Forget all the controversy at the top of the sport. The future of cycling is here already—racking up wins on the road and the dirt. We want to introduce you to these hot young riders who are injecting new energy into the cycling world. You are sure to hear more about them in the future.
Tejay van Garderen – The kid who could be king.
For Tejay van Garderen, even hitting the wall was OK, as long as it was part of a bigger plan. Through 15 stages of the Vuelta Espana, one of the three prestigious Grand Tours of pro cycling, he was in 11th place overall, just 20 seconds away from the top 10. But on stage 16, with a mountaintop finish widely expected to be the decisive moment in the three-week race, he fell apart.
Van Garderen lost half an hour and dropped 19 places on the overall classification. It would’ve been a crushing blow, but he took it in stride. He was barely 22 years old. In his first Grand Tour. In his rookie pro season. Forget Lance Armstrong. You have to go back a quarter century, to Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, to find Americans who showed as much early promise as van Garderen. Winner of the prestigious Circuito Montanes at 20. Second in the Tour de l’Avenir, the so-called Tour de France for young riders, at 21 (and he would likely have won if not for an untimely flat tire).
All that was merely prelude to his first season on the ProTour. After a strong effort supporting team leader Michael Rogers’ overall win at the Tour of California, it was van Garderen’s time to shine at the Criterium du Dauphine, one of the final tune-up races before the Tour de France. Entering the crucial penultimate stage up Alpe d’Huez, savvy riding had Tejay in second overall to RadioShack’s Janez Brajkovic, with multiple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador breathing down his neck. Contador attacked hard. Brajkovic followed, but van Garderen instinctively knew better than to try to match them.
“I knew if I tried to follow Alberto, I’d blow up and lose huge chunks of time,” he said. So he dug in and rode tempo, losing 1:26 and his second place, but limiting the damage to preserve third overall, an official debutant’s party. But what struck most observers was van Garderen’s maturity on Alpe.
Van Garderen’s reaction on Alpe perfectly fits his focused, self-assured approach. He was getting pro contract offers at 17, but opted instead to develop on the amateur espoirs circuit. “Tejay didn’t chase money,” says Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s Director of Athlete Performance and van Garderen’s coach. “He didn’t take a pro contract until he felt he was ready. He knows where he wants to be.”
This year, he wants to ride in the Tour de France. “It’s a gamble,” he says. “But that’s the plan.” —Joe Lindsey
Aaron Gwin – Meet the best mountain biker in the USA.
How can one of America’s most decorated mountain bikers be off your radar? Because even though Aaron Holmes Gwin, 24, has been on more World Cup podiums than any U.S. rider in over a decade, he races downhill, a genre of cycling that doesn’t go to the Olympics. But here’s the thing: DH demands inhuman bike-handling skills. Speeds exceed 40mph. You need massive strength to pull 20-40-foot gaps over maws of serrated rock, and once you land you have to pedal, because the clock is always running.
In 2007, Gwin, a guy who’d barely ever ridden a DH bike before, strolled into this brutal arena after a friend said he should try it at a regional SoCal race. Absurdly, he raced in the pro class—then shocked the field by taking third place. Who was this guy? Soon, he signed with the Yeti Factory squad and was besting athletes with years more experience on the world stage.
But even now, four years into his career, with a honed style that looks profoundly like he’s riding a motorcycle, there’s one thing missing from Aaron’s palmares: a World Cup victory. On the podium isn’t at the top of it. And Gwin knows it.
While Gwin may still be new to DH, he’s been in competition since the cradle. At four, he was racing BMX, and by eight he was a national champion. By nine he “retired” from BMX. “When he was about 12 he really wanted to get into motocross,” says his father Alan, who is a physical therapist. “We were concerned. I was working on broken bodies all week and half of them were kids hurt by dirt bikes.” But when Aaron turned 15, Alan and his wife Tanya relented and, as with BMX, from the first gun he was busting his way to the front, looking to go pro.
Then, as Alan Gwin feared, Aaron broke his foot, his shoulder, his arm. In a year and a half, he spent more time rehabbing then racing. He decided to set his sights for college instead. He learned tennis to rehab his shoulder, and there too, got so proficient so fast that college scouts came calling. And then while he was mulling tennis there was that fun downhill race where he shattered guys with way more experience and a healthier, stronger Gwin knew he needed to decide: DH, or college? Aaron and Tanya and Alan turned to God for guidance, because the Gwins are devout Christians and have been since Aaron was a toddler. Family lore says that as an infant Gwin saw his parents smoke and drink and would get upset, and soon Tanya and Alan were having quiet talks and eventually shopping for a church, giving up the booze and the cigarettes—and finding God. From childhood Gwin’s religiousness grew; today on the downhill circuit, which can be a rolling drunkfest after races, Gwin is known as the guy who doesn’t party, and doesn’t need to, he says, because he has his own salve. “There’s a peace to my religion I cannot describe. I won’t judge anybody for how they live, but for me there’s nothing bigger. Bike racing is my career. Being a Christian is who I am.”
You could mistake Gwin’s Christianity as rebellion against rebellion, an aw-shucks shield to fend off an X-Games world that wants to pigeonhole “alt” athletes as subversives. But then you’d miss the man entirely. Yes, Gwin is a serious professional who does daily bible study—and a weight and cardio routine that would break an ordinary endurance athlete. But Gwin’s outlook isn’t cloistered. it’s broad. He sees beyond his sport and he knows how small it is.
“People want downhilling to be in the Olympics. But it’s not, and it may not ever be. And that’s okay.” Gwin says he wants to win more than anything, to be a world champion, but he also wants to be a coach, a mentor, to teach kids how to race their bikes—and maybe to teach motocross someday, too. Not that he has to wait. Domestic junior downhillers follow Gwin obsessively, and solicit his advice. And they emulate Gwin’s no-party agenda. When he was on Yeti his own junior teammates got to bed early and got up ready to work harder.
Gwin’s former boss, Yeti owner Chris Conroy, says that all of Gwin’s American peers look up to him, and that the Americans in Yeti’s substantial domestic development program all see Gwin as a role model. “This is a shift. Kids, maybe who are 14, they’re taking it seriously,” says Conroy. “It’s been that way in Europe for decades. Now, because Gwinny’s making it happen, they get it.”
And that, regardless of whether Gwin ever stands on the top step of a World Cup podium, means he’s already an American champion. —Michael Frank
Shayna Powless – The apple, very close to the tree.
Shayna Powless is faster than you. It’s OK. She has better genes than you, too. Powless is the daughter of Jack and Jen Powless. Jack’s a triathlon coach with seven World Xterras to his credit. Jen is a college track coach and ran marathon at the 1992 Olympics. Their 17-year-old daughter, Shayna, is bright, with a near 4.0 GPA, but it’s her intelligence combined with her prowess as a mountain bike racer and track star that’s turning college recruiters’ heads.
Powless holds back-to-back Norcal High School mountain bike championship titles, plus two Xterra national crowns, including winning the 15-19 women’s slot this past fall. Of the former, she says, “I’m going to defend my title. But I need to do more hill repeats. I have to become a better climber.” Then she admits she’s already dropping opponents on climbs. And apparently everywhere else, too. A glance at Powless’s time from last year’s Sea Otter Classic for the 15-19 age slot shows she would have been in the top ten against the world’s best female pros.
“The only obstacle that can slow me down,” she says, “is me.”
Evidence: At her high school in Sacramento the name Shayna Powless appears more times in the track and field record books than any other. And she’s just a junior. But 2011 isn’t her year for track. It’s her year for mountain bike racing. “I want to get to Nationals [in Sun Valley, Idaho]. And hopefully, to Worlds.” Powless is serious. Driven. Purely adult. But then, when asked where Worlds is, she puts a hand over the phone and says, “Dad, where’s Worlds?” Then it’s clear again. Powless is a kid. An extraordinary kid maybe, but still not yet an adult. Which is good. Because the world’s mountain bikers are going to need a little more time to prepare. —M.F.
On Your Wheel
Keep an eye on more young up-and-comers who have been taking home the hardware. Handicapping the future of North American cycling isn’t easy these days. The reason: Fields are deep, and the talent level has never been higher. Here are several names you may not know—but we’re betting future victories are going to change that.
Ben King, 21
2010 U.S. National Champion
(Team Radio Shack)
Andrew Talansky, 22
Second Overall, 2010 Tour L’Avenir
Caleb Fairly, 22
Winner, 2010 Tour of the Battenkill
Emily Batty, 22
2010 U23 Canadian Champion
Stephen Ettinger, 22
2009-10 Collegiate National Champion
Russell Finsterwald, 22
Third in U.S. Nationals
Erica Zaveta, 22
Collegiate National Champion
Cierra Smith, 15
2010 National Champion, 15-18
(Specialized AllRide Academy)
Tyler Immer, 20
Third in U.S. Nationals
Neko Mulally, 18
Silver Medal, Junior World Championships
(Trek World Racing)