Riders To Watch For 2021

A look at ten riders to watch this year. They’re not all hot tips to fly up the rankings, some are picked to see how they or their team can handle questions and challenges ahead and to build on past achievements.

Tadej Pogačar and what do you do for an encore? His predecessor on the Champs Elysées, Egan Bernal, is a cautionary tale: the Colombian won the Tour de France and looked set to dominate stage racing but hasn’t, a reminder that just winning once is a remarkable feat and success is not automatic even though it’s a trait in pro cycling that wins get banked fast and questions quickly turn to what comes next. Assuming Pogačar can stay injury-free and not get too distracted by his growing fortune and status – BIG assumptions – the question is how to win the Tour de France again? The course has two flat time trials for starters but he can’t hide in plain sight any more, already rival teams like Jumbo-Visma were talking about taking multiple leaders to the Tour so they can force Pogačar to respond to moves and do the old one-two attack and if sans Dumoulin this isn’t so obvious the fact that it was the plan shows what a threat Pogačar is to Jumbo-Visma and Ineos. The first test is the UAE Tour because its his team’s home race and with the Tour de France winner on their books they don’t want to disappoint. He’s only 22 but a win here and he could vanish like a submarine for months and emerge for the Tour de France.

Arnaud Démare won more races than anyone else in 2020 and now tries to parlay this confidence into an even bigger season with Tour de France sprint stages as the grand goal. One secret of his success last year was a total focus on the sprints, when in previous seasons he’d also tried to focus on the cobbled classics and so trained for longer efforts on the climbs. Several sprinters manage this, think Alexander Kristoff or Peter Sagan; others don’t like Pascal Ackermann or Caleb Ewan and Démare’s trying to become a pure sprinter. Only he’s still much more versatile than almost every other sprint rival, he topped the tables last year because of this and several of his wins last year were on hilly courses where he beat the likes of Philippe Gilbert or Michael Matthews, plus he won the French championships after riding down Julian Alaphilippe. Thanks to a powerful leadout train – Milano-Torino was a masterpiece – he can win the big bunch sprints but there’s the risk he falls between two stools this season and a Tour stage against the world’s best is a big ask but achievable. Watch to see how he does in Paris-Nice for starters.

Ineos’s biggest problem this year is there only three grand tours. They could start with co-leaders in the Giro, Tour and Vuelta and still some riders might feel left out. So where does Tao Geoghegan Hart fit in? Does he go back to the Giro or to the Tour de France, as planned for 2020? The answer should be the Tour de France, it’s what he wanted to do last year. Only it’s all more interesting that office politics, it’s about what can happen on the road. TGH featured here as a neo-pro to watch for 2017 and was interesting because he hadn’t come from the British Cycling track cycling conveyor belt but at the same time turned pro already looking like the polished item. He’s made steady progress ever since and seems suited to the third week of a grand tour, if the Giro was an upset it wasn’t an accident. Look for him in support of Egan Bernal Geraint Thomas this July and maybe to see what he can do along the way before and after.

After TGH Jai Hindley’s an obvious one to watch but let’s go away from the easy ideas and follow Lucas Hamilton instead. Because when Geoghegan Hart first took time on his GC rivals in the Giro last year it was when he clipped away with Hamilton at Roccaraso. It was only a few seconds and they weren’t essential riders to mark but still, they rode away on a summit finish. Only we never saw what could have been because Hamilton’s team pulled out of the Giro after the first rest day. He’s had some good results over the years and while many eyes were on Jack Haig, Hamilton’s probably had the better results. He’ll turn 25 in a few days’ time and look to see if he can win mountain stages and place high on GC or if he’s deployed as Simon Yates’s mountain lieutenant. All this with Bike Exchange’s funding secured to the end of next year but that sets off a ticking clock for the entire squad as there are no guarantees beyond.

I Know What You Did Last Summer was a 1997 horror movie, only for Sep Kuss last summer was more of a fairy tale. We know he won a stage of the Dauphiné in impressive manner and then rode the Tour and Vuelta in support of Primož Roglič and if it wasn’t for team duties he looked as if he could have won stages along the way too, in part because of the effortless look on his face all the time, as if some Botox rictus prevented him from changing facial expression. Now he and Jumbo-Visma management want to see what he can do when given the chance, in a similar way to George Bennett too. Only there’s the paradox that the more Kuss succeeds, the more it’ll cost Jumbo-Visma to retain his services as his contract’s up. But that’s still a second order tale, the more interesting stories will be where he gets to race for himself and what role he plays alongside the team’s leaders Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk now that Tom Dumoulin has paused his career. Kuss though is a pure climber and so any stage race success is likely to depend on a high ratio of mountains to time trials.

Groupama-FDJ are so very French but have made some shrewd foreign signings in recent years, think of Stefan Küng, Ramon Sinkeldam and Miles Scotson. Next could be Attila Valter, hired out of the wreckage of the CCC team and the Hungarian rider is a promising rider for hilly and mountainous races, a potential stage race winner even. It’ll be interesting to see where he races, whether he becomes part of the entourage for Thibaut Pinot or David Gaudu or if he gets his chance in other races starting with smaller week-long tests. Another rider to watch this year is Tobias Foss at Jumbo-Visma and Valter has got the better of him several times.

Can Nils Politt win a spring classic, or will he just prove invaluable to Bora-Hansgrohe? One unremarked trend is the rise of German pro cycling, the demise of the T-Mobile and Milram teams left a gap but things look to be on much more sound foundations now, at least as long as Bora can keep on selling extractor fans with the likes of Emu Buchmann and Lennard Kämna closing in on stage race podiums and Pascal Ackermann capable of winning sprints at the highest level. Now comes another classics contender to win Paris-Roubaix after John Degenkolb. Politt’s been a very visible rider, in part because of his sheer size as he towers over other riders but it should be interesting to see what he can do now with Bora-Hansgrohe after serving out the last year of his old Katusha contract with the Israel team. He’ll be another ace to play in the spring classics and could be just what Peter Sagan needs in the final hour of racing.

Jasper Philipsen had a perfect start to his career with a win in the Tour Down Under and then had to wait 18 months before a win in the Tour du Limousin and a Vuelta stage late last year. Signing for UAE Emirates helped ease some pressure for the “new Tom Boonen” (of course, as he’s from the same town) but also meant he was an obvious pick for the spring classics and he duly got a very heavy programme for a neo-pro. Now he’s left the World Tour for Alpecin-Fenix, hardly a demotion. The question is how he’ll fit in as the team have the sprints and uphill dashes covered thanks to Tim Merlier and a certain Mathieu van der Poel, you have thought the team could have spent the budget on a climber. But he should be a good signing precisely because he overlaps, Philipsen can ensure all expectations aren’t on MvdP and provide an extra tactical card to play; and for a team that wants to race on all fronts he’s capable of winning when others are resting.

At Deceuninck-Quickstep Joao Almeida’s an obvious pick to see what he can do in week-long stage races, to convert his ability in medium length uphill finishes into wins and whether he can improve for the very long climbs but maybe the answers will take time and perhaps a transfer for 2022. So let’s look at Andrea Bagioli instead as he could be even better in uphill sprints. He collected several wins as a neo-pro last year including beating Primož Roglič in an uphill sprint in France and Diego Ulissi in an uphill sprint in Italy, a privilege few enjoy and Bagioli did it at the age of 21. So look for more of this in 2021.

Anton Palzer (photo from his website) will join Bora-Hansgrohe in April, perhaps because the snow will have melted by then. He’s a skier by background but we’re talking skimo as in ski-mountaineering, not for him a lift to the top so he can slide down, he races uphill and down. Then “Toni” spends the summer running over mountains and setting records for going up ski jump ramps, as well as cycling and by several accounts has an impressive Vo2 Max. Yes there’s a gimmicky side and if he doesn’t succeed in cycling he’ll have still got plenty of publicity for him and the team, indeed it’s helped bring in Red Bull as a sponsor for the team too although they’ve yet to announce this formally. But looking far and wide for talent is a sound idea, it wasn’t that long ago that road teams recruiting mountain bikers like Jacob Fuglsang or Jean-Christophe Péraud was seen as leftfield and risky, and if Michael Woods can go from runner to cyclist, why not Palzer too?

  • As ever picking ten means leaving out hundreds. Chris Froome’s recovery will be interesting to watch, especially because Israel have built a team around him. Likewise Remco Evenpoel hopes to takes aim at a grand tour but in both cases to pick them was really to focus on the continued rehab, ditto Fabio Jakobsen and Dylan Groenewegen who have physical and mental challenges to overcome post Tour de Pologne. Romain Bardet’s swapped Ag2r for DSM (Sunweb) and what comes next, the Giro say the whispers but a GC bid with Jai Hindley too or stage-hunting? Does Julian Alaphilippe go back to the Tour of Flanders? What next for Mathieu van der Poel on and off the road? Vlasov? Quintana? Hirschi? Can Cavendish get just one win to bow out with? How do Ag2r Citroen fare given the big changes at the team? Movistar? Will DSM keep making clever moves? Are Intermarché-Wanty and Qhubeka-Assos going to get stomped on all season? Can Mads Pedersen get even better and will Guilio Ciccone start to fill Vincenzo Nibali’s Sidis? If the Olympics go ahead is it Ganna vs Dennis and the rest? There’s a lot to look out for…

53 thoughts on “Riders To Watch For 2021”

  1. Andreas Kroon, 1st year neo pro will do great things this year. GP Marseilles was just a prequel.

    Tobias Voss, 2nd year neo pro, will be interesting – he did win l’Avenir in 2019 , 2020 was destroyed by injuries.

    Jonas Vingegaard on Jumbo-Visma will surprise those who didn’t carefully watch the 2020 Angliru stage or the 2019 Zakopane stage.

  2. I am not convinced by either Tadej Pogacar’s or Egan Bernal’s prospects this year. Reports today suggest Egan Bernal has a disc issue in his back, that does not sound good and must cast doubt on his prospects as an elite athlete. Winning the TdF as a (relatively) unknown rider was one thing dealing with all the hoopla and expectations that goes with it is another. Perhaps Tadej is the new Eddie Merckx though I suspect more likely that he will struggle with the weight of expectations.

    TGH will definitely be interesting to watch, he says he is aiming for the TdF, I wonder who he will have to push out of the way to get a spot on the team?

    • TGH has been named by Ineos as definitely riding in support of Geraint Thomas, so just reward for his Giro win.
      It seems a much more defined approach by Ineos – a return to the ‘roast beef’ British menu, and clearer rider leadership; there’ll be no doubting Thomas’ top status.
      Presumably TGH is told to hang in there or will he be used more aggressively?
      The Kwiato / Dennis support role could be key again. The way Dennis rode in the last week of the Giro possibly suggests he has the potential ability to out -Van Aert Van Aert, if you see what I mean.
      It seems slightly odd that we’re still unsure of how good Pogacar can be, we know he’ll be good but can he handle this course and can he handle being the man to be shot at?
      UAE’s team for the Tour will be one to watch too, to what extent they can offer support and tactical flexibility to Pogacar.

      • If Ineos are putting all their eggs in the Thomas basket, Bernal’s injury must be so serious that it’s ruling him out already. Even if Thomas bothers to get himself fit, is he really a contender?

        • Agree with what you say re Bernal / Thomas, but why couldn’t Thomas win it? I’m not a fan or anything, but on paper…. He’s won it before, he’s got at least equal best TT amongst the contenders, is on the team that has most experience of winning it and he’ll have an insanely strong team behind him including a Giro winner etc etc… I reckon not a bad bet at this stage

  3. I strongly suspect TGH is going to be a domestique, unless everyone falls by the wayside again.
    Also, can you really see him competing against the likes of Pogacar and Roglic? He won the Giro against a pretty weak field (not his problem), and might have lost that if Sunweb had let Jai Hindley attack him on the first stage that Kelderman lost time on (Stage 18?) instead of forcing Hindley to sit on TGH so that Kelderman didn’t lose more time. (Sunweb’s tactics were awful: they really had to back one rider or the other – and by not letting Hindley take more time they almost guaranteed that they’d get 2nd and 3rd, due to his weak TT and Kelderman clearly having cracked big time.)

    • Agreed, TGH won his GT, so should be happy with that and now peacefully jump back down the depth chart. Poor tactics by Sunweb, a relatively poor field and his best form ever gave him that win, I can’t see a likely scenario where he’d even top his own teammates this year.

      I could be completely wrong, but it feels that for 2021 the GT’s will be huge battles. Nobody is a lock to win right now. Bernal’s back, Pogacar’s a kid, Thomas is old and all the others, Froome, Carapaz, Roglic, Hindley, etc. have their own issues.

      • What issues does Roglic have? He’s phenomenal. The TTs are meat and drink to him. To win Vuelta after TdF heartbreak is the sign of a bona fide champion. I don’t warm to him but he’s – for me – the clear favourite for TdF this year assuming no injuries.

        • One issue: Roglic faded towards the end of both the 2019 Giro and the 2020 TdF, putting in poor performances (when compared with his rivals) on the last meaningful days of both races.
          (‘Meaningful’ is if you don’t count the final, short ITT of the Giro – in which Nibali beat Roglic.)

        • Exactly, J Evans – he has faded a bit in final week of 3-week GTs. Plus, the 2020 TdF start line was a little weak. No rider had a “normal” build-up in 2020, so I take every 2020 result with a grain of salt.

          I honestly think that there has never been such an open list of contenders. Even looking back at years past with the one-off winners, you didn’t have a legitimate list of 10-15 contenders. There is no one in my mind that is head and shoulders above the group.

  4. Mr IR concentrates on younger riders but, even excluding the obvious oldies in Froome, Valverde and Cavendish, there are big questions for many of the riders who have dominated the sport – and probably thier team’s budgets – for ten years or so. Can Van Avermaet, Fuglsang, Viviani, Dan Martin, Thomas, Kristoff, Gilbert, Uran, Nibali…manage a final big win. Are Van Garderen and Griepel doing more than managing decline? Can Pinot and Bardet find pleasure and spectacular vistories again?
    Is the new generation too much for them?

    I just hope that Covid does not deprive them of the chance.

    • I’ll do a neo-pros to watch piece soon, maybe an “old guys” piece could be done too? A lot of the names you mention above could retire on a high (or continue with a tidy contract) if the Olympics go ahead and they win the road race.

        • I’d like to see him do it but can’t see how, with age he’s lost that jump that made him almost invincible in uphill finishes and ideal for a Poggio attack and become more about stamina which helped win in Flanders and Roubaix which makes Sanremo elusive.

          • Agree. There are quite a few riders now with a much better ability to jump away on the Poggio. Alaphilippe, van der Poel and van Aert are all in that category. And all 3 can outsprint Gilbert as well when it comes to that.

          • Maybe Gilbert should attack before the Poggio – it used to work occasionally. A long shot, but is it more likely than him winning on the Poggio?

          • If Gilbert was on a strong team, which he isn’t, he could hope to recreate his Flanders won by taking off ridiculously early and somehow clinging on. Almost impossible without some sort of freak occurrence such as a crash blocking the bottom of the Poggio or something.
            I believe he got over in the front group last year, or at least the one behind the top 2. All he has to do is do that again (as if its easy!), hope none of the 3 super men are off the front, and then slip away on that flat bit between the bottom of the Poggio and the corner on to the finishing straight…

    • I can’t help feeling that Froome, Valverde and Cavendish might find a sad parallel with Merckx’s depressing attempt to recover the glory days with Fiat in 1977. Saying that and checking back Merckx had numerous top ten placings and and almost 2000 PCS points 1977. A strong season by almost any standards, but not his.

      • Merckx won several races in 1977, had a bunch of top 3 finishes, was 6th in the Tour, and was the 7th ranked rider per PCS. When you compare that season to the last professional season of most “GOATs” in pro sports, it’s actually a pretty exceptional final season. That year alone is better than Cavendish has done in his last four seasons combined, and I think both Froome and Valverde would consider such a season in 2021 an incredible success.

  5. The idea that Bernal ‘looked set to dominate stage racing’ persists… despite Pinot being the stronger rider in the TdF that Bernal won – look up how much time Pinot gained on Bernal in the mountains prior to his injury (minutes, not seconds). And nobody is saying that Pinot was ever dominant. Also, Bernal beat his team mate into second and Kruijswijk into third, plus he was helped by the last two stages (that mattered) being shortened.
    He never looked set to dominate, he looked like a very good prospect (as does TGH, and – indeed – Pogacar). There was never anything to justify the welter of over-hyping.

    • I looked it up.

      Pinot took 7 seconds on Bernal at Planche des Belles Filles, 8 seconds on the Tourmalet, and 18 seconds at Foix. He lost 32 seconds at Valloire, so a net gain of 3 seconds in the mountains. Or 5% of a minute.

      The stages where Pinot took most time on Bernal were the stage into St Etienne, where he made that late break with Alaphillipe and took 20 seconds, and the ITT, where Pinot gained 47 seconds. But he wasn’t gaining minutes in the mountains, by any means.

      • I stand corrected: I shouldn’t have put ‘in the mountains’.
        But the stage to Valloire was where Pinot picked up his injury.
        Prior to that stage, Pinot was the better rider consistently, other than the stage on the flat stage (Stage 10) where Pinot (as he so often does) missed the cut in the peloton and managed to lose 1.40 to Bernal.
        After the break with JA, where he gained 20 seconds, and Stage 10, Pinot gained 1.20 on Bernal before his injury.
        Pinot is nothing like a rider who ‘dominates stage racing’, hence my point that Bernal winning that TdF (whilst being generally inferior to Pinot) did not show that Bernal ‘looked set to dominate stage racing’.

        I don’t know why there was more hype about Bernal than there is about Pogacar, considering that Pogacar beat a significantly stronger field. Possibly the ‘Ineos effect’?

    • I think the ‘Bernal is going to dominate’ vibe, came not from just his tour victory, but the build up over the 18 months or so to that point… the season before was his first in the world tour and he won a couple of stage races, a national title, and helped drag Thomas & Froome around France, all in spite of a nasty crash at catalunya.

      Then a year later, he tore it up in the crosswinds at Paris-Nice and was set to lead at the giro before another broken bone. He recovered quickly and won Suisse and le tour…

      He was the first of the new ‘young superstars’, emerging a couple of years earlier than pogacar, hirschi, TGH et al, and so the hype seemed warranted at the time. Not so much now he’s got a lot of similar competition and a back injury…

        • That was impressive, it was only a few weeks back that he’d had a horrible crash in San Sebastian which itself came after his crash in Montjuic but he flew down the mountain.

          I’d board the Bernal hype train with a first class ticket, he is that good but you wonder at that low position he has, he looks like Moser on the pavé when he climbs, that aero flat back helps given the speed he climbs at but it puts extra load on the back and the injuries he’s sustained are significant, he sounds like he’s got the back injuries of labourer many years older.

          • However good Bernal looked in other races, he wasn’t all that fantastic in grand tours. He looked very promising in the 2018 TdF, and he also looked very good for his age in the 2019 TdF. However, before Pinot got injured, Pinot looked the more likely winner, having consistently gained time on Bernal over the previous week. Even when he manages to stay fit, Pinot is a good grand tour rider, but one who has never looked like winning a grand tour other than this one. Ergo, being about the same level as Pinot did not mean Bernal looked dominant, invincible, etc. I said at the time that people were getting carried away and not judging Bernal on what actually happened in that race. Had Pinot somehow managed to stay fit, people would probably have been a lot less hyped-up about Bernal.

  6. Thanks as always for your insightful thoughts. It’s just getting back to riding time if year for me (I spend most of the summer mucking about in boats) – so I really like looking at the first races in Europe and getting some good motivation!
    One thing that may be worth thinking about with emerging riders is the “covid rando?: factor. Other sports established patterns and hierarchies have been changed through disruption and changes to schedules, training programmes and previously known models for sustained success etc – examples in football, rugby, tennis – where sustained against the grain performances and results are occurring.
    Is this a factor in how emerging riders may break through – are they better equipped, not having known otherwise, being less entrenched in team riding / long established training blocks for traditional seasons? Or are the older, more experienced riders better able to take advantage of a more dynamic season and race strategies that may result?
    Enjoying the star studded field at L’Etoile de Besseges, I have fond memories of a friends wedding in Gard a couple of years ago. The Pont is amazing.

  7. By the sound of things Dave Brailsford does not think Egan Bernal is in the right place either physically or mentally (Inrng is either a very good analyst or has insider info 🙂 ). With no Tom Dumoulin, a very uncertain Chris Froome and (by contemporary standards) a lot of TT kms the TdF is shaping up to be an interesting edition. There could well be an opportunity for another less heralded rider to win the Giro again.

  8. For me at this time of year thinking about who might do what in which grand tour seems boring. The excitement now is about the Classics, and the only thing to watch is the 3 best cyclists in the world right now – Alaphilippe, MVdP and WVA – going head to head with Pedersen, Sagan, GVA and whoever else thrown in for good measure. It could be a classic spring. There’ll be plenty of time to worry about whether or not Gheoghan Hart gets to plod up some climb in France in front of or behind Thomas in the Skyenos train, and how Jumbo Visma will manage to waste a massively strong team by being too conservative, later.

  9. An obvious one, but I’m interested to see how Sagan does this year. Was last year just not a great year or did we see the beginning of the end? I personally hope it’s the former and he’ll be back in style come the spring classics.

    • It’s contract year for him too I think. When he joined Bora it was as if he and an entourage of riders and staff were bolted onto a Pro Conti team but the whole team has changed, he could go elsewhere and they’d miss him but do fine all the same. I wonder if he wants to stay in road cycling or go and do something else?

      • Yeah he definitely strikes me as a guy who won’t really miss the sport when he retires. Can imagine him taking up snowboarding or downhill MTB!

  10. Le Pont du Gard may be amazing, but its roundabouts… maybe less so.

    Waiting to see what Marc Hirschi can do. His descending skills are awesome. He has a racing mentality and the abilities to match it.

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