From the moment race organizers pulled the plug on Paris-Nice with one stage to go as coronavirus clawed at the world of pro cycling, 2020 was destined to be a season unlike any other.
Six months later, the season was back in full swing, but the mayhem didn’t stop there.
From August through November, pro cycling saw a series of some of the most unimaginable racing moments playing out across Europe. The shocking turnaround in the final stage of the Tour de France, the surreal sprint finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the dead heat between two dark horses after stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia were all as unprecedented as the 2020 season as a whole.
Yet there’s more to those moments than the unheralded headlines. Here’s how the season’s three strangest moments symbolize the season as a whole.
Tadej Pogačar overthrows Primož Roglič at the Tour de France
The Tour de France did not play out according to the script we’ve grown used to.
After years of Team Sky/Ineos steamrollering its way to the yellow jersey, this summer’s race saw a different type of yellow at the front of our screens as Jumbo-Visma bullied the action. But it was neither a Jumbo-Visma nor an Ineos Grenadiers rider that was the winner in Paris.
Tadej Pogačar played joker in the pack at this year’s Tour, reversing the odds with a time trial that will go down in the history books. At the time just 21 years old, the youngster bettered his Slovenian rival Primož Roglič by nearly two minutes on Planches des Belles Filles, turning a near-one minute deficit to a one minute victory.
Almost no one expected it, whether inside or outside the peloton. Fans watched with shock and awe, while Jumbo-Visma riders gazed in disbelief as Roglič saw the Tour slip out of his grasp.
It was a crazy end to a madcap Tour, yet an entirely fitting one. The race rolled out of Nice one month late, and with no one there to watch. Riders were taking to the podium in face masks. Major mountaintop battles played out devoid of spectators. It made for a preview of the racing for the next three months as COVID pulled the curtain on racing as we know it.
Nothing about this year’s Tour was normal, and the way the race was won was even more jaw-dropping.
Maybe we should have been expecting the unexpected when Pogačar blitzed out of the start gate on the day of the Tour’s historic 20th stage.
Julian Alaphilippe throws it away at Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Julian Alaphilippe was all set to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, his first race wearing the rainbow jersey.
Until he didn’t.
The flamboyant Frenchman sat up to celebrate too early, and as he lost momentum from his sprint, Roglič came under his elbow to snatch the win. As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, Alaphilippe’s madcap sprint also saw him relegated from second to fifth having come across Marc Hirschi‘s wheel in the closing acceleration.
Alaphilippe went from ecstasy to agony in a matter of seconds.
Just like Alaphilippe thought he was going to step to the top of the podium in downtown Liège, 2020 was a year where nothing could be taken for granted. Back in January, who thought they’d be dual-screen viewing as they watched both Liège and the second stage of the Giro d’Italia on the same day …. in October?!?
On top of that, the quintet that rolled into the final straight of the race made for a symbol of the season as a whole. Other than the absence of rider of the year Wout van Aert, Roglič, Pogačar, Alaphilippe, Hirschi, and Matej Mohorič neatly encapsulated the previous months of racing.
Alaphilippe stole his nation’s hearts with his spell in the yellow jersey and by being crowned the first French world champ since Laurent Brochard in 1997. Hirschi emerged as one of the most exciting young talents in the WorldTour, a new rival to the Alaphilippe’s crown of puncheur de luxe, while his Sunweb team brought a whole new dynamic to the Tour de France.
Rog and Pog? There’s almost no explanation required. One of them won the biggest race of the season, the other was the most prolific rider of the year.
Mohorič is an obvious outlier in Liège’s top-5, but his presence made it a 60 percent Slovenian front group, and that tells its own tale. Slovenia has the two top-ranked cyclists in the WorldTour. It’s got a population of 2 million, boasts none of the long cycling history of the likes of cycling powerhouses Belgium, France, or Italy, and while one of its stars used to jump off of ski ramps, the other is the youngest Tour champion of the post-WWII era.
Pro cycling of 2020 – and the years to come – is a long, long way from the pro cycling of times as recent as 10 years ago.
Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart draw level at the Giro d’Italia
Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart weren’t on anyone’s list of top contenders for the Giro d’Italia before the race rolled out of Sicily. The young duo wasn’t even at the top of their team’s start list.
Some 20 stages later, the two dark horses were dead level on time. After 85 hours, 22 minutes, and seven seconds of racing, there was nothing between them.
Hindley’s Team Sunweb leader Wilco Kelderman was 92 seconds back. Geoghegan Hart’s pre-race captain Geraint Thomas was all the way back in Wales with a fractured pelvis. Top contenders from Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma had left as COVID-19 ravaged the race bubble.
The storyline of the Giro d’Italia’s GC battle played out under the shadow of the coronavirus as Steven Kruijswijk and Simon Yates retired and young stars such as Hindley, Geoghegan Hart, and João Almeida stepped up.
The whole season was defined by the pandemic, and the closing battle in Italy between two unlikely stars arguably was the result of that. Would the young Aussie and Brit have been one-two if Thomas, Yates, and Kruijswijk were still around? Who knows.
And when has a grand tour last been dead level with just one stage to go? It was yet another huge improbability in a Giro that ran five months late, battled a raging pandemic, saw riders organize a pre-stage protest to safeguard their health, and lost three of its five main contenders in the opening 10 days.
It doesn’t get much more 2020 than that.