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Say When

By Richard Williams   

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Actors and rock stars can carry on doing their work for as long as their faculties remain unimpaired, sometimes well into what is generally thought of as old age. This year Ian McKellen played Hamlet—depicted by Shakespeare as a 30-year-old—to great acclaim at the age of 82 and Bob Dylan marked his 80th birthday by appearing in a new performance film, Shadow Kingdom, 55 years after the motorcycle accident that drew the curtain on the first triumphant phase of his career. The gods of sport, however, are used to feeding on young flesh, and their appetite is insatiable.

Observers of the tennis scene fretted that in the previews of the current US Open, the absence of two of the big three—Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal—attracted more attention than the attendance of all but one of the other 128 players making up the draw for the men’s singles. For tennis, it’s a worry: with Federer now 40 and Nadal and Novak Djokovic—the third member of the supreme trio—in their mid-thirties, the sport urgently needs an infusion of young heroes capable of capturing the public’s imagination, and there is no real sign of their emergence.       

That’s not a problem shared by men’s road cycling. A feature of the last couple of years has been the emergence of a new generation of riders capable of jumping the queue of those hoping to succeed at the highest level. As the grand tour winners of recent seasons drop away, names like Pogačar, Bernal, Evenepoel, van Aert, Geoghegan Hart, Hirschi, Storer, O’Connor, Pidcock and Vingegaard elbow their way to the front of the bunch.     

It’s a healthy position for the sport, but it was still painful to watch the 41-year-old Alejandro Valverde crash out of this year’s Vuelta, the Spanish veteran weeping as he nursed his broken collarbone, having wiped out on a downhill right-hander and slid under a metal barrier before tumbling down a hillside. At his age, the pain was almost certainly compounded by the indignity. Still, at least he’d been in a break, trying to take time out of the GC favorites, when his attempt to win his home grand tour for a second time ended so abruptly.

Alejandro Valverde is still competitive at 41. Image: Chris Auld

Valverde tends to divide opinion among cycling fans, largely because of his association with the Operación Puerto inquiry in the mid-2000s and the two-year suspension that followed. Rightly or wrongly, some of us continued to enjoy his elegant style in the saddle and his penchant for a smooth burst of acceleration to take him past younger rivals on uphill finishes.

Apart from the Vuelta win in 2009, the highlight of his long career came well into his fourth decade. Having finished six times on the podium of the world road racing championships, he managed to pull off a win in Innsbruck in 2018, over a 265km course with nine climbs and 5,000m of uphill travel, ahead of Romain Bardet and Michael Woods. A few weeks before starting this year’s Vuelta, he had distinguished himself with second place on stage 15 of the Tour de France, the only rider who managed to stay with Sepp Kuss during the 26-year-old American’s attack on the final climb of the ride from Céret to Andorra la Vella. Valverde has always been worth watching, but now we wonder whether we’ve seen the last of him.     

Twelve months ago we weren’t expecting to see Mark Cavendish again, at least in any significant role. But after securing a return to the Deceuninck–Quick-Step team at the age of 35, and without a win in four years, he took advantage of two strokes of luck—the absence of Sam Bennett, his team’s lead sprinter, and the early withdrawal of Caleb Ewan—to win four stages of the Tour de France, taking his lifetime total to 34, level with Eddy Merckx. Now we’re wondering if this was just a spectacular last flaring of his career or if he can astound us again by coming back next year to ride Merckx off his wheel with a 35th stage win.     

Mark Cavendish won four Tour de France stages this summer after a tumultuous four years. Image: Chris Auld

Whatever the future holds, he can present himself to the spectators at this year’s Tour of Britain with his head held high, once again an alpha male among the ranks of top sprinters. And since he’s proved himself capable of one epic comeback, no one applauding him at the finishes from Bodmin to Aberdeen will want him to stop there.    

Sometimes the decision to say when is out of your hands. Last week, the Dutch multiple world champion Kirsten Wild missed out on the final two days of her career after a Covid-19 positive among her Ceratizit-WNT team. Another example is that of Chris Froome, whose return to action this year after his long rehabilitation from an appalling crash in the 2019 Dauphiné was stirring but also saddening as he failed to show any hint of a return to his old form. A very lucrative long-term contract with Israel Start-Up Nation, who signed the seven-times grand tour winner when he was already 35, may weigh heavily on both sides as his future is discussed.  

Whatever the size of the fortunes acquired by athletes in their years of greatness, few find it easy to step away. Cristiano Ronaldo pulls on a Manchester United shirt again at the age of 36. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 40 next month and a veteran of six Champions League-winning clubs, is still the player AC Milan’s opponents fear most. Rich beyond any imagining, they understand the truth of the saying that you’re a long time retired.

The same is true of Wild, Valverde, Cavendish and Froome, and the message—as with McKellen, Dylan, Federer and Nadal—is to enjoy them while you can.

A former chief sports writer of the Guardian, Richard Williams has probably retired from 100-mile sportives. He writes about music on his blog:

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