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How cycling’s unconventional COVID-19 season stacks up statistically

We take a deep dive into the numbers from the unprecedented 2020 racing season.

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The 2020 pro cycling season was one unlike any other seen in elite professional racing.

Races and events were canceled worldwide as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe. The Olympic Games were postponed until 2021, and racing was disrupted on a scale only matched by world wars.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Cycling’s key stakeholders managed to salvage much of the European racing season, pulling off the three grand tours, many of the important one-day classics, and a world championships for elite pros.

Thanks to the data shared on ProCyclingStats.com, it’s possible to glean some telling statistics from what was an unprecedented racing season.

Who raced the most days in 2020 on the men’s side? Spain’s Pello Bilbao (Astana), with 71. Compared to a normal year, however, that’s on the low side of an average haul for a typical WorldTour pro.

One of the most durable pros in the men’s peloton, in terms of day-in, day-out production, is Spanish veteran Luís León Sánchez (Astana), who raced 95 days in 2019. Spain’s “Luisle” still managed to race 68 days in 2020, and he began his season at the Santos Tour Down Under and raced 18 days before the lockdown took grip in March.

The women’s road calendar was also greatly reduced. Double world champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) was typical. She raced 26 days in 2020, compared to 40 the previous season. Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) raced only 17 days in 2020, compared to 44 in 2019.

Marianne Vos took a third stage win on the 6th day of 2020 Giro Rosa. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic caused other disruptions as well throughout the season besides postponements and cancelations. Vos’s team, CCC-Liv, pulled out of some Spanish races early in the season reboot when the team felt uneasy about health protocols.

Riders fell ill or tested positive for COVID-19, leading to forced quarantines and race stoppages. Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates) was actually twice diagnosed with COVID-19, and spent weeks in a hospital room in February and March after the UAE Tour was canceled as the pandemic first started to reach globally. Gaviria still managed to race 51 days, and won five races in 2020.

Who raced the least in 2020? EF Pro Cycling’s Alex Howes, who posted all of four days in 2020 on the road. He started four, and finished one, with La Flèche Wallonne in October. The reigning U.S. national road champ kept busy with an “alternative” calendar that also included other races and informal events when they were available.

In fact, finding race days was one of the hardest challenges of 2020. Much of the booming gravel scene in North America was largely canceled this summer. The 2020 Olympic Games, the centerpiece of many racers’ calendars, was rescheduled for July 2021, and there is still a question on whether or not they will go off next year as hoped.

Even more devastating in 2020 were the junior and U23 ranks, which saw almost no racing in the post-lockdown period last summer and fall. The cancelation of the junior and U23 worlds was another major blow for riders pinning hopes of a future pro career on a breakout 2020 season in the development ranks.

Several teams across all categories suffered during the pandemic. CCC Team shuttered, while several other teams were forced to reduce salaries and lay off staffers. Continental and ProTeam squads also struggled to find race days for their riders, and each category saw a significant reduction in their calendars.

According to ProCyclingStats, WorldTour race days were reduced by nearly 60 percent in 2020. That resulted in fewer race days for teams across the WorldTour, dropping from 252 race days per team in 2019 to 167 in 2020.

As a result, many top pros saw their respective race calendars dramatically reduced due to the lockdown. Michał Kwiatkowski, one of Ineos Grenadiers’ workhorses, clocked 91 race days in 2018. This year? Almost half that day with 46.

Dutch superstar Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) was expected to have a breakout season in 2020, capped by what he hoped would have been an Olympic gold medal in mountain biking. Like everyone else, van der Poel had to adjust his calendar and still managed to squeeze in 30 race days in 2020 (about the same as 2019), a tally underscored by a one-on-one battle to the line against perennial rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) in the Tour of Flanders in October.

Van der Poel pipped Van Aert in the sprint finish at the Tour of Flanders. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Some things didn’t change.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step kept its grip as the most winning team in the men’s WorldTour, with 39 victories in 2020. That’s less than the 73 wins in 2018 and 68 in 2019 when racing on a full, international calendar, but still more than nearest 2020 rival Jumbo-Visma, with 33 wins.

Racing, when it did happen, was thrilling and unpredictable. The collective winning differences across all three grand tours was the smallest in more than a decade, an indicator of just how competitive and unpredictable the action really was. The Tour de France saw a final-hour reversal of fortunes that some compared to Greg LeMond’s final-day victory in the 1989 Tour.

Right now, the sport is holding its collective breath going into 2021.

Except for the early season races in Australia, the entire WorldTour calendars for men’s and women’s peloton remain on their traditional dates for next season. Officials are hopeful that lessons learned in 2020, including the application of a “race bubble” and racing with limited fan and media access, will allow racing to resume on historical dates if the underlying health conditions allow.

The pandemic is already reaching into next season, however, with the WorldTour openers at the Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race canceled for 2021.

Other early season races, however, are expected to see banner participation. It remains unconfirmed if winter races in South America and the Middle East will continue as scheduled, yet events in Spain and France, from the Ruta del Sol to the Tour de la Provence, are seeing record interest in their races from teams and stars.

Cycling deserves credit for pivoting in 2020, and making the most of what many hope is a one-off scenario. With better treatments and vaccines on the horizon, cycling’s stakeholders are hopeful that 2021 will see fewer disruptions, and that by 2022, the sport can return to a semblance of its pre-pandemic reality.

With revenue streams reduced or cut off entirely, one major race organizer said the sport cannot endure more seasons like 2020.