Blazin’ Saddles: Tadej Pogacar tops the Monuments Men list for 2021 ahead of Mathieu van der Poel
Tadej Pogacar’s triumph in Il Lombardia on Saturday drew a curtain over the Monuments for another year, the Slovenian emerging victorious in 40 per cent of the five major classics and 100 per cent of those he took part in. As the season draws to a close, Felix Lowe reflects on the top 10 “Monuments Men” for 2021.
Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogacar, Julian Alaphilippe and Wout van Aert during Strade Bianche 2021
The last was by far the least exciting, most predictable and most lacking in pizzazz – but try telling that to the youngest rider to have won multiple Monuments in a single season. Double Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar was a cut above the rest in the Race of the Falling Leaves, shedding all the major favourites on the penultimate climb (if not before) and then skipping clear of local rider Fausto Masnada in Bergamo.
Masnada was not the rider we expected from Deceuninck-QuickStep to go down to the wire with the Slovenian tyro – but the in-form Portuguese Joao Almeida was off the boil, Belgium’s Remco Evenepoel missed the selection and only scraped the top 20, while world champion Julian Alaphilippe, with a teammate up the road, settled for sixth.
‘Two Monuments and a Tour de France!’ – Pogacar claims stunning Lombardia win
In a season during which the major Monuments have really spoiled fans, Il Lombardia was very much the outlier in being a race severely lacking in thrills and nail-biting drama. But now the dust has settled over all five of cycling’s major one-day classics, who comes out on the top of our list of Monuments Men? Here is the top 10, in reverse order…
10. Anthony Turgis (Team TotalEnergies)
10th Milan-San Remo; 8th Tour of Flanders; 13th Paris-Roubaix
Team TotalEnergies signed Niki Terpstra to be their classics man but the best the Dutchman has done in three seasons mired in misfortune is 86th in this year’s Tour of Flanders – although he battled valiantly to the finish at Roubaix earlier this month to come home over the time limit.
Perhaps the French team would have been better served putting all their eggs in Anthony Turgis’s basket? Fourth in last year’s Ronde, the 27-year-old showed himself capable of getting up the Poggio in March to break the top 10 in Milan-San Remo. He followed this up with a solid eighth in Flanders, finishing in the main chase group, before a spirited 13th place over the muddy cobblestones in northern France.
It will be interesting to see how Turgis performs next year alongside new recruit Peter Sagan. Given their palmares, it would seem logical for the Frenchman to play second fiddle to the Slovakian. But their recent career trajectory – and the precedent of Terpstra – suggests it would be wrong for TotalEnergies to gift Sagan protected status over a far younger, and hungrier, Turgis, whose star seems to be on the rise.
9. David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ)
3rd Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 7th Il Lombardia
Someone who won’t come up against compatriot Turgis much, if at all, during Monuments is Groupama-FDJ’s Gaudu, the whippet-climber and heir-to-Thibaut-Pinot’s crown whose battleground is neither cobbles nor the Poggio, but the hills around Liège and Lake Como.
The 25-year-old took a maiden Monument podium in La Doyenne in April, finishing behind Pogacar and the world champion (no shame there, then) in a stellar lead group that also included Alejandro Valverde and Michael Woods.
Spanish veteran Valverde is a rider operating in a similar stratosphere as Gaudu, and his top five finishes in both Liège and Lombardia push the Frenchman for inclusion on this list. But Gaudu’s age and podium finish in Liège gives him the edge – and he did finish in the same chase group as Valverde in Bergamo on Saturday. Will need to improve his sprinting – or win solo – if he wants to break his duck any time soon.
‘It’s crazy to finish like this’ – Pogacar after making history at Il Lombardia
8. Florian Vermeesch (Lotto Soudal)
DNF Tour of Flanders, 2nd Paris-Roubaix
A bold decision, this, given the 22-year-old Belgian only completed one Monument this season, having DNF’ed in Flanders for a second consecutive year. But when you finish runner-up in your debut Paris-Roubaix, beating the race favourite to become the cobble bridesmaid in the process – well, it’s hard to be overlooked.
Vermeersch was such an unknown quantity going into the Hell of the North that Sonny Colbrelli, the only man to finish higher, referred to him as “the Lotto Soudal rider” in his victory speech. And it wasn’t simply because the mud obscured Vermeersch’s face…
It says a lot about his ambition and confidence that the Belgian was actually disappointed at having lost the race to the man who, of the leading trio, was always going to be the fastest finisher. That he had a pop from distance ahead of the final cobbled section, as well as being competitive in the velodrome, showed what a class act Vermeersch is. It will be interesting to see what "the Lotto Soudal rider" does next.
7. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
16th Milan-San Remo; 42nd Tour of Flanders; 2nd Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 6th Il Lombardia
None of our top 10 rode more Monuments in 2021 than the Frenchman, and it’s a testament to Alaphilippe’s class and versatility that he’s perhaps capable of winning all of them over the course of his career, even if he came up short in varying degrees this time round.
Having missed out on Strade Bianche glory in March, the world champion made the selection on the Poggio but didn’t have the answer when Jasper Stuyven skipped clear on the descent. A year after crashing out of contention in such dramatic fashion, Alaphilippe lacked the legs in Flanders on a day one of his teammates didn't – but he bounced back in the Ardennes with second place in Liège following his midweek Mur de Huy victory in La Flèche Wallonne.
After retaining his world title in Flanders, Alaphilippe saw off the internal challenge from Deceuninck teammate Remco Evenepoel in Lombardia on Saturday. After making the selection, Alaphilippe was understandably loathe to chase down teammate Fausto Madnada in the closing moments, effectively handing Pogacar the victory as he come home in the chasing group 51 seconds in arrears.
If Alaphilippe was far from his swashbuckling self in Monuments this year, he nevertheless put in spirited displays across the board. For instance, it was his attack on the Krujsberg which paved the way for Kasper Asgreen’s victory in Flanders, and it was the main in the rainbow bands who looked the likely Liège winner just five metres from the finish, until a certain Slovenian saved his best for the very last.
'Alaphilippe relives his nightmare!' - Pogacar pips Frenchman in Liege
6. Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
99th Milan-San Remo; 1st Tour of Flanders; 68th Paris-Roubaix
Sandwiched between two unremarkable performances over the Poggio and the cobblestones of northern France, Danish champion Asgreen came of age in Oudenaard to win the race he’d missed out on two years previously. That he did so in a two-up sprint against the defending champion, who himself had prevailed in an identical scenario 12 months earlier against a certain Wout van Aert, goes to show what a colossal performance Asgreen put in at the Ronde.
Asgreen had the confidence to make the decisive move 27km from the finish, an attack which coaxed the two favourites to the fore. When Van Aert imploded on the Paterberg after the 26-year-old put in another big surge, it became a two way battle from which everyone expected Van der Poel to emerge victorious.
Not many riders can say they’ve outlasted the Dutchman over such terrain, but when Van der Poel opened up the sprint early on the home straight, Asgreen matched him stroke-for-stroke until the Dutch champion was forced to ease up with a shake of the head. He'd been defeated at his own game.
'He’s blown up!' - Van der Poel cracks as Asgreen triumphs in Flanders
5. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
3rd Milan-San Remo; 6th Tour of Flanders; 7th Paris-Roubaix
Poor Van Aert couldn’t catch a break in this year’s Monuments. After winning La Classicissima in 2020 and coming runner-up in Flanders, the Belgian found himself very much a marked man, his every move covered. And without the same strength in depth at Jumbo as you would find at, say, Deceuninck-QuickStep, Van Aert often cut a frustrated figure.
No one wanted to drag him to the line on the via Roma, which allowed Jasper Stuyven to get away, while he couldn’t keep up with Asgreen and Van der Poel on the final cobbled berg in Flanders. In Paris-Roubaix he was impeded by crashes and himself hit the deck in the Arenberg, meaning he could close down Sonny Colbrelli’s move as Van der Poel did.
He still podiumed once and top-tenned twice – all while entering each of his three Monuments as the co-favourite – so it was hardly a case of bombing. Small consolation as it may be, Van Aert will have learned a lot from his disappointments in 2021, for which his monumental frustrations were but the tip of the iceberg. Surely he’ll return stronger next year – and higher up the top five in this list.
Van Aert urged to find that 'one thing you specialise in'
4. Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious)
8th Milan-San Remo; 55th Tour of Flanders; 1st Paris-Roubaix
In a year where Colbrelli’s climbing came on leaps and bounds, the Italian got over the Poggio and put himself in the mix for Milan-San Remo – only for a certain Belgian to banjax the hopes of those who had made the selection. The Italian’s spring took a bit of a nosedive here but he built up for an excellent second half of the season, culminating with victory in the Roubaix velodrome in the colours of the new European champion. Not that you could see much of Colbrelli’s jersey through the mud.
The experienced Italian rode a canny debut Paris-Roubaix. Not only did he avoid burning matches early, he put in a race-changing attack after the Arenberg, which forced Van der Poel to lead the chase to make the connection. It was no surprise that the Bahrain rider subsequently leaned on the Dutch superstar, who seemed both capable and willing to lead the chase on lone leader Gianni Moscon.
In the event, Moscon’s puncture and subsequent crash played into Colbrelli’s hands: not only did it spell the end for his compatriot, he himself hadn’t had to do too much in bringing the Ineos Grenadier to heel. All this ensured that it was the canny Colbrelli who became the first Italian in 22 years to win the Queen of the Classics – although the 31-year-old still had it all to do in the velodrome.
His celebration – most notably the tears of joy – will go down in history; Colbrelli’s noisy falling down (like an azzurri midfielder trying to win a free-kick) was certainly the stand-out response to winning a Monument in 2021.
'Viva Italia! Forza Italia! They've done it finally' - Colbrelli sprints to Paris-Roubaix victory
3. Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
1st Milan-San Remo; 4th Tour of Flanders; 25th Paris-Roubaix
The Belgian just about pips Colbrelli for his consistency across the same three Monuments, most notably winning the first and making the top five in the second. A crash in the sector ahead of the Arenberg put paid to Stuyven’s Roubaix hopes after a solid opening half of the race in which he found himself in contention with all the main players. These things happen.
Of course, Stuyven may have been a mere also-ran in Monuments had he not gone and done the impossible: win on the via Roma. He wasn’t the rider any of us expected to win La Primavera, but his attack on the descent of the Poggio was both brave and an example of astonishing race-craft. With too many fast men still in contention – the Australian Caleb Ewan and that man Van Aert, in particular – Stuyven pulled off his do-or-die move rather than succumb to the inevitable.
That he held on – and that it was Ewan who pipped Van Aert for second place in the battle for the remaining podium positions – showed that Stuyven had not only perfectly understood the situation, but also had the strength and belief to succeed where no one else had even dared. To emerge as the leading Monument rider from Belgian in an era where others grab so much more of the limelight underlines what Stuyven managed to achieve in 2021. Remco who?
'Absolutely wow!' - See how Stuyven claimed stunning Milan-San Remo win
2. Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
5th Milan-San Remo; 2nd Tour of Flanders; 3rd Paris-Roubaix
Much like his big rival Van Aert, Van der Poel has become a victim of his own success, his every move shadowed and countered by the few capable of pulling such a thing off. The Dutchman was the last to cross the line from a stellar quartet pursuing Stuyven in Milan-San Remo, unable to match the kick of Ewan, Van Aert and Peter Sagan on the via Roma.
In Flanders he looked to have done to Asgreen exactly what he did to Van Aert one year earlier, only for the elastic to snap and the Dane to prevail through superior staying power on the home straight. Another podium followed in Roubaix, albeit from a threesome where most of us would have put our chips on VdP coming out on top.
A born animator, Van der Poel’s problem comes in his bullish tendency to take each race by the horns and wrest control. On many occasions, that’s enough to secure yet another win. But against an in-form Asgreen or a canny Colbrelli keeping his cards close to his chest, perhaps the softly-softly approach would have been more effective.
'He was the deserved winner' - Van der Poel praises Stuyven
Still, you can’t really have an argument against a rider who was in the mix to win all three of the Monuments he rode this year, a unique talent who also won Strade Bianche, the unofficial “Sixth Monument”?
Was he the most successful, or even the best, Monuments rider in 2021? No. But three of those five Monuments wouldn't have been much of a race were it not for Van der Poel's presence. It's not a question of if the 26-year-old will return to the top step of a Monument podium, but when.
1. Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)
1st Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 1st Il Lombardia
Granted, he only rode two of the five Monuments this year, but he won them both – and you get the impression that Pogacar, should he put his mind to it, could just as well triumph over the bergs of Flanders, the cobblestones of northern France or on the historic via Roma. After all, he’d only have to put in the kind of attack on the Poggio or the Paterberg as he did on the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons or the Passo di Ganda and he’d no doubt pulverise the rest of the peloton.
Pogacar did more than win Il Lombardia on Saturday. He became the first rider since Eddy Merckx in 1972 to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de France and Il Lombardia in the same season; the youngest rider in 52 years to win Il Lombardia; and the youngest rider in history to win multiple monuments in a single season. The 23-year-old also became the first rider ever to win the Tour, two Monuments and an Olympic medal in a single season.
Highlights: Pogacar matches Coppi and Merckx with Il Lombardia success
He did all this despite apparently swimming against a classics tide powered by the likes of Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe – the three riders who, if they’re not winning, nevertheless fill more column inches before, during and after most races. There has not been a more complete rider since Merckx, and yet Pogacar has achieved more than the Cannibal had at the same age, and seems to do so while under the radar.
It’s scary how much more the Slovenian could still achieve in cycling: at the very least, he could still win another two white jerseys in the Tour; at the most, he could surpass the five-Tour club, while winning each one of cycling’s Monuments. Just wait until he tries his hand at the cobbles… after all, he managed a top 10 over the Tuscan dirt roads in Strade Bianche this spring, too.