The stand-out cycling moments of 2020 from Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, La Vuelta and beyond
Coronavirus made for a disjointed season torn in two by lockdown. But once things got going again, 2020 served up something very special. Felix Lowe on the highs and lows of a unique and unprecedented year in pro cycling – as youth trumped experience and attack often formed the best means of defence in the battles for yellow, pink and red.
Blazin' Saddles: The stand-out cycling moments of 2020
Published 23/12/2020 at 13:29 GMT | Updated 25/12/2020 at 08:32 GMT
With the door shutting on 2020 amid hopes that mass vaccination will soon offer a way out of the ongoing Covid-19 nightmare, it's time to take a look back at a season in which the return to races offered a welcome distraction to world events.
A season that was inescapably shaped by the global pandemic resulted in some of the most unpredictable and exciting racing witnessed in recent memory – but with the smooth came the rough: in a year dominated by youthful verve and a buccaneering spirit, not all of the key moments will be remember for the right reasons.
The first of our end-of-season reviews runs through a chronological sweep of the stand-out moments – good and bad – of the 2020 cycling season.
There was no seventh successive win on his Tour Down Under climb of choice for Trek-Segafredo veteran Porte, who was beaten by British newcomer Matthew Holmes on Willunga Hill. It didn't stop the Australian from winning his home race for a second time – and while no individual victories came in 2020, the 35-year-old rolled back the years to finish third in the Tour in Paris, his first ever Grand Tour podium. Next up, a return to Ineos Grenadiers.
Holmes takes first professional victory as Porte wins GC
Paris-Nice ends one day early because of Covid-19
Max Schachmann proved his class by leading the Race to the Sun from start to de facto finish – although the spectre of the spreading pandemic loomed large as face masks became common currency in the pro peloton. With lockdown on the horizon, the final lumpy stage around Nice was cancelled, with Nairo Quintana winning the last bike race of the spring and early summer, the Colombian veteran soloing to glory on the climb of La Colmiane as the curtains were drawn on cycling.
Wout van Aert wins Strade Bianche on return to racing
Four and a half months after the last competitive pedal stroke, cycling returned with a hot, dusty edition of Strade Bianche on the first day of August. The Belgian Wout van Aert romped to victory in an empty Piazzo del Campo ahead of Davide Formolo and that man Schachmann. A week later, van Aert secured his first monument in a re-routed Milano-Sanremo before picking up a win in the Dauphiné to cap his emphatic return from injury.
'What a ride!' - Wout van Aert soloes to glory in Strade Bianche
Jumbo-Visma put Ineos in the shade in Dauphiné
One day after van Aert won the opening stage of the traditional pre-Tour skirmish, Jumbo-Visma showed their strength in depth with Primož Roglič winning on the Col de Porte to take over the yellow jersey from his teammate. Off the back of Roglič's commanding victory in the Tour de l'Ain, Jumbo-Visma's collective performance seemed all the more formidable when set against the struggles of their rivals at Ineos.
With British duo Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas well off the pace, Sir Dave Brailsford had seen enough to drop both former Tour winners from the Tour team supporting defending champion Egan Bernal. The Colombian would later withdraw with a bad back, while Roglič failed to start the final stage following a crash. But the writing was on the wall: Jumbo had out-Ineos'ed Ineos and Roglič, clearly, was going to be the man to beat in the July – sorry, September.
‘It’s not look at Ineos, it’s look at Jumbo-Visma’
Fabio Jakobsen crashes in Tour of Poland
Jumbo-Visma made headlines for the wrong reasons over in Poland after their Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen closed the door on compatriot Fabio Jakobsen on a fast downhill finish to the opening stage in Katowice.
Jakobsen went flying over the barriers and into the gantry at 70kph, suffering serious brain trauma and damage to the upper respiratory tract, a broken palate, and heavy blood loss. Put in an induced coma, the Deceuninck Quick-Step rider survived but has not ridden a race since and needed full facial reconstruction surgery. Groenewegen was later banned for nine months. He, too, has not ridden competitively since. Both riders may struggle to come back from this.
Bradley Wiggins on cycling safety after Fabio Jakobsen crash: 'Something has to change'
Remco Evenepoel's huge scare in Il Lombardia
Less than a week after winning the Tour de Pologne – his fourth stage race victory of the season following pre-lockdown wins in San Juan, the Algarve and Burgos – the wheels came off the Belgian tyro's season after Evenepoel, chasing Vincenzo Nibali on a challenging descent, misjudged a corner and went flying over the edge of a bridge.
Coming so soon after Jakobsen's life-threatening crash, Evenepoel's plunge raised the issue of rider safety once again – brought into sharp relief just moments later when Schachmann was knocked off his bike in the Lombardia finale by a car which had managed to stray onto the course. Had the rush to get back to racing clouded the bare-minimal obligations of organisers and the sport's governing body? Perhaps.
While Schachmann broke his collarbone, the German was back in action before the end of the month in the Tour. For 20-year-old Evenepoel, a fractured pelvis and collapsed lung brought his development to a sudden halt and scuppered his plans to ride a first Giro.
Tadej Pogačar wins maiden Tour stage
Entering his first Tour de France as a support rider for teammate Fabio Aru, Pogačar quickly demonstrated that it was he, and not the stuttering Italian, who would be wearing the trousers at UAE-Team Emirates. His maiden Tour stage victory, at Laruns in the Pyrenees in Stage 9, captured the race in a microcosm.
Pogačar pipped fellow Slovenian Roglič to the line with his compatriot assuming the race lead he would ultimately concede to the 19-year-old on the penultimate day. Behind, the battling breakaway artist Marc Hirschi was forced to settle for third (but would eventually get a deserved maiden win of his own) while Bernal, the defending champion in white, faded in the finale.
It marked a changing of the guard and confirmed the two Slovenians as the riders who would define the 107th Tour. The same protagonists would be thrown together in the Worlds road race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Highlights of an all-time great Tour stage as Pogacar and Roglic break Hirschi's heart
Grenadiers one-two for Kwiatkowski and Carapaz
After cracking on the Grand Colombier to drop out of the top 10, defending champion Bernal eventually quit the race two days later ahead of the testing new finish on the Col de la Loze (where victory went to Miguel Angel Lopez on a day Pogačar experienced his only slight wobble).
With Bernal out of the equation, fellow south American and teammate Richard Carapaz was given free rein, the Ecuadorian featuring in the day's break for three successive stages. The third saw him on the head of the race with teammate Michal Kwiatkowski and that man Hirschi in Stage 18 to La Roche-sur-Foron.
By now, the Swiss tyro had made amends for his loss in Laruns by winning four days later in Sarran. But when the otherwise elegant Hirschi (later crowned the Tour's most combative rider) hit the deck on a descent, the Ineos pair was able to press on – arriving at the finish together to end the team's drought in style. Settling for the polka dot jersey, Carapaz gallantly let his 30-year-old Polish teammate take a first ever Grand Tour stage win.
'A brilliant day for Ineos' - Watch Kwiatkowski and Carapaz's special winning moment
Pogačar wins Tour on La Planche
The pendulum had been swinging in the younger Slovenian's favour, but no one expected Roglič's off-day to be countered by a display of such domination from Pogačar on La Planche des Belles Filles.
Trailing his compatriot by 57 seconds going into the decisive time trial, Pogačar not only picked up his third stage win of the race, but took a whopping 1'56" out of his rival – and with it, his maillot jaune. The almost comedic sight of Roglič in a yellow skin-suit and a lop-sided helmet became one of the enduring images of the race – as did the reaction of his Jumbo-Visma teammates Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert, watching as the nightmare unfolder in front of their very eyes.
Bennett ends Sagan's green run
As Pogačar became the youngest Tour winner since 1904, Ireland's Sam Bennett channelled his inner Sean Kelly to win his second stage of the race on the Champs-Elysées to secure the green jersey. If his first Tour victory at Ile-de-Ré had been emotional, his second was emphatic – and with it ended Peter Sagan's long run of seven green jerseys in eight years. The achievement was all the sweeter considering Sagan's role in freezing Bennett out at Bora-Hansgrohe. By joining Quick-Step, the 30-year-old finally turned from sheep into wolf.
'To do it in green is so special' - Sam Bennett reflects on Champs Elysees win
Alaphilippe puts France back on the map
One day after Anna van der Breggen soloed to glory to lead home a Dutch one-two at Imola after that famous panning helicopter shot, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe bounced back from a topsy-turvy Tour (in which he won early, took the yellow jersey, lost it on an infraction, then never rediscovered his mojo) to become world champion.
He may have failed to become the first French Tour winner since 1986, but he did take his nation's first rainbow jersey in 23 years after darting clear on the Mazzolano climb ahead of a typical Alaphilippian finish of emotion-fuelled panache. It wouldn't be the last we'd see of peloton's number one swashbuckler that autumn.
Hirschi the new king of the Mur de Huy
The absence of the new world champion and the quadruple winner Alejandro Valverde opened the door to another buccaneer in La Fleche Wallonne. Hirschi's breakthrough autumn continued with the 22-year-old timing his attack to perfection to win on the Mur de Huy. He has all the attributes to suggest he can at least match Alaphilippe's two wins and, perhaps, Valverde's four.
Alaphilippe's premature celebration in Liège
One upshot of the pandemic was that, for surely the first time in history, a rider's rainbow inauguration came not at Il Lombardia but in La Doyenne – and Alaphilippe clearly let the occasion (and his hype) go to his head.
Not content with almost taking out Hirschi on the final bend, Alaphilippe deviated ahead of the line to cut off both Pogačar and the Swiss, before raising his arms aloft to celebrate a win for… Roglič, whose late surge managed to pip Alaphilippe at the post. It was a comedy of errors which saw the Frenchman get egg on his face while allowing Roglič to atone for his Tour heartbreak.
Is this the best finish in Monument history? Watch Roglic's famous win and Alaphilippe's howler
Did Alaphilippe learn his lesson? It seems not. Three days later, he almost made the exact same mistake in De Brabantse Pijl to gift van der Poel a win, but this time the photo finish came back in his favour.
'Has Alaphilippe done it again!?' - World Champion celebrates too early as Van der Poel closes in...
Thomas crashes out of Giro
One day after Roglič's redemption, the wheels came off Ineos' Giro d'Italia plans when leader Geraint Thomas crashed in the neutral zone of Stage 3 after an unscheduled rendez-vous with a discarded water bottle. The Welshman battled to the finish on Mount Etna on a dark day for the British team, whose debutant Filippo Ganna also lost the pink jersey.
Ganna goes off-script to give Ineos wings
With Thomas forced to quit the race, the Italian debutant set the tone for his team's attacking performance over the remaining two and a half weeks on mainland Italy with a superb victory in the rain and fog at Camigliatello Silano in Stage 5.
The 24-year-old was always expected to perform well in the race's three time trials, but a breakaway victory in Calabria to deny the chasing pack after a 23km climb in the finale was not expected from the 82-kilo, 6'3" powerhouse. Bolstered by his performance, Ineos went on to win a third of all Giro stages with that man Ganna bagging a hat-trick of TT wins while wearing all four classification jerseys at some point.
Ganna produces performance worthy of 'Boonen, Wiggins and Cancellara' to win Stage 5 of the Giro
Pedersen draws line under frustrating season
A busy calendar meant that the Ardennes and Belgian classics overlapped with the Giro. As Portugal's Ruben Guerreiro laid the foundations for his blue jersey push with a stage victory at Roccaraso (with compatriot João Almeida continuing to impress in pink), Mads Pedersen went about doing what he does best in Belgium: winning in horrific conditions.
The outgoing world champion, who hardly got a chance to perform in the rainbow stripes during the corona-curtailed season, proved his class with a gutsy win in the meteorological maelstrom we now associate with Gent-Wevelgem – whether it's being held in the regular spring slot, or this later autumn place in the calendar.
Pedersen overhauls elite field to win Gent-Wevelgem
Covid almost derails the Giro
An open letter to Mauro Vegni and the Giro organisers, RCS, from EF Pro Cycling boss Jonathan Vaughters – in which the American suggested the race should finish on the second rest day rather than tempt fate and limp on to Milan – fell on deaf ears as Vegni remained hell bent on seeing things through to the bitter end.
Vaughters' call came after pre-race favourite Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was forced to quit because of a Covid positive, and the entire Jumbo-Visma team walked out following a positive for their own team leader, Steven Kruijswijk. It was not the only spot of bother for Vegni, who, two days before the finish, came under fire when the peloton went on strike because of sodden conditions in what was meant to be the longest stage of the race.
Démare wins four stages
A quartet of sprint wins in the opening 11 days of racing showed Groupama-FDJ exactly what they were missing during the Tour as French champion Arnaud Démare secured the maglia ciclamino and laid down his credentials as the fastest man in the pack. Let's hope that 2021 involves a battle between Démare, Sagan and Bennett for the green jersey in France.
'Nobody can get near him!' - Demare wins Stage 11
Alaphilippe crashes out of Flanders
On the day Britain's Tao Geoghegan Hart opened up his Grand Tour stage account, the season came to an abrupt halt for the man in rainbow stripes. Having forced the selection in his debut Ronde van Vlaanderen, Alaphilippe was distracted by his race radio when Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel swung past a slowing motorcycle inside the final 40km.
The collision sent the Frenchman sprawling in one of the most striking images of the year, resulting in a broken hand and broken dreams for the 28-year-old who couldn't help by make the headlines for whatever reason.
Watch the moment Julian Alaphilippe crashed into motorbike at Tour of Flanders
Van der Poel pips Van Aert in Flanders
With the Frenchman floored, fans were treated to a thrilling duel between the two big rivals of their generation. The former cyclo-cross stars toyed with each other in the finale – and as veteran Alexander Kristoff led the chase behind, van Aert hesitated and opened up his sprint just that fraction too late. Van der Poel's victory meant both riders ended up with a monument each – with the Dutchman making familial history by following in the tyre tracks of his father (Adri van der Poel) and late grandfather (Raymond Poulidor) as a Ronde winner.
Rohan Dennis delivers on the Stelvio
Back in Italy, and victory in the Dolomites ahead of the second rest day had seen Geoghegan Hart move up into the podium positions. But it was the performance of his Australian teammate Rohan Dennis on the Stelvio which laid the foundations for the Condor of Hackney's unlikely push for pink.
A fierce and relentless tempo from the indefatigable Dennis on the snow-clad slopes saw race leader Wilco Kelderman dropped and his Sunweb teammate Jai Hindley caught in two worlds. While Hindley went on to win the stage and Kelderman did enough to keep pink, Dennis had passed the initiative to Geoghegan Hart. Two days later, the pair combined once again in devastating fashion at Sestriere as the Briton took his second win and Hindley took over the race summit.
Geoghegan Hart takes pink on final day
Spare a thought for Hindley, whose first day in pink was always destined to be his last. No sooner had Geoghegan Hart rolled down the ramp of the final time trial than it became clear that he would have enough to seize the maglia rosa from the shoulders of his Australian rival in Milan.
Ganna won the 15.7km race of truth, of course, but all eyes were on his teammate. With all the talk prior to the Giro surrounding Thomas and Yates, it was another British rider, the 25-year-old understudy Geoghegan Hart, who came of age to become the fifth British Grand Tour winner since Bradley Wiggins opened the floodgates back in 2012.
Tao's fairytale: How Geoghegan Hart and Ineos won Giro
Carthy's taming of the Angliru
Its first week overlapping with the excitement of the Giro coming to a boil in northern Italy, the shortened Vuelta – which saw its scheduled opening stages in the Netherlands scrapped – was always destined to play second fiddle. It was a shame, for the racing was exciting and the conditions in northern Spain very different from the usual swelter-fest associated with the third Grand Tour.
The performance of the entire race arguably came on the mythical Alto de l'Angliru, where another British rider came of age. Hugh Carthy's face ran the gamut of pained emotions as he battled the 23 per cent slopes to leave his rivals in his wake.
Carthy's maiden Grand Tour stage win was a long time coming and saw the 26-year-old move into the podium positions ahead of the final week of racing – keeping the pressure up on race favourite Roglič, who conceded the red jersey to Richard Carapaz for a second time after needing a bail-out from dependable teammate Sepp Kuss on the fearsome climb.
'Hugh the mighty!' - Watch the finish to Stage 12 on the Angliru
Roglič buries demons on Mirador de Ézaro
The Slovenian took the red jersey back from Carapaz at the first available opportunity by winning the race's only time trial after the second rest day. Trailing Carthy at the first split, Roglič kept his cool before not repeating his La Planche implosion when the road hit the punchy 1.5km climb of the Mirador de Ézaro.
Roglič timed his negative split to perfection to deny the American Will Barta by one second over the line and secure a fourth stage win that put him back in the driving seat. Learning from his lessons, Roglič would add yet more bonus seconds in the final week before holding his own on the race's final climb to La Covatilla on the penultimate day, beating Carapaz by 24 seconds and Carthy by 1'15" come Madrid.
'Roglic steals it from Barta at the very last!' - Jumbo-Visma rider wins stage and takes race lead
It was fitting that the man who triumphed in the season's final race was the man – and the team – who stood head and shoulders above all others in stage races since the lockdown. A second successive Vuelta win for Roglič capped a bittersweet season which saw him lose out to compatriot Pogačar in France, but ultimately do enough to win the prestigious Velo d'Or prize as the best all-round performer of 2020.
Next in our series: the top 10 riders of 2020 and the riders who must do better in 2021.