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No one’s going to put 2020 at the top of their list when it comes to their favorite years.
Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, in an odd and sometimes inspiring way, did produce some of the most indelible moments in cycling history. In fact, the abridged, altered, and jumbled up 2020 racing calendar delivered some of the most thrilling racing days we’ve seen in a long time.
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From the topsy-turvy Tour de France, to the eery face-off between Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel in a Tour of Flanders held “behind closed doors,” and a world championship double by Anna van der Breggen, the 2020 season consistently delivered beyond expectations.
Despite the gloom and doom predicted by some, the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic often produced the exact opposite. Time and again across 2020, cycling transcended a world in crisis. In its most dire hour, the sport’s key stakeholders pulled off the wholly unexpected.
Here are my five standout moments in 2020:
Plateau de Belles-Filles — Tour de France
Who outside the UAE-Emirates bus saw that one coming? After Jumbo-Visma neutralized Tadej Pogačar on the decisive Col de la Loze climb in the French Alps, I thought the yellow jersey was a lock for Primož Roglič. All he had to do was finish it off, right? How delightfully wrong we were.
In what was already a pretty exciting Tour, the penultimate stage delivered a once-in-a-generation comeback on par with Greg LeMond’s reversal of fortunes against Laurent Fignon in 1989. Everyone was left in a collective state of disbelief (especially for Wout van Aert and Tom Dumoulin waiting at the top). Pogačar’s riposte underlined what turned out to be a very exciting and wonderfully unpredictable racing season.
Across men’s and women’s racing, there was more parity, more challengers, and newer faces elbowing into the frame.
Of course, nothing comes for free in cycling, and UAE-Emirates did their homework ahead of the Belles Filles time trial. The team had previewed the climb several times, including scouting trips in July and August. Sport director Allan Peiper dissected the route, and even put a junior-racing cassette on Pogačar’s climbing bike so he could smoothly switch gears while maintaining a high cadence on the steepest part of the course.
On the morning of the stage, the team rented a local apartment so Pogačar could stay calm and avoid the nerves at the start until the last minute. Pogačar also skipped previewing the route a final time on the morning before the stage because the team already felt they had it dialed. That all meant fewer nerves, and fresher legs.
Pogačar’s winning ride was a surprise to everyone, except possibly Pogačar. On the morning before the time trial, a team mechanic was building out a bike for Pogačar to race on during Sunday’s finale down the Champs-Élysées, and was decking it out with white handlebar tape — in honor of the best young rider’s jersey — and Pogačar popped his head out of the team bus and joked, “What, you don’t think I can win?”
Needless to say, that mechanic had some extra work that night to swap out white for yellow ahead of Sunday’s parade in Paris.
TV shots seen around the globe — world championships
The world championships seemed doomed when Switzerland canceled the event just weeks before. Credit is due to the UCI for pulling off a final-hour “save” to honor the rainbow jersey (as well as save one of the governing body’s top earners each year). Even though it featured only elite men’s and women’s racing — juniors and U23 events were not held — the action was impressive as it was compact.
Anna van der Breggen delivering the double capped her prolific career and earned her well-deserved kudos across the peloton (include VeloNews’ International Rider of the Year award). Julian Alaphilippe’s searing winning attack was also merited, not only for his eternal attacking style, but also for what it represented in today’s highly calibrated, yet ever-more-engaging style of racing. The overall level is higher across the peloton, meaning that riders seem more willing and capable to throw haymakers to blow up the race.
The indelible moment of the worlds came with the perfectly executed TV images during the time trial, with riders slicing across a ridgeline with a helicopter flying alongside to frame the shot. Cycling’s stadium is unmatched in world sport, and those TV images were worth their weight in digital gold.
And having the worlds immediately following the Tour de France? I’ve always supported the calendar the way it’s been restructured, with the worlds slotting in after the Vuelta a España, but the success of the post-Tour words is one that could be readdressed going forward. Seeing the top Tour stars in top form battling for the rainbow jersey was nothing short of spectacular.
COVID mitigation and the Vuelta a Burgos
Like many, I was pretty skeptical about the idea of racing during a world pandemic. But yet again, credit is due to the UCI, the cadre of team doctors, and all the other stakeholders who worked behind the scenes under great pressure to deliver cycling’s “race bubble” concept. While far from perfect, the measures allowed racing to return in August, and the reshuffled calendar went off better than most expected. Myself included.
I went to the Vuelta a Burgos to see firsthand how the “COVID bubble” might work. Organizers and teams had to foot the bill — which added up to millions during the course of the rejigged calendar — but they pulled it off.
Fans were kept at bay, the media rabble corralled inside boxes, and riders socially distanced themselves from everyone except their COVID-cleared teammates and staffers.
Sure, it wasn’t without some glitches. Teams and riders let their frustration and anger spill out into public view on a few pointed occasions, but overall, especially when the expert-prescribed mitigation steps were followed, it worked.
The importance of seeing the majority of the 2020 calendar’s major races to be contested cannot be understated. A few women’s and men’s teams couldn’t survive, but the majority of the international peloton did. All but a handful of riders have found contracts for next season, and it’s the “race bubble” concept that will help salvage 2021 as well.
The big question is, how sustainable is racing in this fan-free, locked-down COVID era? Some are already hinting that if things do not return to normal by 2022, the sport could be permanently transformed, and not for the better.
Gen Z taking over – Giro d’Italia
The upper reaches of Passo dello Stelvio was one of many standout moments in what was an exceptional stage-race season across the men’s and women’s calendars. From van der Breggen’s dominance of the Corsa Rosa, to the down-to-the-wire tautness of the Vuelta a España, just about every stage race in 2020 delivered on all the key talking points.
No singular race day in 2020 better represented the shifting tide of the elite men’s peloton than the decisive mountain stage over the Stelvio. It’s on the storied flanks of the Italian pass where eventual winner Tao Geoghegan Hart made his pivotal surge toward the pink jersey.
In what I thought would be veteran’s last stand against Generation Z, the Giro turned out to be a coronation for tomorrow’s stars. João Almeida, Brandon McNulty, and Jai Hindley all provided glimpses of who the future grand tours winners will be. The radical makeover of the racing season and the atypical approach to 2020 seemed to tilt in favor of youth over veterans, perhaps permanently so.
The days of Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fulgsang might not be over yet, but it will be surprising to see anyone older than the much-hyped “Generation of 1990” winning many grand tours going forward.
Strade Bianche and a monumental season
No race captures the modern imagination better than Strade Bianche. Already considered the “sixth” monument, and with reason, this year’s edition packed more drama than a Brazilian soap opera.
The race was the opener in the new-look WorldTour calendar, and nerves were running raw. With so much on the line, riders delivered dazzling performances across the women’s and men’s races. And with the heat and dust of August adding extra dramatic layers of pain, the peloton stepped up in a way that lifted the entire sport.
No one wants to see a repeat of 2020 and its COVID calendar, but the season consistently delivered one action-packed moment after another. The collective price paid by a larger world in the grips of an unprecedented pandemic is beyond measure. In that horrid context, cycling did serve as both an example and as a diversion that also reconfirmed the best qualities of the sport.
If there are lessons to be taken out of 2020, it’s that if the stakeholders do their job and get out of the way, the stars of the peloton can shine even brighter.
Here’s hoping 2021 is just as exciting as this past season we reveled in, and with the coronavirus disappearing into the rear-view mirror.