Marc Hirschi was one of the revelations of 2020, winning a stage at the Tour de France and going close to victory on two others, before ending his season with third place at the World Championships, victory at Flèche Wallonne and second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège after Julian Alaphilippe cut across his path and wrecked his chances of success.
They were all breakthrough performances for a 22-year-old in his second season at WorldTour level but confirmed why he won the under-23 world title in Innsbruck in 2018. They elevated Hirschi to the front of the next generations of riders who are transforming the sport, alongside long-time rival and Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar, Team Sunweb teammate Jai Hindley, Giro d'Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, Egan Bernal, Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Remco Evenepoel.
Hirschi admits his results have made him famous in Switzerland, where having Fabian Cancellara as a manager and mentor also helps. Yet he is clearly only at the start of his career and is hungry for much more.
"I think maybe some people think I came from nowhere, but in fact I'd made some good progress in 2019 – when I was third at the Clasica San Sebastian – but I did surprise myself that I was able to progress so much," Hirschi explains matter of factly to Cyclingnews and other media soon after Team Sunweb announced they would become Team DSM for 2021.
Hirschi appears to have the calm and focus of Cancellara, and the speed and aggression of Alaphilippe, with whom he shares a rare set of talents. He can climb and conquer the Mur du Huy at Flèche Wallonne, but is also wise beyond his years, riding and talking like a veteran winner.
"I'm just focused on racing. I think when you know you can be good at something, you become a different person," he says when it was pointed out that his teammates have already noted his focus and desire.
"I'm pretty chilled out away from cycling, and I've learned not to get too focused on specific races. In the past, I wanted to know every detail of the route and the race tactics. Now I try not to think too much, and instead I focus on getting the basics 100 per cent right. I know that if I get pulled too much into races, it only hurts me. I've accepted that I'm always focused, so there's no need to get too stressed. In a race, I prefer to just go for it and race on instinct."
Hirschi followed his instincts on stage 2 of the Tour de France when Alaphilippe attacked on the final climb overlooking Nice. He jumped across to the Frenchman and was joined by Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and then gave his all to try to stop Alaphilippe's fairytale victory. He failed by a few centimetres in the sprint, but it marked the start of a very special Tour de France for Hirschi and Team Sunweb.
"Before the Tour, I didn't feel anything special, but when I could follow Alaphilippe and Yates on the climb, then I knew I could do something special," he reveals.
"If I'd only had that day, I'd have been happy, but it was great to get all the other results, too."
He went on to finish third in Laruns in the Pyrenees after attacking alone early on the Col de la Hourcère, 80km from the finish. He was cruelly caught just 1.5km from the line, but put up a fight in the sprint, and was only passed by Pogačar and Primož Roglič in the final metres.
He then won in Sarran on stage 12, attacking from the break over the Suc au May, diving down the descent and then time trialling the remaining 25 kilometres alone.
He tried a similar strategy on stage 18 as the sport admired Team Sunweb's panache after teammate Søren Kragh Andersen had won stage 14. Hirschi made the selection on the road to La Roche-sur-Foron, along with eventual stage winner Michal Kwiatkowski and the Polish rider's Ineos teammate Richard Carapaz, but then slid out at speed on the descent of the Col des Saisies. His disappointment was eased by being awarded the most combative rider prize of the Tour de France and a moment on the final podium in Paris.
His success in the Classics followed on seemingly naturally and he beat Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R La Mondiale) and Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) on the Mur de Huy to win Flèche Wallonne, taking over Alaphilippe's crown as king of the most famous hill in the Ardennes.
A few days before, he had finished third at the World Championships road race in Imola, and a few days later he was second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In the hectic, select-rider sprint, Alaphilippe was so concerned about him on his wheel that the Frenchman swerved across the road, almost taking Hirschi down. Roglič came up along the barriers to take the win after Alpahilippe was relegated, but Hirschi was considered the likely and moral winner of the day.
The next generation
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the 2020 season like never before, and young riders were able to emerge and show their talents much sooner than usual. Some have suggested it was because they quickly shrugged off the concerns of the pandemic and rapidly found their best form, or perhaps it was because they were fresher, and so stronger, in the rescheduled, compacted season.
Hirschi talks of his 2020 as if it all came naturally to him – all part of an expected process and destiny that has its roots in the Team Sunweb development programme. It is perhaps testimony to the development work done by Sunweb team manager Iwan Spekenbrink and his staff.
"I think the young guys are just stronger nowadays. They're much more professional at a younger age," Hirschi suggests, modestly using the third person.
"They've also been in development teams and worked super professionally. That means the step up from under-23 to WorldTour pro is not that big.
"If a team has a development squad, they see what you can do and so give you a chance as a pro. Teams know now that young riders can go for big results, and our team is a great place to be a young rider because there are so many good young guys."
The results of 2020 mean Hirschi will have a leadership role at Team DSM and chance to do it all over again in 2021.
With Michael Matthews moving to Mitchelton-Scott, Hirschi will share team leadership with Tiesj Benoot, Søren Kragh Andersen and sprinter Cees Bol. New Grand Tour leader Romain Bardet will do his own thing, giving Team DSM's young guns space to continue to race openly and aggressively.
"I don't think we have one big leader; we have several good guys who can help each and are ready to help each other. I think that's our strength, and something you have to use," Hirschi points out.
"Now I have a role, and I'm expected to fill it. That makes things harder, but it's also a nice challenge, and one I'm looking forward to."
Stronger in 2021
Hirschi was speaking via video from the warmth of Gran Canaria. He has swapped the cold of the Swiss winter for the warmth of the Spanish island off the coast of Africa. A number of other riders have also migrated there with Benoot and other Sunweb riders for December to lay down their base miles.
Hirschi was cautious about revealing his 2021 race programme and personal goals. He's keen to try his hand at the Tour of Flanders, but knows that his 61kg build makes him a bantamweight for the cobbles. He will no doubt target the Ardennes Classics again, and will also fight for a place in the Team DSM Tour de France squad in the hope of finding perfect form for the postponed Tokyo Olympics next summer.
Testing his potential for Grand Tours and stage races will have to wait.
"Yeah, for sure. The Olympic Games will be a big goal for me," he says, his youthful confidence emerging every so often.
"I'd say that I'm a one-day racer, and I'm going to focus on that now. What happens after that will come naturally.
"I think I'll automatically get better in Grand Tours by riding them. I won't push to become a Grand Tour rider, but I know that riding them makes you stronger. I hope to be stronger in 2021 than I was in 2020."
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