’22 Preview: Chapter 2 – Top Dogs (2)

In case you missed it: my last post introduced my new team preview series, in which I take a look at each of the men’s World Tour teams (and a select few Pro teams), their performance in 2021, their comings and goings, and their goals for 2022. Because let’s face it: we all need something to do while we count down to road season, don’t we? Check out Chapter 1 featuring INEOS Grenadiers and Team Jumbo Visma if you haven’t already.

Today’s it’s the turn of two of the biggest success stories of 2021: the most successful team, and the team containing the most successful individual rider: Quick-Step and UAE Team Emirates. It’s fair to say these two teams take two very different approaches to racing and with both set to stick to their guns and continue doing what works in the coming season, let’s break down just what it is that makes each of these cycling superpowers so good at what they do.

QUICK-STEP ALPHA VINYL

The team formerly known as Deceuninck, who have ditched the windows sponsor and doubled down on the flooring, will aim to begin 2022 in a similar vein to 2021. Not only did they boast the most wins of any team, they also proved their reputation for espousing the trusty adage ‘teamwork makes the dreamwork,’ with the widest spread of victories amongst their collective of riders of any team. Everyone gets a fair bite at the cherry at Quick-Step; it’s a tried and tested method that really came into its own in 2021. Unless of course, you didn’t see eye-to-eye with the top brass.

Ins and Outs

The team have incurred a few losses to their ranks, the most significant being Irish sprint sensation Sam Bennett, off to BORA-Hansgrohe with Shane Archbold following a long-running and egregious war of words with owner Patrick Lefevre. João Almeida also preferred to try his luck elsewhere, heading to UAE Team Emirates.

Despite this though, the Wolfpack retain their core personnel and continue adding young talent, snapping up the likes of unsettled Belgian Ilan van Wilder from Team DSM, British track talent Ethan Vernon and Giro 2021 stage winner Mauro Schmid.

Pack of wolves: Quick-Step doing Quick-Step things behind World Champion Julian Alaphillippe

2021 Highlights

Where do you begin? Literally at the very beginning: Davide Ballerini took the first two stages and the overall at the Tour de la Provence in early February, followed by surging to victory on opening weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The team’s success continued apace after that: Kasper Asgreen’s last gasp victory at the Tour of Flanders, Mark Cavendish’s fairytale, Merckx-equalling four stages at the Tour de France and Julian Alaphillippe’s perfectly timed, brilliant solo attack to defend the rainbow stripes in Leuven were arguably the team’s crowning achievements, but they only told part of the story. A total of nine Grand Tour stages, one-day victories at Brugge-de-Panne, E3 and Fleche Wallonie, plus a clutch of wins at stage races in Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Denmark… the list goes on.

2022 Goals

It’s probably quicker to outline what Quick-Step WON’T be targeting in 2022, because with their strength in depth they will be going all out to ensure they top the UCI World Tour Team rankings for the fifth year in six. Historically, the Belgian outfit tend to avoid GC battles, so take the Grand Tours out of the mix, and what’s left are the team’s main goals… Right?

Well, not exactly. Aside from the fact you can never quite rule out Julian Alaphillippe having a crack at the Tour, should the wind be blowing the right way, Quick-Step will this year send Remco Evenepoel to La Vuelta a España, for arguably the team’s best chance at a Grand Tour GC since Alaphillippe in 2019.

So, are they doing a reverse-INEOS, and diversifying away from concentrating solely on the classics to focus on Grand Tour domination? Perhaps not entirely. The Belgian team have always focused on their sprinting, and last year at the Tour de France was no exception. The wins, however, came from a different source than expected. This year, their number one sprinter is likely to be Fabio Jakobsen, who will face off against one of the strongest sprinting fields in a good few years in the hunt for stage wins. Kasper Asgreen will have designs on the yellow jersey too, one of a number of time trial specialists going for the win on the opening day test against the clock. The location, in his home country of Denmark, makes the goal even more appealing for Asgreen.

Of course it’s inevitable that the main goal for Quick-Step will be one day classics, but with INEOS looking more closely at the classics, Jumbo Visma strengthening their one-day squad and Tadej Pogačar aiming at four of the five monuments, they cannot expect to have things all their own way in 2022.

Key Players

There’s no ‘I’ in Wolfpack, and the Belgian team have thrived on their trademark ‘sharing is caring’ approach. That by no means precludes them from having a few aces in the pack though, and when you have the World Champion in your team, it’s not a bad start. Julian Alaphillippe will have his sights set on defending the rainbow bands and will undoubtedly have the likes of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and a stage or two at the Tour on his agenda.

Remco Evenepoel is targeting La Vuelta, and following his ill-advised tilt at the Giro d’Italia, his first race back after his lengthy recovery from the Il Lombardia horror crash, the 2022 Vuelta is undoubtedly a better prospect for the young superstar.

Fabio Jakobsen will be the team’s top sprinter following the departure of Sam Bennett, with Mark Cavendish likely to play more of a background role this season.

Summary

It’s a case of ‘as you were’ for Quick-Step, who go into the new season as strong as ever and with a range of achievable goals for a team with many cards to play.

UAE TEAM EMIRATES

By contrast to the wide spread of winners at Quick-Step, UAE Team Emirates quite clearly placed all their proverbial eggs in one Slovenian basket in 2021. When you have arguably the most valuable rider in the peloton, that’s fair enough, right?

Ins and Outs

Arguably the main downfall of Pogačar’s back-up squad in 2021 was the lack of strength in depth; when the going got tough, Pog quite often had to get going… by himself. When you’re Tadej Pogačar it’s not a huge issue but the team management have used their not inconsiderable wealth to add to the squad, strengthening Pogačar’s security detail in the mountains with the likes of George Bennett from Jumbo Visma and Marc Soler from Movistar and upgrading luxury domestiques, with David de la Cruz out and João Almeida in. The ex-Quick-Step man is likely to play a support role for Pog at La Vuelta in exchange for his own shot at leadership.

They’ve done a straight sprinter swap, trading Alexander Kristoff in for a younger model in the shape of Pascal Ackermann, and arguably their most significant acquisition is Spanish wunderkind Juan Ayuso, who will ride his first full year at world tour level with great expectations on his young shoulders.

2021 Highlights

It was a stellar year for Tadej Pogačar, and his team basked in the reflected glory. It started out on home turf, with the overall victory at the UAE Tour in February – would anything less have been accepted? Probably not, but it set a precedent for the rest of the year, and one which he was confidently able to follow through on.

The tuft-haired prince of Slovenia won in Tirreno-Adriatico and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, before defending his Tour de France title and truly proving he could do it all. There was a late season surge to add another Monument, Il Lombardia, and while the team picked up a few lesser wins from the likes of Juan Sebastian Molano and Matteo Trentin, the top ranked UCI rider of the year was the man of the moment. In almost all of the moments.

Tadej doing some winning. As he does.

2022 Goals

The defence of the Tour de France for the third year running will be top of the agenda for Team UAE, but with a wider range of talent on the books this year the Emirati team can look to other goals, too. João Almeida will relish the opportunity to fight for pink in Italy come May, in a race where he has shown great promise but has been frustrated for the past two years.

Tadej Pogačar ambition cannot be called in question as he targets not only the hat-trick at the Tour but also La Vuelta, not to mention the small matter of four of the five Monuments, and you’d be a fool to write him off achieving everything he sets his mind to this season.

Other new additions have been assured they will get their own chances, so expect to see the likes of Marc Soler and Davide Formolo go stage hunting at Grand Tours, should Pog put the GC out of sight early on as he did at least year’s Tour.

Key Players

If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed the name Tadej Pogačar crop up once or twice over the past few years on the cycling scene. The kid’s clearly got a big future ahead of him. All joking aside, where INEOS sometimes struggle with too many leaders, and Quick-Step invest in shares of one vast super-ego, UAE Team Emirates are secure in their conviction that there is only one man for the job, and that man is Pogačar. His contract is good until 2026 and there’s no reason to think his dominance won’t last at least that long; UAE are sitting pretty and with the likes of Almeida, McNulty and Soler to support him, as well as pick up a win or two along the way, and Ayuso looking to follow in his footsteps, they are likely to be dominant for many years to come.

Summary

Things look bright for UAE Team Emirates, but with the sport developing and masses of young talent coming through across the sport, their reliance on one man could backfire if he gets injured or fatigued. Yet, Tadej Pogačar has an air of the invincible around him, and for 2022 at least, that trend looks likely to continue. In short, the man from Slovenia will win. A lot. The End.

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Keep up with the ‘22 Preview series over the next couple of weeks to find out which teams are aiming for what in the coming season. Subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss a post, and if you’d like to support the site, I’d be hugely grateful – you can support the site at my Ko-Fi page. Thanks for reading!

’22 Preview: Chapter 1 – Top Dogs (1)

The off-season in cycling is a slippery beast. One moment you’re flopping dramatically on the sofa, bemoaning the loss of your beloved sport, and smashing dates into ‘how many days until’ calculators to torture yourself by finding out just how long it is until you can stare at a bunch of men on bikes for six hours a day again. And the next… The new season is just around the corner.

Time has stretched and warped and compressed, because, well, it does that. Festive seasons and muddy cyclocross races and endless debates about new kits have come and gone, and what do you know, suddenly it’s mid-January and we find ourselves counting down to the 2022 season (and still waiting for EF to announce their new kit, because some things never change).

What is in store for the 18 World Tour teams this upcoming season? What are our expectations of each team, following an electrifying 2021 season? Who are the key players, and what goals does each team hope to accomplish as we enter another year of fierce competition?

Over the course of the next couple of weeks I will be posting a series of previews taking a look at how each team fared in 2021, and their aims for this fresh, bright and hopeful new year in cycling. Featuring all 18 World Tour teams, and a select few Pro teams too.

First up, two posts on the Top Dogs. The four richest teams in the sport were in the top 5 most successful in 2021 in terms of world tour victories: can they stay on top for 2022?

INEOS GRENADIERS

Following a long period of Tour de France domination, the British powerhouse are undoubtedly in something of a transition phase at the moment, with the likes of Tom Pidcock and Ethan Hayter bringing a fresh perspective and realistic hopes for a different kind of future. Despite bagging one Grand Tour victory in each, the past couple of years have fallen short in terms of the type of success the team aspires to, and there’s no doubt they will be looking to rectify that in 2022.

Ins and Outs

The transition period is reflected in the shifting personnel at INEOS. With a cluster of veterans still on the books and hoping to make the most of their last couple of seasons, and an influx of new blood nipping at their heels, INEOS are backing up their diversification by signing the likes of Ben Tullett and Ben Turner, both successful in cyclocross and on the road. They’ve also added youngsters Kim Heiduk and Magnus Sheffield, and more experienced riders Omar Fraile and Elia Viviani, with Rohan Dennis and Gianni Moscon their most significant departures.

Most recently they have secured the services of aerodynamics expert Dan Bigham on staff in an effort to hone their time trialling skills, and they have extended the contract of Egan Bernal for another five years, putting faith in the Colombian’s ability to manage his chronic spine condition and deliver results in what should be the prime of his career.

INEOS Grenadiers: weathering the storm in style since 2021

2021 Highlights

If you look at the results and the personnel INEOS lavished on them, you’d be forgiven for thinking that week-long stage races were top of the team’s list of priorities in 2021. They threw resources at the proverbial wall to see what stuck, and as a result, they were utterly dominant in most of the week-long races they competed in, taking victory and multiple podium spots in Catalunya, Tour de Suisse, Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. Their embarrassment of riches highlighted a bigger problem in the team though: too many chiefs. With multiple leaders for many races, the team often seemed disorganised, and the sharing is caring policy did not translate into the ultimate prize that the team covet – the Tour de France general classification. Despite taking Thomas, Carapaz, Porte and Geogehan-Hart, and achieving a third place for their trouble, it was a second year in a row without success at the race the British team have prioritised above all others.

But while their Tour de France dominance seems in decline, there is one grand tour the Grenadiers have made their own. Following Giro success in the covid-hit season of 2020, the maglia rosa belonged to INEOS in 2021 too. They showed what it meant to unite behind one leader, and Egan Bernal showed flashes of the brilliance he has always promised in Italy, on the gravel roads of Montalcino and emerging victorious from the mists over Passo Giau, but he faded in the final week to give the faithful a scare.

Later in the year there was a mountain biking Olympic gold for Tom Pidcock and rainbow bands for Fillippo Ganna at the World Championship time trial.

And lest we forget amid the remonstrations over a disappointing Tour de France performance, 2021 was the year when INEOS began to make their mark on one-day racing. Dylan van Baarle won Dwars door Vlaanderen and took an impressive second place at the World Championship road race in Leuven, and Tom Pidcock took victory at Brabantse Pijl and lost out by a hair’s breadth to Wout van Aert at Amstel Gold Race, as the beginnings of a classics outfit began to rise from the ashes of dashed yellow jersey dreams.

2022 Goals

Tour de France redemption, Giro d’Italia defence and a continuation of the development of a one-day team will be top of the list for the Grenadiers in the new season. They will be in no mood to mess around and are likely to have a clearer plan for leadership, and with a core group of young British riders ready to take on one-day racing, expect to see them play a far more prominent role at the Spring Classics.

Tom Pidcock is likely to aim for the rainbow stripes in Australia in September following his bold statement that he intends to go for three world titles in three different disciplines in the same year.

Key Players

Egan Bernal will be top of the tree in 2022, taking on the leadership role at the Tour de France in an attempt to prove that 2019 wasn’t a flash in the pan. He will have to take on two Slovenians embroiled in a three-tour-long grudge match, in order to succeed.

Richard Carapaz is arguably the team’s big hope for a grand tour overall at the Giro, and the team will undoubtedly be throwing more of their considerable resource into one-day racing, with both Tom Pidcock and Ethan Hayter stating their intentions to target Monuments.

Away from the road, Fillippo Ganna has stated his intention to go for the hour record on the track, and with Dan Bigham now on his side, you’d be a fool to bet against him.

Summary

After a couple of years of reinvention, 2022 could be the year in which INEOS begin a new chapter in their story, embracing the many facets of the sport to become a more well-rounded giant of the sport.

TEAM JUMBO VISMA

It was a rollercoaster of a year for the Dutch team. They achieved a lot despite a few significant setbacks, the first coming with the decision of Tom Dumoulin to take a step back from the sport in January. They were beset by injuries and crashes, beginning with Primož Roglič’s anguish at Paris-Nice, but they rallied and showed the true meaning of their motto ‘samen winnen’, coming together despite the loss of 50% of their team at the Tour to secure four incredible stage victories and second place in the GC.

Ins and Outs

The loss of Tony Martin, who retired at the end of 2021 after a long and successful career, is a real body blow to not only the team, but the whole peloton. In his absence Jumbo Visma will need to look to new leaders to fill the considerable void the German will leave in his wake. They have made some smart acquisitions in the transfer market, bolstering their one-day resources with Tosh van der Sande, Christophe Laporte and most recently rescuing Tiesj Benoot from the conveyor belt of Team DSM escapees, as well as going some way to replacing the significant presence of Tony Martin with Rohan Dennis, who has recently been quite vocal in his disapproval of his former team’s so-called ‘copying’ of his new team.

Also in: Milan Vader, a multi-disciplinarian with a background in mountain biking, is an intriguing and unknown prospect, and the team have added some talent from their development squad including promising time trial specialist Mick van Dijke, his twin brother Tim, and Michel Hessman.

2021 Highlights

The team had mixed fortunes in week-long stage races last season. Wout van Aert put up stern resistance to Pogačar at Tirreno-Adriatico while Primož Roglič rose and fell at Paris-Nice. The team bounced back, winning Itzulia Basque Country in a display of dominance that saw the beginnings of an unexpected rivalry between Danish domestique Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar that would keep us entertained all season.

They had a decent performance in the Spring Classics with Wout van Aert picking up two victories, at Gent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold Race, and they pocketed three Olympic medals and a silver at Worlds, half of those courtesy of Wout van Aert, and the others a time trial gold for Primož Roglič that would reinvigorate the Slovenian’s season, and a silver for Tom Dumoulin in the same event.

In the Grand Tours, the team were slow to warm up. After a disappointing Giro, there followed a Tour de France both to remember and forget, with incredible highs following devastating lows. La Vuelta proved to be the highlight as they took the GC and four stage wins courtesy of a resurgent Roglič, who also went on to pick up a couple of victories in the autumn Italian classics.

Joy for Jumbo at La Vuelta: Sepp Kuss passes his victorious team leader Primož Roglič

2022 Goals

Ever since that moment on Les Planches des Belles Filles in September 2020, it has seemed inevitable that the Pog v Rog narrative will be the centre of gravity around which entire seasons revolve. The whole world of cycling was denied the opportunity to see the rematch in 2021 following an accident-riddled first week, and it goes without saying that it will be Take 3 this summer. Yellow at the Tour is the primary goal for the team but, in an ambitious move, the team will also go for green with Wout van Aert, the saviour of last year’s lost hopes. Will it be a reach too far, or can they pull off the unthinkable?

Key Players

Primož Roglič will go for the holy grail once more: the Tour de France General Classification. Jonas Vingegaard will also make the Tour de France his main goal. The team were careful not to name him ‘co-leader’ but, as one of the few, arguably the only, rider who can make an impression on Pogačar on long climbs, the Danish rider will serve in multiple roles: as helper, agitator and fall-back option.

Wout van Aert’s ambitious set of goals include a Monument – he’s aiming for Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – along with the green jersey at the Tour. He has not mentioned the World Championships in Willunga yet but undoubtedly, after last year’s disappointment on home soil, the rainbow stripes will be high on his agenda.

Tom Dumoulin is back in action for the Dutch team. It’s unclear the type of form he’s in, but he’ll target pink at the Giro in May, with co-leader Tobias Foss at his side.

Summary

If luck can stay on their side, and with ambitious goals set out for them, 2022 could be a great year for Jumbo Visma.

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7 reasons to watch women’s cycling in 2022

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Never was the old adage more evident than in 2020, when the pandemic curtailed the cycling season and we were left bereft and grasping at the memories of 2019 and wondering when it would be back.

As a result of another old adage ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ (along with a side order of poor mental health), when cycling returned, in August of 2020, I stepped up my level of interest from ‘semi-obsessive’ to ‘beyond help.’ 

I wanted all the cycling. ALL. OF. IT. I got into cyclocross, I devoured mountain biking, and I watched smaller races that I’d never even heard of prior to 2020 except in passing on commentary for bigger races. I also watched quite a bit of women’s racing.

Here comes the confession. Buckle up.

Until this year, I’m embarrassed to say, I had only watched a minimal amount of women’s bike racing. The Olympics. The World Championships. And not a whole lot else.

Why? Well, partially for the same reason as many other men’s cycling fans: access. I didn’t even have GCN prior to 2020, and it didn’t cross my mind to seek it out elsewhere. If I had, I wouldn’t have found much. Coverage of women’s racing has been sketchy at best over the years.

So, it was a whole new world I entered at the beginning of 2021. Getting to know the women’s peloton. The characters. The dynamics. The brilliant but somewhat confusing array of purple jerseys. New races on the calendar both for the riders and for me, as a fan.

When I was able to catch a race, I was instantly drawn in. Here were a bunch of dogged, determined athletes, working their butts off for not all that much money, many of them fitting in their sporting goals around jobs and families. And it was different to men’s racing. I wanted to be IN from day 1. Invested. Take my money, I’m a paid-up, card-carrying member of the women’s cycling supporters club. (Is there one?).

It wasn’t as easy as all that, though. Work, family life, and trying to establish myself as a writer as my various revenue streams changed and shifted meant that when I wrote, I focused on what I did know: men’s racing. But goodness knows, I did my best. And I hereby promise, that 2022 will be the year I become a master of all facets of bike racing. Or at least, work my butt off trying. I’m shedding the ‘L’ plates and becoming a fully licensed fan of ALL cycling.

So, if like me, you are keen to dive into the world of women’s racing, but you’re not sure where to start, allow me in my limited wisdom to give you seven, count them, SEVEN reasons why you absolutely cannot miss the 2022 Women’s World Tour.

  1. Bona fide sporting legends

Far from a collection of unknowns trying to find their way on a global stage, women’s cycling is replete with incredibly talented athletes who have achieved a huge amount. However unfamiliar you are with the ins and outs of the women’s side of the sport, you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of some of cycling’s most formidable champions.

Dutch woman Marianne Vos is widely regarded as the GOAT (Greatest of all time) not just in women’s racing, but cycling as a whole. Vos has achieved success across multiple disciplines during her extraordinary long career, including multiple World Championship titles on the track, road and in cyclocross. Alongside her, Annemiek van Vleuten, a highly decorated legend in her own right and absolute machine of a rider. Whilst their compatriot and fellow legend Anna van der Breggen retired this year, the three Dutch queens have inspired a new generation of talent.

And let’s not forget about the queens of the track. German Olympic medallists Lisa Brennauer and Mieke Kröger, Belgian World Champion Lotte Kopecky and all around British track legend Katie Archibald amongst many others all ride on the road too, so you might find there are more familiar faces among the bunch than you expect.

2. Young talent

With the increasing investment in women’s racing, has followed increasing visibility for young, hungry racers with a point to prove. They are ready to take the world by storm and they are going to be with us for years to come, so learn their names.

On the road, a trio of 22-year-old powerhouses, have all been making waves this season: Lorena Wiebes of Team DSM, Chiara Consonni of Valcar-Travel & Service and Emma Norsgaard of Movistar are all names to look out for in 2022.

In cyclocross, Dutch women Fem Van Empel and Puck Pieterse are redefining the discipline, bringing exciting racing every week and beating legends such as Marianne Vos and Lucinda Brand in the process.

Not to be outdone, young Brits Zoe Backstedt and Josie Nelson, and Hungarian Kata Blanka Vas are showing flair and grit both on and off-road, and promise to bring explosive racing in the future to all arenas.

3. Multi disciplinarians

Like their male counterparts, the desire and ability to transcend disciplines is prevalent in the womens’ side of the sport too. Whether it’s a result of improved training and nutrition, or simply a desire to compete all year around and stay fresh, the road/cross combination is working wonders for a great many women in the peloton. It’s arguably even more important on the womens’ side as their calendar presents fewer racing opportunities than the men’s world tour offers, so the women are grasping their chances with both hands.

As a result, the field is packed with talent and they’re evenly matched, leading to exciting racing every week in cyclocross. It’s fair to say that women’s ‘cross is often closer and more and unpredictable than men’s, and is always worth watching. This cross-disciplinary skill improves bike handling, resilience and power over short, hard efforts and adds another dimension to road racing. If you haven’t checked it out yet, now is the time: with 6 races in 8 days over Christmas (covid restrictions permitting) there’s never been a better time to get into ‘cross.

4. Unpredictability

Cycling is unpredictable. Route planning, weather, fitness, nutrition, injuries, crashes, team composition, tactics – myriad reasons why picking a winner to any bike race is a pretty challenging task. In men’s racing though, you generally have a strong sense of who might come out on top in any given scenario.

In the women’s peloton, though, unpredictability is basically a USP. Take this year’s Tokyo Olympic road race as a prime example. Austrian rider Anna Kiesenhofer, not registered to any pro team at the time of the race, took off in the break with three other women, and ended up taking home the greatest prize of all: the gold medal. It was a beautifully calculated ride that, combined with a comedy of errors from the other race favourites, most notably the Dutch team, produced the most unexpected result, and a fairytale story that cycling fans will remember for years to come.

The unpredictability could stem in part from the fact that the sport is growing and with it the desire to stamp a mark on it. This, and the aforementioned fewer opportunities mean that women’s racing is hard-fought and unforgiving. But more than that, women’s physiological differences result in a slightly different style of racing to men. Women think differently and ride differently; the peloton is smaller, teams are smaller, and the distances are less overall. There’s a shedload of attacking, and with no long stage races the women’s peloton just can’t afford boring days. When you’re used to watching men’s racing it’s a refreshing change to see the differences.

5. The Inaugural Tour de France Femmes

If you missed the first ever women’s Paris-Roubaix in October, you missed the women’s world tour peloton making history. It was pure joy to see the faces of the riders on the start line, and at the end as they rode into the famous Roubaix velodrome.

A moment in history: the women take to the pave for the first ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes

Truth be told, though, we all missed a large proportion of the race, including the decisive move that resulted in Lizzie Deignan’s solo break which eventually brought victory. This is because the broadcasters only saw fit to show the final 50-something kilometres of the race. We are entering a period of increased investment and exposure for the sport and although it’s a start, there’s still a long way to go.

Having said that, in 2022, we will see another first – the inaugural Tour de France Femmes. A proper stage race in France, to replace the annual – and let’s face it, wholly inadequate – La Course by Le Tour one day race. With an interesting and varied parcours the race will form the centre of the women’s calendar and will feature the absolute best riders battling it out for the first ever yellow jersey.

Even better, it occupies its own space on the calendar, following on immediately after the Tour de France (Hommes). So there’s absolutely no excuse not to get involved. It promises to be spectacular, and did I mention it’s the first one EVER. The impact of this cannot be overstated – in years to come when men’s and women’s cycling come closer into line in terms of exposure, this will not seem so out of place. Savour these firsts; remember them. You can tell your kids where you were when [INSERT NAME HERE] won the first Tour de France Femmes ever. That’s no small thing.

6. New sponsors, new teams, new races

The UCI announced on 9th December the expansion of the Women’s World Tour to fourteen teams, almost doubling their current number following the addition or promotion of six teams to World Tour status. Large investors have been attracted to the sport this year as its presence grows and more broadcasters commit to showing women’s races. Big name men’s teams are putting their backing behind women’s teams as well as the established women’s teams continuing to fly the flag for the sport. It can only be a good thing, as the more investment in the sport, the more exposure it will gain and the more traction with broadcasters and events organisers capable of bringing the sport into more homes and to more potential fans.

Questions have been raised over the nature of some of the investors, for example Team UAE Emirates, whose involvement seems in direct conflict with the country’s gender inequalities, and the furore surrounding Deceuninck, their split from QuickStep, and Patrick Lefevre, who has now done an extraordinary u-turn and has committed sponsorship money from a company he co-owns for the NXTG Racing Team.

Is all investment good investment? At this stage, the more talented women who can sustain a living from cycling, and the greater the sport grows, the better. Morally grey sponsors aren’t a new thing to the sport so for now, it will be a case of seeing past the name on the jersey to the riders being afforded a huge opportunity that they might not otherwise have been handed.

Even better news for female riders is the increasing number of race days for the women’s World Tour: from 37 in 2021, to 70 in 2022. This is incredible, exciting growth and while we may see some lag time in the response from broadcasters, it’s fair to say that there will be more women’s cycling available to watch in 2022 than ever before. More of all of this, please!

7. Being a part of somethiing

It’s OK to admit that you don’t know everything about womens’ cycling. Not all that many people do, statistically speaking. Proportionally, for many reasons, there is a wider, more knowledgeable audience for mens’ racing. But that doesn’t make you an outsider. You’re not excluded from the fun. So, do you want in? Because I sure as hell do. Being a part of the growth of a sport is special, and wanting to be involved is enough, for now. So long as we’re willing to admit we don’t know it all, to stay open-minded, and to learn from the experts, it will all lead to a stronger, bigger community of womens’ cycling fans.

Women’s sport is growing and gaining power across the board right now and we are all here for it. So, let’s do what we can: watching. Consuming. Enjoying. Being a part of the conversation. And being a student of bike racing. Isn’t that why we’re all here, after all?

It’s fine not to know your Canyon S/RAMs from your SD Worx for now. You’ll get to know them all in time. You’ll pick a favourite, for completely arbitrary reasons like the colour of their jerseys (er, they’re mostly orangey pink this year), the way they power up a climb, or because one has your Mum’s middle name; whatever reason you have for picking your people. But then you’ll get to know them, the way you know your favourite male riders, and there’s no backing out then: you’re invested.

To return to the opening of this post, you don’ t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It seems that the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ applies even more in the case of women’s cycling. Broadcasters need to know we want to see these girls race. So don’t miss your opportunity to get involved: switch on, learn about and revel in brilliant sporting endeavour. Now is the time. You’re a part of the future of the sport. And you won’t regret it.

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Week-Long Stage Races: Goldilocks Bike Racing

Think back through some of the highlights of the 2021 cycling season and you’ll inevitably find yourself focusing on classic one day races such as the Monuments or World Championships and their all-or-nothing full-gas bids for glory; or at the other end of the spectrum, the three Grand Tours and their endless array of nuance, varying days and layered stories.

Where does the week-long stage race fit in this picture? Is it the best of both worlds? Or, by occupying the middle ground – neither short enough to propel the peloton into immediate action nor long enough to expound upon the myriad narratives that can unfold over an extended period – does it lose out on the defining features that attract fans to bike racing?

Arguably, it’s both, and looking at the week-long races that unfolded across the 2021 season, it’s possible to justify that this middle ground IS the defining feature of a week-long race, and by teetering on the fence of possibility, the potential of a week-long stage race to be both incredible, and a massive disappointment, creates a Schrodinger’s Bike Race scenario, in which until the bike race plays out, it could genuinely occupy either possibility.

Of course you could argue that Monuments can be dull (rarely, I grant you), and even Grand Tours have been known to drag on a bit in the past. But there’s something to the mystique, the history, the expectation, and the incredible ensemble cast that virtually guarantees worthy stories will arise from both the short and long forms of bike racing. Yet the medium-sized race? That’s the Goldilocks race.

The key to a mesmerising week-long race seems to depend much more heavily on external factors: the route, the composition of the peloton, even the timing – perhaps, as will become clear as we remember the best races, the timing is, in fact, everything. The spoon in the porridge. The blankets on the medium-sized bed (OK, I’m willing to accept that this analogy is perhaps somewhat flawed).

Taking a trip down memory lane I’ll revisit some of the most memorable moments of the season that arose from these ‘Goldilocks’ bike races, and also spare a thought for those races which didn’t live up to the hype.

February: UAE Tour

Included here for reasons of completion, the Emirati race now arrives first in the calendar, and with it, the first sighting of bike riders in the wild, following their off-season escapades.

The UAE Tour: basically just Milton Keynes in the desert.

There’s not a lot to love about the race as a spectacle. If you like your scenery dry and your racing drier, perhaps the UAE Tour is for you. But there’s only so much gruelling charging across flat desert around a glorified car park that one can stomach. Thankfully, this year’s edition came with some decent talking points in terms of the racing.

Mathieu van der Poel! He was there. And didn’t everyone else know it. Fresh from a cyclocross season which ended in him regaining his world champion rainbow bands, was it any wonder that MVDP arrived in explosive form, taking the first stage on the sprint and announcing that bike racing was BACK. Sadly, the spectre of covid-19 was ever-present, and following a positive case in the team, Alpecin-Fenix withdrew from the race, leaving us to speculate just how many of the flat stages MVDP would have won (answer: er, all of them obviously).

Flat bit, sandy bit, car park, repeat x 1000. There was little else to see other than to take comfort in the fact that thanks to taking place in A MASSIVE DESERT, the UAE is one of the few places to provide almost guaranteed crosswinds, and you know what crosswinds mean: echelons. And lord knows, cycling fans love an echelon.

Other than that, there were two massive sand dunes. Tadej Pogačar was victorious atop Jebel Hafeet on stage 3, much to the delight of his Emirati sponsors for whom anything less than victory would have been disastrous, and, on stage 5, Jonas Vingegaard announced himself as the climber to watch out for in 2021, storming up Jebel Jais leaving Adam Yates quite literally in his dust.

More sand, bit of sprinting. The End.

March: Paris-Nice/Tirreno-Adriatico

Despite being usurped by the sportwashing newcomer as the first world tour week-long stage races of the year, the titanic pairing of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico are not to be outdone. Traditionally, the races present a difficult choice for teams and their riders: who goes where, with which goals in mind? Either way, it’s a week that feels full of promise, the peloton brimming with pent-up enthusiasm following the off-season; or tense as they work they back to something resembling form. It’s the start, PROPER.

But while Paris-Nice was fraught with the usual tension and crashes, Tirreno had an air of freedom and beauty around it, the sun shone (well, some of the time) and Wout van Aert beat Caleb Ewan in a sprint on the opening day. The world was open to new possibilities.

Over in Paris, Primož Roglič looked in dominant form. Jumbo Visma fans went wild as his first stage victory came within 5 minutes of Wout’s sprint victory in Tirreno, and with a second stage win two days later the writing looked to be on the wall. Then things took an unexpected turn.

On stage 7 Roglič closed down solo breakaway leader Gino Mäder, crossing the line ahead of him to snatch the stage victory and the bonus seconds. It sparked massive debate amongst fans as the ethics of beating the breakaway versus racing for the win were argued, but many predicted consequences within the peloton. The cycling gods took matters into their own hands: the next day, Roglič suffered multiple crashes, re-set his own dislocated shoulder, and tore after his rapidly diminishing lead like a crazed shark-attack victim, as he rode hell for leather after the pack, his jersey ripped and his skin too, beneath it. The repercussions of his actions the previous day seemed to be borne out through the lack of help he was afforded by the peloton, despite his status as race leader, and the result was that he lost the lead, and the GC, to BORA-Hansgrohe’s Max Schachmann.

Outside of the GC battles, there was plenty more going on, as the races gave rise to two of the most memorable moments of the 2021 cycling season…

Belgian breakaway at Paris-Nice Oliver Naesen hatched a scheme to go up the road with ten of his fellow Belgians, livening up an otherwise quiet flat stage of the race. He selected his crack squad of riders, quickly communicated the plot, and they were gone before anyone knew what was happening. Listening to Ned Boulting on the commentary as it slowly dawned on him that every rider in the breakaway was Belgian was in itself a glorious thing. The organic nature of the move, coupled with the seamless execution as they pulled clear of the bunch, was poetic. The move sadly didn’t outlast the peloton’s desire for the expected bunch sprint but it was beautiful while it lasted, and like a murmuration of starlings that forms without warning at dawn on a brisk February morning, cycling fans will be forever awaiting the reoccurrence of a such a move. I suspect, we won’t have to wait all that long.

Go to Italy in Spring, they said. It will be warm and sunny, they said. Mathieu van der Poel: doesn’t LOOK that cold. Until you spot the people with fur-lined hoods at the roadside.

MVDP attacks because he was cold In Italy the weather closed in and by Stage 5, the land was shrouded in cloud, mist and rain. The race resembles a Belgian one-day race as they grimly power around Castelfidardo. And when Mathieu van der Poel takes his leave of the front group with 50km still remaining on the stage, piling food into his mouth, little do we realise that that’s him for the day. He is gone. By the time the rest of the riders realise, it’s too late. Van Aert tries and fails to make an impression on the lead, his jaw shaking with the cold, a vision of pure misery. Pogačar, wearing the leader’s jersey, is the only man left capable of challenging. He heads up the road and began to close the gap at an alarming rate. Mathieu continues to fill his face with gels and power on. It’s clear that with 20km or so to go, he’s starting to fade. But he is too stubborn to give in. He hangs on, crosses the line, wobbles and falls from his bike, completely spent. He’ll feel the effects of this effort for a long while after the race is over, but when questioned about his tactics, he simply states that he attacked ‘because he was cold’.

Volta a Catalunya

Hot on the heels of the Franco-Italian double-header, the Spanish stage race promised a decent end to March. It featured some big climbs late on and had the potential to be a brilliant race but INEOS rocked up with a stacked team and the GC battle looked to be an in-fight between Adam Yates, Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas, setting the tone for what would be a season of too many chiefs for the British team.

The race was somewhat saved as a spectacle by the formidable Spanish mountains, and some excellent stage wins from likeable favourites such as Esteban Chaves, picking his moment to re-establish his pure climbing form and taking a rare victory for Team BikeExchange, and Thomas de Gendt, who did Thomas de Gendt things on the final stage, digging in on the multiple loops of the challenging final Barcelona circuit that took in six ascents of the same fiendish climb of del Castell de Montjuic to finally distance Matej Mohorič, who struggled in the face of de Gendt’s sheer will and the punishing repetition of the climbs. Still, it was an INEOS 1-2-3, and it’s unlikely anyone will remember the race this time next year.

April: Itzulia Basque Country/Tour de Romandie

The agenda for April featured two races with six stages apiece.

Itzulia was touted as the first head-to-head battle between Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar since the dramatic occurrences on La Planches de Belle Filles the previous September. The main question was over team strength: did UAE Team Emirates have what it would take to keep their man at the top? Few predicted the intriguing tactical turn of events that unfolded, as Jumbo Visma, who had been leading with Primož Roglič in the early stages of the race, seemingly surrendered the jersey to UAE’s Brandon McNulty on stage 4. It seemed a calculated risk and one that could have backfired spectacularly.  

But on the final stage the Jumbo Visma tactics paid off in dramatic fashion. Jonas Vingegaard’s dogged pursuit of Pogačar’s wheel on the final stage into Arrate, as his leader broke free and headed up the road with a 3-man break, was one of the tactical moves of the season. For Roglič, it was a move that would seem him lay to rest not only the ghosts of the previous Tour de France, but also the accusations of ruthlessness that had followed him since the previous month at Paris-Nice. With the GC win secured, the Slovenian shared a few kind words with the last man standing, Groupama FDJ’s David Gaudu, before sending him off up the road to claim the stage victory, a magnanimous gesture that answered critics of his decision-making at Paris-Nice, and closed the karmic loop ripped open by his alleged earlier misdemeanour.

Pantomime king Jonas Vingegaard: he’s behiiiiiind you!

The podium featured Roglič and Vingegaard on the top two steps, and the ascendancy of the young Dane foreshadowed his role at the Tour de France where he once again he would pursue Pogačar for the entirety of the race, this time as a stand-in for his team leader Roglič who retired with an injury. The master and protégé dynamic between the two Jumbo Visma riders came full circle and although Vingegaard could not oust Pogačar from the top spot in France, he was the only one in the race who could push the younger Slovenian over the limit.

Romandie, by contrast, was somewhat underwhelming. Long days with endless flat stretches and some hideous weather conditions contributed to some attritional, grim racing, and aside from the man on the back of the main camera moto with his little lens squeegie, the highlight of the week the mountainous stage from Sion to Thyon (reportedly a favourite of the late Bob Marley). The climb produced an afternoon’s entertainment which concluded with a bizarre incident in which Geraint Thomas’ hands slipped from his handlebars in the last few hundred metres to deny him the victory, Michael Woods snapping it up following the Welshman’s sudden absence. Despite this, Thomas topped the GC, although it could be argued he didn’t face much of a challenge; his teammate Richie Porte finished in second and like Catalunya, it was more a matter of which INEOS rider would take the prize.

May/June: Critérium du Dauphiné/Tour du Suisse

Aaaaand then it all fell a bit flat.

The Dauphiné is arguably the highest profile of all the week-long stage races, given that’s it’s often treated as a rehearsal for the Tour de France. It regularly features a strong line-up of riders and usually has a seriously challenging route; stages of the Dauphiné are often discussed in the same breath as Grand Tour stages, such is their status.

This year though, it didn’t have the je ne sais quois that usually makes the French prequel so compelling a spectacle.

It had its moments, granted. Brent van Moer’s redemption on stage 1, taking a stage victory after he was denied agonisingly at Tour of Limburg the previous week (read about it here). Lukas Pöstlberger’s happy-go-lucky personality and unexpected 4-day defence of the yellow jersey, arguably due to a lack of ambition on the part of any other team to take the proverbial bull by the horns. Geraint Thomas’ kilometre long effort to take the stage victory on stage 5. And the emergence of Bahrain Victorious’ relatively unknown Ukrainian Mark Padun on the final two stages, showing a hitherto undiscovered climbing prowess that completely demolished a field of significant competition. But as a complete package, the whole thing felt lacking; the isolated incidents that entertained us let down by a lack of overall narrative.

Meanwhile at the Tour de Suisse, there were flashes of brilliance. Mathieu van der Poel ripping up the rulebook, taking the yellow jersey on a jaunt in the breakaway before sacking it off once again before the going got tough in the big mountains. Jumbo-Visma’s Tom Dumoulin returned to the peloton after his break from the sport, Rigoberto Uran surprised everyone by winning a time trial, and Gino Mäder finally reaped his rewards, taking the final mountain stage.

Richard Carapaz took the overall victory almost by default in the end, despite a dominant performance in particular on stage 5, although it could be argued the result on that stage was somewhat skewed by Esteban Chaves riding up a driveway by accident.

Going out in style: MVDP takes the yellow jersey down in a blaze of glory at the Tour de Suisse

AUGUST, AND EVERYTHING AFTER…

(bonus points to anyone who recognises the musical reference)

There were other week-long stage races. At World Tour level, Poland failed to register, on my radar at least, although Benelux had its moments. It was here, as the season stuttered to its end, that fatigue set in, after standards had been raised by three spectacular grand tours. The summer came and went with its array of non-cycling commitments and time was at a premium. The theory seems to hold that the races held early in the season are more memorable; whether it be from a stronger desire to get stuck into racing from the peloton, or a more discerning application of quality control from us as fans, is unclear.

The winners were the lower level races, where last ditch attempts to salvage seasons were launched, resulting in blows being traded between future team mates Joao Almeida and Marc Hirschi at the Tour of Luxembourg, and the rise and rise of INEOS’ young neo pro and Olympic silver medalist Ethan Hayter at the Tour of Britain, vying for dominance amid stellar company as Julian Alaphillippe and Wout van Aert duked it out up the staggeringly difficult finish on the Great Orme, and prepared themselves for their World Championship efforts.

CONCLUSION

It was all about the timing after all, wasn’t it.

If you want to ensure your week-long stage race is all killer, no filler, have it in the early season. If you can’t do that, here are some other recommendations:

  • don’t let INEOS bring more than one leader
  • big GC hitters essential: if the GC battle isn’t exciting the whole thing falls flat
  • if you have climbs, preferably make sure they’re real mountains rather than sand dunes
  • invite Mathieu van der Poel

I’d love to make a sweeping statement about the state of bike racing in the 2020s as a result of my (deeply scientific) research but inevitably, it all comes down to MVDP. If you want a decent week-long stage race, he’s your man. He’ll come, he’ll attack, he’ll complain about the conditions and win anyway, and he’ll more than likely leave before it’s even finished because he just can’t be bothered with you anymore. He makes cycling unpredictable, thrilling and memorable and frankly, who doesn’t need a bit of that in these dark times. Honourable mention for Jonas Vingegaard whose few appearances foreshadowed his astonishing Tour de France performance and gave us plenty to talk about. Even if we did sometimes mistake him for Chris Harper (I’m looking at you, Carlton Kirby).

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11 riders who stole our hearts in 2021

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 Soudal next 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).

Lorenzo Fortunato, with the smile that lit up the grim Italian Spring

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.

8. Stefan de Bod – there’s nothing more heart-rending than riders missing the time cut after a hard day in the mountains on a Grand Tour. This was perfectly encapsulated following the gruelling slog that was Stage 9 of the Tour de France this year, when the young Astana rider from South Africa rolled over the line and asked ‘did I make it?’ He hadn’t. The internet’s collective heart shattered into a thousand pieces, and I’ve been rooting for him ever since. 2022 may only bring good things to Stefan. Because I said so.

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.

OK the off-season is already getting to me, it seems. Stay tuned for more lists remembering the highlights of this unforgettable year in cycling.

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Two Weekends, A Lifetime of Stories

This weekend, after a year and a half of waiting, I finally said goodbye to my Dad. He died in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic (not from covid, I might add) and it’s taken this long for us to able to gather the family and friends who would have wanted to celebrate his life with us, together in one place.

How does this fit in with cycling? You are well within your right to ask. I’ll try to explain.

Remember the World Championships? It wasn’t so long ago, yet as a result of the stress and anxiety I’ve been carrying, time has warped out of its usual shape and it feels more like months ago than just a couple of weeks. I laughed out loud at the notion of trying to write about that epic road race, grateful for my status as a freelance writer as I tried, without success, to recall the order of events as they unfolded in Flanders for a podcast. An unenviable task, to write comprehensively about a race that was contested so hard, and in such incredible circumstances, that any word count would be like a restraining order. I exercised my right to pass on that one, given that I had other things on my mind.

It flew in the face of everything that makes me who I am though, not to channel my emotions about a race through my fingers onto the screen. I started trying to summarise the key moments; to keep it brief; a series of snapshots of arguably the most memorable race of the season, perhaps of the century so far. I didn’t get beyond 100 words then, frustrated that I wasn’t telling the whole story. To write snatches of the middle without a beginning or an end felt incomplete. So, it remained unwritten.

Then came Paris-Roubaix weekend. The sheer weight of history, with the first women’s race, the hallowed deluge that fans had dreamed of producing the most horrific conditions in almost 20 years, and the titanic battles that ensued across the famous cobbles. I couldn’t watch either race live as I was travelling back to my birthplace, where the majority of my Dad’s family live, for the aforementioned gathering.

The week prior to the memorial, I agonised over writing a speech, and spent anxious nights awake wondering whether or not I would be able to deliver it. In the end it was a fitting tribute to him that we all got together to celebrate his life (and I read the speech, and it was fine). Torrential rain poured outside as the first guests drifted in, and throughout the celebration I shared my own memories and savoured the fond recollections of others; accounts from his friends and family that gave me a whole new insight into his life. I left feeling recharged, and as though I had some kind of closure. Yet there are so many memories, and fragments of his life, that remain untold.

In a Premier Inn next to a service station in Hemel Hempstead tears ran down my cheeks as I watched Lizzie Deignan become the first woman to win Paris-Roubaix, and marvelled at the extent to which I project my emotional state onto cycling, as the iconic photo of her in the famous showers at the Roubaix velodrome prompted further tears over the momentous nature of her achievement, and I shed the burden that I’d been carrying ever since my Dad passed. The two things completely unconnected, and yet strangely intertwined in the way that emotions can become, when you’re feeling vulnerable.

Sunday we travelled home, the weather brisk and breezy, the torrents of the previous day dried up, in the UK at least. I sat in the passenger seat of the car, juggling phones, chargers and headsets to try and follow along with the men’s race on the journey. Gasping at the conditions, evident despite the small screen as we hurtled back up the M1 to try and make it home in time to take in some of the racing live (it didn’t happen, and I endured a late night as I caught up on the action).

It was all too much to take in; the treacherous cobblestones, the dirt-caked faces of the battle-hardened warriors who somehow kept going through indescribable hardship. The inability to distinguish one from the next as the mud coated their kits, their faces, their helmets; blocking their vision and obliterating their identities. They became one mass of driving, grimacing, relentless misery. The euphoric screams of the eventual winner, Sonny Colbrelli, as he collapsed dramatically to the ground, a physical manifestation of the momentous nature of the victory. The last man to stagger across the line, Emils Liepins, his identity concealed behind inches of crusted mud.

I didn’t sleep that night, despite the weight that I thought I had shed. The race played over in my head, and the words from my speech echoed as I regretted all the things I hadn’t said. It was a long night.

Another day, another race I couldn’t begin to express in words. Impostor syndrome ate away at me. What sort of cycling writer can’t write about THAT? It had been such a long, long weekend. Both races were so incredibly nuanced, with so many intricacies, missed moments and conflicting narratives, how could I possibly hope to tell them, when I hadn’t even watched them properly, or been emotionally invested as I so often am with cycling?

It took a day or two and the clarity that a lack of sleep sometimes casts to realise that sometimes, a story is too big to be told in one go; like my imperfect memory and incomplete picture of my Dad’s life, supplemented on the day of his memorial by photographs, anecdotes, tales told by others who knew him in a different way to me. That everyone’s experience – whether it be of a race, a person, or a life, is equally valid, yet every one incomplete. That it’s OK to recount the parts that stand out in your memory and leave the rest, to rest. These stories are a patchwork, after all: neither a legendary one-day bike race nor a person’s entire life span can be adequately summarised by one individual, no matter their expertise. I can’t tell the story of the riders who crashed, those who surrendered everything for their team mates, and those who reached but did not quite attain their goals, no more than I can recollect every detail of my Dad’s life. Instead, stories will be pieced together based on the experiences, perceptions, perspectives and memories of the collective. Be it fans, journalists or the riders themselves. Or for my Dad, all his family and friends, gathering together, sharing their memories. Together, perhaps, these accounts can come somewhere close to recreating a sense of a life, or the life of a race such as this.

After my speech, My Dad’s best friend of around 40 years spoke too. He and my Dad shared many things I can never begin to comprehend. Like the riders in the peloton, on any given race day; some are team mates, working for one another. Some are thrown together as a result of the vagaries of chance, conditions or good legs, forced to become an awkward unit for an hour or two. They share something on the day of a race that we as fans, or even in an official capacity, as the media, can never be a party to. My Dad’s friend and I were both inextricably connected to him, and our memories can never map onto one another’s, due to time and perspective and lived experience. Yet by some strange coincidence, because of our shared love for the man, we ended up speaking on similar themes, his stories complementing mine in a way we didn’t discuss or plan beforehand. They shared one unified cause: a man loved by many, and known so well by us. The narrative of a race, then, can be told; imperfectly, severally, and these varying plotlines add up to a beautiful, fractured whole.

So here are the snapshots. The bits I remember. The bits that stood out. My imperfect memories of two weekends that I experienced in fragments, and that can never be repeated. They can stand alongside, correlate with and merge into the accounts from riders, journalists and fans who experienced the same race from myriad different angles, creating a bigger picture of the life of a race. Just as the stories collated at my Dad’s memorial were collected, and treasured, to tell part of the story of his life. And that it’s OK to hold onto just that, for now. It’s enough.

World Championships road races…

There are stories of the spine-tingling atmosphere as crowds gathered in the city of Leuven, singing and chanting like a football crowd, flags fluttering from windows and draped across the barriers. Multiple passes of the short, sharp climbs of the city circuit before the race headed into the more expansive Flandrian circuit, with its longer more unforgiving uphill slogs, characteristic of the spring classics, and wide open stretches where crosswinds threatened. The women experienced it all on the Saturday; the weather glorious, the peloton huddled together. Demi Vollering suffering multiple mechanical issues and running up the Flandrian cobbles with her bike like a cyclocrosser; the Dutch women controlling the race, making up for their mistakes in Tokyo. The hectic cornering of Kasia Niewiadoma on the Leuven circuit, and the incredible leadout of Elisa Longo Borghini to ensure yet another Italian winner, as Marianne Vos was beaten across the line by Elisa Balsamo, her shock and jubilation starkly contrasting with Vos’ distress at having lost. The continuation of Italy’s incredible year of sporting success, and the class of Vos, straightening Balsamo’s socks before she took to the podium to be crowned World Champion.

Champion of the World: Elisa Balsamo takes the final sprint from Marianne Vos

Next day, the action in the men’s race kicked off so early as to be almost unprecedented. The breakaway comprising representatives from the nations that were expected to battle all the way to the line, with the exception of Italy, who were forced to work in the bunch. Tim Declercq remonstrating with Remco Evenepoel, over riding too hard, or too soon; speculation abounded but we’d never know the truth, unless they chose to tell it. Pressure from repeated French attacks; Benoit Cosnefroy with Remco, and later, Valentin Madouas. The coming together and attacking again. The selfless sacrifice of the likes of Tim Declercq, Giacomo Nizzolo and Matteo Trentin. Many more, who threw themselves into the race in service of their leaders and then left once their part had been played. The Italians caught short, and then the British. Remco pulling as hard as he could and then bowing out in Leuven, waving to the fans who sang his name. The heroic individual efforts of Tom Pidcock, Neilson Powless, Dylan van Baarle and the grim determination of Wout van Aert and Yves Lampaert to try and regain contact with the leaders. Mathieu van der Poel the quietest we’ve ever seen him, riding in the wheels and hoping he had the legs. Julian Alaphilippe hitting form just at the right time, putting on the show we have come to expect from him, light-footed as he bounced on the pedals yet contorting his face in pain, shaking his head as if in disbelief at his own audacity; coming within 8 seconds of letting it all go. Then clawing it back again, his self-belief eclipsing the doubts of all the others.

The roar of the fans, thunderous clapping of the boards, the final stretch as the champion once again became champion.  

The celebrations, dancing Frenchmen, Benoit Cosnefroy with the rainbow jersey in his teeth as the French relished the team success. The still ongoing fallout from the Wout/Remco debate. The memories…

Paris-Roubaix

The calm before the storm. The storm before the storm. The iconic photos of Marianne Vos in the showers. The women heading onto the battleground for the first time, yet their fans unable to witness the event because of the network’s reluctance to commit to showing the full race. The frustration and disappointment.

The reported crashes, taking out key contenders, Annemiek van Vleuten fracturing her pelvis. The very real and present danger presented by this crazy, foolhardy pursuit dressed up as sport. The warriors battling on. Lizzie Deignan striking out alone as the women hit the first cobbled sector with over 80km to go, and never being seen again. Her back wheel slipping around on the slick cobbles as the conditions deteriorated, safe to pick her own line as the women in the groups behind her clattered haphazardly to the ground like technicolour skittles. Marianne Vos attacking on the pave, the bitter defeat the previous weekend presumably driving her forward. Her incredible power and control, looking as though she were born on the cobbles. Elisa Longho Borghini doggedly pursuing her wheel.

Lizzie Deignan’s grimace as she neared the end of the race. Her gloveless hands raw on the handlebars. The smile that lit up the stadium as the bell rang in Roubaix velodrome. The first female winner of Paris-Roubaix, her name to be etched on a plaque and into history.

Sunday; chaos. The men rolling out in grim conditions. Slick roads and mists hanging low, the skies, when they were visible, slate grey and expressionless. The peloton lively, attacking on the kilometres they rode in anticipation of the pave to come. The crashes – too many to mention, some even before they hit the cobbled sectors. Peter Sagan, Groupama FDJ’s Stefan Kung crashing once, twice, then the third time, standing painted from head to toe in mud at the roadside, dejected.

The sectors approaching, then ticking down one by one, star ratings displaying the levels of endurance required, and signalling the dreaded names of legend: ‘Trouee d’Arenberg’; ‘Carrefour de l’Arbre’…

The image of Wout van Aert, stoic as he rode through the pain, face caked in mud and streaked with muddy tears, a visceral representation of the grim stoicism of the cobbled classic specialist. Complemented by the pure desolation on the face of Greg van Avermaet, his expression seeming to suggest ‘I’m too old for this shit.’

Warriors: MVDP, Sonny Colbrelli and Wout van Aert suffer through the Hell of the North

Vermeesch and Eekhoff leading into the Arenberg forest. Van Aert expertly steering around as Simon Clarke crashes out, only to see his greatest rival accelerate away from him across the most infamous cobbled sector in cycling. As if he would do it any other way. Luke Rowe and Mads Pedersen clattering onto the unforgiving pave. MVDP’s rain jacket flapping in the wind, then his knowing look as Wout reaches his wheel and the pair are reunited once more. He sits up and twists his back first one way, then the other, limbering up for the next phase of battle. Marvelling at how these two rivals draw the eye even as they are amongst many other strong contenders. Mathieu attacking again on the cobbles with 70km to go, because of course he does. Wout caught out of position and losing sight of him.

The breakaway riders prevailing at first, then succumbing one by one to disaster. Gianni Moscon the last man standing, and riding confidently, taking care of the cobbles with the assured dominance of a man on a Very Good Day. Yet the cycling gods see fit to punish him with first a puncture, then a crash as he teeters inelegantly across the cobbles on the too-hard tyres of his replacement bike.

The anticipation of what’s to come, the writing on the wall for Moscon as the chasing group of three bear down on him. MVDP doing what he does, riding hard, not smart, Colbrelli and Vermeesch on his wheel. Mathieu scooting too close to the bollards as he rides the edge of the second last cobbled sector; my knuckles in my mouth as I’m unable to watch.

And the eventual entry into the velodrome, the three last men standing locked together ready to battle to the line. All watching Mathieu, waiting for him to make the first move. He does, true to form, and just like at Flanders, he’s not strong enough to hold on for the win. Colbrelli powers over the line, his powder dry after a long day sitting in the wheels, and collapses to the ground, a dirt-gilded heap prostrate on the ground, paroxysms of joy and disbelief rocking through him.

It’s over. It’s finally over.

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Under the Radar: cycling stories you might have missed this week…

The calendar congestion in men’s pro cycling can be frustrating – having to choose between races to watch, trying to hedge your bets to decide which might offer the most entertainment, or using several devices at once in an effort to keep on top of all of the action.

Fear not – I’ve got you covered. Under the Radar will be a sporadically occurring, enthusiastic and all-encompassing tour around the cycling calendar to bring you memorable moments, exciting victories or general oddities that you otherwise might not have had the chance to experience. writebikerepeat: reaching the spots that other cycling news outlets may have missed!

Cyclocross is back!

Occupying the awkward crossover period where the road season is still in full swing, the first few dates of the cyclocross season understandably go by the wayside in terms of media attention. This week, the action came from Beringen in Belgium and it was none other than GCN’s initimable Rob Hatch on comms. He reliably proceeded to inform viewers that the course, only two years old in cyclocross terms, was in fact, built on top of a rubbish dump. Not adding to the glamour of the sport, there, especially without its most beloved sons MVDP and Wout van Aert involved until later in the season.

Pocket rocket Eli Iserbyt took the win, his second in two weeks, with good showings for Lars van der Haar and  Laurens Sweeck, whose slightly unsettling fanclub were out in force, see below pictoral evidence and judge for yourselves…

Tell me that painted flag of his face isn’t a bit… creepy?

Jasper Phillipsen! Winning! A Lot!

With fixture congestion all up in our grills what with the mountain biking and the World Championships, lovely little one day races like GP de Denain, featuring ACTUAL SECTIONS OF THE PARIS-ROUBAIX COBBLES, sadly fell by the wayside.

Those who watched such nuggets of cycling perfection were treated to a masterclass in sprinting by former Tour de France bridesmaid turned Bride Extraordinaire, Jasper Philipsen. No, he didn’t wear a white dress but he did raise his arms for the third time in the space of five days, the Alpecin-Fenix sprinter in scintillating form taking victories in the GP de Denain along with wins in two other countries, the Kampionschap van Vlaanderen and Eschhorn-Frankfurt. We’re still waiting for him to throw the bouquet and find out who’s the next sprinter in line for a run of form. Hint: it’ll probably be one of his teammates, as they’ve taken LOTS out of a possible LOADS of sprint wins in races they’ve participated in in 2021. Spectacular form (also, can I have a statto, stat!).

Jasper Phillipsen winning. Get used to it.

Leo Hayter is really good!

Flying well under most radars, not least because of the lack of coverage of the races he was competing in, was the success of Team DSM Development rider Leo Hayter. Hayter The Younger triumphed in the U23 version of Liege-Bastogne-Liege last week and this week he’s riding high at the Tour de Bretagne, where, not to be outdone by his brother’s recent Olympic medal and Tour of Britain successes, he stormed to a stage victory and sits 14th in the overall standings.

There is a lot to be excited about in the Hayter family right now, not least their absolutely startling gene pool. and after his recent admissions about his struggles and disillusionment with the sport, it’s great to see Leo out there performing at the top of his game.

The brothers are set to join the Nibalis, Sagans, van der Poels, Pidcocks and van Poppels and cause double trouble on the Pro Cycling scene in years to come, and with his latest showing, Leo proves that the Hayters will be a force to be reckoned with in future seasons.

Leo wins in Bretagne: the Hayter dynasty continues to impress in 2021

Deceuninck doing Deceuninck Things!

The Wolfpack know how to dominate races and with their incredible strength in depth, they proved over the weekend they can do it on multiple fronts, with Alvaro Hodeg and Jannik Steimle taking stages and holding on to the overall jersey for a while at the Tour de Slovaquie and Joao Almeida bossing the GC in Luxembourg with Mattea Cattaneo taking a stage win.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, the Primus Classic played host to their classics all-stars. Despite Mathieu van der Poel going on the attack, it was Deceuninck’s day as they piled their one-day firepower into controlling the race, and the team could have won from any number of riders. It was Florian Senechal who raised his arms in the end, but with DQS riders making up an impressive 50% of the top ten, it really was the day of the wolf.

Pack of wolves: Julian Alaphilippe leads the DQS mob in the Primus Classic

Belgian Team Staff Especially Tender!

The most touching moment of the week was this lovely moment following the junior men’s world championship time trial in Flanders. After his valiant effort to take the bronze medal, Belgian star of the future Alex Segaert laid in the road and his soigneur gently placed a towel under his head so he could recline with comfort. If this isn’t nurturing young talent, I don’t know what is, so bravo that man.

Rose petals would have been better, but this will do at a pinch

Headlines that didn’t quite make the cut but are worth mentioning nonetheless:

Sagan wins in Slovakia!

An American wins the XCO mountain biking for the first time in 30 years!

Patrick Lefevre spouts misogynistic nonsense!

And the award for most inappropriate rumour of the week goes to… the potential launch of a UAE Team Emirates Women’s Team!

Join me again for ‘Stuff You Might Have Missed in other Weeks Where There’s Too Much Cycling On’ otherwise known as UNDER THE RADAR. Back… whenever there’s too much cycling on.

writebikerepeat, over and out.

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WC Mens’ Road Race: 5 Storylines

The infinite ways in which a road race can play out almost always coalesce into something cycling fans recognise – a predictable outcome even where the variables (the riders, the parcours, dogs off their leads) are unpredictable. It can be as binary as the breakaway vs the pack; a sprint vs a lone attacker; the favourites vs the underdogs.

But for this preview, I have taken the liberty of imagining some of the possible outcomes as familiar movie plots. Because nothing lends itself to a story quite like an elite bike race. But which story will play out on the roads of Flanders, come Sunday? Will it be a familiar story, or an unexpected ending? Who’s the lone wolf, who’s the tragic hero and who’s the Hollywood star? Read on to find out… (sensible star ratings at the bottom for anyone who does not buy into this narrative!)

The Western

The Kid, they called him. He came from a lawless place, a place in the North. (Leeds. The place was Leeds). He was a lone wolf, didn’t need no-one else to ride with, but they sent him a few amigos so he figured he may as well do the right thing and stick with the guys for a while.

On through the lowlands they travelled, the plaintive twang of a guitar accompanying their rhythm as they rode in silence, the wind in their hair, the scent of other men on the air. The scent of the enemy.

Like I said, the Kid didn’t play well with others. He liked to go it alone. All day in the saddle gives a guy itchy feet, so he tips his helmet to his amigos and takes his leave. Slips through the pack and heads up the road into the sunset, ready to deploy his weapon if there’s any trouble.

Riding into town he expects the worst. The sheriff’s there with his deputies and the local militia. They all want their pound of flesh and they ain’t going down without a fight.

The Kid takes a drink from his canteen, spits into the dirt, and kicks his steed into a higher gear. He’ll go down fighting, of that there is no doubt.

It’s a straight fight for the line. The firepower all on show, the weak falling into the dirt. It’s down to the Kid, and one final rival. The one he’s been waiting to face again all this time. They cross the line together, both spending their final bullets to try and vanquish one another. Both fall in slow motion from their steeds, and the victor is announced. The Kid is beaten on the line once more, his trigger finger a fraction of a second too slow.

Bloody photo finishes.

The Coming of Age

Our intrepid hero is the young, feisty Belgian Remco Evenepoel. In his comeback season, he’s done everything that’s been asked of him, including surviving an ill-fated trip to Italy, winning in a glorious Belgian homecoming and even that dramatic brush with fire on one of his legendary solos.

He is the hero of his own story now, but he’s been asked to work for someone else. Tired of being told what to do by his evil Grandad, he follows orders and strikes out alone with 50km to go, under the pretence of pulling some of his leader’s rivals along with him.

It’s a long and lonely road and he has adults screaming in his ear, so he tears out his radio and solos to victory, proving to everyone it’s time to take him seriously. Wout van Aert is disappointed but proud of his refusal to submit to the will of his elders. He pats him on the back and says ‘well played’: with his acceptance, Remco becomes a man.

There’s also a dog. (After befriending it en route using a chunk of sausage he was keeping in his pocket for a snack, it chases Remco all the way home).

The Tragedy

After his accident in the Olympic mountain biking, it’s been a tough road back to fitness for Mathieu van der Poel. But he cannot rest knowing he let this one slip away, when he’s so close; so, despite knowing his form is not what it could be, he agrees to lead the Dutch team. His arch-nemesis lines up alongside him. The favourite to win, Mathieu knows he has broken Wout’s heart before: can he do it again, on the biggest stage of all?

When Wout goes with a small group Mathieu tries to stay with him but the pain is too much and he loses touch. In a last ditch effort he spends his final resources of energy to call to his rival. For old times sake, perhaps he can convince him to work with him, and help him make it back.

Wout turns and flips Mathieu the bird before powering away, leaving him in his dust. At the denouement, we see Mathieu bent and broken at the roadside, his tears absorbed into the Belgian soil as he realises that his rampant ambition was his tragic flaw all along.

He vows that one day, the rainbow jersey will be his. And that he’ll make van Aert suffer come cyclocross season.

The Heist

The team have been gathered. Each a vital cog in the success of the plan. No-one’s looking at them as all focus rests on the Belgians and the Danes. They are masters of disguise., wearing blue when the colour doesn’t even appear on their country’s flag.

The getaway vehicle is deployed with 60km to go. Matteo Trentin drives it like he stole it (because he did, obviously) to gap the rest of the group. He’s soon joined up with the hapless breakaway group who realise their day is done.

The getaway driver sets a relentless pace, forcing the patrolling teams to follow his wheel. A frenzied chase across the Flanders countryside ensues, with the brains of the operation buried deep inside enemy lines relaying information to the getaway driver. And some suitably car chase-y music.

Through a combination of brute force and fiendish tactics, the ragtag bunch are able to bring their key man, Sonny Cobrelli, to the final attack. The getaway driver drops him off and he sprints for safety and snatches the loot, sharing the spoils with his loyal crew in the form of a few Peronis in the pub. They won’t be caught until this time next year.

The Hollywood Blockbuster

It begins in media res. The camera zooms in on the eyes of the protagonist: his intense, hazel eyes stare down the lens, his focus unwavering. He can see the finish line in his mind’s eye. He has played out this moment a thousand times. His supporting cast are positioned around him, and they play their parts without fault; they are well trained and loyal (even the boy, who can sometimes be a loose cannon).

Cut to the final 10km. He’s up front with a small group of big hitters. He’s dropped the young upstart Slovenian, all but one of the dastardly Danes, and has even vanquished his greatest rival, and now it’s down to him to bring it home.

A rousing 80’s power ballad plays in the background as the king-in-waiting winds up for the sprint. Alongside him Sonny Colbrelli, Magnus Cort and the plucky young Brit who dogged his wheel in his homeland. They will all soon be trembling in his wake.

They open up the sprint. Vocals soar and guitars crash as the man himself, in the centre of the shot, crosses the line first, and raises his arms. The King of Belgium finally claims his rainbow crown: Wout van Aert is now King of the World.

(bonus plot): The Revenge

Sam Bennett changes his mind and turns up after all. Despite vomiting up the final climb he’s able to make it back across to the lead group and sprints for the win. Tears off his jersey to reveal a ‘SCREW YOU PATRICK’ slogan underneath. Grabs the jersey, drops the mic and rides back to Monaco laughing all the way.

PREDICTIONS

5 stars: Wout van Aert, Sonny Colbrelli, Magnus Cort

4 stars: Michael Valgren, Matej Mohoric, Kasper Asgreen

3 stars: Tadej Pogacar, Ethan Hayter, Mathieu van der Poel, Remco Evenepoel                              

2 stars: Tom Pidcock, Julian Alaphillippe, Mads Pedersen, Primož Roglič

1 star: Caleb Ewan, Alex Aranburu, Peter Sagan, Nils Pollitt, Jasper Stuyven

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AJ Bell Tour of Britain: The Second Half

As my summation of the first four stages of the AJ Bell Tour of Britain consisted, quite predictably, of race reports, it might come as something of a surprise to read the second half, which sadly, will consist of relatively little in the way of cold, hard facts.

There are reasons for this which will unfold as we go along.

Stage 5 featured a relatively short trek through Cheshire. Despite taking in three categorised climbs along its 152.2km route, including the uniquely title ‘Bottom-of-the-Oven,’ the day was pegged for a bunch sprint from the very beginning, given the flat profile of the final 40km or so. Despite a spirited effort from the remains of the day’s breakaway, including Ribble Weldtite’s Dan Bigham, the bunch sprint would finally manifest, but it didn’t go according to plan, as INEOS Grenadiers’ Owain Doull came down on a corner 800m from the finish line, causing a split in the bunch. This prevented some of the key players from taking part in the final run-in to the line, but Ethan Hayter was in blistering form to take the win and control of the leaders’ jersey in the process.

Stage 6 – Friday 10th September

Having watched cycling on TV for a number of years, and with little experience of the real thing, nothing could prepare me for the alternative reality of taking in a bike race live. As seasoned spectators of cycling will know, to attend a bike race in person is to surrender control; to accept that in order to absorb the spectacle in real life, you must inevitably lose your grasp on the nuances of the race.

Quite besides the fact that logistically speaking, it’s something of a nightmare.

Planning your approach involves working out where you want to be, and when. Take in the start, and you won’t make the best climb. Choose to observe the riders attack the tenuous winding cobbled paths of a small Cumbrian village, and you inherently sacrifice your chance to make it to the finish line.

I opted to drive from home to the day’s toughest climb, and set out at 10.30 to head to my destination, the first of several large blocks of driving I would undertake in pursuit of the race that weekend.

The British are legendary in their approach to a sporting occasion, and across every stage of the race so far the support had been evident: even the most remote of roads were lined with fans; families, primary school children, cycling teams who’d rode the route in advance; old couples with Thermos flasks and camping chairs, cool boxes at the ready for picnic lunches, determined not to miss a moment.

Because after all, a moment is all it is (a few, if you choose wisely and position yourself on a steep section of a climb). You are present for a snapshot of a battle in full swing, content in the knowledge you will not know its outcome until later. It would be like turning on a football match, only to switch it off, just seconds later. Yet still, we came out in force, accepting of our fate. Knowing that it would be worth it just to take in a brief portion of the action.

Driving up Killhope Cross in the North Pennines, just outside Nenthead in Cumbria, was in itself a mechanical triumph, for my long-suffering Ford Focus if not for me. Nothing puts the achievements of pro cyclists into perspective quite like grinding between second and third gear up uncomfortable gradients, knowing that one hundred men on bikes will sweep up it with relative ease an hour or so later.

Killhope Cross, the highest paved pass in England, is as ominous by name as it is by nature. Long, arduous and straight for the most part, the gradient kicks up towards the summit, and the Skoda KOM summit sign marked the peak, where hope would, with any luck, be regained. We later discovered that British place naming rules very much applied in the case of this climb – it’s rarely pronounced how it looks on paper – and ‘Killup’ Cross presented the most challenging ascent of the day for the riders.

With the motos flying up the road and the tacatacataca of the helicopter flooding the moody northern English skies with sound, the anticipation rose and we were informed that a leading breakaway group of seven were riding three minutes clear of the peloton.

El Tractor, Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Tim Declercq, drags himself up the Killhope Cross KOM climb*

As the riders approached the crowds leaned inward, bowing then parting as the breakaway rose up the climb with varying degrees of finesse, the likes of slender climber George Bennett making it look easy while the improbable breakaway duo of Tim Declercq and Mark Cavendish from Deceuninck Quick-Step laboured under the stress of the gradient. The support vehicles followed, so close to the toes of the spectators it was a reminder of just how delicate the balance is between safety and chaos in a bike race, something that has been all too evident this season as fans have returned to the roadside.

And then they were gone and the roads fell silent for a few moments in their wake, aside from the buzz of the crowd comparing notes as the peloton drew closer. A second wave of activity signalled their arrival on the hill, and this time, the procession was more substantial. The bunch moved at speed despite the angle and it was all the rapt crowd could do to pick out a face here and there, to call to your neighbour to say who you’d laid eyes on; the speed just slow enough to fathom that INEOS were driving on the front, that Jumbo Visma lined up on the near side, the yellow glare of their jerseys distracting from the presence of Wout van Aert nestled securely within their ranks.

INEOS Grenadiers lead the charge up the climb – Killhope Cross*

Then, finally, the stragglers; the ones making hard work of the climb, those who didn’t have the legs, or had the legs yesterday, or were having a mechanical (Saint Piran’s Ollie Maxwell could be overheard shouting ‘got a big alan key?’ into his team car as he struggled past) or were Julian Alaphillippe, who, unbeknownst to those on the ground, had just suffered a bathroom break misunderstanding and was not happy, hitching a ride via sticky bottle up the business end of the climb.

And then they, too, were gone. Like a group of traveling minstrels, the assembled company packed up their flasks and lunchboxes and flags and moved on, almost instantly. Many climbed on their own bikes and rode away; cars pulled out and disappeared, flowing down either side of the hill unburdened by the incline.

The climb was not so easy for many of the riders…*

After the rush, the silence. The air inside my car was stuffy and I took the chance to grab a bite to eat as I trailed out of Cumbria and into Tynedale. The chase was on: via a somewhat less circuitous route than the peloton, I would aim to reach Gateshead, park up and make it to the finish ahead of the leaders. The irony of chasing a bike race while being hampered by cyclists was not lost on me, but progress was steady, and winding my way through small villages and around haphazard corners, I was blissfully unaware that a few miles north, the race had encountered torrential rain, or that the breakaway continued to lead through the downpour.

Across the North Pennines things got surreal. Fighting the effects of days of anxiety-fuelled broken sleep, with Led Zeppelin blasting from the stereo, I was alone. The wild expanse of the moors lay to every side of me and a scattering of sheep were my only company. The minutes ticked down but I was on course to arrive on time. The closer I came, though, the more the traffic built, until I was taking detour after detour to avoid tractors and buses. Ignoring the road closure signs which lie in wait for the race procession, I found myself on the course itself, the signage helpfully informing me I had 5km to go. The buzz of anticipation was back as I completed my own race to the finish line, taking in a damp, sketchy descent that filled me with dread on behalf of the riders, who would take its sinuous curves at twice the speed I dared to.

Finally making it to the car park, finding a space, collecting a press pass, running flat out to the finish line. The voice of Jez Cox, the race commentator, rung out through the PA system and the big screen displaying there were 17km to go. With plenty of time to spare I picked my spot, beyond the finish line. The torrent of information on the race was overwhelming after the 90-odd minutes of rock music and the rush of my own thoughts, a shock to the system as I remembered how things were all that time ago, on the hill in Cumbria. As if to close off that chapter, the breakaway were swept up almost immediately after I arrived and the race for the finish began. With an obscured view of the big screen I relied on the commentary and waited.

The waiting feels different when you watch in person. On TV the final kilometres of a race seem to tick by with increasing speed; in person it’s almost comically slow. When the race eventually drew within a kilometre the crowd came to life and by the time Wout van Aert raised his arms across the line, I felt as though the day had lasted a year. The resultant podium ceremony, in which Wout van Aert smiled and waved, and Ethan Hayter threw a bunch of flowers, badly, came and went in a flash, and press duties called, before the buses rolled out, keen to move on to the next location.

They weren’t going anywhere fast. Rush hour on the A1 to Newcastle is bad enough at the best of times, and crawling back home with the INEOS team bus right behind me was yet another surreal reminder of the reality of bike racing. What other sport finishes for the day after five hours of competition, then jumps on a bus, and rides to a hotel, ready to relocate for another day?

Stage 7 – Saturday 11th September

Sleep still hard to come by, the 6.00am alarm was unnecessary on Saturday morning and with another hour and a half in the car ahead, the day began with my intrepid travelling companion and I navigating our way to the Scottish border town of Hawick. Two for two in the ‘British place names that aren’t pronounced how they look’, we were late to find out that in fact, the name was ‘Hoick’. Which instantly transforms it into Scottish expletive. Onomatopoeia at its finest.

The skies were dark and heavy with the suggestion of rain as we took the narrow country lanes to our destination, feeling like royalty as the cavalcade of motos and race support vehicles seemingly escorted us along the otherwise almost deserted route. Apparently no-one travels to the Scottish borders first thing on a Saturday.

Once parked, getting to the start line didn’t come without its obstacles, namely an unfinished bridge across the river heading into town. I took photos and waxed lyrical about the metaphorical significance of the bizarre sight, a symbol of the fractured union between Scotland and England perhaps, before remembering we had places to be.

The area was busy and the street lined with people as the ever-diminishing group of riders arrived for sign on. Despite the low numbers the process was more than a little chaotic, with teams arriving out of order and drifting into position reluctantly and at different speeds, like a herd of confused cattle.

Andre Greipel and George Bennett shoot the breeze on the start line in Hawick*

Once on the start line though, the atmosphere intensified once more, and the distinctive scent of deep heat laced the morning air. Aside from the obvious significance of the front row, with the jerseys on display, a hierarchy presented itself: Wout van Aert, head down, eyes on his computer display, sitting in line with Pascal Eenkhorn and Gijs Leemreize; much further back, Andre Greipel and George Bennett chatted and laughed, taking the whole thing less seriously. When the countdown began, Bennett wasn’t even on his bike, which he mounted in an almost comically relaxed manner moments after the riders at the front had already rolled away.

It would be a long day in the saddle for riders such as Bennett, who had spent swathes of energy in the breakaway the previous day, but the riders weren’t the only ones heading North.

With less pressure than the previous day due to the length of time we had available, we were able to grab a bite to eat and decompress from the adrenaline rush before we were on our way again. Back past the broken bridge and in the car once more, we headed away from Hawick and through the Scottish countryside. Truth be told, there’s little I remember about that journey. The lack of sleep was catching up with me and we sang at the tops of our voices to an eclectic selection of rock and pop classics in an attempt to stay awake. Arriving in Edinburgh was a shock to the system, fraught with all the usual one way systems, dead ends and ‘no right turns’ that city centre driving in the UK gifts drivers with in order to keep them endlessly circling, like frustrated vultures.

The sensation of disconnect from an actual sporting event was stronger on stage 7, probably because watching a diminutive peloton roll over a start line and disappear from view cannot possibly transmit any sense of what will occur later that day, particularly bearing in mind they don’t race in anger until a few kilometres down the road.

Descending into a media centre in an Earth-themed museum doesn’t help with that sense of connection: dinosaurs wearing masks and busy gift shops with families spilling out of them created a weird schism, already triggered by the dramatic shift from a small town, in which everyone was focused on the start of a bike race, to a big city, in which it wasn’t immediately obvious that anything out of the ordinary was going on.

At the very least the media centre afforded the opportunity to catch up on the race, where we discovered that a strong breakaway group had escaped the bunch and had a significant lead. By the time notes had been made, lunch consumed and post-race interview logistical strategies thrashed out, it was time to head out once again, with the race just over 10km away and closing in fast.

The stunning backdrop of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh as the riders came into the finishing strait*

Edinburgh is a dramatic city, and the clouds that had hung low throughout the day so far lifted, scattered by a stiff Scottish breeze to reveal an electric blue sky beneath. Arthur’s Seat, the craggy volcanic outcrop that dominates the skyline, would be the stunning backdrop to the race finale, and with the harsh glare of the sun searing our retinas we chose positions 500m from the finish line to watch a breakaway win stamp their authority on the race’s closing stages. The speed with which Yves Lampaert, Matteo Jorgensen and Matt Gibson flew by was quite literally breath-taking, a stark contrast to the laid-back rolling out of Hawick some four and a half hours earlier, as with heads down they charged for the finish line, still engaged in full-on race mode.

The riders that followed were less frantic in their approach to the finish line and following the race, many complained about the difficulty of a day which, on paper, hadn’t looked the trickiest, given its relatively flat profile in comparison to the day before. However the active, strong breakaway had forced the peloton to work harder than it needed to, for the net result of basically nothing, other than for INEOS who retained Ethan Hayter’s leaders’ jersey for another day.

Jumbo Visma’s George Bennett was upbeat post-race, despite a hard day in the saddle*

Perhaps because of how hard a day it had been, there seemed to be less of a rush to get away, with riders willing to chat by the buses and Jumbo Visma the only team seemingly keen to make a quick getaway.

There was a grimace-inducing bus v car incident in the car park and a few Greenpeace protesters picketed outside the INEOS Grenadiers team bus, looking as awkward as race leader Ethan Hayter did when he climbed aboard, but outside of these mini-dramas slowly the teams trickled away and off to their next destination, and we were left to reflect on what had been a hectic but memorable day.

Later on, footage would emerge of the young rider Xander Graham, streaking along ahead of the breakaway and finally being presented with a bidon by Pascal Eenkhoorn for his troubles, and the following day he received the all-star treatment courtesy of Jumbo Visma, warming hearts and inspiring an outpouring of positivity on social media. Not to be outdone, Mark Cavendish’s young son Casper was presented with an adorable replica jersey by his hero Wout van Aert, and the hug between them ensured that there were no dry eyes left in the house. Jumbo Visma’s marketing team were lauded for their good work on a day in which there were no losers, and the winner was cycling.

The winner, also, was Wout van Aert, who stormed to his fourth stage victory in the Stage 8 sprint finish in to Aderdeen, grabbing enough bonus seconds to oust Ethan Hayter from the top spot and claim the overall victory.

The incredible success of the whole event was testament to Britain’s ability to really pull out all the stops when it comes to a big occasion. A sporting event in particular captures the British imagination like nothing else, and kudos to everyone involved for making it a spectacle so vibrant, inspiring and memorable that the after-image of the race lingers long, with nostalgic social media posts still persisting well into the following week. The race was arguably the best ever, with an incredible calibre of riders, fantastic route-setting taking in some jaw-dropping scenery, and the weather, uncharacteristically, playing its part, robbing the home crowd of their ability to have something to complain about for the eight day duration of the race.

It seems unthinkable that it could be this good again. But with a defending champion who is odds-on favourite to become the World Champion, a talented crop of British riders rising through the ranks at every level, and the success story of this year’s race chalked up in the annals and fondly etched in the memories of everyone involved, there’s no reason to suggest that the 2022 edition won’t be just as amazing.

So, let’s do it all again next year, shall we?

*All photographs by Anna McEwen – Twitter @AnnamacB

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AJ Bell Tour of Britain: The First Half

The 108-strong cast of the 17th modern edition of the Tour of Britain rolled out of Penzance, in the far south-west corner of the island, on a sunny September Sunday, full of promise of a spectacular week of racing to come.

The backdrop to the Grand Depart and Stage 1 was the picturesque coastline and undulating roads of Cornwall – undulating being a diplomatic term for a relentless day of ups and downs. Despite offering just three opportunities to pick up King of the Mountains points, the route was almost never flat, a feature of British roads that riders unfamiliar with the quirks of road systems on a small island may come to resent by the end of their eight day stay, but which make the racing unpredictable and provide an ever-changing set for the audience to admire.

The early stages of the race played out without drama: a small breakaway was released up the road consisting of five riders, who built a modest lead over a peloton that was driven for the best part of the day by Jumbo Visma and Deceuninck Quick-Step, riding for Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe respectively, and contested all the intermediate sprints and King of the Mountains. Nic Dlamini is no stranger to the front end of the Tour of Britain, having taken the mountains jersey in 2018, but he dropped off the pace later in the stage leaving Canyon dhb Sungod’s’s Jacob Scott to scoop up the lion’s share.

The remains of the break were absorbed back into the peloton with just over 20km to go and the run-in to the final began, with Alpecin-Fenix leading the charge. With Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel pulling big turns on the front as the race wound down, it became clear that they were not setting up for a bunch sprint: the tricky climb into Bodmin would favour a punchier rider, and so it proved as Alaphillippe attacked with less then 2km to go. He was overpowered though by strong sprints from Team DSM’s Nils Eekhoff and ahead of him, Wout van Aert, who produced a dominant sprint finish to become the first leader of race.

Stage 2 marked a step eastwards into the neighbouring county of Devon. Heading out from Sherford near Dartmouth, the temperature soared and the riders were bathed in sunshine. Wout van Aert was resplendent in the blue leader’s jersey and overnight, the commissaires had reconsidered the time gaps meaning that the top 21 riders now all shared the same time.

The day’s stage would take in the most metres of elevation of any of the race’s eight stages, but this did not deter the day’s early break who fought through a number of escape attempts before establishing themselves around 15km into the race. Jake Scott, sporting the green mountains jersey, was part of the move again, a group which also once again number five riders.

An early crash caused trouble for Jumbo Visma, losing Chris Harper, and later Thomas Mein of Canyon dhb Sungod also needed medical attention.

Scott repeated his attacking moves from the previous day to once again take top spot in the intermediate sprints and climbs.

Heading into Dartmoor the breakaway were able to drop two of their number and slim to a threesome. The climb of Rundlestone awaited the riders – a long, relentless slog across Dartmoor, windy, harsh and bleak despite the sunshine.

When the American team Rally Cycling’s Robin Carpenter struck out for victory with 24km to go, Jumbo Visma, with Tony Martin at the head of the race, were unable, or unwilling, to close the gap to the leader, and no-one else seemed to have the desire to take up the mantle – Qhubeka and Movistar took turns before Jumbo Visma took over again with George Bennett and they drove the time gap down. But it was too little too late; Carpenter took the victory and the leader’s jersey in a surprise breakaway win and a huge achievement for his team, the American Pro team Rally Cycling.

The Welsh portion of the Tour began on Stage 3 with a team time trial. Taking place across a tricky 18km course featuring a number of awkward twists and turns, the stage was not ideal for teams unused to the discipline, which was basically all of them.

Pre-stage attention focused on Dan Bigham’s Ribble Weldtite unit, expected to be well-drilled in the discipline and the most likely of the British Conti teams to have an impact on the big hitters. They arrived on the start ramp sporting a selection of different aero helmets, and they set a good time, taking the early lead on the stage before the World Tour teams rolled out.

Historically high achievers in the team trial discipline, Jumbo Visma were handicapped by the loss if Chris Harper from their ranks, and an imbalance in abilities was evident in the early phase of the race where Gijs Leemreize had to fight to regain the wheel of his team after time trial specialist Wout van Aert set off at a blistering pace. After eventually dropping Leemreize, the team suffered further catastrophe as Pascal Eenkhoorn had a mechanical close to the finish, and they were forced to slow to allow him to catch up, then urge him across the line to record a time. The first of the World Tour teams out of the blocks, Jumbo Visma still took the lead, but were later pipped to the post by a well-oiled Deceuninck QuickStep team by a margin of just three seconds.

Jumbo Visma weren’t the only team to suffer misfortune during the race, Qhubeka-NextHash suffering a crash and distancing their own riders repeatedly as they struggled through the course.

INEOS Grenadiers were on another level, though. With strong time triallists among their number and no weak link they were always going to be favourites for the win, and so it went, as they put in a powerful and disciplined team performance to better Deceuninck’s time by 17 seconds. Along with the stage victory, Ethan Hayter claimed the blue leader’s jersey for the first time, Rally’s Robin Carpenter having worn it in anger for just under 22 minutes.

Climbing from the south to the north of Wales, Stage 4 was touted as the queen stage of the race, and at 210km it as also the longest.

Jacob Scott continued his dogged pursuit of the mountain’s jersey, and was joined in the breakaway by another familiar face, Nicolas Sessler of the Global6 Cycling Team, Caja Rural’s Jokin Murguialday, Robert Donaldson from the Great Britain team, Ollie Peckover from Swift Carbon and local boy, Ribble Weldtite’s Gruff Lewis.

The breakaway built their gap up to around nine minutes but as the peloton began to reel them in a second breakaway group headed up the road, comprising the unlikely trio of Tom Gloag, Ben Healy and Marc Soler. They caught the first group with just over 60km to go and the expanded breakaway worked together for a while before the inevitable occurred and the groups came back together. A further group of hopefuls including Team DSM’s Max Kanter, Gonzales from Caja Rural and Mauro Schmid tried their luck but were once again swallowed up again as they came into Wales’ largest seaside resort, Llandudno.

The bunch were tense heading through Llandudno into the final double climb, which began with Marine Drive, breath-taking with its dramatic backdrop of rock walls, cliffs dropping down to the coast as the riders wove around the headland. Owain Doull pulled hard on the front for INEOS and it looked as though the main group would go into the final climb together, but Movistar’s American climber Matteo Jorgensen had other ideas, launching a hopeful attack from the front going into the last part of the climb. He pulled out a 15 second lead but without support it wasn’t enough and once again, the group came together on the descent as they headed for the spectacular Great Orme.

The dramatic, short sharp climb maintained a relentless 13% which stretched out the peloton, spear-headed by Jumbo Visma’s George Bennett, towing Wout can Aert, and as the climb kicked up to 15% a small group attacked led by Israel Start-Up Nation’s Michael Woods. Woods kept the tempo high with Julian Alaphillippe looking strong beside him to gap all but van Aert who dragged himself up the climb behind the Canadian and the World Champion going into the flat section with 1km to go.

The easing of the gradient enabled race leader Ethan Hayter and Alaphillipe’s team mate Mikkel Honore to close down the leading trio, and with 300m to go Honore attacked, provoking an immediate response from van Aert, and leading into the killer final stretch Honore led out Alaphillippe for a two-up sprint with van Aert. The sprint to the line was agonisingly close but van Aert took it by the slimmest of margins, both riders veering across the line from the sheer effort. They later collapsed side by side, spent from pouring everything out on the road, and as van Aert reclaimed the leader’s jersey from Ethan Hayter, cycling fans both from within and outside of the UK marvelled not only at the epic battle that played out in North-West Wales, but at the course itself, which seemed almost monument-worthy in its sheer difficulty.

George Bennett leads the charge up the Great Orme for Team Jumbo Visma

INTERMISSION – please be aware that the second half may contain flash photography. Along with piecemeal reports, missing pieces but hopefully, some rider interviews. As I am attending stages 6 and 7 – see you on the roads!

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