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Some day, your grand kids will ask, “What did you do in 2021?”
For most bike racing fans, the answer is this: watched a lot of bike races, that’s what, and even a few of them in person.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the world pandemic, the 2021 racing season turned out to be so wildly unpredictable it deserves the “you can’t make this stuff up” designation.
A muddy Paris-Roubaix, a miracle ride at the Olympics, an absolutely thrilling road world championships, Jennifer Valente in gold, a Mark Cavendish revival, the ever-booming gravel scene, Tadej Pogačar on a rampage, a temper tantrum in Spain, what wasn’t to like?
Yet again, cycling managed to stumble and rumble its way through most of the 2021 racing calendar. And teams, riders, and organizers deserve massive credit for not only pulling it off but delivering some of the best racing moments we’ve seen since, well, last year!
And just when everyone thought the world had stuffed the COVID-19 genie back inside the bottle, it roars back again.
If COVID was a bike racer, even Pogačar would have something to worry about.
Thankfully, we have PCR tests, vaccines, face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and the GCN app on our iPhones. All will be right in the universe again (we hope).
After another wild and wacky season, I humbly offer a few of my favorite and not-so-favorite moments of 2021 in the 1st annual Tour de Hoody Awards. Here we go:
Most Amazing Ride Prize —
I have to admit, it took me a while to get my head around this one. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but at first glance, the Olympic road race seemed to me an example of how to blow a race, not win it.
Also read: Q&A with Olympic winner
The race unfolded like a comedy of errors for the heavily favored Dutch team. Race radio or not, there’s no way that a from-the-gun breakaway should have stayed clear in a race as important as the Olympics. Of course, everyone was looking to the Dutch to do the work, and all the Dutch riders wanted to win the race. So there’s that.
Yet what did happen was truly spectacular, and as contrived as the Olympics might be sometimes now that the pro athletes dominate most of the sports, semi-pro rider proved that pluck, courage, and a bit of derring-do can still upturn a race.
And isn’t that just what the Olympics are supposed to be? Bravo, Anna!
The WTF Moment of 2021 — Mathieu van der Poel
Things did not go as planned for Mathieu van der Poel in the Olympic mountain bike race, now did they?
His end-o over the jump was the face-palm moment of 2021. I mean, how could he not know the practice ramp wouldn’t be there? Everyone else knew; the riders, the coaches, and even VdP’s teammates.
It seems the message was sent, but it clearly was not received. WTF?
If van der Poel seemed like a superhero over the past few years, he confirmed in 2021 that he is indeed human after all. Though his DNA packs inherited racing skills thanks to grandpa Raymond Poulidor and pops Adrie van der Poel, version 3.0 proved even he can succumb to the forces of gravity.
After winning another CX world title and attacking to an absolutely stunning victory at Strade Bianche, van der Poel seemed to want to be the “Everywhere Man” in 2021. And perhaps that’s catching up to him. Second at Flanders in the spring and third at Roubaix the fall were two races he should have and could have won.
It’s admirable that he’s racing across four disciplines, and I hope he keeps doing it, but there are signs that he’s stretching things a bit too thin.
The First Annual Sepp Kuss Award for Best U.S. Male Rider
The First Annual Sepp Kuss Award for Best U.S. Male Rider goes to … drum roll, please … Sepp Kuss!
VeloNews’ favorite Coloradan (sorry, Floyd) hit new high-water marks in 2021, and it looked like he wasn’t even trying. In fact, sometimes it looked like he wasn’t even on the right track.
Kuss is wonderfully unpredictable. Some days he’s a mere mortal (at least by WorldTour standards), and other days he’s on another level all alone. And it’s a blast to watch.
Just look at 2021. He was a bit slow out of the gate in the first half of the season in some of those early races when it was believed he was going to get a few shots at racing for GC. Once the Tour de France unfolded, teammate Jonas Vingegaard surprised everyone and Primoz Roglič crashed out, so Kuss could ride the slipstream.
The stars aligned for him in Andorra, and with his girlfriend and family cheering from the side of the road, he fended off Alejandro Valverde to win stage 15. It was the first Tour stage victory by a U.S. male rider in a decade.
And then he rolled into the Vuelta a España with his aw-shucks demeanor playing down expectations, only to ride to eighth overall, his first career top-10 in a grand tour. That was good for the first top-10 by a U.S. rider in the Vuelta since Tejay van Garderen was 10th in 2017.
Jumbo-Visma brass believes once they turn his wild inconsistency into day-in, day-out ever-steady finishes, he’ll become a legitimate GC grand tour contender.
The Durango Kid abides.
Muddy Face Award — autumn Paris-Roubaix
Who would have thought it would have taken a pandemic and twice rescheduling of Paris-Roubaix to finally get a muddy one?
Call it climate change or just coincidence, but April is now beach party weather in northern France.
Or at least it has been for the better part of two decades. Remco Evenepoel was little more than 1 year old the last time there was a muddy Roubaix.
The weather gods finally conspired to deliver rain and mud for the October Roubaix. One almost had to feel sorry for the women to face a wet and muddy Roubaix in their first collective run over the pavé, but Lizzie Deignan certainly didn’t seem to mind.
Each edition of Roubaix is a race of 100 stories. Every rider who starts, pulls out, crashes out, gets time cut, or makes it to the velodrome packs enough personal narrative to bore their drinking mates for the rest of their drinking days.
The 2021 editions were sublime (and muddy) at every level.
As dramatic as they were, most riders will be quietly hoping that beach weather returns in April.
‘Me Voy a Casa’ Award — Miguel Ángel López
The 2021 ‘Me Voy a Casa’ Award — which loosely translates to having a meltdown in front of the entire world — goes to none other than Miguel Ángel López.
Movistar’s trademark, Netflix-branded disfunction “went to 11” at the Vuelta a España. Just 24 hours earlier, everything seemed hunky-dory, with López winning the Gamoniteiru stage and sitting third behind teammate Enric Mas on GC.
But there were some dark demons lurking under those smiles, and they all came out for the world to see in voyeuristic delight late in the final road stage.
Everyone knows what happened next: López was gapped in the hilly Galician trap, Mas followed the wheels up front, and then Movistar told López to stop pulling.
Why? López said he believed it was because the team was conspiring against him. Movistar brass said they wanted López to ease up to avoid blowing up and to allow two chasing teammates to bridge up and help him defend at least a top-5 GC placing despite the podium disappearing up the road.
López then did something that no one has ever seen before, or at least for a podium contender in a grand tour with one day left to race, he quit.
Ride for pride, they urged. Instead, López threw a tizzy, and went home, se fue a casa.
The drama continues to play out across Spain and Colombia, with both camps taking opposing sides. Some argue it’s the most unprofessional and selfish thing they’ve ever seen by a pro (now that’s saying a lot), while others will argue López was the victim here. Take your pick.
Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué summed it up best by saying, “se fue todo al carajo” — everything went to shit.
US Olympic Wheaties Moment — Jennifer Valente
Jennifer Valente did something no other U.S. women’s ever done — win a gold medal in Olympic track racing.
And she did it in one of the most competitive and challenging disciplines in the omnium. The five-discipline race requires cunning, consistency, and racing acumen, and Valente delivered it all in spades.
Also read: Portrait of an Olympic champion
It cannot be understated how important the gold medal was not only to Valente but to the entire U.S. cycling team.
The women’s squad has been banging on the door of a gold medal in the women’s team pursuit for years, with the team winning back-to-back silver medals anchored by Sarah Hammer in 2012 and 2016. Despite winning the world title in 2020, the U.S. team had to dig deep to hit the medal round, bringing home bronze.
It was up to Valente to carry team colors, and she did with an exclamation point.
That’s How to Win a Bike Race Award — SD Worx at Strade Bianche
SD Worx is often an unstoppable force. Though the peloton is deeper and better than ever before, when SD Worx is on form, the team is hard to beat.
The team came out gang-busters in the early part of 2021 and delivered a tactical masterpiece at Strade Bianche.
Also read: Inside SD-Worx’s tactical masterpiece
The team neutralized arch-rival Annemiek van Vleuten, and then corralled Elisa Longo Borghini on home roads, before sending Chantal van den Broek-Blaak on the race-winning attack into Siena.
The team played all of its cards perfectly, slotting four riders into the top-11, in what was one of the most sublime tactical plays of the season.
That’s Not How to Win a Bike Race Award — Belgian national team at UCI road worlds
You gotta feel for Julian Alaphilippe. When he attacked with less than two laps to go in Leuven, Belgian fans booed him, waved their arms to urge him to slow down, and tossed beer on him.
But it wasn’t his fault the Belgian national team blew it, was it?
Perhaps no team faced as much pressure and expectation in 2021 as the Belgian national team in the elite men’s road race.
Racing on home roads for the first time in 20 years for the rainbow bands meant the pressure would be piled on. Adding an estimated 1 million fans on the side of the road on race day only heightened the stakes.
Also read: Stuyven to Evenepoel: ‘Some things should remain behind closed doors’
Depending on who you talk to, the Belgian team blew it before the race even started. There was controversy about who was left at home, including the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Oliver Naesen, and Greg Van Avermaet, and there were accusations of being over-confident.
There was tactical cohesion once the race unfolded, with Remco Evenepoel not doing anyone any favors by attacking too early. When that effort eventually fizzled, Evenepoel was too gassed to work or counter late in the race.
That left Jasper Stuyven to do some of the heavy lifting in the closing decisive laps, only to see designated captain Wout van Aert fall flat when Alaphilippe attacked. Stuyven tried to save national pride, but Michael Valgren and Dylan van Baarle could sit back and save their legs for the final sprint, leaving Belgium with nothing.
It’s nearly 2022, and everyone is still talking about this one.
New Kids in Town Award — Tom Pidcock and Elisa Balsamo
With so much top young talent bubbling to the top of the peloton, it’s increasingly harder for anyone — young or old — to elbow their way to the top.
In 2021, two young riders stood out.
Elisa Balsamo, already a pro for five years at the ripe age of 23, delivered a breakthrough season. With her form peaking just at the right moment, the Italian pipped the favored Dutch to bring home the stripes.
A move to Trek-Segafredo and the WorldTour in 2022 will consolidate her position at the top. The fun has just begun.
On the men’s side, Tom Pidcock delivered one surprise after another. After some spectacular rides on the mud in cyclocross, he proved a giant-killer in the spring classics, nipping Wout van Aert at Brabantse Pijl, only to see van Aert return the favor at Amstel Gold Race.
Pidcock then stunned the off-road world with a stealthy and dominant performance to strike gold in Tokyo in mountain biking. He was right behind van der Poel when he crashed, and never looked back.
Pidcock then posted some good rides at the Vuelta a España and nearly chased back alone to challenge for the medals at the road worlds. And he did all that with a bum knee in 2021.
RIP Award — US stage race scene, Qhubeka-NextHash
Every season sees its victims. The professional cycling ecosystem is simply that way. Riders are left adrift without contracts, races come, teams go. Until someone fixes it, there will be collateral damage.
Despite the pandemic, the top of the sport is holding up better than many expected. Most of the top races were contested and the sport did not implode as some doomsday-sayers predicted. In fact, it’s blossomed in unexpected ways over the past two seasons. And until the latest omicron wave, many were hopeful 2022 would see things return to a pre-pandemic normal.
Also read: Qhubeka confirms end of WorldTour road
There were a few inevitable victims. Qhubeka-NextHash was on the ropes all season long and finally succumbed to the harsh economic reality of top-level men’s road racing.
It takes a very well-funded benefactor to underwrite the (more or less) $10 million minimum annual price tag. Team manager Douglas Ryder couldn’t find one but vows to keep a few irons in the fire. If the track record reveals anything, however, it’s extremely challenging to bring a team back from the dead.
Here’s wishing Ryder and his staff good luck.
We’re deeply saddened to confirm our hopes to race on the WorldTour in 2022 team are over
Team Qhubeka will continue to move forwards with our Continental team & we have other exciting projects & ideas which will see us changing lives🖐️
— Team Qhubeka NextHash (@QhubekaAssos) December 24, 2021
The other big blow was the demise of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. The U.S. stage racing scene was already struggling even before the pandemic, with the demise of the Amgen Tour of California and the on-again, off-again status of the Colorado Classic.
The Utah race emerged as one of the top U.S. races and was a springboard for several top pros, including Sepp Kuss.
Without it, there’s a huge hole on the U.S. domestic stage racing calendar. Right now, there are only a few stage races left. Luckily, the crit scene is alive and well, and gravel continues to boom.
Here’s hoping the Wal-Mart heirs keep their cycling passion stoked and underwrite a new U.S. stage race. The Sam’s Club Tour of Arkansas presented by Rapha, anyone?
Gravel Guru Award — Peter Stetina
When Peter Stetina walked away from the WorldTour in 2019 to race gravel full-time, everyone thought … whaaaaa?
Sure, gravel is fun, and something you do on weekends with 3,000 of your best friends, but to give up the WorldTour for that?
Stetina is proving it to be a very wise career choice.
Since jumping off the deep end, Stetina has emerged as a trailblazer of sorts, bringing all the lessons he learned in a decade on the WorldTour, and coupling that with the fun and adventure that the gravel scene delivers up so well. And he wins a lot of races.
Also read: Stetina wins BWR Utah
COVID certainly didn’t help, but Stetina is showing everyone that being a full-time gravel pro is certainly a viable career option. So much so, that many other WorldTour pros also followed in his tire tracks.
The gravel scene is still wide open enough to have fun, but more professionalism is creeping in, like it or not, especially at least at the sharp end of the race.
And that’s usually where you’ll find Stetina, or hanging around the keg after crossing the finish line.