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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).