Blazin’ Saddles: Mørkøv, Martínez, Eenkhoorn and other unsung heroes of the 2021 cycling season
The last of our end of season reviews looks at the riders, figures and fans who made a huge splash behind the scenes or away from the centre stage. Not just riders whose selflessness, persistence or tirelessness may have contributed to glory for others, but those people whose achievements perhaps went under the radar when set against the big-name headliners.
'Love and respect' - Cavendish and Merckx embrace before Stage 19 start
It’s time to turn our focus to the unsung heroes and episodes of 2021. Not just constrained to the exploits of riders, this broad category also looks at the actions of fans and other figures within the sport – so for every lead-out man piloting their teammate to glory, there’s an unknown hero whose deeds perhaps brought a smile to our faces in a year where, still, so little did.
So, in no specific order, let’s get the ball rolling with the man behind Mark Cavendish’s record-equalling run…
While nothing should diminish Mark Cavendish’s huge achievement in bouncing back from obscurity to make history and win the green jersey this July, it’s no overstatement to say that the Cannibal’s Tour stage record would have remained very much intact had it not been for the selfless actions of a Danish domestique 21 days Cavendish’s senior.
On four occasions during the Tour, Mørkøv piloted his man to the finish line in pole position. Once, in Carcassonne – for the 34th career win that saw Cav tie the record – Mørkøv even had to slow down to let his teammate edge ahead, whereby denying himself a maiden win that would have put him, well, 33 victories behind the great Eddy Merckx.
'The best sprinter' - Morkov full of praise for Cavendish
It was a highly satisfying development, then, that saw the unassuming Mørkøv pick up a career-first Olympic gold medal on the track in Tokyo alongside compatriot Lasse Norman in the madison. Naturally, it was that man Cavendish – who famously never won an Olympic gold medal on the track – who was one of the first to congratulate the 36-year-old on his achievement.
Every Batman needs his Robin, and Dani Martinez was very much the Dick Grayson to Egan Bernal’s Bruce Wayne throughout the Giro. No more so than on Stage 17 to Sega di Ala where, a slight wobble as Dan Martin, Simon Yates and João Almeida rode up the road, Bernal seemed to be struggling for the first time in pink.
The zombie eyes of Damiano Caruso said it all as Martínez shook his first and did his best to cajole his countryman into action on the final climb – that was the look of someone who knows he needs an ally like that if ever he wants to win a Grand Tour. Not to mention the look of someone baffled to see the understudy of his main rival looking so bloody fresh.
Martinez 'handed the Giro on a plate to Bernal'
While we’re on the topic of Caruso, it’s probably worth elevating the Italian journeyman to unsung hero status. Sure, he was feted enough when standing atop the podium for stage wins in both the Giro and Vuelta – as well as when riding to a career-high second place in his home tour. But for doing that after Bahrain-Victorious team leader Mikel Landa had kicked the can on both occasions deserves extra praise.
Now 34, Caruso enjoyed the best season of his career in 2022 and did so on a team that also includes the likes of Jack Haig, Wout Poels, Matej Mohorič and Gino Mäder. Even if this is a one-off, it’ll be worth it for the look on his face during that rallying cry by Martínez alone.
Egan Bernal encouragé par Daniel Martinez sur le Giro 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
Giro chainsaw fan
The day before Bernal’s slight wobble, the man in pink blitzed his way to a second stage victory in the Dolomites. But as he soloed clear up the Passo Giau during the weather-shortened Stage 16, it was perhaps less his graceful cadence that caught the eye than the man running alongside him wielding a chainsaw… Opi and Omi, eat your heart out.
Watch shocking footage of fans running with chainsaw next to Bernal
While on the subject of errant fans, Italy’s Lorenzo Fortunato had to cope with the cretinous antics of a ‘supporter’ who almost knocked him off his bike as he ascended Monte Zoncolan in search of a maiden career win. Thankfully, the 25-year-old held on to record his wildcard EOLO-Kometa team its first ever taste of glory on a Grand Tour.
Making matters better, the team’s boss, a certain Alberto Contador, had promised, while watching from the wings, to dust off the Aurum and ride from Madrid to Milan if his rider held on. And being the class act that he is, El Pistolero stayed good to his word: in September, Contador and a group of pals rode 1,600 kilometres over six days from his home in Pinto to Milan. Fortunato favours the brave, eh, Bert?
Belgian breakaway artists
Before we move back to the Tour, let's rewind a few months and revisit a moment from the Race to the Sun. It was an otherwise uneventful Stage 5 of Paris-Nice when Oli Naesen lit the torch paper alongside a cluster of compatriots in the crosswinds. Soon, there were 11 Belgians off the front in a dangerous-looking break that also included Lotto-Soudal duo Philippe Gilbert and Thomas De Gendt, Deceuninck-QuickStep pair Yves Lampaert and Tim Declerq, Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Victor Campenaerts (Qhubeka Assos).
It later emerged that Naesen had made a call-to-arms ahead of the pan-flat stage - perhaps in a Belgian rider WhatsApp group. The all-Flandrian move added a little excitement to a snoozy stage which still ended up in a sprint win for Ireland's Sam Bennett. Tellingly, there were no Belgians in the top 10 in Bollène... although they made such an impression earlier in the day that people were still tweeting about it nine months on.
Most amateur riders know what it’s like to win a town sign sprint – and that same joy was etched across the face of Dutch debutant Schelling when he successfully defended his polka dot jersey in Stage 2 of the Tour de France.
After the opening stage of the race, the 23-year-old led the KOM standings by a single point over the yellow jersey Julian Alaphilippe and Frenchman Anthony Perez. With three fourth-category climbs on the menu on day two ahead of the double ascent of the Guerlédan ramp at Mûr-de-Bretagne, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Schelling was on the attack once again with Cofidis’ Perez.
And when Schelling denied Perez the point atop the first climb of the day, it was with childlike exuberance that he celebrated his single-digit haul. And for good reason: Perez was first over the next climb before the breakaway was swept up – and even though stage winner Mathieu van der Poel went on to top the KOM standings by the close of play, Schelling’s second place and the Dutchman’s yellow meant he stayed in the polka dot jersey for another five days of the opening week.
‘What a fight! What a character!’ - Schelling & Perez go shoulder-to-shoulder over Cote de Pordic
Dylan Teuns and Ben O’Connor
The Belgian and the Australian deserve to make this list primarily because few will remember their wins in the Alps because of the imperious performance of Tadej Pogačar behind. Over the course of a seriously sodden weekend, the Slovenian pretty much wrapped up the defence of his Tour de France crown – first by dropping all his rivals on the Col de la Colombière before picking off the remnants of the breakaway one by one.
Teuns held on to give Bahrain-Victorious a second win in as many days in Grand Bornand and the second Tour stage win of his career. But Pogačar soared into yellow after putting in over three minutes on most his rivals. Trailing the leaders by eight minutes going onto the final climb, Pogacar finished just 49 seconds down on Teuns, with only Ion Izagirre and Michael Woods also staying ahead.
A day later, the 23-year-old consolidated his lead in the general classification as Australia’s O’Connor roared back into contention, moving up from 14th place to second in the standings after victory in Tignes. But, still, it was the defending champion who made the headlines outside Australia.
A sentimental tie linked Teuns and O'Connor, too: both riders dedicated their wins to recently parted grandparents, Teuns having lost his grandfather and O'Connor his grandmother ahead of the Tour.
Teuns comes home for emotional Stage win before new leader Pogacar rolls home
The Jumbo-Visma medics
Denied victory on the penultimate stage in 2020, Primoz Roglic entered the Tour with a point to prove this July – only for his yellow jersey chances to go up in smoke quicker than you can say, “I wouldn’t ride that close to Sonny Colbrelli, if I were you”.
Such was the road rash across Roglic’s backside and flank, the former ski jumper looked more like an Egyptian mummy after being patched up ahead of Stage 4. His race wouldn’t last more than a week, but we salute the soigneur in charge of dressing his wounds.
With veteran Robert Gesink crashing out the same day that Roglic hit the deck, two days after Tony Martin collided with the infamous Opi-Omi spectator, it was hardly the best of Tour starts for Jumbo-Visma. So the performance of Tour debutant Jonas Vingegaard came at just the right time for the Dutch team, for whom the Danish tyro proved more than a silver lining.
While an unshackled Wout van Aert would go on to win three stages over differing terrain, Vingegaard singlehandedly made sure that Jumbo-Visma at least matched their GC result from 2020, the 24-year-old finishing the best of the rest behind Tadej Pogačar – albeit by four more minutes than his teammate 10 months earlier.
It’s also worth adding that the only time Pogacar was distanced on a climb was not courtesy of former Giro champion Richard Carapaz or former Vuelta winner Simon Yates – but by Vingegaard’s series of stinging accelerations on Mont Ventoux. The youngster went over the summit of the second ascent with a handful of seconds, and although he was caught by the other GC favourites on the descent, it marked the sole occasion where Pogacar was really put under serious pressure during the entire race.
'We're thinking we've got a race on' - Dan Lloyd on Pogacar climb struggles
A stage victory in Andorra in the Tour and a top 10 finish in the Vuelta while supporting teammate Roglic to a third consecutive red jersey, the American climber enjoyed another solid season for Jumbo-Visma.
But the most memorable moment in Kuss’ season arguably came when he smiled at his Slovenian teammate en route to finishing second in Stage 17 of the Vuelta. Roglic had already won atop Lagos de Covadonga to strengthen his grip on the race when, a towel nonchalantly draped around his shoulders, he made his way back down the mountain, only to see Kuss dart clear of the other race favourites to take second place. The still from the live TV coverage as the two teammates acknowledged each other was a slice of magic.
Kuss finds time to grin at Roglic during sprint finish
Steven Kruijswijk’s dragonfly
Sticking with Jumbo-Visma, and their dependable Dutch veteran Kruijswijk managed to scoop a top 10 on the final time trial into Santiago di Compostella, despite the aerodynamic disadvantage of having a large-winged insect perched on his shoulder for the entire home straight. Watching fans saluted the persistence of the dragonfly – the only living thing bar Tadej Pogačar who could come close to knocking Jumbo off their stride all year.
Say what you like about the Slovenian’s celebration to his second superb solo win on the Tour de France, but his zip-the-lips gesture certainly enlivened proceedings and gave us all something to sound off about.
'That was brilliant!' - Mohoric takes win and sends pointed message
That the 27-year-old didn’t appreciate the connotations of his gesture is up for debate. He may have only been nine years old when Lance Armstrong made the same infamous gesture to the Italian Gilberto Simeoni, but anyone involved in cycling would surely know a bit about the history of the sport and one of its most controversial figures in the modern era.
Perhaps the Bahrain-Victorious baroudeur was still suffering a bit of concussion from his dramatic over-the-handlebars crash from the Giro, where he hit the deck head-first at speed and snapped his bike clean in two. Bouncing back, so to speak, from that alone deserved unsung hero status.
Bottles guy in Volta ao Algarve
We have no idea what he was doing or how long it took him – or, indeed, how he got hold of so many empties in the first place – but the fan who lined the road with glass bottles during the Volta ao Algarve deserves a round of applause for dedication and persistence. So preoccupied was he by the task in hand, he appeared to miss the race leader zip by…
There were some stunning displays of teamwork in 2021 with Kasper Asgreen’s victory in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic up there with the best after Deceuninck-QuickStep played a blinder in the spring. But at the Vuelta it was EF Education-Nippo’s turn to shine when, in Stage 19, Craddock found himself alongside teammate Magnus Cort in a seven-man move at the business end of proceedings.
Stage 19 highlights: Cort wins with help from Craddock
Having already helped force the selection from a larger break, the EF duo did enough work in the move to hold the returning peloton at bay, before the American buried himself for his Danish teammate in Monforte de Lemos. The in-form Cort duly delivered, capping a fine display with his third stage win of the race – but Craddock deserved just as many as the plaudits.
Back to Jumbo-Visma, who have been seriously good value when it comes to these unsung heroics. The Dutchman’s water bottle moment in the Tour of Britain far outweighed that of Mathieu van der Poel in the Tour de France, which it later emerged had been completely staged by Alpecin-Fenix and the photographer.
In Stage 7 of the Tour of Britain to Edinburgh, Eenkhoorn was in a five-man breakaway when he spotted a young fan cycling furiously along the side of the road in a bid to keep up. Instead of chastising the 12-year-old for cycling on the pavement (as the majority of British people would no doubt have done), Eenkhoorn drew up alongside Xander Graham and handed him his bidon.
Off the back of the publicity, Xander was invited along with his parents to attend the final stage of the race as a special guest, where he met Eenkhoorn, Mark Cavendish and a host of other riders before the start. Not bad for a wee water-carrier, eh?
Greg van Avermaet
Why the long face, Greg? Gone are the days when the former Olympic champion made these lists for his victories or stellar achievements in the saddle. And his appearance in the first muddy Paris-Roubaix in two decades proved that point. Part of the day’s break, Van Avermaet’s mud-caked face said it all when the camera panned in with the chasers closing down the move.
Van der Poel’s shoes
Quite how the Dutchman’s shoes remained so white despite the apocalyptic conditions in Paris-Roubaix is anyone’s guess. Van der Poel was on the offensive all afternoon and arrived in the velodrome alongside fellow debutants Sonny Colbrelli and Florian Vermeersch at the head of the race. Needless to say, his ability to finish things off was far outdone by the mudless mystery surrounding his footwear…
Because no one really remembers the runner-up, we thought it only apt to finish on the 22-year-old Belgian who took his first Paris-Roubaix by storm. Admittedly, both Colbrelli and Van der Poel were also riding the Hell of the North for the first time – but they’re household names with 69 pro wins between them. That’s 69 wins more than the rider whose name Colbrelli couldn’t even recall during his victory interview.
And yet it was “the rider from Lotto Soudal” who ended putting up more of a fight than the illustrious Van der Poel, pushing the Italian and European champion right to the line in the velodrome in what was a nail-biting conclusion to a thrilling edition. Vermeersch became the youngest rider to podium in Paris-Roubaix since Tom Boonen in 2002 – and there aren't many better footsteps to follow in when it comes to cobbles.
At the very least, his breakthrough performance probably means Vermeersch will now never be called Gianni again…
Where better to end this end-of-season review than by sharing the hilarious video round-up of bizarre and funny "out of context" cycling moments from 2021, which includes some of the scenes mentioned above. Roll on 2022!