Anna van der Breggen, Wout van Aert & Primoz Roglic - The top 10 riders of the 2021 season so far
With the spring classics, early stage races, and first three Monuments done and dusted, we take a look at the best riders so far of the 2021 season – men and women combined – before the focus shifts to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España all of which will be live on Eurosport, Eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport App.
Tadej Pogacar beats compatriot Primoz Roglic to win stage 3 of Itzulia Basque Country 2021
Such has been the standard of performances so far this season, that there’s no place on this entirely unscientific top 10 male-and-female-combined rider list for the comeback king, Mark Cavendish himself. After 1159 days without standing on top of a podium – including zero wins for his former team, Bahrain Merida – Cav roared to three successive hits on the Tour of Turkey, adding a forth on the final day to prove just how canny it was for Deceuninck Quick-Step to hand the veteran sprinter a lifeline.
But even Cavendish will admit that a starring role in Turkey is not up there with results in the Monuments, major classics and established stage races – that spreading yourself thick in Turkey is no match to tearing up the cobbles or powering down the Poggio.
Cavendish is one of four British riders who miss out on making this list despite a flurry of wins between them. Tom Pidcock’s debut season in the World Tour saw him win De Brabantse Pijl then come within a pixel of denying Wout van Aert again at the Amstel Gold Race. Meanwhile, Pidcock’s teammate Adam Yates has settled into life at Ineos with victory in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and a runner-up spot in the UAE Tour.
Highlights: Tom Pidcock takes huge win at Brabantse Pijl
Another Grenadier, the Dutchman Dylan van Baarle, deserves special mention for soloing to understated glory at Dwars door Vlaanderen while bagging top 10s at Gent-Wevelgem, E3 and the Ronde. Meanwhile, Adam’s twin brother Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) is purring ahead of the Giro with victory in the Tour of the Alps.
We could just as well mention Deceuninck Quick-Step duo Sam Bennett and Davide Ballerini, with their eight wins between them, or Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and his three triumphs from early in the season. Or, indeed, Danish youngster Jonas Vingegaard’s string of exciting performances (including four wins) for Jumbo-Visma, or – even more notably – Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and her Liège-Bastogne-Liège triumph after coming runner-up in both Amstel Gold and Brabantse Pijl.
But that’s enough of the riders who haven’t made the list. Let’s look at those who have…
10. Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
It seems unfair to include the Belgian at the expense of, say, Vollering – who was a consistent force right through the Ardennes in the Women’s World Tour – but it would be equally harsh to exclude the man who upset all the favourites and won Milan-San Remo back in March. Not least because most of the riders Stuyven outfoxed as he came off the Poggio and hit the via Roma are riders who appear ahead of him in this same list.
The 29-year-old has always been one of those riders knocking on the door of a major classics win – and a mixture of indecision among the favourites, plus a general fear of dragging sprinter Caleb Ewan to the line, played into Stuyven’s hands in La Primavera. That and sheer brute strength and the courage to go early, then – once pegged back by Soren Kragh Andersen – go again, with the chasers breathing down his neck. Fourth in the Tour of Flanders confirmed his good legs. But let’s be honest – Stuyven could put his feet up for the rest of the year and still be proud at what he’s achieved.
'Absolutely wow!' - See how Stuyven claimed stunning Milan-San Remo win
9. Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma)
Any fears that the Dutch superstar was winding things down by joining the new Jumbo-Visma women’s team have been obliterated by her results since supposedly dropping to the second tier. Seventh in Strade Bianche and podium places in the GP Oetingen and Trofeo Alfredo Binda got her warmed up ahead of victories in Gent-Wevelgem and the Amstel Gold Race.
Vos may be in her sixteenth year as a pro, but there’s no signs of the 33-year-old former triple world champion resting on her laurels just yet. With two more years after this with Jumbo-Visma, we can expect more wins from the rider once described as “the Eddy Merckx of her generation”.
8. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck Quick-Step)
When even an off-the-boil Alaphilippe can make the list it underlines the temperament and fighting spirit of the French showman. There may have been some kind of delayed poetic justice in seeing the man in rainbow bands beaten by Tadej Pogačar in Liège-Bastogne-Liège last weekend, but the fact that the 28-year-old was in line to win until the last 10 metres of the race just goes to show what a consistent force he’s become.
All in all, Alaphilippe had a very solid Ardennes, the world champion making up for his sixth place in Amstel Gold by timing his Mur de Huy attack to perfection in La Flèche Wallonne, soaring past Primoz Roglic as the road flattened out to take his third win in four years. While he’s still around – and he still has many years left in the tank, even by a certain Spaniard’s standards – Alaphilippe is going to be a threat to Alejandro Valverde’s Flèche record of five wins.
Earlier in the spring, second place in Strade Bianche to an unbeatable Mathieu van der Poel came after he finished runner-up in the Tour de la Provence – proof, perhaps, that he could still nurse ambitions of a tilt for the yellow jersey one day.
'That was brilliant!' - Alaphilippe produces stunning finish to beat Roglic
7. Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx)
Hours before Alaphilippe’s win on the Mur de Huy, another rider in the rainbow bands powered to victory to keep her own run of wins alive. While the Frenchman may have three from his last three appearances, Van der Breggen’s late surge to deny Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon SRAM Racing) saw the Dutch rider snare her seventh Flèche win in as many years – outdoing even that man Valverde.
This was followed by fifth in Liège, where teammate Vollering came of age on a day Van der Breggen showed her versatility and worth as a kind of on-the-bike DS, guiding her young colleague and compatriot to a glory in which she played a huge role.
Earlier in the year, Van der Breggen got her season off to a winning start back in February with victory in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before placing third in Strade Bianche a week later. The 31-year-old world champion remains one of the most consistent riders in the women’s peloton and has a lot to offer the new generation and her SD Worx team when not winning herself.
‘Rename it Ronde Van Der Breggen!’ – World champion claims seventh straight La Fleche Wallonne win
6. Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar)
The Dutch star opened her account at Movistar with a splendid Flandrian double, edging Poland’s Niewiadoma in Dwars door Vlaanderen before blasting to glory in the Ronde, a whole decade after her first Flanders win, following a devastating attack on the Paterberg.
The European champion went on to show that age was no barrier in the Ardennes, the 38-year-old finishing third in Amstel, fourth at La Flèche, and then runner-up behind compatriot Vollering at Liège. Sure, she did not win her first five races of the season for Movistar like she did last year for Mitchelton-Scott, but the calibre of victory so far for her new team has been that much better.
5. Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
The rangy Dutchman started the season with a bang with victory in the opening stage of the UAE Tour – only to be forced out of the race while in the leader’s jersey following a positive Covid test from a staff member. Victory at Strade Bianche came after a pulverising attack on the ramp into Siena, with Van der Poel following this up with a symbolic win in stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of old rival Wout van Aert.
When he crumbled the next day on the summit finish at Prati di Tivo, Van der Poel put in a staggering performance the day after, attacking from 52km out and holding off a chase by Pogačar as Van Aert cracked behind on the succession of peaks on the challenging closing circuit. You’d be hard pressed to witness a better victory all season.
Paradoxically, while this performance contributed to Van der Poel’s presence in this list, it probably stopped him from finishing any higher. For, if anything, the 26-year-old went too deep that day – and certainly paid for it in subsequent races. Would he have been so conservative in Milan-San Remo (where he finished a resigned fifth) had he a little more oomph in reserve?
Third place in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic was followed by a miserable 58th in Dwars door Vlaanderen, where Van der Poel looked not only completely cooked but vaguely human. He then had no answer on the home straight in Oudenaarde when it came to defending his crown in the Tour of Flanders – a loss which strangely made him a more alluring rider for it. The Dutch champion still remains a cut above most of his rivals and one of the most exciting riders to watch in cycling.
‘What an amazing rider!’ - Van der Poel holds on for solo stage win as Pogacar extends Tirreno lead
4. Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck Quick-Step)
The man who beat Van der Poel at his own game – breaking him in the closing metres where, months earlier, he did the breaking – was the Danish champion, who came of age this spring. If Asgreen’s victory in E3 capped a tactical tour de force from his Deceuninck Quick-Step team, it also underlined his strength, the 26-year-old winning from going long just moments after being reeled in following an earlier foray off the front.
Asgreen then confirmed his status as one of Quick-Step’s new kings of the classics – at least, an heir to Zdeněk Štybar’s crown – with that outstanding victory over Van der Poel in the Ronde. We can only speculate how Asgreen’s run over the cobbles might have continued in the event of Paris-Roubaix not being cancelled. But the prospect of seeing the Danish powerhouse in action in the Hell of the North this October is certainly worth the wait.
In a year where the big guns seemed to get even bigger, Asgreen’s emergence as a Monument winner – like that of Stuyven – was all the more remarkable, and a welcome occurrence for fans, fans who are really spoiled for drama and talent right now.
'He’s blown up!' - Van der Poel cracks as Asgreen triumphs in Flanders
3. Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)
The man who came so close to winning last year’s Tour de France has had a light programme this year – and indeed, won’t race again until this July’s Grande Boucle – but he’s made it count. The Slovenian dominated the vast majority of Paris-Nice with a hat-trick of wins before an unfortunate crash on the final day saw him lose the yellow jersey – and a fair bit of skin – at the eleventh hour.
Roglic made amends at Itzulia Basque Country earlier this month, laying the foundations with victory in the opening time trial. He missed out on the chance to double up in stage 3 when compatriot Tadej Pogačar – his nemesis from last year’s Tour – pipped him on the downhill run after the decisive climb. But despite conceding the leader’s jersey to Pogačar’s UAE teammate Brandon McNulty the next day, Roglic kept his cool and secured the overall win on the final day.
Perhaps learning from the backlash that followed his Paris-Nice denial of Gino Mäder, Roglic gifted Frenchman David Gaudu the stage win in a classy gesture after the two combined to distance the other favourites on the final climb. Two weeks later, the 31-year-old came close to winning on his maiden performance in La Flèche, only a premature attack on the Mur de Huy coming between him and Alaphilippe.
‘Mader has his heart broken’ – Roglic seals dramatic win to consolidate Paris-Nice lead
The pendulum swung back to compatriot Pogačar four days later after Roglic failed to defend his Liège-Bastogne-Liège crown – the absence of a Monument win perhaps causing a raise of the eyebrows with regards to his high placing in this list. That may be, but there’s no denying that Roglic – like Alaphilippe – is proving himself to be one of those riders who has his say in pretty much every race he rides, whether it’s a stage event or a one-day classic.
2. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
From 14 race days so far this season, the Belgian had only finished outside the top 10 on two occasions – with four wins and nine podium finishes to his name. Like his great rival Van der Poel, some of Van Aert’s best riding came at Tirreno-Adriatico – so much so that you have to wonder how much better he may have fared in the spring classics had he perhaps kept a little bit more in the tank.
But a rider like Van Aert is a born competitor and a natural winner – the notion of riding races for training purposes is not something he’d consider. Besides, he came runner-up in Tirreno, bookending his week with stage wins. The 26-year-old bounced back from finishing third in San Remo by winning Gent-Wevelgem. Flanders passed him by (but he still managed to finish sixth) before fatigue saw him lose out to Tom Pidcock in a thrilling finish to De Brabantse Pijl.
Just when we thought Van Aert was going to be left ruing his Tirreno efforts, he then put a finger to his lips with the narrowest victory possible over Pidcock in the Amstel Gold Race – the sign of a true champion. His focus now shifts to the Dauphine and the Tour – after a well-earned rest.
'It’s a close one!' – Van Aert beats Pidcock by tightest of margins
1. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
The closest rider we have to a modern-day Merckx, the 22-year-old added a Monument to his swelling palmarès – roughly 26 weeks after he should have done so in the same race. Pogačar’s late sprint to come round Alaphilippe in Liège was all the sweeter given it was the same Frenchman in the same rainbow bands whose erratic sprinting stopped the Slovenian from winning the rescheduled 2020 edition of La Doyenne in October.
Pogačar’s victory in Liège could well have been the second part of an Ardennes double – although we’ll never know how he’d have fared in La Flèche had his UAE team not been withdrawn over a positive Covid test for Diego Ulissi. Judging by his form this season – he’d have been there or thereabouts on the Mur de Huy.
Stage race wins in the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico ensured that Pogačar kept his momentum from last season going into this campaign, his only blip coming on the last day of Itzulia Basque Country when he lost time to compatriot Roglic on the final climb. But by then, the race was lost anyway. And, as they say, better a wobble in April than in July on the roads of France.
At this rate, you wouldn’t bet against Pogačar retaining his yellow jersey in the Tour and then going on to do the double at the Vuelta. What a treat it is for fans to have a GC rider of such class, range and tactical nous performing like Pogačar does to such a high standard in every race he rides. That now includes the biggest one-day races, and at an age where, for example, Chris Froome was still six years away from winning his own maiden Tour.
Highlights: Pogacar claims Liege-Bastogne-Liege ahead of Alaphilippe