Tour de l'Avenir - the champions' breeding ground

Alumni of illuminaries makes for an exciting future

It may have been overshadowed in the last decade by bigger French races such as the Tour de France, Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré, but the Tour de l'Avenir - as its name suggests - is where tomorrow's stars are unveiled.

This is reflected in the race's palmares, graced by names such as Felice Gimondi, Joop Zoetemelk, Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain and Laurent Fignon - the race has hosted a wealth of talent since its inception in 1961. It's had several guises - the Tour de l'Avenir, the Grand Prix de l'Avenir and the Tour of the European Community - but now it has returned to the name with which it was born.

During the first two decades of its existence the race was only for amateurs, although between 1980 and 2007 it became an event for professionals. Whilst those 27 years saw some of the sport's leading figures take out the event - the likes of LeMond, Indurain, Fignon, Marc Madiot and Johan Bruyneel - it was the race's days as an amateur-only event that forged its reputation as one of the best breeding grounds for young talent.

The young guns prevail

The first edition of the Tour de l'Avenir in 1961 was held over 14 stages, double that of this year's event, and ran over 2,200km, which was in line with René de Latour's reason for its being, which was to create a 'mini Tour de France' for those riders who weren't professionals.

Won by Guido De Rosso, into whose country the race travelled (Turin), that first Tour de l'Avenir also hosted Jan Janssen, who would set a trend by winning the Tour de France in the years subsequent to his Avenir ride.

He finished third overall in the following year's edition of the Tour de l'Avenir before winning seven Tour de France stages throughout his career en route to three Tour de France points classification titles (1964, '65 and '67) plus the Tour's general classification crown in 1968 and the points title at the 1967 Vuelta a España.

In addition to these career highlights the Dutch sensation won the 1964 world championship road race before taking out Paris-Nice, La Flèche Wallonne and Brabantse Pijl and finishing on the podium of Paris-Roubaix during his 12 years in the sport's top echelon. He might not have won the Tour de l'Avenir but Janssen was the first superstar to use the race as his springboard to an extremely successful professional career.

Jan Janssen (left) with Willy Van Springel before the final stage of the 1968 Tour de France.

It wasn't long until others followed his path and in 1963 local lad Lucien Aimar won the 174km journey between St.Etienne and Grenoble; the following year he was the runner up in Avenir and in 1966 he would win the Tour de France in what was the biggest highlight of his 10-year career.

In 1964 - the year Aimar was runner up - a young Italian named Felice Gimondi took overall honours in a 13-stage, 1,961km edition of the Tour de l'Avenir that saw a man now better known for the recent exploits of his two sons Andy and Fränk, Johnny Schleck, win the race's longest stage from Bandol to Montpellier.

The 22-year-old Gimondi won the opening day's 167.5km journey from Antibes to Toulon and held onto his overall advantage until Paris, 13 days later. Like Janssen, Gimondi also became road world champion (in 1973) and was an Italian cycling hero in the ilk of Binda, Coppi and Bartali. The year after his Avenir success he won his first and only Tour de France title, again proving that de Latour's vision ran true - his event was the place to see the best of cycling's future stars.

Three years later another star of the future emerged, as France's Cyrille Guimard took out the last two stages before the race finished in Paris on July 23. While Christian Robini won the general classification that year, it was Guimard who went on to win stages at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, also taking home the Vuelta's points classification in 1971.

As a directeur sportif he was even more successful, joining the Gitane-Campagnolo outfit after his retirement from racing in 1976 and guiding Bernard Hinault, Lucien Van Impe and Fignon to Tour de France wins. He also directed for Renault-Elf-Gitane, Système U-Gitane, Super U, Castorama, and Cofidis teams before a stint with amateur club Vélo Club Roubaix, which boasted another future star in its ranks in the form of Andy Schleck.

Professional era marks the legacy

One of the men directed by Guimard, countryman Marc Madiot, is another of those riders who have starred at the Tour de l'Avenir (he won in 1987) during a successful career as a professional that included two Paris-Roubaix titles. Others who have made the transition to become sporting directors, having used Avenir as a stepping stone during their riding careers, include Johan Bruyneel, Erik Dekker, Henk Vogels and Bradley McGee.

The change to accommodate professional riders after 1980 dented the race's reputation as a building block for future generations of riders, as the likes of Madiot won the event during the middle of their careers whilst those before 1980 had really been emerging young talents. It became another date in the pro calendar and as such was overshadowed by the big events, therefore losing its essence as a breeding ground for aspirants.

Those such as Joop Zoetemelk in 1969, Pedro Delgado a decade later (he won the 11th stage of the 1979 edition) and current professional Kim Kirchen's father, Erny (who won two stages in 1973), were the men who forged careers off the back of success in France's 'Tour of the Future' because it meant something for a certain rider of a certain stage in their development.

Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle was another who began his rise to prominence at the Tour de l'Avenir, winning a stage of the 1976 edition before going on to a celebrated professional career that included wins in the 1992 and '93 editions of Paris-Roubaix, plus the GP Plouay and Paris-Nice.

Being French, a strong Avenir showing played an important role in his development as it exposed him to bigger teams such as Peugeot-Esso-Michelin, which signed him the following year and for whom he rode in various incarnations for much of his career.

Back to the breeding grounds

With the race reverting back to a national team format in 2007, the event is beginning to regain its lustre; there are positive signs as the likes of last year's Avenir victor, Roman Sicard, became espoirs world champion before signing for Euskaltel-Euskadi.

The progress of 2008 winner Jan Bakelants as he makes his way in the professional ranks for Omega Pharma-Lotto and Bauke Mollema's rise to be one of Rabobank's leading young riders after winning the Tour de l'Avenir in 2007 is testament to what the race means to young, aspiring riders.

And after one stage of the 2010 edition we've already seen the prominence of talented young riders such as American Taylor Phinney, Briton Alex Dowsett and Australia's Michael Matthews, who were on the podium of the prologue. If they can follow in the illustrious footsteps of those who went before them, we've got plenty to look forward to in the coming years.

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