The column: Is it time to ditch the white jersey?

With the most junior riders in Grand Tours now comfortably competing for – and winning –  the overall prize, is the young riders’ competition still fit for purpose? 

Late to the party, La Vuelta España introduced the young rider's competition in 2019. It was a strange decision, given the recent trend of young riders contesting overall general classification wins.

Miguel Ángel López, for example, was eligible to win the jersey in the race in 2019. This seemed incongruous, if not preposterous – he was competing in his sixth Grand Tour and already has two podiums on his palmarès.

It’s not his fault, of course. The Vuelta decided to simply photocopy the Tour de France’s rules for its own version of the competition, rather than adapting them for the times. That means any rider born after January 1st 1994 – almost a third of those who pinned on a number in Torrevieja in 2019 – qualified, and it was all but guaranteed López would win it. 

Being young and supremely talented just doesn’t seem all that novel these days. Nor do teams need much incentive to give youth a chance. Everywhere you look there’s a fresh-faced thing, throwing mud in the eyes of his seniors. 

Tadej Pogačar’s stage win in the Vuelta in 2019 made him the youngest Grand Tour stage winner since Moreno Argentin at the 1981 Giro d’Italia. It should have knocked us for six. Instead it felt like more of what we’ve come to expect from the Slovenian and the sport. The new normal, the natural order of things. It was only a few months before that we watched Egan Bernal dance to Tour de France victory. 

So what to do instead? You could lower the competition’s age limit by eighteen months. That would still leave a reasonable 23 riders in the mix but, ultimately, wouldn’t be more than fiddling around the edges. What’s more it would presumably still be dominated by the same GC suspects for a couple of years at least. (Did someone say Remco Evenepoel?) 

A better option – and one that should satisfy some of the old timers in the Rouleur office – is to flip it round and replace the white jersey with one awarded to the best rider over 35. You might, with justification, argue that it would just end up being the Valverde prize but he won’t be around for much longer. Sixteen riders would have been eligible to fight for what would have to be a grey jersey in the 2019 Vuelta, including Nicolas Roche and Luis Leon Sanchez. 

At the Giro d’Italia in 2019, in which Valverde didn’t participate, there also would have been 16 riders vying for it but any guesses as to who the winner would have been? That’s right: Domenico Pozzovivo, who finished 19th overall. The maglia grigia could have served as satisfying salute to a rider who has given a lot to the sport and taken relatively little. At the Tour in 2019, André Greipel would have worn it for a stage, likewise Roche.

Better yet, however, is if organisers were to introduce a debutant’s prize for anyone riding their first Grand Tour. The best thing about it is that no rider could win it more than once, though that would, of course, not have eliminated Pogačar from the 2019 edition of La Vuelta. 

It wouldn’t necessarily end up on the shoulders of a youngster, though. It might even create an opportunity for an unlikely, unsung elder rider. At 29 years of age, CCC’s Paweł Bernas was the oldest first timer at the 2019 Vuelta. Wouldn’t it be nice for him to have a chance to shine, even if just for one day?

This article was originally published in September 2019

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