deviation from the norm – in the previous 24, stretching from 2001 to 2008, there were 13, including seven in a row from the 2005 Giro to the 2007 Giro. Something was clearly up in the early to mid noughties…

Grand Tour Specific

Until recently, there has been a pervading opinion that the Tour de France is where you send your experienced, battle hardened riders who are capable of getting a result, whilst you blood your younglings at the Giro, or, if you being cruel, the Vuelta.

The rising profile of the Giro, plus the Vuelta’s transformation from monotonous-slog-through-the-plains to mountain-packed-Tour-rematch, will perhaps alter this perception in years to come, but does it hold any truth at the moment?

averageagesbytour

Sort of. Everything moves around a bit, but generally, the red Vuelta line is under the yellow Tour line, as is the pink (sorry, “rosa”) Giro line.

Perhaps a count would be better. So, when they have been in competition in the same year, which has had the highest average age?

haa

The data shows that the Tour has had 45 editions where it has had the highest average age of stage winners, which is a 46% rate considering it has been up against the other Grand Tours 97 times. The Giro has actually been up against other Grand Tours 98 times, but with 35 editions where it had the highest average age, its hit rate is 36%, with the Vuelta (68 editions)  bringing up the rear with 26% (18 editions).

As the chart shows, the Tour has indeed been dominant, although there has been more of a mixture in recent years.

…and the lowest average age?

yaa

The data for youngest average age is more equally spread: the percentages are 35%, 39% and 38% for the Tour, Giro and Vuelta respectively, so the notion that the Tour attracts older winners and less youngsters holds some ground, although we’d really need to do an analysis of the age of the pelotons for each Tour to actually answer this properly. Still, this is a good starting point, and there does seem to be some evidence to suggest that the Tour is indeed the arena of the battle hardened.

Leaders jerseys

Part of my ever expanding project involves mapping all the wearers of the leaders jerseys – this is taking some time, as whilst I could use my stage winners database, given most riders who have worn a jersey have won a stage, it is still taking time. It took months to do all the stage winners, and the assorted data, and it will probably be similar for the jersey wearers, but there aren’t as many,so it’s not as painful.

Luckily, the progress made so far means we can look to see if there is a relationship between the average age of a yellow jersey wearer, and the average age of a stage winner. This is interesting because, as theorised earlier, stage winners are more likely to be youthful sprinters, whilst jersey wearers will, mostly, be mountain men who have cut their teeth on previous grand tour campaigns. Is this true?

swvaa

The data I have so far, for where I have an average for the entire grand tour for the leaders jersey wearers age, suggests that yes, leaders are usually older. The below graph (again, with incomplete data) indicates that there are few instances where the leaders are younger than the stage winners.

yavjwotsw

Hopefully, when I finally get around to finishing the leaders jersey part, we can revisit this and perhaps theorise some more…

Relative Age Effect – January’s Child

The Relative age effect, according to that bastion of knowledge that is Wikipedia, is the bias evident in “upper echelons of youth sport” where participation is higher amongst those earlier in the selection period than would be expected. In essence, despite births being reasonably equally spread across the twelve months of the year, more people born in January than would be expected participate.

The data we have can be used to examine if this notion holds weight in adulthood, with the substitution of wins for participation. For example, we can look at:

  • Do stage winners have a bias to being born earlier in the year?
  • Has this changed over time?

The U23 age group should have an effect on this – you are classified into this group if you are under 23 as of the 1st of January of a particular year, so someone born in January could have up 11 months of extra development over a rider born in December in that age group. This has consequences for filtering through to the professional ranks, as obviously, more successful riders are likely to gain contracts, and so those with extra experience at U23 have an inherent advantage.

birth

Looking at the data in terms of wins (so that if a rider who was born in January wins 50 times, January gets a score of 50, whilst 50 riders all born in February winning once each also tally 50), January is ahead. An even distribution would put everyone on 8.33%, but January and March narrowly lead the field over September. Just a quirk of averaging out 100+ years of data?

rankmonth

Ranking each month by the how it performed in terms of numbers of wins against other months that decade suggests not. January has been “top month” for 4 of the 12 decades, and only out of the top half once, in the 1970s. Similarly, March also performs well, although the prevalence of September is puzzling.

monthwins
Raw data for anyone interested. Average should be 8.33% if all were equal.

The data thus favours a suggestion that January born babes are more successful, but how about just on pure numbers? Is the sample of around 1,700 riders who have ever won a grand tour stage also demonstrative of January being a winners month?

bymonth

Indeed it is, albeit only just pipping March. So, I guess this theory does hold some weight…

Big Grand Tour winning riders born in January:
Alessandro Petacchi
Guido Bontempi
Jacques Anquetil
Gerben Karstens
Francois Faber
Adolfo Leoni
Marco Pantani
Thor Hushovd
Louis Trousselier
Domenico Piemontesi
Peter Sagan
John Degenkolb

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