Highlights of 2021 – Part I

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Time to look back at some of the highlights of the year with five picks. It’s a chance to celebrate some great racing and to apply some precious hindsight.

The first pick is a recent one, the men’s world championships in Flanders.

Picking a recent race can be too easy, a short term recall like a pop song that’s still in your mind. However the 2021 edition of the worlds will last, an edition for the ages.

The setting helped, Flanders is a home of cycling. It might not be where you’d holiday with a bike, and in the weak sunshine the land looked as beige as it does in April, but no where else on the planet is cycling as a sport cherished as much. The crowds came out and the course was spread across two circuits which helped share the action too.

However it was the racing on the day that made everything so good. Whisper it but the Worlds tends to be a formulaic race, a very slow version of the musical chairs game where lap after lap the pace picks up until finally things get frantic towards the end. Just because it is live on TV doesn’t mean you need to set aside the day to to watch. A case in point would be the previous edition also won by Alaphilippe with one surgical strike on the final lap. 2021 was very different, Benoît Cosnefroy launched a big move with 178km to go and things stayed tense from then on. Even at the end Alaphilippe was only holding a slender lead, he struggled to take ten seconds.

Why the highlight?
Good sport for hours on end, wave after wave of attacks and an uncertain result until the end.

With hindsight
Long range moves are regular thing now. It’s said that since the resumption of racing, following the Covid lockdown hiatus of 2020, riders have been treating every race as if it could be their last. This surely doesn’t explain everything? We’ve had last races before, whether it was the end of the season, like Lombardia every year, or just the end of a particular campaign during the year, think Roubaix or Liège when riders were ending a long spring campaign It didn’t make them more interesting, nor make riders less risk-averse. Indeed because it was their last shot sometimes riders were defensive, exhibiting a fear of losing rather than a carefree go. Today you don’t need crosswinds to shred the field, riders seem more open to risky moves, to putting on a show. In part because Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert are involved and these two are often instigators of moves like this. The Worlds took this “go early” attitude to a new level, when serious attacks went with 170km remaining it was something to behold. Paris-Roubaix the following week was similar, although the rain played its part as a big group just wanted the option to hit the pavé first and going clear was a way to achieve this.

The Worlds was only Alaphilippe’s fourth win of the season. A rainbow curse? If so, many would sign up for the season he had. Yes he crashed in the postponed Flanders in 2020 and spent winter playing catch-up, then he was trying to win on all sorts of terrains. He’d got his name up in lights after a stage win Tirreno-Adriatico, a small revenge after Mathieu van der Poel had sacked him in the streets of Sienna to take the Strade Bianche, a sharp uphill finish was meant to be Alaphilippe’s speciality. Still he won the Flèche Wallonne, placed in Liège and crucially, won the opening stage of the Tour de France and collected the yellow jersey. Only for van der Poel to grab the yellow jersey off him the next day, of course. Alaphilippe’s not going to a win a bunch sprint like MvdP can, but the Frenchman has range that extends to the mountains. He came close to winning the Tour de Suisse, abandoning to attend the birth of his son after finishing second in the Andermatt time trial, using a road bike because he knew he was leaving and didn’t want to take too much time or limelight. Now he’s definitively decided to skip cobbled classics in 2022 he’s chosen the hillier races once again.

Among the others from the worlds we don’t the sharpest vision to look back at the troubles Remco Evenepoel found himself in. In part because others, largely in the Belgian media, look so closely. He’s a star, a celebrity and newspapers refer to him by his first name. “Remco did this”, “Remco said that” and so on, this is practically a life lived under surveillance. His long spell on the front of the lead group in the worlds did plenty to help keep the group away but it left the Belgian team lighter for the final two laps when they needed help to close gaps. But with hindsight, imagine the race over and over again it’s hard to see how the Belgians could have won it or what Evenepoel was supposed to do if he couldn’t go solo.

As for Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert on that Sunday in Leuven, it wasn’t to be. This time they didn’t shape the race too much either. It’ll be interesting to see where they go next, both are on reduced cyclo-cross campaigns because they’re racing for a lot of the year already but we’ll see what this does to their punch and power on the road. But that’s where the hindsight ends and we start looking forward to 2022 and the likes of the Strade Bianche all over again…

32 thoughts on “Highlights of 2021 – Part I”

  1. Good piece! I thought the 2020 edition of the World’s was pretty good….scenery-wise far superior to 2021 and with the same winner…imagine that!
    I feel sorry for Remco Evenepoel – the latest “next Eddy Merckx” taking flak from all sides since he isn’t and will never be…all at a very young age. I hope either the press eases up on the young man or he finds the mental strength to deal with the flak so as not become the “next Frank Vandenbroucke”.

      • “..he first needs to win big races” attitude is exactly the problem. Despite doing just that FVdB’s situation as “next Eddy Merckx” still didn’t end well. I really hope to not see this type of situation repeated, especially with the current situation where juniors are skipping U23 and going directly into the top-tier. UCI needs to regulate this with some minimum age restrictions or other controls IMHO.

    • Taste is personal but I’m with you that 2020 was more scenic, and by some way. I’ve enjoyed riding amid the vineyards and the clay hills of Imola and you can eat and drink in style. But the race wasn’t as good, a slow burn until Alaphilippe’s fireworks.

      More substantially I worry for Evenepoel and the pressure. Boonen had it and fled to Monaco to escape the pressure (and not just the tax rates) but this didn’t solve everything to put it mildly.

  2. The Remco / WvA thing seems to be still rumbling on. As you say it probably would have made no difference to the result if Remco had played dutiful domestique but the expectation for a rare “home” world championship was bound to cause waves in the Belgium media. Not sure he is best served at DQS either, might be better off at a small team less in the spotlight and away from Patrick Lefevere media circus.

    I wonder if ASO will manage to design a Tour route to enable Julian Alaphillippe to target a three week race, he does seem the most realistic hope the French have had in a good while. Though that might run into “Remco” problems within the team too.

    • He might start podiuming in any top-level short stage race, or giving the Vuelta (way more favourable to his qualities) a serious try. Otherwise, his only hope is landslides. Actually, although the original course of any recent Giro makes it even less plausible for Alaphilippe to go for GC, at the Giro he’d enjoy higher chances of mountain stages being cancelled or reduced to low-profile (literally) copies. Speaking of the Giro, they went a considerable length destroying the race course in order to allow Moser and Saronni to win – and *that alone* would have been hardly enough for the former. Yet, the cost in race quality was high, and despite national success, the Giro product lost a good amount of value. I don’t know if ASO would be keen to face such risk. I suspect that the 2015-2019 stint of courses thought to grant a chance to the likes of Bardet or Pinot is the furthest they’re ready to go… and also note that taking away ITTs won’t be disliked by the *general* public as much as taking away big mountains. That said, with Pogacar, Roglic or even, for diffetent reasons, Van Aert or Bernal racing, it’s hard to envisage what sort of course you’d need to favour an Alaph win. 21 Huys?

      By the way… what was happening behind the scenes to gift Wiggins with the 2012 course, totally out of context in terms of course design when compared both to what preceded and followed it (for years and years)?

      • Gabriele – I almost always agree with you but I’m thinking you need to either a) point out some of the things you write, as in: “..despite national success, the Giro product lost a good amount of value.” are merely your opinion or b) include some factual basis for such a claim.
        As a foreigner I found the stories of the Moser-Saronni rivalry very entertaining, fueling my interest in La Corsa Rosa to the point I made some financial sacrifices to go there and see the Giro d’Italia for myself when the opportunity came up, though it was many years later.

        • Well, Larry, I believe that I usually substantiate quite much what I say with a good amount of facts – quite often to little use when people whom I’m debating with should as a consequence change their personal opinion, sometimes just based on their on the fly sensations.
          The above *might* suggest that even when I haven’t got the time to produce a decent bibliography, perhaps, only perhaps, my opinions are grounded on something more than personal experience – even more so if I was a toddler at the time I’m writing about ^__^

          That said, you could check the excellent 39×28 Spanish website which collected more than 40 years of information about the hardest stages in GTs and discover than in the 80s – with the only exception of 1982 – the hardest stage of each Giro too many times barely reached 4,000 mts of total altitude gain (or 3,500…) and half of the times or so it hardly touched the 200 kms mark. What many would now call “Vueltish”! – and that was very similar to the Vuelta back then, too, only the Vuelta was still a “minor” GT, also in the sense of “underage”.
          Both in 1983 and 1984 the hardest Giro stage was a Sella Ronda of sort, 3,600 mts of altitude gain in 169 kms on far from sharp climbs. A granfondo for amateur riders. That alone wouldn’t mean much, of course, if it wasn’t that those easier courses went along with a very reduced growth – if any – of average speeds. You can check Mignot’s article in The Economics of Professional Cycling edited by Van Reeth and Larson to see that while avg. speeds showed a trend of growth through the 80s, *both* at the Tour (despite *really hard* mountain stages!) *and* at the Vuelta, the Giro was much steadier. Suffice it to say that, for example, extremely *soft courses* like 1981 or 1983 were race at lower speed than way harder routes in the late 60s or first 70s (1966, 1967, 1968, 1972), when the likes of Gimondi, Merckx, Tarangu, Adorni, Anquetil, Motta, Galdos were battling on Italian roads.
          EPO wasn’t still rampant, which means that the sort of speed growth you noticed in other GTs depended quite much on technical improvements (among the most notable since, imagine that!), more professional training and teamwork, or an higher average level of athletes thanks to an ever growing internationalisation.
          Only, that wasn’t really happening at the Giro, whose organisers, as once more is shown by Mignot cited above, tried to keep foreign presence at bay. Mignot also explains it through the share of foreign partecipants in GT: that’s a relative factor, again, but while at the Tour or at the Vuelta foreing presence was skyrocketing from the lates 70s, in Italy it went up little by little and a boom of sort only happened in the late 80s (only to fall down again in the Armstrong era, but that’s a different story).

          The petty technical level and the conflictive stance of the organisers during the 80s actually hindered the presence of top riders, as shown by an interesting work which I quoted in the past by some fans of the Cicloweb community, who built an impressive database comparing the presence of the top GT riders through the three GTs to get a rolling measure of sort of their relative valure in terms of star riders commitment. Whereas until 1971 the Giro’s relative value wasn’t far from the Tour’s (and the Giro had even fared better since the early 30s to the early 60s), the second half of the 70s marked a clear decline; but the bottom was hit between 1979 and 1983, when Giro’s top cyclists were “worth” less than 2/3 than Tour’s. With the only exception of 1985, Giro’s level wouldn’t even reach 3/4 of Tour’s until 1990.
          (EXTRA) A couple of interesting details, that don’t matter much with the present debate: the Tour decided to replace national teams with “commercially” sponsored teams in 1962 and 1963 was the last year when participant’s quality was better at the Giro than at the Tour (they’d been extremely close since 1960, anyway) – OTOH, in 1954 the Italian Magni was the first cyclist fully sponsored by an ‘extra-sportif’ company, Nivea.

          Now, I’m ready to agree that in general terms the “original damage” to the Giro’s quality happened halfway through the 70s, since RAI’s decision not to broadcast it live in 1972 (you can see a brutal drop in participation quality from 1971 to 1972). And, again, the hope for a national win – once Merckx declined so suddenly – was probably behind the decision to broadcast it live again. In that sense, one could think about the nationalistic turn which favoured so blatantly the likes of Moser and Saronni as a sort of life-saver for a Giro deeply shaken during the 70s after that Indian Summer between the two decades (60s to 70s).
          Maybe one could even imagine that without that sacrifice, which at least kept some life in the race bringing mamma RAI back, things would have gone even worse.
          However, what actually happened is that the Giro “lost the train” on which both Tour and Vuelta jumped during the 80s: low-profile courses and low competitive level led to a modest internationalisation which – albeit still happening – was way slower than elsewhere, while at the same time star riders fled from the race. Prizes, sponsorships and TV rights skyrocketed at the Tour and the difference in economic and political power between the two races became greater than ever.

          Then came EPO, Conconi and Ferrari that “made Italian cycling great again”, hence lifting also the national GT’s level. But that’s a different story, again.

          Will anything of this be enough to persuade you that – albeit you’re from a different country and you loved so much the Moser and Saronni rivalry – all the same, putting up laughable courses and losing technical level wasn’t the best idea ever, given that you’d also lose interest from international competitors and star riders? Which would go hand in hand with a slower growth of the race in global terms? Well, no, I suspect that one single USA guy (namely, you) loving those Giros will justify pretty much *whatever* might have happened to the Giro in the while back then ^__^

          • Grazie! This is exactly what I was asking for. I may still not agree 100% but at least I know that what you wrote is not stuff that you (unlike so many others) “pulled out of your a__”
            I won’t argue the Giro tends to be more ethnocentric though I was present at Le Grand Boucle when the official drink was Perrier, the cars Peugeot and the 7/Eleven team was a novelty…and this was in the late 1980’s rather than the 1970’s and there was no doubt the home-boys were favored in France, same as in Italy.
            As I’ve written elsewhere http://www.bikeraceinfo.com/commentary/giro-versus-tour-g.html I prefer Il Giro to LeTour as in some ways the very qualities noted in places like The Economics of Professional Cycling (no mention of sporting merits in that title) put Le Grand Boucle much more in the business end of things vs sport/passion. Therein lies the question of VALUE. I think we might respectfully disagree on what that is? 🙂

          • Of course, what’s to be called *value* is a problem in itself, yet please note that my take on what happened in the 80s isn’t restricted to money alone, not even focussed on just that.
            In fact, a further couple of different sources (and perspectives) are cited, besides Mignot’s chapter.
            Not having top riders competing at their best or racing slowlier some easier and more monotonous routes is a question of *technical* value, which matters so much more to me.

      • What could’ve been happening behind the scenes to gift a course to Wiggins in 2012? An exchange of money? To ASO who aren’t exactly skint. The French aren’t known for gifting things to Brits. Especially in the home race of their national sport that they haven’t won themselves in however long. Also, how would you gift anything to Wiggins? In June 2012 he had one 4th place at the Tour and a 3rd at the Vuelta. He was very far from a sure bet on any course.

        • “how would you gift anything to Wiggins?”
          Have a look here, courtesy of our host:


          Also note that the two long ITTs had no technical factor involved.
          Just in case you thought they wanted to favour, say, Cadel Evans – who’s a more than decent bike handler, besides being a fairly good climber and notable puncheur, too.

          Plus, the Queen Stage had the least total altitude gain since 1989 (ex aequo with 2003).

          The highest point of the race was the Tourmalet, well below the 2,200 m. mark, something which had happened only twice since 2001 and which only happened again once since.

          The second half of the race was ridicolously easy, with the second of a total of three uphill finishes coming no later than stage 11. The second weekend had no mountain stages.

          The Tour hadn’t had so few mountain stages and uphill finishes in the last part of the race since 2007 at least (that edition still had a heavy second week!), and to present day ASO wouldn’t draw again such a soft-ended course barring 2017, another lame edition, indeed.

          A sudden shift under several POVs in course design, unprecedented and not repeated again in the short term. How would that make any sense? That’s how you also pushed the Tejay van Garderen or the Jurgen van den Broeck to their best GCs ever in GTs…

          The bet was as sure as it could get, with Froome as a second choice covering accidents.

          Oh, and I was forgetting *that* detail. Exclusive ketons (to say the least).

          • I’m not disputing any of those details, just that it was intended as a gift to Team Sky/Bradley Wigginss. You have no proof of that so I’m tempted to say you’ve pulled it out of your aristotle.

          • So your best guess is that ASO pulled that out of *their* aristotle ^__^

            While… at the same time, nobody at all in cycling knew that Sky was behind a Brit win at the Tour during that *magic* Olympic year, sure…
            Surprise and shock!
            Believe what you please, but, whereas normal course of things doesn’t require any special interpretation, of course, on the contrary when something is really out of any given pattern (as that Tour route was), it would call for a reasonable explication of sort, at least if it’s the product of human action. And if you don’t like mine, I’d love to hear a better one.

    • Races can be redesigned for locals or certain outcomes but it’s very hard to achieve. The Tour de Suisse had a Cancellara edition, two time trials and the mountains reduced. But a grand tour is a whole different thing and even it’s hard to see a course that suits Alaphilippe ahead of everyone else; you could try a Giro for Ganna perhaps with a prologue and two TTs plus some steady climbs. For Alaphilippe you could skip a few high mountains here, have a hilly TT with some sharp climbs in it etc if he’s marked from the start it’d be hard to take time, as we’ll see in the next highlight Pogačar can race on the steep climbs just as well. Alaphilippe will be 30 next year and won’t be as explosive in the coming years. Still, a mountains jersey could suit in the meantime, more stages.

  3. IR – thanks for keeping this blog going. Your writing is always entertaining and insightful. Look forward to the rest of the year-end highlights. Cheers.

  4. I always enjoy the World Champs for the sole reason that it shakes up the script a bit.

    Trade teams are assembled with rider roles and expected duties. The world champs is a shuffle. You have these “All Star Teams” of riders in roles they normally wouldn’t fill and varying degrees of expectation and cohesion (see Remco and WvA). It has to be a nightmare to manage as “DS”…not to mention the course is typically on the longer end of the spectrum (250k+) which has a tendency to exaggerate incongruencies within the squad.

    For all that, though, maybe it just really does a good job of highlighting who is the best rider. Perhaps another rider with their trade team support and tactics would win the day. But to forgo that comfort and still win really is a testament to the winner.

  5. I’m not so sure about Remco. Yes he has a big motor, but is he a bike rider??
    No tactical knowledge.
    And he seems either hard to teach or
    unwilling to learn.
    You need not only talent, but desire sacrifice and some brains to go w the brawn.

    • If it doesn’t start to come together for Remco, perhaps he should consider a switch to triathlon?

      The big motor will be just as useful and his unimpressive bike handling skills would still be adequate for the simpler courses designed to be ridden on TT bikes, but he would gain from just having to think about pacing rather than proper race tactics.

      • Agreed. The very best athletes are not often the very best coaches. Because it came to easy for them compared to someone who needs to know all the tricks to be competitive.

  6. About longer range attacks: In his podcast Laurens ten Dam (with guest van Aert) discussed that a factor for longer range attacks is the energy intake of riders in the first hours of the race. These days riders fuel up every hour, even in the start of a race. Before this used to be less/none in the first hours. Because of this riders have more energy in the final which reduces risk (which makes more risky moves possible).

    • Yes, that’s a feature of the last 2-3 years where calorie intake during competition has jumped, both because people are trying to eat/drink more but also because there are products that help make this easier. VDP still couldn’t get enough here it seems, or the cold got to him. In his own words he struggling to pedal beyond 200 watts at the end.

  7. If there was one thing about this race that kept it from being my favorite race of the year (not counting GT stages, that’s the Ronde, then Roubaix) , it’s that especially in grand tours, we were pretty heavy on long range solo attacks for the win. I love a good long range attack for the win, but in the last circuit I was definitely wishing for a group of 3 or 4 with Julian to make for a great sprint.

    I love Julian as world champion – he’s the best kind of champion, the kind who seemingly thinks the rainbow jersey gives him superpowers. He’d arguably be a better rider without it, but he’s far more entertaining with it.

  8. “Not having top riders competing at their best or racing slowlier some easier and more monotonous routes is a question of *technical* value, which matters so much more to me.”
    A much more subjective question for sure. I thought the Moser-Saronni duels were fascinating while for you they were a low point for the Giro. What’s a national tour’s first goal? To be INTERnational or to please the home-country’s citizens? As I wrote, IMHO LeTour seemed pretty much a French affair as recently as the late 1980’s before LeMond’s success brought the multi-national sponsors (and their piles of money) in. Soon enough the Giro had its taste of that with a few like Coca-Cola..but at the same time FIAT was the official car of Le Grand Boucle!

    • What’s exactly subjective in altitude gain, speeds, and the number of usual top GT athletes competing in a given race?

      However, to me international presence is means to an end (more competition) or maybe a consequence of the interest a race can prompt among top competitors when they aren’t from a single country. It’s not a value in itself – if through the years you’ve got Coppi, Bartali, Magni, Guerra, Martano, Bottecchia, Morelli, Camusso, Aimo competing for their home GT (as well as in France…), the lack of international presence hurts way less.

  9. Re Evenepoel and what he could’ve done differently I’m guessing the plan was for him to get in that ‘dangerous but not the out and out favourites’ group which forms with a couple of laps to go in every worlds, and go on the attack on his own with about 30km to go. That’s generally his game in one day races. That would’ve flushed out the other favourites, or at least their teams, and allowed Wout to sit on and save energy to do his thing at the end. The thing he’d been doing to incredible effect at the Tours of France and Britain. The curve balls that the Belgian team didn’t consider were Evenepoel’s perhaps childish ego, that Van Aert’s form had already peaked (he seems to have a thing for getting carried away in build up races and peaking before his big targets) and that there are so many top riders wanting to win the worlds that it’s nearly impossible to keep a lid on all of them on anything other than a pan flat course.

    Also re Evenepoel, I find him quite an odd rider. He’s massively rated due to his exploits in age group races where he was so superior he literally just rode off and won. But how is he supposed to win big pro races, and what kind? He isn’t explosive and his bike handling isn’t top level, so that rules out the cobbles. He isn’t going to jump away from anyone on the Poggio, or outsprint a small group in Liege. So he’s relying on a Coppi or a Merckx/Hinault type rampage there. Is he that much better than Pogacar, Roglic, Alaphilippe, Van Aert, Van der Poel and their collective teams? In Grand Tours he isn’t a top climber, he’s a fantastic time trialist but nobody wants to have those anymore. Lefevre obviously has a plan, we’ll have to wait and see. I doubt it’s just to pick up World Tour level TTs and the Chrono des Nations every year.

    • Yes, he can crush small or average races but as soon as someone manage to stay with him, he doesn’t have a clue of what to do, just pedal as hard as he can. In the European championship it was the case. I really don’t know how he can solve the problem. Become more explosive ? Become so strong that nobody can stay in his wheel ? It will be very boring races for us then…

    • The guy who pays him said: “…but with Remco you couldn’t see his injury. He also had a setback as he had to stop training at the beginning of the year, which was very difficult. Then the Giro came where we made the mistake to go with the story that was being created about him. It was a unique experience and we learned a lot from it. I think Remco is almost back to his old level, seeing how he came back to winning and showing what he did before – riding away from the bunch alone. With a good winter I believe he can make another step forward. Not to forget he turns only 22 in January.”

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