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Five wacky things I loved about bike racing in 2020

Racing's COVID calendar wasn't all doom and gloom.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2020.

Quite the contrary. Despite a world pandemic that some viewed as a mortal threat to professional cycling, the sport reconfirmed its legacy of perseverance and determination by pedaling straight through it. It wasn’t always pretty or streamlined, but the readjusted racing season delivered one surprise after another.

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In fact, there were some downright wacky and wondrous moments that will make 2020 a year to remember.

Here are my five favorite madcap moments in 2020:

Peter Sagan finds his Italian spirit animal

Peter Sagan won just one race in 2020: Stage 10 of the Giro d’Italia on a solo break. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Peter Sagan didn’t win often in 2020 — in fact, only once — but he made his long-awaited Giro d’Italia debut in trademark style.

In fact, it was a hilarious series of pre-Giro videos that reminded everyone that cycling should be fun.

Sagan is the peloton’s natural showman, and he pulled off his best acting chops in a series of Giro promotional videos.

The 2020 season confirmed that Sagan still moves the needle, both on and off the bike.

Here’s hoping Sagan keeps racing … and fans won’t have to worry that he won’t be involved in cycling he’s expected to be a brand ambassador after his racing days are over …

Could Sagan develop into a cross-over star in a post-racing career?

If you haven’t seen it, check out his Grease-inspired schtick from a few years ago.

EF Pro Cycling scores marketing coup

EF Pro Cycling has grabbed the headlines with its racing and its new apparel. Photo: S J Hockett

EF Pro Cycling (to be EF Education Nippo in 2021) pulled off the season’s marketing best coup with its skateboard-inspired jersey it unveiled during the Giro d’Italia.

Cycling’s business model is little more than a moving billboard for sponsors, and I’ve often wondered why jerseys are so often staid and boring.

EF Pro Cycling ripped up the script in October and delivered the most original and provocative jersey in a long time.

And the team delivered on the road as well, enjoying one of its finest seasons in years. It won 17 times across 2020, including stages in all three grand tours — one at the Tour de France, two at the Giro d’Italia, and three at the Vuelta a España — as well as the overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné and third place on the Vuelta podium.

EF also made the most of the lockdown, sending its riders on a series of fan-friendly fun adventures that underscored the paradigm shift that professional cycling doesn’t always have to be nose-down number-crunching.

Here’s hoping JV and his merry pranksters keep the fun level turned to 11 in 2021.

A dusty, hot Strade Bianche

Leah Thomas (USA) at Strade Bianche – elite women 2020, a 136 km road race starting and finishing in Siena, Italy on August 1, 2020. Photo by Sean Robinson/velofocus.com

Unfortunately, the women’s peloton suffered more than the men’s during the pandemic. More teams folded, and more races were canceled, but the events that held on saw stupendous racing.

My favorite? The August edition of Strade Bianche. Only Paris-Roubaix — sadly the women’s debut event in 2020 was doomed due to COVID-19 — can out-shine Strade Bianche in terms of road conditions. Its Italian gravel cousin does win with Fellini-inspired finishing square and the green Tuscan hills that beats the muddy farm roads and cow manure of northern France any time of year.

The rescheduled 2020 edition saw a wild dusty and stinking hot version of Strade Bianche. Who won? Annemiek van Vleuten, of course, who won her first five races on both sides of the lockdown.

Tour/worlds combo works well

Photo: Luca Bettini / Getty

Let’s hope 2020 was a one-off, but there was one aspect of the reshuffled calendar that intrigued me more than anything else — seeing the road worlds a week following the Tour de France.

The Tour-worlds combo was long a calendar staple until the UCI juggled the calendar in 1995. That’s when the Vuelta a España was moved from April to September (now mid-August), and the worlds were bumped back from late July or early August until after the Spanish grand tour.

Some traditionalists say that moving the Vuelta and worlds was a mistake, but personally, I’ve always backed the idea of having the worlds later in the season and the Vuelta as the third of the three grand tours. The move lengthens the season and has seen the Vuelta heighten both its prestige and its quality of starting list as a result.

For nearly 20 years, the eventual world’s winner would use the Vuelta as the final trampoline for a run at the rainbow jersey. But as the Vuelta gradually became more demanding, worlds-bound specialists started to steer clear of the climb-heavy Vuelta, and use other races to top up form ahead of the worlds. In fact, only three of the past eight world champions from 2012 to 2018 raced the Vuelta.

So following the jolly good show in the 2020 worlds, when the elite men’s top riders came straight out of the Tour to race for the rainbow stripes, should there be a discussion among the brain trust to possibly to move the worlds back to August? Why not. It would give the worlds a better field with the top elite men’s riders in their best shape. And the Vuelta is no longer on life support; the race is strong enough to stand on its own merits.

Fabulous fall racing

The peloton climbs the Alto de Fanlo on stage 5, led by Ineos Grenadiers. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

There was a certain charm in the rejigged and discombobulated racing calendar in 2020. Strade Bianche in August? Sure! The spring classics now the fall classics, bring it on.

After sweating through more than 20 hot and stinky summers chasing the Tour de France every July, a Tour that dipped into September was a welcome reprieve. Overall, the 2020 Tour was more relaxed, a lot less stressful ( at least in terms of crowds and traffic), and much cooler as the race dipped into September.

The shadows were different on the roads, and there was a crisp feeling of the air. It was as if the football season was starting soon, and ski season was just around the corner.

And seeing the Giro and Vuelta racing into late October and even November delivered up stunning visuals of the mountains cloaked in the vibrant colors of autumn.

Both the Giro and Vuelta got very lucky in terms of weather. Apart from one stage being shortened in the Giro, there were no major disruptions due to snow or cold.

Bike racing has long been synonymous with summer heat, roadside picnics, and dressing up in inane costumes on Europe’s steepest roads.

Let’s hope those vaccines are rolled out in time for the 2021 season to go back to how it’s always been.

2020 wasn’t all doom and gloom, but hopefully, it’s a season that will remain unlike any other.