Our series of post-season features continues with our list of the top 10 riders – both men and women – who enjoyed a breakthrough in 2021.
It's easy to point to neo-pros who have had a good debut season in the professional peloton to fill out our list, but this isn't all about those young newcomers – even if there are some of them in our top 10.
Instead, we've tried largely to focus on riders who have spent several years among the pros before taking a big step forward with a string of results – or one major victory – this season.
Last year's list saw surprise Giro d'Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart joined on our list by Lianne Lippert, Marc Hirschi and Wout van Aert. Who had made the cut this time around? Read on to find out our 10 biggest breakthroughs of 2021.
Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers)
The 23-year-old Londoner, who has come through the British Cycling system, has just finished his second year among the pros, and has ridden a season that has seen him surprise many onlookers with a series of impressive results.
Hayter, who before turning pro won the points classification at the Baby Giro and won world and European gold on the track, showed his Classics promise last year but has taken several steps of progression this year after winning the Coppe dell'Appennino in 2020.
This year, he has only improved as the months have gone by, starting with the Settimana Coppi e Bartali, where he finished top five on every stage, winning one and taking the youth jersey. After making his Tour of Flanders debut, he narrowly missing out on overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve after losing time on the final summit finish.
In May, he won a stage and the points jersey at the Vuelta a Andalucia and, three months later, won two stages and the overall at the Tour of Norway. Highlights of his end-season saw him take two wins and finish a narrow second to Wout van Aert after a race-long duel at the Tour of Britain before making his elite Worlds debut, winning the British TT title, and on the track taking Olympics Madison silver and Worlds Omnium gold.
In a peloton led by stars who resemble the all-rounders of yesteryear, Hayter looks like another to add to that list with sprinting, time trialling and hill-climbing already among his talents. Look out for even more to come from him in 2022.
Demi Vollering (SD Worx)
After two years spent at Parkhotel Valkenburg confirmed her huge potential on the bike, Vollering made the step up to the Women's WorldTour with SD Worx this year. With the move came the biggest results of her career, too.
Having won the Giro dell'Emilia and taken podiums at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Flèche Wallonne, this was the season she took a huge step forward and added several such WWT races to her palmarès. Following second places at Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race, Liège was her first big triumph of 2021.
La Course was her second, once again outsprinting a small group, while a time trial win secured her first-ever stage race win at The Women's Tour. She was consistent throughout the year, too – second at Emakumeen Nafarroako, third at the Vuelta a Burgos and Giro Rosa, fifth at the Ladies Tour and European Championships road race.
With the retiring Anna van der Breggen moving into a DS role for SD Worx next season, Vollering looks fully ready to take over at the head of the team.
Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma)
At the start of this year's Tour de France, most onlookers will have tipped a Jumbo-Visma rider to take up the second step of the podium behind Tadej Pogačar in Paris. However, vanishingly few people would have written down Vingegaard's name, rather than that of 2020 runner-up Primož Roglič.
The 24-year-old Dane surely pulled off the biggest breakthrough ride of the season in France, finding himself in the GC top 5 after Roglič pulled out following stage 8 and then moving up to fourth, then third, then second, over the final two weeks of the race.
Before 2021, Vingegaard's highlights as a pro consisted of a stage win at the Tour de Pologne and an impressive ride as a climbing domestique at the 2020 Vuelta, though his progress was clear for all to see early this season.
He won on the Jebel Jais summit finish at the UAE Tour, triumphed at Coppi e Bartali with two stage wins and the overall, and took second behind Roglič at Itzulia Basque Country, while a strong ride at the Critérium du Dauphiné – including second in Les Gets – set him up to work for the Slovenian at the Tour.
But things didn't turn out that way, and Vingegaard found himself unexpectedly thrust into the leadership role. He took to it with seeming ease, too, proving himself the second-strongest man in the race. On Mont Ventoux he was the only man to drop Pogačar during the entire three weeks, while he was also the most consistent rider in the two time trials. On this evidence, Vingegaard looks a certain future Grand Tour winner.
Elisa Balsamo (Valcar-Travel & Service)
The Italian had a number of wins to her name before hitting the road to start the 2021 season, her fifth in the pro peloton, but Balsamo took her biggest of all this year, in addition to showing herself at a high level throughout the spring.
In her own words it was a surprise win, but her triumph at the Worlds road race in Leuven represents a big breakthrough for the 23-year-old, who overcame the mighty Marianne Vos to take the rainbow jersey.
Previous victories included stages at the Tour of California and Ceratizit Challenge, but none match up to the heft of the Worlds. Weeks later, she ended her season with her third career WWT victory in the final stage of The Women's Tour, while back in spring she won the GP Oetingen, podiums at Brabantse Pijl and Scheldeprijs, and top fives at Gent-Wevelgem, Classic Brugge-De Panne.
She's on the move for 2022, heading to Trek-Segafredo to add her talents to the American team's Classics lineup. Despite having already taken what could end up the biggest win of her career, there'll be a lot more to come from her in the coming years.
Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix)
Philipsen is another 23-year-old who took a big step forward in 2021. Though he was already a Grand Tour stage winner after taking a stage of the 2020 Vuelta, 2021 has seen his palmarès expand from five career wins to 14, including another two in Spain.
After two years spent at UAE Team Emirates, it's a step down to the ProTeam Alpecin-Fenix that has revitalised his young career. The Belgian team are stronger than many in cycling's top division, and Philipsen has been no small part of that.
In March, he was second in the Classic Brugge-De Panne but made up for it two weeks later with victory at the 'sprinter's World Championship' at Scheldeprijs. Two wins and the points jersey at the Tour of Turkey was part two of his season's duel with Mark Cavendish, though at the Tour de France he was second-best, taking six podium spots but no win.
At the Vuelta, he only raced 10 days but still knocked out two wins, while in September he won four races in a row – including the WorldTour Eschborn-Frankfurt and the cobbled GP Denain. As a result, he topped our 2021 sprinter ranking having established himself as one of the quickest men in the peloton.
Teammate Tim Merlier also enjoyed a career-best year, winning nine races including a stage apiece at the Giro and Tour. The 29-year-old made his own – very strong – case to make it on this list, too, but was just pipped by his teammate.
Emma Norsgaard (Movistar)
22-year-old Norsgaard's switch to Movistar after three years in the Cervélo/Bigla/Paule Ka setup has already paid dividends after just one season.
Heading into the season with one non-National Championships win on her palmarès, the Dane now has five more following a consistent year which has seen her compete at the highest level from February to October.
There were two wins at the Elsy Jacobs Festival, plus the overall, in addition to a victory at the Thüringen Ladies Tour and one at the Giro Rosa.
Then there were podiums at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Le Samyn, the Classic Brugge-De Panne, Scheldeprijs, the Healthy Ageing Tour, plus top 10s at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes, Gent-Wevelgem, and Nokere Koerse.
While also a strong sprinter, Norsgaard also has a clear talent for the cobbled Classics, and 2021 was really the first year she could show what she can do. We won't have to wait long to see her follow-up.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
We've tried to avoid neo-pro riders on our list, but Pidcock's debut season was frankly impossible to ignore. The 22-year-old made the step up to the WorldTour in February after completing his cyclo-cross season. Once Classics season got underway, he was immediately up there with the top favourites, finishing third at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and then fifth at Strade Bianche.
A debut at the Tour of Flanders followed, though his biggest moment of the spring came at Brabantse Pijl, where he outfought Wout van Aert to take victory, later missing out to the Belgian – by the smallest margin possible – four days later at Amstel Gold Race.
He'd made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta later in the year, though before that he made a switch the mountain bike to grab Olympic cross-country gold two months after breaking his collarbone. Pidcock ended his season with an impressive solo ride to sixth at the Leuven Worlds, jumping away from the chase group which had missed the winning move.
For the former Baby Giro and Paris-Roubaix Espoirs winner and U23 'cross world champion, 2021 looks like just a small taste of what's to come in his future.
Marlen Reusser (Ale BTC Ljubljana)
She's the oldest rider on our list, but Reusser only rode her second year in the pros in 2021. Still, it has been one to savour for the Swiss rider, who previously raced for the UCI World Cycling Centre team.
The three-time Swiss time trial champion had also won the European Games TT title before turning pro, but this year saw her take her racing to another level after her year spent at Paule Ka. National titles in the road and time trial came ahead of stage wins – and second overall – at both the Ladies Tour and Ceratizit Challenge, where she held the lead until the penultimate day on both occasions. Third at her home race, the Tour de Suisse, was another highlight.
Her biggest triumph during the year came in Trento, where she swept to the European time trial title ahead of Ellen van Dijk, though the Worlds saw a reversal of that result, with just a 10-second deficit separating Reusser from the rainbow jersey. At the Tokyo Olympics she took another silver medal, though at a more distant 56 seconds behind Annemiek van Vleuten.
A season-capping victory at the Chrono des Nations confirmed her status among the top time triallists in the world. She already held that status after her second place at the 2020 Worlds, but that just goes to show how impressive her much-improved 2021 campaign has been.
Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën)
The Australian had already showed his climbing chops over two days in northern Italy at last year's Giro d'Italia, finishing second in Friuli before winning atop Madonna di Campiglio the next day.
This year, following a move from NTT to AG2R, the 25-year-old has shown where that kind of riding can lead after finishing fourth at the Tour de France. He had put in some impressive rides during the first half of the season – fifth at the Tour du Var, sixth at the Tour de Romandie, fourth at the Mont Ventoux Dénivéle Challenge, eighth at the Dauphiné – though none were quite at the level of his high-flying Tour performance.
After a quiet first week, he burst into life with a stunning solo stage win at Tignes, five minutes ahead of anyone else and six up on the GC riders. It's fair to say that that breakaway win formed the basis of his high GC position, though even without it he'd have finished in the top 10.
He dropped time before the Pyrenees – including the challenging double Ventoux ride – but was back among the big contenders in the final set of mountains, working his way back up to fourth before fending off Wilco Kelderman in the final time trial.
O'Connor's fifth year in the peloton was easily the best of his career so far – not bad for a rider who told Cyclingnews in January that merely making his Tour debut was his main aim of 2021.
Kiesenhofer is the second time trial-specialist on our list – after Reusser – and the second rider whose season has been made with one massive win – after Balsamo.
The Austrian was little known before the Tokyo Olympics rolled around in July, having raced intermittently on the road as an amateur in recent years due to her main role as a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
Since a brief spell at Lotto Soudal in 2017, she has gone it alone and taken some eye-catching results along the way. Among numerous Austrian national titles, there has been a fifth in the time trial at the European Championships, and, last year, third at the Tour de l'Ardèche. None match up her ride in the road race in Tokyo, though.
On the hilly 173-kilometre course, Kiesenhofer was solo for the most important 41 of them, having raced in the break from the very start. A lack of co-operation in the chase helped her, but her time trialling ability saw her able to hold off the chase from stars such as Annemiek van Vleuten and Elisa Longo Borghini.
Even if we won't see her racing the spring Classics or the major stage races next season, the win was a career maker and arguably the most memorable breakthrough ride of the 2021.
Gino Mäder (Bahrain Victorious): Stage wins at the Tour de Suisse and Giro, plus a stunning fifth overall at the Vuelta, meant the 24-year-old Swiss was unlucky to miss our top 10
Blanka Kata Vas (SD Worx): The 20-year-old neo-pro only had eight days on the road this year but has shown she can be the next big thing in the women's peloton after finishing fourth at the Worlds, ninth at the Ceratizit Challenge, and taking both Hungarian national titles.
Mikkel Honoré (Deceuninck-QuickStep): He won stages at Coppi e Bartali and Itzulia, was third at Clásica San Sebastián and fourth at the Tour of Britain. QuickStep have developed another gem.
Elise Chabbey (Canyon-Sram): Her fourth season as a pro was easily her best, with top 10s at the Giro and The Women's Tour (plus the KOM competition), second at the Tour de Suisse, and third at the Ceratizit Challenge.
Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo): The American had looked a solid climber/domestique/stage hunter after three years of his pro career, but victory at the Clásica San Sebastián and fifth at the Worlds have shown he can do big things when he gets a chance.
Pfeiffer Georgi (Team DSM): The 21-year-old Briton has shown herself at a higher level in her third year as a pro, finishing top 10 at the Ladies Tour and The Women's Tour, and taking her first pro wins at La Choralis Fourmies and the British road race title.
Franck Bonnamour (B&B Hotels p/b KTM): The sixth-year pro enjoyed a year to remember even if he didn't win. A series of gutsy rides at the Tour saw him take the combativity prize, while he also took second at the Tour du Limousin and Paris-Tours.
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