No country for old men?

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Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves and Fabio Aru are alle from the famous year of 1990. Foto: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Luk Benies/Yoan Valat / Scanpix Denmark

The international cycling reporter Matt Rendell writes articles for TV 2 SPORT during this year of Tour de France.

We are easily bored.

Moments ago, an aura still surrounded the so-called Class of 1990, presented to the world at the distant 2010 Tour de l'Avenir:

The winner, Nairo Quintana, his team-mate Esteban Chaves, his challengers Romain Bardet, Tom Dumoulin, Michał Kwiatkowski, Taylor Phinney, Michael Matthews (all born in 1990), the slightly older Mikel Landa and the slightly younger Wilco Kelderman, the future foragers of too many world titles, grand tour wins and podium places to count.

1990-born Thibaut Pinot was not there: he was already competing at the highest professional level, where Peter Sagan, yet another graduate of the Class of 1990, was already winning. Rohan Dennis didn't ride the Tour de l'Avenir until the following year. Fabio Aru mostly stuck to the Italian calendar. One heck of a generation, then, and destined, it seemed, to dominate the sport.

Yet auras fade fast. Age, injury and Team Sky have frustrated so many promising careers and today, all those 28 and 29 year olds are made to seem old men by the youngster at the centre of the first press conference of this year's Tour de France operations.

19-year-old local Wunderkind Remco Evenepoel, ten years and a day younger than Peter Sagan and already leaving top professional riders shellshocked. Although the junior national, European and World road and time trial champion is not competing in the 2019 Tour de France, the race takes place in the pressure wave that precedes him and his anticipated, future, Merckx-like invincibility.

In an age of social media and a constant craving for the new, the present can be made to seem no more than a foreground blur to look past as you squint to discern the next big story before it has even happened. Go back a year, and Geraint Thomas's win was a minor distraction from a different hypothetical: what if Egan Bernal were riding for himself?

Indeed, even as the 33-year-old Chris Froome's breathless sequence of three consecutive Grand Tour wins came to its conclusion, the conversation shifted from the Englishman's utter dominance to the new list of characters encroaching on the sport. Evenepoel and Bernal were just two of them.

The cyclo-cross stars Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert stepped across to the road (with 19-year-old Tom Pidcock promising to do the same). Tadej Pogačar succeeded Quintana, Barguil, Miguel Ángel López, Marc Soler, David Gaudu and Egan Bernal by winning the Tour de l'Avenir.

Evenpoels won the Europeans (time trial and road), the Worlds (time trial and road), and more or less everything else. And then, at the Vuelta a España, Enric Mas broke through to finish second at the age of 23.

The Grand Tour wins of the Class of 1990 already feel like ancient irrelevancies. Until all of these riders are riding the Tour as contenders, cycling's biggest race seems strangely jetlagged, out of sync with a sport that is, in any case, struggling to decide what it should look like in an age of social media and instant returns.

The mind wanders back to those long, flat, interminable days like last year's stage seven, when not even the bizarre spectacle of three successive solo breakaways could alleviate the five and a half hours of stultification before Dylan Groenewegen put the stage out of everyone's misery. Velon's Hammer Series may be incomprehensible, but at least they have the guts to experiment.

Meanwhile, the UCI has commissioned a report on how to stop cycling fans yawning. Part of the problem with the Tour today is its own decision to broadcast every stage live from roll out to the finish.

The other aspect is an issue inherent to cycling, where the referees, TV cameras and photographers all drive cars and motorbikes around the field of play, leaving slipstreams that affect the racing, meaning that, during the exciting, breakaway formation part of the stage, all of these vehicles have to be kept a long way from the racing. Perhaps one day improved helicopter cameras, even drones, will provide a solution.

Meantime, simply shortening the stages seems to help: two of 2018's most memorable days were the short mountain sprints from Albertville to La Rosiére (108.5km) and from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan (65km) seven days later. But lessons learned in cycling are quickly forgotten, and this year's experimentation is limited to tinkering with bonus points.

La Rosiére, of course, is where Geraint Thomas took the Maillot Jaune, and Maillot Jaune where Nairo Quintana redeemed his sub-par Tour with a stage win. Nairo seems to be no one's favourite this year: his moment is widely thought to have passed, even if news of his aging has been greatly exaggerated: at 29 years and 152 days as the Tour starts, he is more or less exactly the average age of the peloton.

And older riders are still among the favourites: Ur_an is 32, Thomas 33, Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang 34.

Indeed, for parts of the English-speaking media, the Dane “has added his name to the list of favourites for this year’s race" (cyclingnews.com). He has “turned a corner” and “is riding at a different level this year”, and "deserves top contender status for this year’s Tour de France" (velonews.com), even if the same assessments are hedged by caveats (he suffers from “one-bad-day syndrome”, “he doesn’t have the horsepower in the third week”, he “lacks the legs at the crucial moment”).

In any case, surely he can be expected to start well, then fade, like Primož Roglič at the Giro. He has raced too long and hard already this season to be competitive in the final week.

Meanwhile, as sometimes happens, Bernal's broken collarbone on the eve of the Giro left him with no choice but to start the Tour de France fresh. The paradox of injury could be the performance enhancing element that allows the youngest rider at the 2019 Tour to emerge as its champion.

But suppose Fuglsang exceeds expectations? When the Tour finishes on July 28, he will be 34 years and 128 days old. Victory would make him the fourth oldest Tour winner: only Firmin Lambot (36 years and 130 days), Henri Pélissier (34 years and 180 days) and Cadel Evans (34 years and 160 days) have won the Tour any older.

To do so he has not only to beat much younger, fresher legs, but subvert the current cult of youth. A Tour win would sound not the dawn chorus of his career, but something more like his swan song.