Juan Ayuso, just 20 years old but already announced as a current and future star of cycling having ridden to third at this year’s Vuelta a España on debut, talks with such fluidity and fluency, such ease and enjoyment that it’s a pity only a handful of journalists get to see him up close, to ask him what they want.
Nothing with Ayuso is off limits; he’ll answer everything, his openness and his relaxed demeanour inviting a leisurely environment where everyone present is at ease, comforted. It’s the sort of trait usually reserved for a television personality - or at the very least someone with a decade or more in front of the cameras and press.
Ayuso is neither of the two - yet. “Yesterday I was speaking with [teammate] Marc Soler, he is my roommate, and I said to him that we should open a Twitch account because we spend nearly all of our free time playing video games,” the Valencian-Catalan prodigy tells a smattering of journalists at the UAE Team Emirates winter training camp in Benidorm.
Twitch, a video streaming service, has exploded in popularity in Spain in the past two years, with celebrities and ordinary people alike building ever-growing fan bases. Even the recent manager of the men’s football team, the cycling aficionado Luis Enrique, became a streamer during the World Cup.
“I have a Formula One simulator at home so that’d be cool to stream it,” Ayuso, in perfect English, continues. “And then in the [hotel] room Marc and I spend all of our free time playing FIFA or Call or Duty or whatever else together, so we said we could stream together. But I said, ‘Ok, watch out, because when we play we swear a lot! So if we wanna make it public we’re gonna have some issues!’ But yesterday we were thinking about it and it’d be nice. Luis Enrique was streaming and I think people liked it a lot so maybe with the team and at some races we think we can do something.”
It’s jokingly put to him that he could stream alongside Spain’s other young superstars, such as the Barcelona footballer Gavi or the tennis sensation Carlos Alcaraz. “I was at a Marca awards event and there I met [tennis player] Carlos Alcaraz,’ Ayuso says. “This last year, it was super-normal that I was always the youngest. And then when I arrived there, Carlos was [the youngest]. He is one year younger than me. I thought I was still the youngest! He said, ‘oh no, I’m 18’ and I was 19, and I was like, ‘what, are you joking me?’ Then I started feeling old at 19 years old.”
There’s more lightheartedness. Asked to expand on his memories of living in the United States from the ages of two to seven, Ayuso rattles off the few he has, and then credits the time there with transforming his family’s way of living. “I think our family has a bit of an American culture which is not usual in Spain.” In what way, comes the question. “I don’t know, I think, I think,” he struggles for the word, but leaps out of his chair when Rouleur suggest if ‘efficiency’ is the answer. “Yes!” he laughs. “Exactly that! I was going to say that Spanish people are terrible at organising things, at logistics, on everything, and I think my father acquired that there and he’s passed it on to me. Spanish people are… ah, I don’t think I have to explain!”
For whatever Spaniards may lack in efficiency, the country’s best cyclists of this century are Ayuso’s heroes: namely, Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodríguez, Alejandro Valverde, and Alberto Contador. He name-drops the latter frequently.
“The first time he called me I was like ‘oh, what’s happening?’” Ayuso says. “Or the first time he wrote to me on Instagram I was like, ‘f**k’. But now it’s more normal and we mess around, but the first two or three times…
“Even with Purito, he also lives in Andorra and now we go out for dinner, but the first two or three times when he asked me about getting a coffee in training, I was like, ‘I’ve got to prepare for this, what am I going to do?’. I was really quite nervous.”
Having Purito and Contador on speed dial is a massive plus for someone tipped to replicate their achievements. “With Alberto, I’ve spoken maybe three or four times on the phone to him, maybe for more than an hour,” he says. “It’s been incredible for me to have these people accessible. When I was 10 or 12 years old it was unimaginable. When I watched them on TV it was something I never thought I would be able to do, and now I can call them, ask what’s up and it’s crazy.”
Contador, in particular, is the man Ayuso wants to emulate. He will be among the favourites to win the 2023 Vuelta a España, and then the season after he wants to make his Tour de France bow, potentially setting up an internal team leadership debate with his teammate and two-time yellow jersey winner Tadej Pogačar.
“I’m a very ambitious rider and I want to try and win the Tour,” Ayuso declares. “It’s nothing new. I think every rider that is in my position has had this ambition, and it’s something that I’ve been saying since I was seven years old. When I started watching cycling it was Contador trying to win the Tour, so of course for me it’s this one race I want to win.
“Speaking now, hypothetically, it’s really hard to say, but maybe in 2024 if Tadej is still one step above me, then I would go to start learning the race, and then in 2025 I can try and go and win it. You don’t know what’s going to happen: maybe in 2024 Tadej wants to do the Giro and doesn’t go to the Tour.
“I have to keep progressing because with my level now I’m not [yet] able to win the Tour. I have to be realistic. 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.”
His maiden Grand Tour was spectacular, finishing third while still a teenager. “I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t expecting it because I knew when I started the race I was in very good form,” he reflects. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it, but I was sure that I was going to be in the fight for the podium.”
When he tested positive for Covid during the second rest day in Alicante, his low viral load saved him from going home. Illness, however, became a consistent foe of Ayuso’s during his first full season as a professional. There is an understanding concern that it could derail him again, especially given his slight and skinny frame. He says: “I’m a rider who doesn’t like normal things like paracetamol or ibuprofen. Even if in a circumstance you should [take them], I don’t like taking anything.”
Is that because of contamination fears? “No, I just prefer, even with my diet, to be natural. I like to try and take care of my body. I don’t think if you take paracetamol it really affects anything, but it’s just a mentality I have. Even there [at the Vuelta] I was quite sick and the doctor said, ‘Ok, take a paracetamol, and it’s not going to change anything’. But even there I was quite sceptical.”
It’s an interesting admission, especially on the back of Nairo Quintana’s upheld suspension from the Tour de France for Tramadol. A cyclist’s body is so fragile given the stresses and demands placed upon it that supplements are routinely used to ensure optimal health. “Personally, I try to do it all the most natural I can,” Ayuso goes on, “but of course you have to do blood analysis and if you see that you’re missing out on something, with a dietician you have to take something. But I like to take more food-like supplements, maybe vitamins, more than medicine kind of stuff.”
'I have to improve'
Next year’s Vuelta will include the Tourmalet and, if rumours are correct, also the Angliru and Lagos de Covadonga. “I’ve been reading the rumours and these big names and for me I think it’s exciting to be able to race on them,” he says. “I think it’s going to be incredible.”
Does he have a more concrete idea of what Grand Tour parcours suits him? “I don’t really know,” he comes back. “I enjoyed the punchy stages. [Stage nine to] Les Praeres where it was 16% gradients for 4km, I enjoyed that. I loved that, and also the long days of climbing like Sierra Nevada I think I did quite well. I think I can adapt and I think that’s what you need when you’re a GC rider. Whatever they throw at you, you have to be able to overcome it and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The great unknown with Ayuso is his time trialling. The Covid infection meant that he was unable to perform to his best during the Vuelta’s 31km test against the clock, meaning he draws on his 10th-placed result at the similar distance time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné as his benchmark. “There was a high level [of riders] there and the time trial was flat, really pure, for the specialists,” he says. “For me to be able to do a top-10 was actually, I think, a really good result. It’s something you really have to work on because now on the mountain stages we nearly always arrive together. It’s really hard to make differences. There are a lot of races decided on the time trial bike. I don’t know where I’m at but I have to improve.”
The advantage he and his peers have is the wealth of information and data to monitor improvements. It’s what Ayuso is using in his quest to become the youngest ever winner of the Vuelta; he will turn 21 on the penultimate stage, thought to include a summit finish on Angliru. “You don’t need years and years of learning like you used to achieve experience,” he states. “I think in modern cycling now there’s so much more information that it’s making us young guys able to compete with the people that have been at the top of the sport for 15 years.”