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How optimistic should the peloton be about racing in 2021?

Will the 2021 season see a return to normality? Or will the peloton continue to see disruption? We look at both sides of the argument.

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Cycling deserves a collective pat on the back for 2020.

Despite the monumental odds presented by the coronavirus pandemic, the sport delivered on most of its major WorldTour events on the men’s side, including the Tour de France, as well as several key races, such as the world champions and the Giro Rosa, on the women’s side.

The TV ratings were through the roof, and despite a few hiccups along the way, the abridged 2020 racing season went better than anyone could have imagined during the dark days of lockdown and quarantines last spring.

So what should the peloton expect in 2021?

The looming racing season could go either way. Health conditions in Europe now are as bad as they were in the spring, and look likely to get worse before they improve. At the same time, there’s progress being made on a possible vaccine that could put the entire COVID-19 business into the rear-view mirror.

So what will it be? Race or no race?

Jim Cotton: Yes, I am optimistic about the 2021 racing season …

The Vuelta made it through 18 stages despite deteriorating conditions in Spain. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

I remain hopeful that there will be racing through 2021, though how it will look, who knows?

While we will likely see racing from February through October, smaller races may fall by the wayside due to financial complications, as has already been seen with the Tour de Yorkshire, and events outside Europe may suffer due to travel restrictions – in the way that the Australian races already have. And as is the case with Tour Down Under, Herald Sun Tour, and Yorkshire, events will simply postpone for 12 months rather than push back to fall 2021.

Imagine a slightly lean and patchy version of a typical season in 2021, not the radically-redesigned oddity of 2020.

Cancelations aside, I’m optimistic we will still see plenty of racing through the year.

The past three months of men’s, women’s WorldTour and lower-tier racing proved that cycling is flexible and resilient and that stakeholders are willing to go all-in to adapt to make the races work.

Who’d have predicted back in August that we’d see three successfully completed grand tours in 2020? The only races forced to cancel at short notice were Amstel Gold and Paris-Roubaix. Losing just two days in 14 weeks is a major victory if you ask me. Sure, the Giro was on precarious ground for a little while and was far from being a model of how to run a COVID-era race, but weeks later, the Vuelta a España ran through its 18 planned stages as the virus kicked back hard through Spain.

The 2020 season was a huge learning curve for race organizers, teams, and riders regarding how to race in the middle of a pandemic. The “bubbles” concept and testing controls imposed before and during races proved an unparalleled success, with infection being caught early before it ran amok through the peloton. You can be sure that the UCI, ASO, RCS Sport, and team heads are looking at what worked and what didn’t this year, and 2021 will see an improvement of all aspects of all the anti-COVID measures we saw this season.

We will see racing next year, just don’t expect to see a 100 percent complete calendar, and don’t expect to watch the remaining races at the side of the road.

Andrew Hood: No, I think the peloton will continue to see disruptions …

The Australian summer of cycling has already shut down. Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Next season will see a repeat of 2020, and perhaps could be even a touch worse.

Why? First off, COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. And despite the hope of some vaccines coming on board, professional cycling won’t be on the priority list for any national health organizations. Barring a dramatic change, the peloton will have to brace for the same pandemic restrictions as we saw in 2020 going into next season.

Another big difference for 2021 will be the early season races. At least in 2020, the pandemic didn’t swamp the peloton until a few months into the calendar, and the sport pedaled into mid-March before everything shut down.

Going into 2021, we’re already seeing a wave of early season race cancelations and disruptions. The Australian WorldTour openers at the Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race as well as the Herald Sun Tour are already on ice. It’s likely that other early season races in South America and the Middle East will be impacted as well.

The pandemic will also put the pinch on travel plans for the once-roaming professional teams. The elite men’s and women’s pelotons are among the most international sporting groups in the world, but much of the racing in 2021 will largely be restricted to Europe.

A few races might go off in the Americas or elsewhere, but travel restrictions will mean that teams will be wary of sending their stars abroad if there is a risk of quarantines or being stranded overseas for weeks on end.

And there’s no guarantee that things will be race-ready by February and March for the European season openers or pre-season training camps. Right now, Europe is on the verge of another major lockdown, and if quarantine conditions are reintroduced it could last months.

The economic impacts of the pandemic are sure to spill over into 2021. We are already hearing reports from smaller race organizations across Europe about a lack of financial backing from corporate and government sponsors. The Tour of Yorkshire already called quits on 2021, and there could be many more.

Grim? Yes, but that’s the new reality. Cycling in 2020 proved that races can be contested with relatively low risk on the peloton or the larger public, but that came with a price of banning fans, limiting media access, and imposing a strict “bubble” over the entire race entourage.

So expect disruptions and improvisation for 2021. Unfortunately, it’s going to be Groundhog Day for at least another racing season, if not more.