When professional cycling resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in August 2020, few riders performed as strongly from a standing start as Marc Hirschi, who illuminated the condensed season with a remarkable sequence of all-action displays at the Tour de France and victory at Flèche Wallonne.
Hirschi’s 2021 campaign, by contrast, has known more shadow than light following his abrupt transfer from Team DSM to UAE Team Emirates in early January, the reasons for which remain obscured behind the terms of a non-disclosure agreement between the rider and his former team.
There have been occasional flickers along the way, from sixth place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April to stage victory at the Tour de Luxembourg in September, but the Swiss rider has also endured setbacks, from a hip injury and dental issues early in the year to the crash that ended his World Championships challenge in Leuven.
Hirschi’s season seemed to be captured in a microcosm on a day of watery sunshine at the Giro del Veneto on Wednesday. The Swiss rider looked set to sparkle once again when he attacked on Il Roccolo in the company of Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Premier Tech), only for his hopes of victory to be doused when his wheels slid from under him on the descent. He quickly remounted and completed the race, which was ultimately won by Xandro Meurisse (Alpecin-Fenix) ahead of his teammate Matteo Trentin.
“After the change, it started out difficult and I wasn’t on the level I wanted to start the season,” Hirschi told Cyclingnews before the start in Cittadella on Wednesday. “I eventually managed to come quite good in shape but then I crashed again in the Tour de France. I was on a really good level again in Luxembourg and unfortunately at the Worlds, I crashed and then I got a little bit sick.”
Hirschi was front and centre in the marketing images when Team DSM presented its 2021 roster in an online event last December only to part company with the team in most surprising circumstances at the beginning of the following month. Within days, a move to UAE Team Emirates had been brokered, but he downplayed the idea that the unusual transfer had disrupted his season, pointing instead to the hip injury and wisdom tooth problem that delayed the start of his campaign until late March.
“No, the team change was not the thing. I had success [in 2020] and it’s hard to continue like this, and then I had some bad luck,” Hirschi said. “That was more what meant I didn’t come perfectly into shape but, overall, I was still there. I could still do some good races. It was not really the team change, because you always have some changes in the winter. I cannot say that was the issue.”
Hirschi, indeed, couldn’t – and still can’t – say much of anything about the reasons for his departure from DSM, and his absence from the peloton in the opening weeks of 2021 seemed only to draw further attention to the vacuum of information around the move. When he finally lined out for UAE Team Emirates at the Volta a Catalunya, he acknowledged that he was “learning to live” with the suspicion the abrupt switch had engendered.
“For me, it was OK, I was away at altitude camps and I was focused on the season. It wasn’t getting to me too much, because I was doing my thing,” Hirschi insisted on Wednesday. “It really didn’t bother me so much.”
Hirschi looked to be building up to something approaching a head of steam at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour de Romandie, and he later earned selection for UAE Team Emirates’ Tour de France squad, but it wasn’t until the Tour de Luxembourg in September that he began to resemble the rider who so impressed the previous Autumn. It was, he admitted, the nearest he had come to replicating that form.
“It’s always hard to say, to compare watts or something, it’s always different and a lot of things have to come together but I think in Luxembourg I was quite close to my level of last year,” said Hirschi.
Regardless of form – and even without separating his shoulder in an opening day crash – Hirschi was never likely to reproduce his Tour stage win of 2020, given that he was riding as part of a team dedicated solely to retaining Tadej Pogačar’s overall title. The Slovenian duly repeated the feat, winning three stages en route to a second yellow jersey in Paris. Hirschi, for his part, had no complaints at playing the role of foot soldier.
“No, it was an incredibly good feeling. It was a pleasure to be there and win the Tour with Tadej. Cycling is a team sport so it was really good,” said Hirschi, who knows, too, that he must share the stage with Pogačar in the hilly Classics to boot. This year, after all, Pogačar won the two Monuments seemingly best suited to Hirschi’s characteristics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia.
“At these races it’s always better to have more guys in the front, having multiple cards is a big advantage for the team,” Hirschi said. “We have also some strong new teammates for next year. I’m really looking forward to the Classics for next year because we’ll really have a strong team and there we can profit from each other.”
Hirschi will sign off on his season at the inaugural Veneto Classic on Sunday, where he will line up among the favourites on a route that takes in a tough finishing circuit around Bassano del Grappa. His stage win at the Tour de Luxembourg means that he has already salvaged something from an often trying campaign, and while victory there didn’t quite change the complexion of this season, it can’t have harmed his preparation for the next one.
“At the end you always train to win, not to have good performance,” said Hirschi. “It’s nice when I have good performances, to build up for the future, but the goal is always to win. It still makes a difference when you win. It gave me a lot of motivation.
“This has still been a good season, I have my victory. I hope now to have a short break and work hard for next season, to make it even better than this year and to get back to my level of performance from two years ago.”
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