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21 stories for 2021: Cav’s Tour comeback, van Vleuten’s Olympic rollercoaster, Opi-Omi’s infamy, and more

Our editors weigh in on the 21 must-know, high-drama headlines of 2021 and why they matter: Part three.

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From the muddy mayhem of Paris-Roubaix through the drama-riddled Tokyo Olympics, the 2021 season was so good that a 10-point “best-of” wouldn’t do it justice.

That’s why Ben DelaneySadhbh O’SheaAndrew Hood and Jim Cotton are bringing you their picks of the 21 biggest storylines of the year, and digging into why they matter.

Here’s the third in a three-part “21 for 2021” series, featuring Olympic rollercoasters, miracle comebacks, an infamous roadside sign, and more.

15: Anna van der Breggen’s last hoorah

Anna van der Breggen crosses the line with Marlen Reusser in her final race
Anna van der Breggen crosses the line with Marlen Reusser in her final race (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Read more: As the Anna van der Breggen era nears its end, SD Worx lays foundations of future domination

SO’S: We knew it was coming for a long time, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. Perhaps the most stylish bike rider in any peloton, Anna van der Breggen hung up her racing wheels following the world championships in September. The final hurrah was probably not what she wanted, with fatigue forcing her out of some of her final races and relegating her to a support role in her last road race, though it did give her the opportunity to lap up the adulation of the crowds.

Despite some struggles in the final months of the season, she went out on a year that she could be proud of with a dominant win at the Giro d’Italia Donne and her seventh Flèche Wallonne title — a record that’s unlikely to be beaten anytime soon. She also got to spend the year with two rainbow jerseys after her clean sweep at the worlds in Imola last year.

There’s no time to rest up for van der Breggen as she gets ready for a season at the wheel as a DS for SD Worx.

16: UCI slays the supertuck

Read more: So long, ‘super tuck’

VN: The so-called “super-tuck” left the pro peloton on April 1.

The commonly used top tube descending position and “puppy paws” wrists-over-the-handlebars riding position were banned by the UCI this spring in a bid to increase safety in the fast-paced pro peloton.

It sparked both outrage and applause from the bunch as each rider took their own view on the decision. However, no matter what the riders think, the UCI has been stringent in patrolling the ban, with riders including Richard Carapaz penalized or booted from races if caught taking a sneaky sit on the top tube.

17: Neilson Powless’ road worlds revelation

Neilson Powless just keeps getting better.

After his breakout 2020 Tour de France debut, where he rode into a handful of big and important breakaways, the EF Education-Nippo star went even better in 2021.

Read more: Neilson Powless rockets to be US men’s result in decades

After knocking at the door of a big results for the past few years, Powless barged right through it to win the Clásica San Sebastián, Spain’s most important one-day race.

He arrived in Leuven in the best condition of his life, and delivered the best U.S. elite men’s worlds result in nearly two decades.

Powless rode a fearless race, and raced aggressively on the decisive closing laps. Still only 25, the best is yet to come.

18: Mark Cavendish’s miracle comeback

Mark Cavendish realizing he tied the record for Tour de France stage wins by an individual.
Few believed Cavendish would win even a single stage of the Tour again. He won four instead. (Photo: James Startt)

Also read: Rebuilding Cav: How Cavendish returned to the top of the Tour

JC: Mark Cavendish is a name from another era, right?

That’s what everyone thought at the start of this season. The once-prolific supersprinter hadn’t won for three years and didn’t look like he was coming close anytime soon.

Fast-forward seven months and Cavendish had won four more Tour de France stages and the green jersey, and drawn level with Eddy Merckx’s long-standing victory-tally of 34.

It’s a beyond-the-sport story that rocketed “the Manxman” firmly back in the world’s consciousness and extended his career one more year by earning a contract extension with his Quick-Step crew.

And it all so nearly never happened.

The 36-year-old was subbed into the Tour roster at the last minute after Sam Bennett’s injury and fallout with team boss Patrick Lefevere, and there were times when it looked like Cav would never see Paris as he pedaled against the time cut in the mountains.

It’s the “miracle” you’ve got no choice but to believe.

“This race has given my life to me,” Cavendish said after claiming Tour stage number 31 in Fougères. “And I’ve given my life to the Tour … I’m fortunate I got another shot – I’m living an absolute dream.”

After years outside the winner’s circle while struggling with illness and injury, Cavendish was back on cloud nine this summer.

19: Annemiek van Vleuten’s Olympic rollercoaster

Annemiek van Vleuten celebrated what she thought was gold but later learned that someone else already had it
Annemiek van Vleuten celebrated what she thought was gold but later learned that someone else already had it (Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

Read more: Annemiek van Vleuten: ‘I wasn’t interested in Rio revenge at Tokyo Olympics’

SO’S: Annemiek van Vleuten has a complicated relationship with the Olympic Games and the Tokyo event epitomized it. Five years after her horrible crash at the Rio Olympics, which stopped her from winning an almost certain gold medal, she lined up in Japan in commanding form. Unlike in Rio, she was an overwhelming favorite for double gold.

As the road race unfolded, van Vleuten clearly looked the strongest in the pack and the rest were happy to let her and the rest of the Dutch take on the responsibility it demanded. This negative racing and confusion over the numbers in the breakaway allowed Anna Kiesenhofer to claim the biggest victory of her career, unbeknownst to van Vleuten. The Dutch woman celebrated after she crossed the line, only to learn moments later that she had taken silver.

Once the immediate embarrassment had died down, van Vleuten was content with her silver and set her sights on ripping it up in the time trial. She laid it all out on the road to win by close to a minute over the rest of the back. The Tokyo Olympics was a rollercoaster of emotion for van Vleuten.

20: Christopher Blevins’ rainbow jersey

(Photo: Michal Cerveny)

Read more: Christopher Blevins wins inaugural world Short Track XC MTB title

BD: Christopher Blevins has been racing bikes since he was 5 years old. Getting his start in BMX, he won 8 national championships in that discipline before he was 16. At age 12, he started racing road and mountain bikes, and winning national titles in those disciplines, too.

But a world title is clearly a step above.

This year in Val di Sole, Blevins nabbed a bronze medal in the e-bike race and a silver medal for the team relay before grabbing gold in the short track.

The hyper-intense short track is like a fast-paced version of a cyclocross race, where a good start is vitally important and there’s no time to recover from mistakes. Blevins didn’t make any. He rode in fourth to sixth wheel for most of the short race, following attacks but keeping his powder dry until the very end. Then, he sprinted into the final corner, leaned hard through it, and sprinted clear for the win with enough space to celebrate before the line.

21: Opi Omi’s moment of infamy

Riders have been complaining about it for years.

With fans reaching in and over to take selfies, running alongside the peloton as if it was the running of the bulls, or trying to get their mug on TV with wild costumes, everyone knew it was a matter of time before something bad happened.

That day of reckoning finally came on the opening stage of the 2021 Tour de France.

Read more: Pro riders say arresting fan is going too far

A well-meaning fan, holding up a sign in front of the peloton to send a message to her grandparents, didn’t step back in time.

Tony Martin, who retired this year saying the racing is simply too dangerous for his liking, was the first to go down. The peloton crumbled like a house of cards behind him.

The woman, who turned out to be a local French resident, went into hiding. But French justice caught up with her quick enough.

She was eventually cited for negligence and handed down a fine and put on parole, so you can bet she won’t be holding up any signs any time soon at the Tour.

Unfortunately, with the Tour de France roads wide open, someone else will.