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  • 02.03.16

    Touchpaper: Grating expectations

    Young and not so carefree: the pressure on talented professional cyclists has never been so disproportionate. We don’t give time for talents to develop

A day after winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Jasper Stuyven was a guest on a Belgian TV talk show. Within six minutes of his introduction, comparisons to Boonen or Cancellara had already been raised.

“I've only won one semi-classic," Stuyven said. "I've never really been a fan of being compared with Boonen and Cancellara. I'm just Jasper Stuyven, not the new Boonen or Cancellara. And I don't really care if my results can be as impressive as those of Boonen. I just want to win great races."

It was the rational answer, but it went against their agenda; in the studio backdrop, images were projected of him alongside Trek-Segafredo team-mate Fabian Cancellara. The insinuation was clear: you're next, pal. You could forgive Stuyven for gulping with apprehension at all this. He will enjoy the Kuurne win for a few days, yet is saddled with even greater expectations for the next few years. At least, as he explained in our recent interview with him, he’s been dealing with the wunderkind tag since winning the 2009 junior World Championships.

Stuyven is not the next Cancellara (above), just like Tiesj Benoot is not the next Boonen (indeed, nobody is really the next anyone, but it’s a passable headline and cycling is linear enough to allow such comparisons). This is the curse of the young, modern professional cyclist: they’ve never had it so good with technology and scientific help to reach the top, nor so bad with pressure on the way up. From newspapers and magazines to Twitter, Facebook, fans and media: the scrutiny is inescapable and insidious.

Imagine Stuyven in a few years’ time, lying in bed at night, reading Twitter messages, wondering about the people relying on him, kept awake by the expectation. It’s scary to think about. Put simply, we don’t give talents enough time or space to improve.

“People from the outside want things from you now,” Taylor Phinney told Velonews in 2014. “They don’t want to go through the process of personal growth in sport, because when you get a lot of attention you then have a lot of expectations. Every athlete’s canned answer is that the pressure that that athlete feels is only from himself and not from anybody else. But, for sure, there’s outside pressure.”

Pressure on perceived prodigies is hardly a new phenomenon, but modern social media makes reverberations greater and more immediate. Contact, be it positive or poisonous, over Twitter or Facebook, is also far easier. This is a relatively new development; by contrast, Bradley Wiggins developed as a rider in seclusion. The most he had to deal with as a whippersnapper was a Cycling Weekly journalist interviewing him at a village hall after a local time-trial.

Many riders who showed flickers of ability have had their careers cast as falls from grace for failing to live up to the absurd exaggerated comparisons foisted on them, such as Linus “next Ullrich” Gerdemann (below), Remmert Wielinga (a Dutchman touted on the back of one good Dauphiné Libéré) and Yaroslov Popovych, another “new Merckx” due to his success on the Italian amateur scene.

Hype is dangerous. It can boost a rider’s profile, but it can also be an unwanted distraction or turn a youngster complacent, making them believing they’ve already hit the big time.

The media is partly culpable; comparing a rider to a champion provides a relatable reference for readers and may get more hits or newspaper sales. Full disclosure: I’ve been guilty of exaggerating talents a few times.

Yet it is also natural and wrapped up in genuine hope. We – fans, journalists, the cyclists themselves – are all searching for the next whopping talent and the broad possibility of a young rider’s future is a lot more compelling than the sober truth of their current uncertain situation as a young hopeful in a pack of others.

Handling pressure is a part of becoming a great champion but it oughtn’t come so prematurely or disproportionately. Labouring under inflated expectations does a young rider no good. A cautionary comparison for Stuyven to heed is that of Roy Sentjens, who won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne aged 22 in 2003. He had a mediocre career with Rabobank and Lotto, fell into a depression and tested positive for EPO in 2010.

“I warn young riders about pressure. Every rider has to deal with it,” Sentjens told Het Nieuwsblad three years ago. “Especially in Belgium, where races are so big and a rider has the same profile as the King. Especially if you are a big talent as a young rider: me, I was as good as Boonen and Cancellara. That created expectations and that can lead to the things I did.”

Winning is surely slightly easier with greater insouciance and a lower profile. Good on Jasper Stuyven for his fine ride and mature interview response, but this is just the beginning of his career and the circus around him. The carefree days are over, but hopefully he will keep disbelieving the hype.

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