Mathieu Van der Poel, Mark Cavendish's fairytale & history for Lizzie Deignan – 2021’s stand-out moments
From a season which started under the lingering cloud of coronavirus, we pick out the most memorable moments – the good, the bad and the ugly – from an action-packed year. From karma coming back to haunt Primož Roglič in the Race to the Sun to Mark Cavendish’s Tour de France comeback, via Anna Kiesenhofer’s astonishing Olympic upset and many, many more.
Jaw-dropping Van der Poel, Cav’s fairytale & history for Deignan – 2021’s stand-out moments
The calendar continued to suffer some casualties in the first cycling season of the post-pandemic world, the Tour Down Under among those races cancelled as the Covid-19 fallout continued. But it was business as usual when the WorldTour finally got underway, with Slovenian sensation Tadej Pogačar winning the UAE Tour. If this was hardly stand-out status, then it wouldn’t be long before one of the defining moments of the season came courtesy of a Dutch superstar and a one-thousand-watt attack on the streets of Siena...
This, our first in a series of end-of-season festive reviews, runs through a chronological sweep of the most memorable moments of a 2021 cycling season that delivered shocks, surprises, talking-points aplenty, and yet more aggressive and compelling racing.
Van der Poel’s thermonuclear attack to win Strade Bianche
After winning the opening stage of the UAE Tour in typically swashbuckling fashion, Mathieu van der Poel was denied the chance of racing in yellow after a positive Covid test in the Alpecin Fenix camp forced the entire team to withdraw. But the 26-year-old Dutch champion did not need to wait long to underline his indomitability in a stellar field.
Under the bright Tuscan sun, Van der Poel won Strade Bianche with what VeloNews described as “one of the most incredible and eye-watering performances we have ever seen”. His attack on the final gravel section forced the selection with only Julian Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal able to follow.
'Legendary' - Van der Poel seals 'remarkable' Strade Bianche win
But neither the world champion nor the former Tour de France winner were capable of matching Van der Poel’s jaw-dropping attack on the ramped road into Siena: hitting a peak of 1,362 watts, he held over 1,000 watts for 20 seconds on his uphill charge towards the Piazza del Campo – making the world’s best puncheur, the man in the rainbow bands, look ordinary in the process.
It wouldn’t be the last shockwave Van der Poel would unleash on the cycling world in 2021.
Ruthless Roglič denies Mäder in Paris-Nice
In his first race of the season, Primož Roglič was in bullish form. Sure, he only mustered third in the time trial on day three, six seconds off the pace set by Stefan Bissegger. But he then soloed to victory in Stage 4 before doubling up two days later in yellow, beating Christophe Laporte in a reduced sprint.
With a comfortable 41-second lead over defending champion Max Schachmann entering the penultimate stage, Roglič rode clear of the German on the final climb to all but secure the overall title. But with escapee Gino Mäder still up the road, the race leader couldn’t resist surging past the Swiss just metres from the finish to complete his hat-trick of wins at La Colmiane.
‘Mader has his heart broken’ – Roglic seals dramatic win to consolidate Paris-Nice lead
Such ruthlessness shocked many viewers and would have won Roglič few fans as he denied the 24-year-old what would have been a maiden WorldTour win. Karma came back to haunt the Jumbo-Visma rider: on the final stage to Levens, Roglič hit the deck and received little, if any, assistance as he frantically tried to fight back into contention. Despite a brave battle, he shipped over three minutes and conceded the yellow jersey to Schachmann.
Van der Poel blows Tirreno-Adriatico apart
The second finest week’s racing of the season – nothing beat the unparalleled opening week of the Tour de France – came in March with an all-time great edition of the Race of the Two Seas.
Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Tadej Pogačar added stardust to the startlist of the 56th edition of Tirreno-Adriatico. And after seven enthralling stages, all four had picked up at least one win, giving the only other victor, Mads Würtz Schmidt, severe illusions of grandeur.
Van Aert bookended the race with triumphs, with his old foe Van der Poel also securing a brace off the back of wins for the world champion and reigning Tour champion. If Pogačar secured the overall by taking the mountain-top finish in Stage 4, it was Van der Poel’s barnstorming ride the very next day which had fans salivating over their discovery+ subscriptions.
‘What an amazing rider!’ - Van der Poel holds on for solo stage win as Pogacar extends Tirreno lead
In the Dutchman’s latest show of brilliance, he put down the hammer with 50km remaining ahead of a solo ride through horrific conditions which his father Adrie labelled “his best race ever”.
On the road to Castelfidardo, Van der Poel pulled out a three-minute lead in the cold and rain, before holding the chasing Pogačar at bay to come home 10 seconds clear in a performance that surpassed his stellar Strade Bianche win just weeks earlier.
“In this field, with this weather, on that course... he can still surprise me,” gushed Van der Poel senior. And not for the last time in 2021.
Stuyven upsets favourites in Milan-San Remo
With the in-form Van der Poel and Van Aert still both in contention going over the Poggio, along with fast finishers Caleb Ewan, Sonny Colbrelli, Michael Matthews and Peter Sagan, Belgium’s Jasper Stuyven threw caution to the wind with an early attack nearing the bottom of cycling’s most famous descent.
As the big guns bickered behind, Trek-Segafredo’s Stuyven was joined by Søren Kragh Andersen on the via Roma. The experienced Belgian played his cards right and outfoxed the Dane while holding off a frustrated Ewan to secure the first Monument of his career against all odds. The preceding 290-odd kilometres may have been dour, but the finale of the 112th edition of Milan-San Remo delivered drama in buckets.
'Absolutely wow!' - See how Stuyven claimed stunning Milan-San Remo win
Asgreen beats Van der Poel at his own game in Flanders
When Van der Poel beat Van Aert to win the first Monument of his career, he did so by outlasting his rival on the Ronde home straight in Oudenaarde. Fast forward six months and the Dutchman found himself in a very similar position as he closed in on securing his crown.
There was no denying the calibre of his opponent: Kasper Asgreen had, one week earlier, capped a fine Deceuninck-QuickStep team performance by winning the E3 Saxo Bank Classic in some style. And even though Van der Poel was one of the riders he’d got the better of that day, most viewers felt the Flanders finale was a formality. The Danish champion had another idea, cracking his opponent with 50m remaining after a scintillating shoulder-to-shoulder sprint.
'He’s blown up!' - Van der Poel cracks as Asgreen triumphs in Flanders
Photo-finish denies Pidcock in Amstel Gold Race
Tom Pidcock’s glass of fizzy Dutch lager was half empty and Wout van Aert’s half full when the race jury came down in favour of the Belgian after it needed a photo finish to separate the two in the 55th edition of the Dutch classic.
Just days after beating Van Aert in De Brabantse Pijl, Pidcock appeared to have done the double in a thrilling conclusion to the Amstel Gold Race. The technology said otherwise, even if the initial photos appear to clearly show the Ineos Grenadier rider’s lunge breaking through the line a whisker ahead of his rival. Cue lengthy debates about the exact location of finishing lines in relation to both the painted strip and the mounted cameras. We were all none the wiser – but the result stood, and the 21-year-old was forced to drown his sorrows.
'It’s a close one!' – Van Aert beats Pidcock by tightest of margins
Cavendish wins Stage 2 of the Tour of Turkey
It wasn’t the biggest win of his long career, but it could well have been one of the most important. After a torrid three years and a fruitless stint at Bahrain-McLaren, Mark Cavendish showed there was life in the old dog yet by pipping Jasper Philipsen and old foe Andre Greipel in Konya. Three more wins would come before the end of the week as Cavendish repaid the faith showed in him by Patrick Lefevere in the absence of Deceuninck-QuickStep’s main sprinter, Sam Bennett.
The Tour of Turkey also saw the return to racing for Dutch fastman Fabio Jakobsen following his horrific crash in 2020. Both Cav and Jakobsen would go on to enjoy far greater success later in the year.
'Fabulous' - Cavendish storms to victory at Tour of Turkey
Alpecin-Fenix win opening sprint in Giro through Merlier
After Filippo Ganna’s routine opening TT win, the Belgian Tim Merlier upset the big guns to win Stage 2 of the Giro. In itself this was perhaps not worthy of inclusion in this list of memorable moments – but it’s worth noting that Alpecin-Fenix went on to win the opening bunch sprint of both the Tour de France (through Merlier again) and the Vuelta (Jasper Philipsen). Not bad for a second-tier team yet to assume WorldTour status.
Taco van der Hoorn holds on in Giro
The man with the best name in pro cycling did the impossible in Stage 3 of the Giro, holding off the returning peloton after enjoying some breakaway jousting with fellow escapee Simon Pellaud on the nail-biting approach to Canale. The bewildered yet triumphant look on Van der Hoorn’s face as he crossed the line said it all.
‘Even he can’t believe it!’ – Van der Hoorn wins Stage 3
Mäder joy after Landa crashes out of Giro d’Italia
A day after Joe Dombrowski picked up his first Grand Tour stage win, the American hit some road furniture on the fast approach into Cattolica, taking out Spain’s Mikel Landa in the process. After finishing third in Tirreno-Adriatico, Landa looked to have the legs to put up a serious challenge, finally, in a three-week race. Instead, he ended up in hospital with a broken collarbone and broken ribs.
But Bahrain-Victorious bounced back at the earliest opportunity with Switzerland’s Gino Mäder drawing a line under his Paris-Nice heartbreak by holding on to win from the breakaway in Ascoli Piceno. A classy response from a rider who would go on to reach fresh heights later in the year.
Bernal takes control of Giro at Campo Felice
The Colombian put his back issues behind him by securing the maglia rosa with a pulsating ride up the dirt track climb of Campo Felice in Stage 9 of the Giro. Bidding to get back to Grand Tour winning ways in the absence of Slovenian duo Pogačar and Roglič, Bernal lived up to his pre-race favourite status by adding an overall Giro title to his Tour triumph in 2019.
Bernal laid the foundations to his win on the gravel climb, surging from the wheel of dependable Ineos teammate Gianni Moscon to open his Grand Tour stage account. A week later, the 24-year-old showed his class by deftly defying the slippery cobbles of Cortina d’Ampezzo to pocket his rain cape and show the pink jersey some respect as he crossed the line to consolidate his lead in the Dolomites. A classy brace from a rider slowly returning to his best.
‘Egan Bernal is blowing up the Giro d’Italia’ – Ineos star soars to Stage 9 win
Spectator causes mass pile-up during Stage 1 of the Tour
With fans back on the side of the road after a one-year hiatus, Tony Martin would have perhaps wished the pandemic was still in full flow when a spectator strayed in front of the peloton while brandishing a cardboard cut-out with the words “Allez Opi-Omi” – an endearing German term for grandparents – on the opening stage of the Tour.
Jumbo-Visma’s Martin was unable to take evasive action and the resulting pile-up saw scores of riders hit the deck, ending the races of fellow German Jasha Sütterlin and the Spaniard Marc Soler. In October, a 31-year-old women appeared in court to face charged of causing “involuntary injuries” while “endangering others”. She has yet to be sentenced, but it goes without saying that her grandpa and ma were probably not best impressed.
‘Stupid! Chaos!’ – Fan causes huge crash that brings down entire peloton
It was not the first, nor was it the last crash to mar the race. Two days later, the chances of Geraint Thomas and Primož Roglič were effectively ended in separate spills – not merely rolling out the red carpet for Tadej Pogačar to defend his crown, but opening the door to Danish debutant Jonas Vingegaard, who gave Jumbo a post-Roglič boost by finishing runner-up.
Van der Poel takes maiden yellow jersey on Tour
In a season where the flying Dutchman kept hitting new heights, Van der Poel succeeded where his ‘Eternal Second’ grandfather never did by donning the Tour’s yellow jersey. Trailing Julian Alaphilippe – who swapped his rainbow stripes for yellow on day one – by eight seconds, Van der Poel had his work cut out.
But the 26-year-old rose to the challenge – attacking on the first ascent of the infamous Guerlédan climb at Mûr-de-Bretagne to pocket the bonus seconds going over the top. Easing up, Van der Poel allowed himself to be taken back into the bunch before he went all-in once again to win the stage ahead of Slovenian superstars Pogačar and Roglič.
‘The cream will rise to the top!’ - Van der Poel takes yellow with blistering ride
If Alaphilippe’s opening day win had been emotional then this one was off the scale. Somewhere up above, a smile no doubt appeared across Raymond Poulidor’s face.
Van der Poel would add more moments of class in the race, not least getting in a breakaway alongside Van Aert in Stage 7 or the moment he gave his bidon to a boy on the side of the road during his last day on the race in Stage 8. The Dutchman would also crash out of the Olympic MTB race to provide one of the most photographic moments of the Games - proof that he is human after all.
Cavendish wins first stage on Tour for five years
Van der Poel’s tears of joy may have dried but there wasn’t a dry eye in the metaphorical room two days later when Britain’s Mark Cavendish completed an extraordinary and highly unlikely comeback with his first Tour stage win in five years. The setting for Cav’s 31st victory was Fougères, the Brittany town where he picked up his solitary scalp in 2015.
The Manx Missile’s participation in the Tour only came following an injury to Ireland’s Sam Bennett, the defending green jersey. Cavendish grabbed the bull by the horns, benefiting from the expert lead-out skills of Danish veteran Michael Mørkøv to close in on Eddy Merckx’s long-standing record. Three more wins saw the 36-year-old draw level with the Cannibal, setting up the mouth-watering prospect of Cavendish making history in green on the Champs-Élysées…
'What a hero!' - Cavendish claims stunning win on Stage 4
Mohorič channels his inner Armstrong after second win
Slovenia may have two superstars in Roglič and Pogačar, but Matej Mohorič remains one hell of a rider, with more Grand Tour performances than either of his compatriots and still only 27 years old. Having crashed out of the Giro in spectacular fashion, Mohorič took the Tour by storm by soloing to glory on two occasions.
It was the second of Mohorič’s wins which left the most lasting after-taste. Coming as it did a day after police raided his Bahrain-Victorious hotel, Mohorič took it upon himself to put a finger to his lips before performing a zip-the-lips gesture – an echo of Lance Armstrong which the Slovenian claimed was purely coincidental.
The upshot was that, instead of lauding his second win (and a fifth in total for Slovenia following Pogačar’s earlier hat-trick of triumphs), fans and the media were reduced to discussing a certain rider’s impulsive naivety, somewhat distracting from what was another exceptional tour de force from a seriously talented bike rider.
'That was brilliant!' - Mohoric takes win and sends pointed message
Van Aert wins on Champs-Élysées
Talking of hat-tricks, it wasn’t only the man in yellow who went away from the Tour with the match ball, so to speak. Wout van Aert may have missed out on his target of donning yellow in the opening week, but after a frustrating start, the Belgian champion gave Jumbo-Visma something to cheer with victory over the historic double ascent of Mont Ventoux.
The 26-year-old made it a brace with victory on the penultimate day’s time trial before gate-crashing Cavendish’s party in Paris with a bunch sprint win on the Champs-Élysées. It was that Stage 21 win which saw Van Aert complete cycling’s equivalent of the perfect hat-trick in football, with his mountain-TT-sprint haul worthy of a left boot, right boot, header triple.
Van Aert’s victories all came after his rival Van der Poel had long since left the race and means Cavendish fans will have to wait another year – perhaps longer – to see their man attempt to surpass Eddy Merckx in the Tour hall of fame.
‘Boxed in!’ – Cavendish frustrated as Van Aert wins Stage 21
Vos makes it 30 on the Giro Donne
Meanwhile, over in Italy, Marianne Vos was making her own slice of history: the Dutch veteran’s second win at the Giro Donne took her total stage tally rise to 30 in her 16th year as a professional.
Over a rolling parcours, Vos crossed the line in Puegnago di Garda to win the seventh stage ahead of Elisa Longo Borghini and Anna van der Breggen for the landmark win. Since her first Giro triumph in 2007, Vos – like Merckx on the Tour – has won over all terrains: sprints, mountains, hills and time trials. While the last of her three overall titles came in 2014, Vos' 30 stage wins is 12 more than anyone else in the history books and could well stand the test of time.
“It is an incredible number, but it is not really something I was thinking of. You know, every day is a new day in the Giro, and every day you have to be ready to focus, to fight and to get there," Vos said.
Giro Donne : Stage 7 highlights as Vos claims historic 30th win
Jakobsen marks Grand Tour return with three wins
Considering their star sprinter was waylaid and controversially ostracised for much of the season, Deceuninck-QuickStep still pulled out all the stops with their supposed back-up plans. After Cavendish’s comeback heroics in the Tour, it was Fabio Jakobsen’s turn to shine in Spain, the 25-year-old Dutchman turning a page on his life-threatening crash from 2020 with a hat-trick of victories in the Vuelta.
There could have been more – a miscommunication in Stage 13 opened the door to teammate Florian Sénéchal instead – but Jakobsen’s return to the big time was capped, like Cavendish, with a green jersey in what was one of the feel-good stories of 2021.
'In the melee he got through it all' - Jakobsen takes Stage 4 win after thrilling sprint finish
Cort completes an accomplished Vuelta hat-trick
The moustachioed Magnus Cort was one of the stars of the Vuelta, pulling off a triptych of wins almost rivalling Van Aert’s Tour haul. First up, he held on from the break to deny Primož Roglič on the Alto de la Montaña de Cullera, the Slovakian learning from his Mäder mishap from Paris-Nice and letting his deserved opponent take the win.
Then came the bunch sprint win at Cordoba, one day after he almost held on from the breakaway, with Roglič this time giving no gifts on the steep ramp at Valdepeñas de Jaén. EF Education-Nippo then used their numerical advantage with Lawson Craddock expertly setting up Cort for his third win from the break in Stage 19. And it could have been four, that man in red, Roglič, the only rider to complete the final time trial at Santiago de Compostela quicker than Cort, for whom the Vuelta had been a real pilgrimage.
'What a ride!' - Cort pips Roglic in enthralling uphill sprint finish to Stage 6
Champoussin fights back to win Stage 20
Those of us who love an underdog were celebrating Clement Champoussin’s audacious win on the penultimate day of the Vuelta. On the fifth and final categorised climb, the Frenchman was swallowed up by the GC favourites when the breakaway was brought to heel. But as the likes of Roglič, Enric Mas, Adam Yates and Jack Haig eased up in their pursuit of red, Champoussin came back from nowhere for a second bite of the apple.
The 23-year-old Frenchman passed the big favourites in the closing metres to take a first ever pro win – proof that it’s never over until the fat lady sings.
‘He’s got there!’ - Champoussin arrives from nowhere to snatch Stage 20 win
Refusing to carry on and complete the penultimate stage not only saw the Colombian relinquish his final spot on the podium, it saw his employers tear up his contract. As a result of this spectacular meltdown – which was not caught on camera – López returns to Astana after a difficult season at the Spanish team. Talk about the misadventures of Superman…
Ganna single-handedly wins pursuit gold for Italy
With three laps to go, Italy trailed Denmark by 0.714 seconds in the battle for men’s pursuit gold in Tokyo. Cue Filippo Ganna putting in the most monstrous turn imaginable to swing the pendulum in Italy’s favour, who broke the world record and came home 0.171 seconds to the better of their opponents.
In his relatively short career to date, Ganna has done some wonderful things – but nothing was quite as wonderful as seeing the Italian powerhouse drag two teammates home for Olympic glory. It would be remiss not to praise Simone Consonni, Francesco Lamon and Jonathan Milan for their roles, but it was the indefatigable Ganna who made the difference and added another chapter to Italy’s glorious summer of sport.
'Greatness comes in the form of Ganna' - Wiggins on Italy pursuit gold
Anna Kiesenhofer upsets the favourites in Tokyo
Hands up if you didn’t know who Anna Kiesenhofer was before 25th July 2021. Don’t be shy – it’s not a trick question. There’s no shame in raising your arm. Unless you were studying mathematics for a PhD in Lausanne – or were clued up on the Austrian time trial scene – you’d have very little reason to know her.
In fact, it turned out that no one in the peloton knew her, either – not least Annemiek Van Vleuten, who thought she had won the road race Olympic gold in Tokyo, when the champion was actually the diminutive unknown still lying prone across the road in disbelief.
Everyone loves a good underdog, and Kiesenhofer embodied the amateur spirit of the Games with aplomb – having arrived in Japan without a professional contract and having only ridden, in her entire career, 11 UCI races that weren’t national championships.
Attacking from the gun of the 137km race, the 30-year-old one-time Lotto Soudal rider was joined by four others as the break went on to build up a 10-minute lead over the Dutch-controlled pack. Kiesenhofer made her move on the Kagosaka Pass, riding the final 41km solo before crossing the line 1:15 clear of Van Vleuten, who claimed she was unaware of the Austrian’s presence up the road. What a life-changing and life-affirming moment – and proof, if any more were needed, that an absence of race radios can make for more exciting and unpredictable racing. A day later, Richard Carapaz’s victory for Ecuador in the men’s road race was stirring stuff, too.
'One of the greatest performances of all time' - Kiesenhofer wins road race gold
LouLou makes it two
With the world watching the Belgian team, France put on an aggressive show at the World Championships in Flanders – and in Julian Alaphilippe, they had a puncheur in fine form and ready to pull the trigger. Before the race, the French swashbuckler admitted that he hadn’t always enjoyed the burden of wearing the rainbow stripes. Well, he had a strange way of showing it.
After a succession of attacks on the finishing circuit, Alaphilippe successfully – and emphatically – defended his world title in a race that Rob Hatch on commentary described as “a race for the ages”. The 29-year-old’s explosive attack on the Sint-Antoniusberg blew away his rivals and left the home team missing out on a medal, its two star riders Remco Evenepoel and Wout van Aert reduced to an unsavoury war of words.
‘One of the greatest riders!’ - Alaphilippe defends rainbow stripes
Deignan and Colbrelli shine as the rain comes down on Roubaix
There hadn’t been a wet Paris-Roubaix in 19 years and then there were two in as many days. With the inaugural women’s Hell of the North cancelled in 2020 because of – well, you know why – the wait was finally over, albeit over a needlessly short 116.4km route. Britain’s Lizzy Deignan threw caution to the wind with an early attack just ahead of the first of 18 cobbled sections – riding 81km solo to the Roubaix velodrome to take the win with her gloveless hands caked in blood and mud.
Deignan powers home for Paris-Roubaix victory
Gianni Moscon almost replicated this in the men’s race, only to puncture inside the final 40km and then crash on a sketchy stretch of pavé where Deignan had managed to style out one of her few wobbles. It looked like the scene was set for Mathieu van der Poel ending his season where he started, but the Dutchman – despite bizarrely pristine white shoes – was outfoxed by Sonny Colbrelli, who surged past Belgian tyro Florian Vermeersch to take the win from the group of three debutants.
His European champion’s jersey encrusted with dirt and his face a picture of disbelief, Colbrelli’s theatrical screams and celebrations were worthy of an Italian midfielder trying to win a penalty in the dying seconds of a World Cup final. The 31-year-old later revealed he had sprinted with two punctures – so his victory was also one for tubeless tyres.
'Viva Italia! Forza Italia! They've done it finally' - Colbrelli sprints to Paris-Roubaix victory
And on that flat note, we bring our foray into the most memorable moments of 2021 to a close. Next time we look at the 10 stand-out riders of 2021.