In the past few years, the word 'phenomenon' has become common in the context of professional cycling. A youth revolution has taken hold and a new wave of talent is hitting the big time earlier than ever before, and making an instant impact.
Step forward: Juan Ayuso.
The Spaniard, a dominant recent winner of the U23 Giro d'Italia, has just become a WorldTour rider at the age of 18. His five-year contract with UAE Team Emirates officially started last week and he's making his debut at the Giro dell'Appennino on Thursday.
Ayuso had already caught the eye of the UAE Team during his first full junior year in 2019, and he was going so well in 2020 – emulating Remco Evenepoel in winning races solo by gaps measured in minutes – that he was handed a ticket to the WorldTour for 2021. It was agreed he'd race the first part of the year in the U23s, with the Italian Colpack team, and he bowed out in style by winning three stages and the overall title at the U23 Giro.
Now a WorldTour pro, we spoke to Ayuso for our 'Introducing' series, to get to know him a little better.
Cyclingnews: First of all, the first question we ask everyone... how did you get into cycling?
Juan Ayuso: Well, I always played football as a kid and when I signed for my local club in Jávea when I was seven I met my best friend, who is still my best friend I’m lucky to say. He also rode in the local cycling club and one day he told me to come along. They lent me a bike, I tried it out and since day one I loved it and kept doing it. From seven to 11 I did both football and cycling. Some days I did double, playing football then going out cycling with the club. I did that until 11 but then decided that the only thing that made me happy was cycling and up to now I haven’t looked back.
CN: Your local club was Jávea, but you were born in Barcelona and even lived in the USA, so where’s home?
JA: I was born in Barcelona but when I was one we moved to Atlanta, Georgia. My dad had to go for work so the whole family went there. We left when I was nearly five. When we came back to Spain we lived in Madrid for a year but then moved to Jávea. When people say I’m from Barcelona… I prefer to say I’m from Jávea, from Alicante, because that’s where I have all my memories, where I started cycling, where I was formed. So I consider myself to be from there.
CN: What were your first memories of professional cycling? Were you a fan as a kid?
I was. When I started cycling at around seven I started watching. Like everyone, it was the Tour. It clashed with Contador’s best years. That really caught my attention and made me passionate about the sport. To see Contador fighting for the Tour was something that inspired me.
CN: What was it about Contador that you liked?
JA: At first, it was simply that he was the best Spanish rider, but when I got more knowledge about the sport – around 11,12, or 13 – I just fell in love with his way of racing. For me, he became an idol when I was young. I loved when he’d attack from far. I liked that mentality of not caring if you lose, of putting everything for the win. Win or nothing, and nothing in between. That's something that right now I apply in my form of racing.
CN: We've seen the Spanish press try and compare you to former riders but the Contador one is shaky because you apparently don't like to ride out of the saddle – is that true?
JA: It’s weird, but for me I find my best rhythm when I’m in the saddle. Of course, when I attack I can go out of the saddle but when I have to get my tempo, when I’m on the edge, I feel much better in the saddle. When I’m doing my intervals in training, I always do them seated.
CN: That leads me onto another question we always ask: What kind of rider are you?
JA: I hope I will become a rider for Grand Tours, but I can’t say it now, because I’ve never raced three weeks. But that’s what I’d like to become. For sure I’m a climber and I think I can cope pretty well in the time trials too.
CN: Can you tell us a bit more about your development and how you progressed as a teenager in Spain?
Up to the cadets, I was a pretty normal kid, but U17 is where I started to do some good performances, winning races solo. At that age I started to dream. Before that, everyone would tell you that becoming a pro is nearly impossible, but when I started getting some good results the dream started to become a bit more of a goal. Then in the juniors, after my first year I knew I was in reach of accomplishing it. I still didn’t think I’d go to the WorldTour in my first year – if you’d told me that three years ago, I’d have said you were crazy – but I started seeing that in a few years I could make it. Then in my second year as a junior, when I started so well, I knew I could go soon to the WorldTour.
CN: You’re still only 18 – have you finished school?
JA: Yes, in January. Because I lived in Atlanta, when I came back to Spain I’ve always been in an English school system because my parents didn’t want me to lose my English. I’ve done GCSEs and A-levels, and just finished my A-levels in January.
CN: How did the contract with UAE come about?
JA: With Matxin [the team manager], we started speaking after Yorkshire [World Championships 2019]. He told me he wanted to invite me to a training camp that winter ahead of the 2020 season. I went and that’s where got to know each other a bit better, then we left it a bit on standby, but we always kept in touch. I started doing very good performances as a second-year junior – the first races I won with gaps of 12 minutes, and things like that. Then we started talking much more firmly and when the pandemic started and everything closed down, that’s when the first offer came. I signed during lockdown.
CN: What's the plan in terms of race programme?
JA: It's been a bit up in the air. The two main ones we'd planned have been cancelled - the Tour of Austria and the Canadian one-day races later in the year [GPs de Montréal and Québec]. Instead of Austria, I'm doing Appennino and GP Lugano [June 27]. Then I'll go home to disconnect a bit from this period of racing, and will come back in July for Prueba Villafranca, Clásica San Sebastián, and Circuito de Getxo. Then I want to do the Tour de l'Avenir to try and win it like I did the Giro, and after that I have GP Plouay at the end of August. I then thought Canada but that's not happening so I'm not sure what's after that, but I'll do the World Championships, I imagine as an U23, then maybe a couple of one-day races in Italy at the end of the season.
CN: You’re one of many apparent new ‘phenomenons’ in the sport. Do you feel part of a new generation and has that influenced your career ambitions?
JA: I know that after these results there’s a bit more focus on me, more people waiting to see what I’m capable of doing. For sure that puts a bit more pressure on me but I handle it well. I’m calm and don’t let it affect me a lot.
CN: What are your ambitions, both in the short-term and long-term?
JA: I have to admit, I’m a very ambitious person. My dream… I can’t call it a goal right now because it’s too far away, but for sure one of my biggest dreams is to try and win the Tour de France. It’s something very big, it’s still a dream and not a realistic goal. I need to wait two or three years to start thinking I can accomplish something like that. But for sure, that’s my dream and has been since I was seven, when I would dream of being in yellow on the Champs Elysées. I think I’m a lucky person to still have the same dreams I had when I was seven. To be able to call it a goal, the next couple of years are about trying to progress as much as possible, simply trying to become the best cyclist I can for the future.
CN: Finally, away from cycling, what keeps you busy?
JA: I’m a calm person. Cycling makes you a calm person, you have to rest and can’t be doing crazy things away from the bike. When I’m at home I play my Playstation, watch movies and I don’t really do much more. I still follow football – that and F1 are the main sports I watch outside of cycling. Right now it’s the European Championships so there’s plenty of football to watch, and I’m hoping Spain can bring home the trophy.
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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