From the muddy mayhem of Paris-Roubaix through the drama-riddled Tokyo Olympics, the 2021 season was so good that a 10-point “best-of” wouldn’t do it justice.
That’s why Ben Delaney, Sadhbh O’Shea, Andrew Hood, and Jim Cotton are bringing you their picks of the 21 biggest storylines of the year, and dig into why they matter.
Here’s the first in a three-part “21 for 2021” series, featuring Olympic somersaults, Tour de France triples, and much more.
1: Wout van Aert’s Tour de France hat-trick
Read more: Wout van Aert, the swiss-knife of pro cycling
JC: Wout van Aert didn’t win the Tour de France, but he might as well have.
Van Aert amassed a historic hat-trick of stages this summer, winning a time trial, a bunch sprint, and a mountain stage that took in not one, but two, ascents of the knee-trembling Mont Ventoux.
It was a feat that both stamped van Aert as the true “Swiss Army Knife” of the pro peloton and sealed him a spot in the history books. Wout’s Tour triple was the first time a rider had won across all three Tour stage formats since Eddy Merckx in 1974 and Bernard Hinault in 1979.
“WvA” was in the headlines from the boggy winter of ‘cross through the cobbled climbs of spring and the high sun of the Tokyo Games this year, but the Belgian baller’s exploits at the Tour were likely the standout of his season.
So what about racing for GC in the future?
“If I retrain myself to become a great prodigy, I’d go to a point of no return — my body will change, I’d lose kilos and lose all my qualities to win classics and sprints,” he said after the Tour. “I don’t want that.”
Stay just as you are Wout van Aert. You’re doing just fine as you are.
2: Lachlan Morton rides the Tour solo in 18 days
Read more: Tour de Lachlan: Morton arrives in Paris at 5:30 a.m.
BD: When the Tour de France began, 185 riders set out from Brest, planning to circumnavigate the country and arrives in Paris. One of them, however, was doing the Tour route all on his own, including pedaling the transfers between stages. Further, he planned to beat the other 184 riders to Paris.
And beat them he did, arriving in the French capital five days ahead of the peloton, having covered 5,500 kilometers to the Tour’s 3,383km.
Lachlan Morton’s so-called Alt Tour was a promotional stunt for his EF Education-Nippo team and its sponsor Rapha that served as a fundraiser for World Bicycle Relief.
While the racers had the full support of the Tour, with team bus transfers, chefs, hotel beds, et cetera — not to mention the draft of a peloton — Morton’s support consisted solely of what he could carry on his bike.
He experienced all manner of weather, suffered flat tires, and endured knee pain that caused him to switch from riding in road shoes to sandals.
3: Paris-Roubaix Femmes breaks new ground
Read more: Paris-Roubaix Femmes: Did the inaugural edition live up to the hype, and what next for the race?
SOS: Some days it felt like it was never going to happen, that the women’s peloton would never charge across the fabled Paris-Roubaix pavé in a race. The years and months of waiting were finally put to an end in 2021 when the pack set off for the first Paris-Roubaix Femmes. It was a race that will live long in the memory with images of riders slipping and sliding in the mud and Lizzie Deignan storming off to take an emphatic solo victory.
Perhaps the only negative from the racing action itself was the fact that we didn’t see Deignan’s race-winning move — the prize money discussion is for a different day. The Trek-Segafredo rider jumped clear on the entrance to the opening cobbled sector, before TV coverage kicked in, and she was not seen again. Out in front, she was able to take her own line and came back from a couple of near-crashes with some great bike handling.
The late chase from Marianne Vos added to the drama of the occasion, but she couldn’t close the gap. The best thing about having an October Paris-Roubaix is that we only have to wait six months for the next edition.
4: A long-awaited wet men’s Paris-Roubaix
Read more: We asked the riders what it was like to ride a ‘wet’ Roubaix
AH: I’ve been at VeloNews so long that I covered the last two editions of a “wet” Paris-Roubaix, back in 2001 and 2002. My, how time flies.
I missed it this year, but munched the popcorn like everyone else from the comfy and dry position from my couch.
And what a show it was.
One almost had to feel sorry for the women’s peloton having to face greasy cobbles for the inaugural edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Lizzie Deignan and the rest of the peloton confirmed to any doubters out there they could handle the most extreme conditions in their collective first taste of the “Hell of the North.”
No one in the men’s or women’s peloton had raced on wet cobbles before. Sure, there have been sloppy other races over the years, including stages at the Tour de France that featured pavé, but nothing like what the pack faced in October.
Both races provided great viewing and stunning racing. Deignan simply rode everyone off her wheel in one of the most impressive displays of bike handling and concentration we’ve seen in a while. The men’s race was a real dogfight, with Sonny Colbrelli delivering a jaw-dropping victory ahead of Mathieu van der Poel.
This year’s edition reminded me why Paris-Roubaix is arguably the most incredible one-day race in the world. It’s hell on wheels, but there’s nothing else like it on the calendar. Rain or shine, Roubaix rules.
5: Mathieu van der Poel’s mountain bike somersault
Read more: Van der Poel’s Olympic dreams end in confusion over rock jump
JC: It was all going so well for Mathieu van der Poel this season, until a rock got in the way.
Van der Poel headed into the Tokyo Olympic mountain bike race this summer with his little finger already half-touching a gold medal, but his race come to a disastrous and dramatic end.
Van der Poel spectacularly miscued on the opening lap, somersaulting off a high rock jump and landing flat on his back, abandoning soon after. A bone fide Dutch inquest after the race revealed that “MvdP” had been unaware that a ramp over the rock had been removed after the sighting lap.
It was a miscommunication to make you wince, and it turned van der Poel’s season upside down. The Dutchman struggled through August and early September as medics worked to unkink his bent back, and the 26-year-old missed the MTB worlds and a stack of racing as a result.
Van der Poel finished his road season on a high, nursing his niggles through a storming ride to third at Paris-Roubaix.
How good could his season have turned out if he’d kept it upright in Tokyo? We’ll never know.
6: The Ketone debate rumbles on
Also read: More riders join chorus demanding ketones be banned
AH: They taste bad, they’re expensive, and they’re highly controversial. What are we talking about? Ketones.
The dietary supplement is suddenly the rage among the WorldTour, with some sources saying well more than half of the teams and riders are using them. What do they do? Help with recovery and fueling, and some say, provide such a performance boost that they should be banned.
As the peloton continues to push the edges of nutrition and efficiency, ketones have emerged as an important tool in the ever-sophisticated range of products that teams and riders are using to squeeze the absolute maximum out of their bodies.
Though they are not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, some say the extracts, which are also produced naturally in the body, should be.
The debate over ketones also puts a new focus on cycling’s so-called grey areas, where teams and riders are pushing for maximum performance by what some say is tip-toeing right up to the line between what’s legal and what’s cheating.
So long as no one steps over that line; that’s what’s keeping people worried at night.
7: The UCI’s commitment to pay parity
Also read: UCI promises equal minimum wages for men and women pros ‘as quickly as possible’
SOS: The road world championships are more than just a chance for the riders to face off for some rainbow jerseys, it also acts as a forum for the UCI and its various delegates to make some big decisions and discuss some hot topics.
Among the various key announcements that came out of the worlds in Flanders was the UCI’s commitment to match minimum salaries for Women’s WorldTeam riders to their male counterparts.
There’s no fixed date for this goal, but the UCI says it wants to do it “as quickly as possible.” That could mean any time in the next five years or it could be a decade away, but let’s hope it is sooner than later. It was not that long ago that the UCI was pushing back on minimum salaries for women, believing that it could see a lot of teams fold.
That hasn’t happened and the minimum salary for women in the top tier will soon match men’s ProTeam riders, in 2023. With all this happening, the UCI has to make sure it doesn’t leave behind other riders as many lower-tier riders still operate on tiny, if not non-existent, salaries.