In cycling’s modern era, generational winners ruled over each decade since the 1960s to dominate grand tour racing.
With the sun setting on the Froome Era, who will step up to fill the void? There are plenty of candidates, from Primož Roglič to Egan Bernal, to Richard Carapaz to, Pogačar.
That question could be answered this season.
The 2021 “corsa rosa” boasts a solid start list that should deliver an exciting three weeks of racing. Though defending champion Tao Geoghegan Hart isn’t back, the presence of Bernal, Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali, Simon Yates, and Remco Evenepoel assure there will be plenty of reasons to tune in every day.
The Giro is never boring, right?
One of the many story lines worth following will be see to see if Bernal can bounce back, if Yates can finally deliver an elusive pink jersey, and just how far Evenepoel can go in his grand tour debut.
Stacked up behind them is a long line of riders looking to add their name to the list of grand tour winners.
Only 12 active riders have won grand tours
Climbing onto the top step as a grand tour winner immediately propels a rider into elite company.
Since the first Tour de France in 1903, followed by the inaugural Giro in 1909, and the first Vuelta in 1935, guess how many riders won at least one grand tour? The answer — 54.
Over the decades, riders from 20 different countries won at least one of the three-week races. The nation with the most wins is Italy, with 85, followed by France at 51, and Spain with 49.
If those numbers don’t add up, they’re a little skewed by disqualifications due to doping. Lance Armstrong’s seven Tours, for example, don’t show up on the official record. Yet other victories from admitted or confirmed dopers, such as Bjarne Riis, remain.
Looking at historical trends over the past 50 years or so, generational winners emerged in every decade since the 1960s to dominate grand tour racing. The first was Jacques Anquetil, the first to win five yellow jerseys. Following in his tracks were record-man Eddy Merckx in the 1970s, Bernard Hinault in the 1980s, and Miguel Indurain into the 1990s.
Bernard Hinault was known to everybody as “the badger” because of his reputation of not letting go of his prey after he’d grasped it. Just like he did to me, winning the Giro at his first attempt ➡ https://t.co/owVe9jPOK2
— Giro d'Italia (@giroditalia) April 7, 2021
If the Armstrong Era is blotted from the record books, Froome and the Sky/Ineos Grenadiers machine held court over the past decade.
That historical arc brings us to the 2021 grand tour racing season.
Will the narrative of a generational figure play out again, or is cycling entering a new era of relative parity?
If history repeats itself, cycling is in a transitional phase right now.
The sun is clearly setting on the Froome Era, and now the bunch seems to be jostling to see which rider will emerge as the next gravitational center of the sport.
In between every era, there are usually a few one-off or multiple winners who fill the space before the next big winner takes control.
For example, the 1980s saw winners like Greg LeMond, Pedro Delgado and Stephen Roche win before Indurain reeled off five straight. And then there were Tour winners Marco Pantani, Bjarne Riis, and Jan Ullrich before Armstrong. Now we are seeing Bernal, Pogačar and Roglič arm-wrestling to fill the void.
Right now, the peloton is in flux. There are several riders fighting for prominence.
Coming into the Giro, the peloton packs 12 active grand tour winners (13 with Tom Dumoulin, who is on hiatus). A few, like Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, and Alejandro Valverde, are at or near the tail-end of their careers, and may never win another grand tour. Perhaps Geraint Thomas and Fabio Aru are one-off winners.
Behind them, there is a gaggle of riders jostling for dominance.
Active grand tour winners
Chris Froome — 7: 4x Tour de France, 1x Giro d’Italia, 2x Vuelta a España
Vincenzo Nibali — 4: 1x Tour, 2x Giro, 1x Vuelta
Nairo Quintana – 2: 1x Giro, 1x Vuelta
Primož Roglič — 2: 2x Vuelta
Tadej Pogačar — 1: 1x Tour
Egan Bernal — 1: 1x Tour
Geraint Thomas — 1: 1x Tour
Tao Geoghegan Hart — 1: 1x Giro
Richard Carapaz — 1: 1x Giro
Simon Yates — 1: 1x Vuelta
Fabio Aru — 1: 1x Vuelta
Alejandro Valverde — 1:1x Vuelta
* Tom Dumoulin — 1: 1x Giro (on racing hiatus)
Arms race between the ‘super teams’
There’s a new twist — the “super team.”
The peloton is in a three-team arms race between Ineos Grenadiers, UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma.
All three pack the financial muscle, and the resources, depth and ambition to hold court. All three boast huge budgets that dwarf most of the other WorldTour teams, though Ineos Grenadiers stands apart, with its budget likely bigger than Jumbo-Visma’s and UAE’s combined.
All three also bring multiple potential winners, which is a new trend in this emerging era of “super teams.” Traditionally, a team would be built entirely around the ambitions of one stand-out rider, be it Armstrong, Froome or Indurain.
In a reflection of its financial clout, Ineos Grenadiers has four of the 12 active grand tour riders on its roster, or one-quarter of the proven winners, and that’s not counting riders primed to win grand tours or others who’ve already been on the podium. And the team brings multiple GC cards to play in every grand tour it starts. At the Giro, for example, Ineos Grenadiers lines up with Bernal, Pavel Sivakov and Dani Martínez all capable of hitting the final podium.
Jumbo-Visma boasts two grand tour winners with Roglič and Dumoulin (now on hiatus), but also packs George Bennett, Sepp Kuss, Steven Kruijswijk – and perhaps even Wout van Aert in the right scenario – as grand tour players. UAE is quickly emerging as a grand tour force, with Pogačar perhaps the most exciting rider since LeMond, along with budding talents like Brandon McNulty and Marc Hirschi.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for everyone else.
Of the remaining active grand tour winners that still have a lot of future upside, Simon Yates on Team BikeExchange is the only one not part of cycling’s “Big Three.” Other teams are doing what they can to develop talent, but managers grumble that it’s hard to fight against the unlimited budgets of their well-heeled rivals.
Which version of Egan Bernal will show up at the Giro?
The rider who blazed into the history books as Colombia's first Tour de France winner? Or is the Ineos star still hobbled by injury?
The Bernal enigma will be one of the top storylines this month:https://t.co/1bgVtoAF91
— VeloNews (@velonews) May 5, 2021
In many ways, Ineos Grenadiers has already changed the script.
It’s the team — not one singular rider — that wins.
Cycling’s richest team not only boasts four of the 12 active grand tour winners, but it’s also won the Tour de France with four different riders, with Wiggins, Froome, Thomas and Bernal. That achievement is unprecedented in cycling history.
Right now, only the Slovenian duo of Roglič and Pogačar stand defiantly in the way of the Ineos Grenadiers machine and the era of the “Super Teams.”
Check back every week on VeloNews.com for ‘The Stat Sheet’ and a breakdown of the numbers behind the biggest storylines in professional cycling.