The 2021 cycling season was a headline writer’s dream.
From against-the-odds comebacks and history-making firsts to crashes and crushing disappointments, this year brought both the good and the bad.
But which five things from 2021 will last the test of time and be remembered for years to come? Here’s our pick of the marquee moments of the men’s and women’s season, and their significance for the future:
Crashes: Trauma at the Tour de France
Any racer that made it through this year’s Tour de France without tasting the tarmac will have counted themselves lucky.
Crashes and chaos cast a shadow over this year’s Tour and made a major impact on the way the race played out.
Dozens of riders were wiped out by a Opi-Omi sign-wielding spectator on day one. Primož Roglič, Geraint Thomas and Jack Haig all saw their races come unstuck in the week that followed as the field of unharmed GC hopefuls slowly dwindled.
Roglič and Haig’s abandons and Thomas’ injuries opened the door for the already dominant Tadej Pogačar to run riot, and the race for yellow was over by the third week. The Slovenian’s crushing success reinforced him as the world’s best and cranked his confident cool to 11.
The carnage of the Tour’s opening week did more than just allow Pogačar to rubber-stamp his own superiority. The mayhem put the high-stakes, all-or-nothing necessity of the Tour into stark view.
Riders fought for every inch of road in a race that means multiple times more for sponsors, contract negotiations and personal kudos than any other. The readiness of riders like Thomas to fight on for days after injury just to see out the world’s biggest race illustrates the Tour’s overwhelming influence on every aspect of the pro peloton.
Cobblestones: Tour de France Femmes marks massive steppingstone
Women’s racing changed forever the moment that Lizzie Deignan led the bunch onto the first cobblestone sector of Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
After 117 editions of the iconic men’s race, the Women’s WorldTour saw its first ‘Hell of the North’ this fall. It marked what could be the first in a series of stepping stones toward something approaching equality and parity in the sport.
The ASO-run event made for an appetizer for a 2022 season that will see both the second-ever women’s Roubaix and the inaugural Tour de France Femmes. Next summer’s eight-stage Tour promises all the things that the Giro Rosa and the Women’s Tour has long struggled with – including increased coverage and prize monies – and signifies a whole lot more besides.
The coming years will see Education First adding its heft to Team Tibco-SVB and the big-money backers behind UAE Emirates bringing weight to Team Alé BTC. Returning or all-new races from Britain (Ride London Classique) through Switzerland (Tour de Romandie Féminin) are appearing on the calendar.
Team structures are improving and the women’s calendar is growing. Paris-Roubaix Femmes was the first cobblestone step toward a bigger, better future for women’s racing.
Comebacks: Cavendish, Jakobsen return to grand tour greatness
Mark Cavendish thought his career might be finished when he walked through the mixed zone at Gent Wevelgem last October.
Many in the wider world may have agreed. The former supersprinter was two and a half years without a win and looked a long way from returning to the winner’s circle.
Nine months later, Cavendish had won four Tour de France stages, claimed his second green jersey, and leveled up with Eddy Merckx’s haul of 34 Tour victories. It was the comeback of all comebacks, a triumph-over-adversity story that made headlines in mass media worldwide.
The Deceuninck-Quick-Step fairy story wasn’t finished in Paris. A few weeks later, Fabio Jakobsen scored a hat-trick at the Vuelta a España that confirmed his comeback from life-threatening injuries and reminded the world that the young Dutchman is one of the fastest in the peloton.
At just 25-years-old and with a two-year deal in his pocket, Jakobsen could be the sprinter to beat for years to come.
Cavendish is 36 and so his comeback may not have as long a fuse, but no matter what the future holds for both him and Jakobsen, their respective returns to the top of the sport showed that tenacity and talent can triumph in the data-driven science of modern cycling.
Cash: UAE Team Emirates crushes the transfer season
Tadej Pogačar had barely finished hanging his second Tour de France yellow jersey in his wardrobe when UAE Emirates started spending big this off-season.
First, the Slovenian supertalent extended his contract through 2027. In the weeks that followed, the Emirati outfit splashed big cash to bring GC contender João Almeida to the team on a long-term deal, and top climbers George Bennett and Marc Soler were also signed for multi-year contracts.
And away from the mountains, the team will be looking to new recruits Pascal Ackermann and Alvaro Hodeg to score in the sprints.
With young talents Juan Ayuso and Finn Fisher-Black also on board and star riders Marc Hirschi, Brandon McNulty and David Formolo on the books, UAE Emirates turned an already impressive roster into a superteam in the space of just a few months.
UAE Emirates’ off-season spending spree will totally reshape the peloton in 2022 and beyond. Pogačar’s grip on grand tour racing will tighten with the help of a stellar cast of support riders, and the team will have GC options all-year-round.
Step aside Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers. There’s a new chief in town.
Courage amid confusion: Van Vleuten’s Olympic rollercoaster
The Dutch women’s team painted the roads orange at this year’s Tokyo Olympic road race. But it was one lonely Austrian rider that tasted gold.
Anna Kiesenhofer’s against-all-odds Olympic victory and the communication chaos that played out in the Dutch team behind her will live long in the memory. The Austrian survived from the break and flew under the Dutch radar to score a beyond-belief victory that left Annemiek van Vleuten celebrating a “win” that never was.
The Olympic upset made for a stark reminder that van Vleuten, Marianne Vos, Demi Vollering and the now-retired Anna van der Breggen won’t always have their own way in the mass of unpredictables of pro racing. And it all happened again when the Dutch team fell into disarray at the Leuven world championships and Elisa Balsamo scored rainbows.
Van Vleuten was able to rise above her Tokyo road race miscue, however.
She won time trial gold just three days after crossing the line second in the road race and went on to amass two GC wins and a victory at Donostía San Sebastián in the months that followed. The 39-year-old demonstrated that Dutch disarray and disaster won’t stop her reigning supreme with her Movistar trade team in what was an unstoppable late-season blitz.
Van Vleuten ended her season with a fractured pelvis after a crash at Paris-Roubaix, but 2021 proved that “AVV” still has the mental and physical grit to keep crushing for years to come. Van Vleuten is a resolute outlier in a sport coming to be dominated by Gen-Z newcomers.