For the first in a series of pieces reviewing the 2021 season, I’m considering some of the riders who won hearts and minds this year. Be it from their full gas riding, their sparkling personalities or their memorable victories, there are a few shining stars who have won a place in my affections for the foreseeable future.

*Disclaimer – they may have won your hearts prior to 2021 but this is my article so you’ll have to forgive the poetic license

1. Taco van der Hoorn – up there with everyone’s top moments of the season, Taco’s breakaway win on Stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia catapulted the Dutch Intermarche rider right into the hearts of many cycling fans. His utter shock as he crossed the line, with the peloton bearing down behind him, remains up there with the gifts that the cycling gods have bestowed upon us in 2021. He’s continued his great form, riding in numerous breakaways and taking more wins, and it probably helps that he’s named after a Mexican foodstuff; you can’t very well forget THAT name.

The moment that had the cycling world collectively jumping up and down – Stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia

2. Hour record holder Victor Campanaerts is known for his time trialling abilities but this season he’s transformed into an altogether different beast. He has ridden two of the three grand tours and many one day races and if there’s movement to be had at the front of a race, he’s more often than not involved. His commitment to animating races and working for his team in the breakaway is second to none; his victory in the Giro was so well deserved and he also played a part in one of the most memorable moments of the season, the great Belgian Breakaway of Paris-Nice. Departing the sinking ship that is Qhubeka-Assos, despite being one of its most vociferous supporters, Victor will reportedly find a new home, and hopefully a huge amount of success, at Lotto Soudalnext year. He really deserves all the nice things.

3. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. I know I know, I’m late to the party, but this has been my breakout season in terms of engaging with women’s cycling and it’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know just a few of the incredible characters within the womens’ peloton. Cecilie, already well known for her hilarious interviews, symbolises everything amazing about womens’ cycling. She’s passionate, positive and vibrant as well as being a brilliant rider, and she can more often than not be found animating the business end of races and proving that Danes are a force to be reckoned with on two wheels. I became an instant fan of hers this season and can’t wait to see her in 2022.

4. Filippo Ganna. It seems like an obvious choice, but 2021 showed every facet of the mighty Italian’s game, and he staked his claim as arguably the MVP of the season. Not only did he employ his sizeable engine in the pursuit of his own goals, taking time trial gold in the World Championships and winning a stage at the Giro d’Italia (not to mention THAT Olympic team pursuit performance), he devoted it selflessly to his team, and, one could argue, to the peloton in general.

With the usual suspects – the likes of Tony Martin and Tim Declercq – absent from the Giro d’Italia, Pippo took it upon himself to drive the race through his home nation, and unlike the intimidating patrons of old (Tony and Tim not included here), he did it with a smile on his face. An unrelenting rouleur of machine-like proportions, with his winning combination of power, endurance and all-round good guy vibes, Ganna looks set to become the new ‘Peloton Dad’ (term coined by Cycling Twitter’s @AnnaMac), and gives the front of the Sky Train of old a much-needed revamp.

5. After a promising start to the season, with a second place on stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico, Lotto Soudal rider Brent van Moer caused a collective ripple of shock and disappointment at the Ronde van Limburg. In a nail-biting slog to the finish following an immense solo breakaway effort, van Moer was closing in on victory, when with all but 700m to go, he was sent the wrong way by one of the officials on the road.

There could be no more agonising way to lose the race; so close and yet so far. Tim Merlier on the sprint that was left in van Moer’s wake, proving that Alpecin-Fenix are living a charmed life this season, and van Moer was left heartbroken, and DNF’ed the race in protest (presumably: I would have done the same). Widely touted as the new Thomas de Gendt, the Belgian veteran himself posted in support of his Lotto Soudal colleague and when van Moer went on the attack again on stage 1 of the Dauphine seeking redemption, there were few who would have been cheering against him. He took the stage victory and finally had a reason to smile, as his hard work paid off.

6. Lorenzo Fortunato – Relatively unknown prior to this year’s Giro, Fortunato thrilled his EOLO Kometa team manager Alberto Contador and catapulted himself into legend with an absolutely HUGE ride up Monte Zoncolan on Stage 14 of this year’s Giro d’Italia. It was followed by a truly joyful post-race interview where we were first acquainted with THAT smile… need I say more? (See pictorial evidence below, if you have yet to be convinced, or somehow managed to miss it).

7. Ide Schelling – the Dutch BORA rider has been a revelation this season, lighting up races with his attacking style. At the Tour de France he was front and centre in the King of the Mountains competition and did the polka dots proud, fighting for every point in the first week of the race and retaining the jersey for 5 days. His smiley demeanour and lively riding style instantly endeared him to a whole new audience of cycling fans and at just 23, we have many years of Ide to look forward to, and I could not be happier about this.

Schelling and Perez fight full gas for the KOM points on Stage 2 of the Tour de France. As you do.

9. Anna Kiesenhofer – it’s fair to say that despite my relative lack of familiarity with the womens’ peloton, I wasn’t the only one who was surprised when the Austrian came through to take a stunning victory at the Tokyo Olympic road race back in August. Kiesenhofer was part of the day’s original break, and worked with three other riders most of the day, before striking out alone to take gold as the team of Dutch powerhouses failed to work together in her wake. Kiesenhofer was out of contract and had never taken a professional win in her career, but she timed her attack to perfection and measured her effort to put the victory beyond doubt. Hopefully she will be back in the pro peloton in 2022, she has proven her worth and of course, we want to see the golden accessories befitting of her status.

Golden girl – Anna Kiesenhofer after her incredible Olympic victory in Tokyo

10. Jay Vine – the young Aussie had his break-out season with Alpecin-Fenix in 2021 after winning a place on the team through the Zwift Academy programme, and La Vuelta was his break-out ride. He fought valiantly in breakaways and was almost successful on Stage 12, if it weren’t for a crash with his own team car, which he brushed off like it was nothing. He’s lively, talented and has grit and enthusiasm for days (at least three weeks, in fact) and I’ll be watching out for him in 2022. You should too.

11. Riejanne Markus – the Jumbo Visma women’s team have a great thing going. They seem like a cohesive, united front both on and off their bikes, and the young Dutch rider’s social media presence has given us a window into the life of a world tour pro rider this year, with the joyous, smiley group photos before Strade Bianche one of the highlights of the early season, bubbling over with friendship and the joie de vivre that seems to encapsulate he womens’ world tour. Not just a happy face, Riejanne is also a talented rider, making the selection for the Netherlands for the World Championships time trial, having a great ride at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes and winning a stage at the Tour of Norway, finishing 7th on GC.

CONCLUSION: Yes, it seems that many of the riders who’ve made this illustrious selection have earned their place not simply for their achievements, but largely because they’re very smiley (apart from Stefan de Bod. Sorry Stefan). I will not apologise for this shameless promotion of happy people. What is sport about, if not about the expression of the joy of using the body, pushing it to its limits, and realising dreams. It’s the riders who give their all who capture my heart, and the more they give, the greater the reward. And the greatest reward is a smile.

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