With a turbulent, stop-start 2020 behind us, it's time to look ahead to what's in store for the rapidly approaching 2021 season.
Several races at the start of the season have already been disrupted by the ongoing pandemic, but teams and race organisers will be buoyed by the way in which the sport put on almost every major race in a rescheduled 2020.
There's plenty to look forward to, and here we make several predictions for what will happen across men's and women's cycling in 2021.
Van der Poel-Van Aert rivalry will offer openings for others
The signs of this generation-defining rivalry are nothing new. Both riders were forces to be reckoned with in 2020 during the rescheduled spring Classics, with Wout van Aert winning Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, while Mathieu van der Poel triumphed in the Tour of Flanders in a close-fought battle between the two.
With both riders 26 or under, the stage looks set for their intertwining stories to play out for years to come, but to assume that both riders will simply run away with the Classics and divide up Monuments between them does a huge disservice to the rest of the Classics stars in the peloton.
Mads Pedersen showcased his talent and tactical genius with a win over both riders in Gent-Wevelgem, while Peter Sagan is not the washed-up rider in the Classics that many have already predicted. Add into the mix a French world champion, a super-charged AG2R Citroën Team, UAE Team Emirates’ all-round progression, and the return of Remco Evenepoel, and 2021 becomes a mouth-watering prospect.
Bernal will bounce back
The 2021 Tour de France route does him few favours, and both UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma have both strengthened their core, but Egan Bernal remains a major force in stage racing and a top favourite for the maillot jaune.
Some legitimate question marks will hang over the Ineos Grenadiers rider until he returns to Europe and starts racing – such as whether his back has healed and whether any possible lockdown leaves him as disorientated as 2020 did - but it’s easy to forget just how good the young man was in 2019. That season he won Paris-Nice at a canter, put more than three minutes into all but one rider at the Tour de Suisse, and then proved that he was the most durable and complete climber at the Tour.
Last year, his raw talent papered over the cracks and he was ultimately found wanting by fitter and healthier rivals, but if he can recover and build a solid base – and Bernal's recent training exploits suggest he can – then Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, and the rest of the Tour contenders need to very wary of the young Colombian with a point to prove.
Gaudu will leapfrog Pinot
Fan favourite Thibaut Pinot has yet to confirm his complete schedule for the 2021 season but his position as Groupama-FDJ’s go-to guy for team leadership at the Tour de France could be over given the continued emergence of David Gaudu.
The young Frenchman had a breakthrough Vuelta a España, with two mountain stage wins and eighth overall, while Pinot once more flattered to deceive at the Tour with his second abandon in two years.
This isn’t to say that Gaudu will all of a sudden find himself competing for a Tour podium in 2021, and it might even benefit him to have Pinot – a close ally and friend – with him at the Tour de France as they share the pressure and demands of three-week racing. But, at 24, the former Tour de l’Avenir winner represents the future for FDJ.
Marc Madiot’s best move might be to send Pinot to the Giro and let him revert to a super-domestique duty in July, while also making space for Arnaud Démare in the Tour team in order to spread responsibility and ensure that Gaudu feels like the world isn’t resting on his shoulders. He is ready and he has earned his chance.
A transition year at Intermarché-Wanty but the team will struggle
The level of expectancy on the Intermarché-Wanty Gobert team is low after they bought out the company that held CCC’s WorldTour license, and while they’ve strengthened their roster in order to cope with Grand Tours' demands, a number of the new recruits look like filler.
Jan Hirt, Louis Meintjes, and Rein Taaramäe are all experienced and certainly add depth for a team that finds itself from racing zero Grand Tours in 2020 to three this season, but where are the wins going to come from?
Danny Van Poppel is strong and consistent but seven wins in four seasons isn't a lot, and while Georg Zimmermann and some of the other younger riders have shown promise, there’s not enough to suggest that this team is going to win regularly on the biggest stage.
If Meintjes can find any of the form that saw him finish in the top 10 at the Tour and the Vuelta that will certainly help, but after such a dry spell that’s a big ask.
Evenepoel will hit the ground running
By all accounts, Remco Evenepoel is well on his way to returning to his best form after the horrific crash that ended his season in Il Lombardia, and for the second year running the young Belgian could go on a winning spree during the stage races that pepper the opening months of the season.
In 2020 he won the Vuelta a San Luis and the Volta ao Algarve before the pandemic intervened but his return to racing in August saw him take the Vuelta a Burgos and Tour de Polonge in quick succession.
He’s one of the most complete one-week racers in the WorldTour, and while predicting his Grand Tour future at this point is somewhat harder, there should be doubt that if he’s fully recovered by the time the season starts then he has the potential to clean up from February until May.
Any progress made over diversity can be quickly undone
In 2020 the sport began to ask itself vital questions around diversity – or lack of it – both within cycling’s professional ranks and the surrounding media coverage. As a prediction, it’s safe to say that unless those questions and topics are not kept at the forefront of peoples’ minds then any of the ground that the sport made in the last 12 months will be quickly lost and seen as tokenistic.
Such a prediction should act as a timely reminder that coverage of riders from BAME backgrounds needs to be established as the norm and that every team, media outlet, and brand has the responsibility to help.
Best season yet for women's racing
A few years ago, the best women’s riders were clustered together on just a handful of teams but it’s all changed in 2021 with greater depth and spread across the peloton.
Marianne Vos has joined the new Jumbo-Visma team, Annemiek van Vlueten has signed a one-year deal at Movistar, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio has switched to SD Worx, and the likes of Trek-Segafredo, Canyon-SRAM, and Team DSM have all strengthened in different areas.
The transfer movement at certain teams also opens doors for new stars to shine, like Grace Brown at BikeExchange, Mikayla Harvey at Canyon-SRAM, and Lizzie Banks at Ceratizit-WNT.
With a stronger WorldTour this could well be the most exciting year for women’s cycling in a long time.
Van der Breggen will set the standard
While there’s certainly more depth to women’s cycling, the rider who remains at the top of her game and the favourite for every single race she enters is the double world champion, Anna van der Breggen.
She was the luminary of 2020 across men’s and women’s cycling, winning two rainbow jerseys, La Flèche Wallonne, the Giro Rosa, and European and national titles. The Dutch champion was simply unstoppable at points. At 30, she is planning on retiring at the end of the season but it’s unlikely that the SD Worx rider will let her standards drop with the Olympic Games on the horizon.
The opposition that she will face has undoubtedly improved (see the above prediction) but Van der Breggen will continue to set the standard in women’s cycling for as long as she chooses.
Uttrup Ludwig, Longo Borghini, Brown will shine
The FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope team have signed just one rider in the off-season, with the young Italian and former national champion Marta Cavalli joining. That said, the French squad had a solid 2020, and in Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig they have shown faith as they continue to build around the Dane.
She was desperately close to taking the first WorldTour win of her career in La Flèche Wallonne and it’s only a matter of time before she finally takes the victory her talents deserve.
Longo Borghini had a strong return in 2020 and dovetailed seamlessly with Trek-Segafredo teammate Lizzie Deignan, but it’s been almost four years since her win in Strade Bianche, and a further two since her Flanders success. She’s been knocking on the door for another massive win consistently since then but last year she was phenomenal to watch at times and her resilience and spirit were key in securing a bronze at the Worlds. With Trek strengthening in the winter, the Italian will only find that she has even better support and that edge could be the factor that nudges her closer to another Flanders.
As for Grace Brown, her progression in the last two years has been nothing short of breathtaking. With Van Vleuten leaving for Movistar, the Australian finds herself with far more opportunities at Team BikeExchange, and while Amanda Spratt has the experience and the climbing legs, it’s Brown who has the chance to see a Classics team form around her.
Expect another season of disruption
Apologies to end on a downer, but the signs are already there that we’re in for another disruptive season due to the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 Santos Tour Down Under was cancelled in December, and the Challenge Mallorca and Tour de San Luis are either postponed or downsized dramatically and we've not even started the calendar yet.
More races will fall by the wayside over the coming weeks as infection rates rise and inevitable lockdowns follow, and although the summer events remain pencilled in, it’s worth noting that the Olympic Games in Tokyo face fresh pressure to cancel.
As fans and followers, all we can do is be patient, hope that race organisers and the governing bodies put in place the best protocols possible as they did for many races last year, and remember that every race that takes place is a blessing during these times.
There were many lessons to take out of 2020 but one of them was that cycling is such an incredible sport, we're lucky to have it, and that it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
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