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Meet cycling’s new GC hierarchy: ranking the 2021 grand tour racing season

Cycling's ‘Big Three’ split the grand tours between them in 2021, but will they end up in a ‘Battle Royale’ next year at the Tour de France?

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Professional racing seems to have a way of putting things in their place, and even more so in grand tour racing at the Tour de France.

Sure, there can be the occasional surprise here and there, but it’s more common to see the cream rise to the top.

That was certainly the case in the 2021 grand tour racing season.

Every year, hope springs eternal, but during this year’s grand tours, there was fitting neatness to who won and where.

Just consider: Egan Bernal won the Giro d’Italia, Tadej Pogačar repeated at the Tour, and Primož Roglič completed a hat-trick at the Vuelta a España.

Bernal, Pogačar, and Roglič — cycling’s “Big Three” — are the absolute best grand tour racers in cycling right now, and they swept the grand tours.

“I have respect for all my rivals,” Roglič said Sunday after dominating the Vuelta from start to finish. “We’ll see what next brings. Right now, I want to enjoy and rest.”

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There’s no chafe in that bushel of racing wheat.

And it’s been a joy to watch them win across the arc of the WorldTour calendar in 2021 in a year when things were almost back to normal following the disrupted 2020 COVID-marred season.

By plan and by accident, however, the three leading aces did not coincide often during this year’s calendar.

A crash took Roglič out of the Tour too early, while Bernal steered clear of it and put the Giro at the center of his calendar. Those two coincided at the Vuelta, but Bernal was admittedly off-form, and did the best he could against an on-form and determined Roglič.

Pogačar, meanwhile, seems to be creating a league of his own, winning back-to-back yellow jerseys on the trot.

Leading trio tower above the rest

It’s very crowded at the top when considering the latest grand tour hierarchy.

Cycling’s “Big Three” — Pogačar, Roglič, and Bernal — are the only current riders with more than one grand tour victory on their respective palmarès who seem to have realistic chances of winning more grand tours.

“I’m living my dream right now,” Pogačar said. “I enjoy racing my bike, I am good at it, and there are a lot of races I can still win. I like to go to different races that I have not raced yet. I’d like to race the Giro and Vuelta, two races I have not won yet”

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Of the last nine grand tours — from 2019 to 2021 — the leading trio won all of them except two; the 2019 Giro won by Richard Carapaz and the 2020 Giro won by Tao Geoghegan Hart.

There is a sharp dividing line of before and after drawn between the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

That year marks a clear generational change, from the waning days of the “Fortress Froome” and the dominance of Sky giving way to a new era dominated by the rise of the Slovenian slayers in Roglič and Pogačar, with Bernal making history as Colombia’s first Tour winner.

https://twitter.com/lavuelta/status/1434589755019235332

Who’s behind them? That’s where it gets interesting.

Following Fabio Aru’s retirement Sunday, there are only 12 active grand tour winners in the peloton going into 2022.

Several veteran grand tour winners, however, already seem a pedal stroke or two beyond their best. Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Tom Dumoulin, Alejandro Valverde, and Geraint Thomas all won grand tours, but will they win another one?

Be it for age, injuries, team politics, or motivation, odds are they won’t.

Of all the above riders in 2021, Nibali — who was 18th in the Giro — was the only one out of that once-powerful group to post a top-20 in a grand tour this season.

The page has emphatically been turned in the grand tour hierarchy.

So who’s coming up behind the leading trio?

Geoghegan Hart, who showed signs of brilliance in winning the 2020 Giro, struggled in his Tour debut this year and has not finished better than 20th in four other grand tour starts. There’s Spain’s Enric Mas, who has never won a grand tour, but has twice finished second at the Vuelta, and hit fifth and sixth in the past two editions of the Tour.

French hopes Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot both seem to have stalled, while Julian Alaphilippe remains a jack of all trades but not truly on the same level at Pogačar and Co. for three weeks.

Simon Yates won the 2018 Vuelta and battled to a third-place podium at the Giro in 2021, confirming his grand tour credentials, but can he take it to Roglič and Pogačar in the Tour? Probably not.

A few promising riders, such as Pavel Sivakov, Adam Yates, Wilco Kelderman, Emanuel Buchmann, or Mikel Landa, have yet to fulfill their expected successes in grand tours for one reason or another.

To be honest, it’s hard to find anyone coming up from below who will truly be able to challenge the “Big Three,” at least for the next few years.

Carapaz is the most likely candidate. A winner of the 2019 Giro, Carapaz raced to third at the 2021 Tour and won the Olympic gold medal. He flamed out of the Vuelta, but since he races alongside Bernal, will he get the chances he deserves?

Miguel Ángel López has been banging on the door for a breakthrough ride, already packing two grand tour podiums in 2018, but will he be able to bounce back from his hasty Vuelta exit? He’s never been out of the top-10 in grand tours he’s finished, but he has DNFs in the last three he’s started.

Young riders like Joâo Almeida, Hugh Carthy, Aleksandr Vlasov, Ben O’Connor, and Jonas Vingegaard have all shown flickers of promise, but time will tell if they can convert those good showings into more grand tour podiums and victories.

Will Bernal, Pogačar and Roglič face off in the 2022 Tour de France?

The big question for 2022 is whether or not Pogačar, Roglič, and Bernal will face off in the Tour de France.

Everyone is certainly hoping so.

VeloNews put that question to Bernal and Roglič last week, and both demurred, saying it’s too early to say, and they want to study next year’s calendar and routes of the major grand tours before committing to a racing schedule.

“For me, it’s not only the Tour,” Bernal said. “There are three grand tours in a year, and you don’t have to do the Tour every year. This year, for example, I did the Giro-Vuelta, and next year will depend on what the courses look like to decide on the calendar.”

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It’s highly likely, right now at least, that all three will start the Tour.

Bernal will have the economic mass and pride of Ineos Grenadiers bearing down on him to race the Tour, while Roglič has a score to settle with the French tour. And Pogačar, bolstered by an ever-improving support cast at UAE-Team Emirates, will put a Tour title defense at the center of his ambitions.

If so, it would set up the clash of the decade.

Too often, one singular rider dominates their respective generations and converts the Tour into a race for second. Froome was the last rider to truly emerge as the Tour dominator, but injury stopped him short of a record-tying fifth yellow jersey.

What’s unique about the rise of Pogačar is that he has Roglič — equal on just about every terrain — as well as Bernal coinciding at the same time. And even better, they’re all on opposing teams, meaning that each one will have the full support of their squads without the risk of in-fighting and back-room politics.

It’s been years since fans have truly been able to see this much quality at the top of the peloton for grand tour racing.

With some of the peloton’s established superstars winding down their time at the top, it will be interesting to see who among the younger riders in the pack will rise to the challenge of taking it to Pogačar, Roglič, and Bernal in the next few years.

If Pogačar can knock back Bernal and Roglič in 2022, only injury or some other setback could stop him from joining the “five-win” club.

If Roglič or Bernal stop him in his tracks, cycling could be entering a new golden era in grand tour racing.

Ranking the top grand tour stars today and tomorrow:

  1. Tadej Pogačar — the new Merckx, but with a smile
  2. Primož Roglič — only missing a yellow jersey
  3. Egan Bernal — doubts linger about his back
  4. Richard Carapaz — best climber on his best day
  5. Simon Yates — time trials are his bête noire
  6. Enric Mas — might be a few watts short of a Tour winner
  7. Jonas Vingegaard — he’s got all the tools, but was 2021 a fluke?
  8. Miguel Ángel López — can he bounce back from Vuelta exit?
  9. Joâo Almeida — 4th and 6th in Giro hints at more
  10. Jack Haig, Tao Geoghegan Hart — time to confirm