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.
Here’s the second in 0ur three-part “21 for 2021” series, featuring “Superman” going sour, Belgians in a beef, and much more.
8: Tadej Pogačar’s history-making medley
JC: The world was well aware that Tadej Pogačar was no ordinary rider when he crushed Primož Roglič at the last in the 2020 Tour de France. But what he did this year elevated the 23-year-old into a whole new dimension.
A sprint win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège set in train a season of swaggering dominance in the WorldTour’s biggest races. His five-minute yellow jersey defense was the next highlight in a year that came to a fitting end with another marquee win at Il Lombardia.
Throw in another three stage-race wins and a spot at the top of the year-end UCI rankings, and little more needs to be said.
But Pogačar’s Liège-Tour-Lombardia triple does something more – the Slovenian’s exploits in 2021 made him the first rider since Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx to win two monuments and the Tour in one year. It’s an achievement that further reconfirms what we already knew – this guy is a once-in-a-generation talent.
Just to make his rivals a little more flustered, he was just doing it all for fun.
“I’ve heard a lot about making history today, but I don’t think about it. I just enjoy riding my bike,” Pogačar said after winning Lombardia.
“I just enjoy racing – one-week races, grand tours, and I love one-day races because they’re different, they’re exciting and interesting. I like this kind of racing.”
9: Ashton Lambie’s sub-four solo
BD: What does one do when Olympic aspirations are thwarted? For Ashton Lambie, part of the answer was: train like a mad monk in a Montana shed, and then set a world record and then win a world title.
Lambie, a pursuit specialist, was not in Tokyo this year because the Americans didn’t qualify for the team pursuit, and the individual pursuit is no longer in the Olympics.
So, he set himself a new goal: be the first man on earth to ride the 4km IP in under four minutes.
After training with a weight rack and a smart trainer in that Montana shed, Lambie flew to Mexico, where he had booked the appropriate UCI officials to witness his world-record attempt. And, he failed.
On his first of two days at the track, he came up short. He was devastated, but he returned the next day, and went 3:59.930.
Later in the year, he beat his own Goliath, too, in the form of world time trial champion Filippo Ganna, and won the world championship in the individual pursuit.
10: Miguel Ángel López goes ‘loco’ at the Vuelta a España
Read more: How Óscar Pereiro set the López trap
AH: This was the reach-for-the-popcorn moment of 2021.
Miguel Miguel Ángel López’s implosion that unfolded on live TV during the penultimate stage at the Vuelta a España was better than a plot in a Brazilian soap opera.
Everyone knew López has anger-management issues. Remember the time he slapped the cap off a fan’s head who knocked him off his bike back in that Giro? What we didn’t know is how far he would take things.
Up to the final hour of racing, things seemed to be going great inside the Movistar bus. López was hot off winning the Gamoniteiru stage and he and teammate Enric Mas were setting second and third in the virtual GC.
Then there was a split, and López was caught out on the wrong side. His blood started to boil, and the conspiracies started to grow in his mind. Then he did the unthinkable — he quit.
Colombian fans blame Movistar. Spanish fans point the finger at López. No matter who was at fault, the “Caso López” proved yet again that cycling delivers such delicious storylines that you cannot make this stuff up.
11: Gravel gets a (second) worlds
BD: Gravel Worlds has been a thing since 2010. It is a grassroots Nebraska race whose tongue-in-cheek name pokes gentle fun at the UCI. But this September, the UCI announced that there would be an actual UCI gravel world championships in 2022.
The initial details were sparse: a group of qualifier races would determine who could take the start at the UCI gravel worlds. And yes, rainbow jerseys would be awarded to the fastest man and woman.
As of December 30, those qualifier races have not been announced, nor has the location or date of the UCI gravel worlds.
This story will continue into 2022…
12: The men’s Belgian team makes a mess of worlds
SO’S: It should have been a euphoric day for the Belgian men’s squad and fans, but it turned into a nightmare on the streets of Leuven. There had been questions over whether the boys in blue would race with multiple leaders in option, but the answer was resounding support of Wout van Aert. The 27-year-old had been in dominating form in the weeks leading up to the race and Belgium was almost bubbling over with excitement about the possibility of a home world champion.
However, it all started to fall apart pretty quickly as ructions began to form within the team and the plan all but went out of the proverbial window. The race exploded very early on, with Remco Evenepoel one of the key players in lighting the touch paper. By the time it all played out, Evenepoel was out the back of the group and van Aert was on his hands and knees.
Van Aert ultimately had no response when Julian Alaphilippe stormed away for his second world title and Leuven hero Jasper Stuyven could only manage fourth. Discussions about what went down continue until this day and they’re unlikely to die down anytime soon.
13: Peter Sagan’s switch to TotalEnergies
JC: Superstar showman Peter Sagan is always full of surprises. His decision to saddle up with Team TotalEnergies was sure one of them.
Sagan signed a two-year deal with the French team that put to bed a rollercoaster five years at Bora-Hansgrohe.
The Slovak flew high early on with the German squad, bringing the team a rainbow jersey, Paris-Roubaix trophy and one heck of a lot more before COVID, illnesses and injuries saw him off-key in recent seasons.
TotalEnergies invested big in bagging the 31-year-old, bringing not just Sagan, but his whole crew of staffers and wingmen to the long-running team.
With long-time partners Specialized Bikes and Sportful apparel also joining Sagan for the ride at TotalEnergies, the team will be bigger and badder than before as it eyes invites to the biggest races and its own slot in the WorldTour in 2023.
Will a new environment rekindle Sagan’s mojo? And will it propel his team to the top-tier of racing?
Whether Sagan thrives or falters will be the story that just keeps giving next year. Expect wheelies, whacky interviews – and maybe some big wins.
14: Sepp Kuss and his high-flying season
Read more: An oral history of Kuss’s tremendous rise
AH: Sepp Kuss and his climbing legs just keep getting better with age.
In 2020, Sepp Kuss made his Tour de France debut, proving he deserved to be on cycling’s biggest stage with superb riding in the Alps.
In 2021, he consecrated his place among the best American cyclists with a dramatic stage victory on the roads of Andorra.
The last U.S. rider to win a Tour stage was in 2011 with sprinter Tyler Farrar, who is now working as a firefighter in Washington state. Since then, there’s been close calls, a pair of top-5’s with Tejay van Garderen, and some thrilling breakaways, but no stage wins.
The Durango Kid then backed it up with a career-first top-10 in a grand tour with eighth overall at the Vuelta a España. That was good for the first top-10 by a U.S. rider in the Vuelta since Tejay van Garderen was 10th in 2017.
For this natural climber from Colorado, the sky is the limit.