Grand Tour winners, Monuments men, comeback kings, time trial tyros and even a veteran journeyman come good – our top 10 riders of 2021 include talents from all disciplines and of all ages. Five new entries populate the first half of the list before some familiar faces crop up at the business end of the standings – the cream of cycling well and truly rising to the top.
There’s no exact science that has gone into this season-long general classification, so feel free to take your frustration out with our cycling correspondent Felix Lowe on Twitter (@saddleblaze) if these choices don’t float your boat.
At the end of the list, we will discuss the plight of those who dropped out of the top 10 from last year, while highlighting the other riders who put in a serious push for contention. For a reminder of last year’s list, click the link below. But now, let’s bring you the best riders of 2021 in reverse order.
Garcia destroys field to secure three-peat at Spanish Championships

10. Damiano Caruso (New entry)

Results: Giro overall runner-up, Stage 20; Vuelta Stage 9

Damiano Caruso

Image credit: Getty Images

Top 10s at the UAE Tour and Romandie either side of a training block at Tirreno and a box-ticking 55th in Milan-Sanremo: the spring was pretty much business as usual for Damiano Caruso, who arrived at the Giro d’Italia as Mikel Landa’s key mountain lieutenant for Bahrain-Victorious.
Then the Spaniard crashed out and Caruso found himself in the top 10 after a string of solid performances. After taming the strade bianche on the road to Montalcino, Caruso suddenly found himself up to third place and pushing for the first podium finish of his career. In his previous 13 Grand Tours, the 34-year-old had finished no higher than eighth. He had never before won a stage, either.
All that changed on the penultimate stage to Alpe Motta when an inspired Caruso rode clear of the field to take a maiden WorldTour victory while piling the pressure on the man in pink, Egan Bernal. The Colombian held on, but Caruso reduced the gap to 1:29 on the final time trial to Milan, capping an extraordinary race.

‘The ride of your life!’ - Caruso takes Stage 20 ahead of Bernal

Caruso struck again in the Vuelta, soloing to glory on the Alto de Velefique in Stage 9 before supporting teammates Jack Haig and Gino Mäder to top-five finishes. In an astonishingly out-of-character season, the Italian veteran not only finished runner-up in his home tour, he also came within a Tour de France stage win from joining the illustrious club of riders to have won stages in each of cycling’s major stage races. This impressive eleventh-hour career turnaround earns Caruso a place at the top table.

9. Sonny Colbrelli (New Entry)

Results: National and European titles; Dauphiné Stage 3; Paris-Roubaix; Benelux Tour

Sonny Colbrelli

Image credit: Getty Images

If Bahrain-Victorious copped a lot of flak for adding the loaded suffix to their team’s name, then thankfully it paid off. Only superpowers Deceuninck-QuickStep, Team Jumbo Visma, Ineos Grenadiers and UAE Team Emirates picked up more victories than Bahrain, whose versatile sprinter Sonny Colbrelli enjoyed his best ever season with a flourish of commanding performances.
Deemed a poor-man’s Peter Sagan prior to this season, the 31-year-old Italian very much eclipsed the fading Slovenian star, who now looks over the hill and far more than a handful of months older than Colbrelli. Over the hill is exactly what Colbrelli did on the Poggio, although he had to settle for a top 10 finish in Sanremo after Jasper Stuyven stayed clear.
A victory and three runner-up spots in the Dauphiné showed that Colbrelli was hitting form ahead of the Tour where, as the new Italian champion, he showcased his climbing ability by twice finishing in the top three in stages in the Alps and Pyrenees. Victory in the Benelux Tour was followed by a brilliant win ahead of Remco Evenepoel in the European Championships.

Paris-Roubaix 2021 highlights as Sonny Colbrelli sprints to stunning victory

And it was this white, blue and yellow jersey that he got so comprehensively caked in mud on his way to a barnstorming victory in Paris-Roubaix that will be forever remembered for his cries of joy and disbelief in the velodrome. Not bad for a debut appearance in the Hell of the North.
If Colbrelli has long been a rider of great promise, 2021 was the year he came of age and started to deliver consistently and thrillingly. It will be interesting to watch his progress next season.

8. Egan Bernal (New Entry)

Results: Giro champion, Stages 9 and 16; Vuelta 6th; Strade Bianche 3rd

Egan Bernal holds the Giro's 'endless trophy' on the podium in 2021

Image credit: Getty Images

A fully fit Bernal is just what cycling needs right now – especially in the light of the continued dominance of the Slovenian Pog-Rog duopoly. After his humbling in the defence of his Tour crown, Bernal took a step back and gave the Grande Boucle a wide berth this year, instead shaping his season around maiden appearances in both the Giro and Vuelta.
If his immediate success in his pursuit for pink was a timely reminder of the Colombian’s class, his comparative struggles in Spain – as Primož Roglič went on to secure a third successive Vuelta crown – indicated that it’s not all plain sailing again.
Still, let’s focus on the positives – and Bernal’s victory in the Giro, at the age of 24, does mean he’ll still have one more stab at becoming the youngest rider in history to win all three Grand Tours. His 2020 season severely hampered by back pain, Bernal put his problems behind him with a solid third place in Strade Bianche in the build up to the Giro.

'He's done it in some style!' - Watch the final moments as Bernal wins Giro

Victory in Stage 9 on the dirt climb of Campo Felice earned Bernal the maglia rosa, which he held on to for the remainder of the race, adding a second triumph in the Dolomites. The Vuelta was less successful, with Ineos Grenadiers never sure whether their leader was Bernal or Adam Yates.
Sixth place in Spain – at over 13 minutes off red jersey pace – shows that the Colombian has a lot of work to do if he wants to rival Roglič and double Tour winner Tadej Pogačar next July. But all in all, 2021 marked a promising return to form for the man who until recently was tipped for Tour domination. He is reinstated to the Eurosport top 10 after disappearing in 2020 following his third place in 2019.

7. Filippo Ganna (New Entry)

Results: Giro Stages 1 and 21; World TT gold medal; Olympic men’s pursuit gold medal

Filippo Ganna celebrates following gold at Tokyo 2020

Image credit: Getty Images

If Michelangelo carved cyclists… The statuesque Italian was unlucky not to crack last year’s top 10 following his heroics at his debut Giro. Ganna picked up where he left off in Italy with an opening day TT win and the maglia rosa, adding a second TT victory on the final day to bookend a race in which he spent large swathes protecting and paving the way for his teammate Bernal.
If missing out on a medal in the Olympic Games time trial was a shock, in retrospect it proved a steely decision when Ganna, just days later, almost single-handedly rode Italy to men’s pursuit gold in the velodrome. With three laps remaining, Italy trailed Denmark by 0.714 seconds – only for a monster turn by Ganna to see Italy break the world record and come home 0.171 seconds to the better.
One day after winning the mixed relay gold at the European championships, Ganna narrowly missed out to Stefan Kung in the men’s individual event. But he made up for this blip by securing a second successive world TT crown in Leuven ahead of home favourites Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel.
Riding against the clock may be his specialism, but the 25-year-old proved throughout the season what a peerless team player he can be – while his solo scalp early on at Étoile de Bessèges was further proof that the Italian powerhouse is capable of doing the business on the road, too. Now all we need is to see Ganna dictating play on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.

6. Mark Cavendish (New Entry)

Results: Tour of Turkey Stages 2, 3, 4 and 8; Tour de France Stages 4, 6, 10 and 13, plus green jersey

Mark Cavendish and Eddy Merckx - both level with 34 stage wins on the Tour at this point in time - embrace ahead of Stage 19 of the Tour de France 2021

Image credit: Getty Images

Winless since 2018 but given a lifeline by Patrick Lefevere after his Bahrain-McLaren nightmare, the Manx Missile rolled back the years with a fantastic flurry of wins in the Tour of Turkey on a race which also saw Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Fabio Jakobsen make his top-level comeback. Such were Cavendish’s performances against admittedly a quite low-level field, talk of a return to the world’s biggest bike race in July still seemed a little premature.
After all, QuickStep were in possession of the sprinter who won the green jersey in 2020 – and there was no way the team could accommodate both: when they tried this experiment, at Scheldeprijs (the race, incidentally, where Cav broke down in tears in 2020 having made what he genuinely feared to be his final professional appearance), the duo had cancelled each other out, allowing Jasper Philipsen to take the win.
But with Sam Bennett ruled out of the Tour by a mixture of injury and poor man management by Lefevere, the door was opened for Cavendish – and he took the bull by the horns. As Michael Mørkøv-assisted win after win piled up, the scene looked set for the 36-year-old to break Eddy Merckx’s stage record while in green on the Champs-Élysées.

WATCH - Every single one of Mark Cavendish's 34 Tour de France stage wins

That Cavendish didn’t quite manage to achieve that landmark took no gloss off what was one of the feel-good stories of the summer. Whether he gets another chance to become the Tour’s outright stage winner with a 35th triumph remains to be seen: a new contract with QuickStep has finally been agreed, but Jakobsen’s own successful comeback in the Vuelta has muddied the waters even with Bennett returning to Bora-Hansgrohe.
If there's no guarantee that the Tour's leading stage winner will even make selection next year, then nothing will take away from what Cavendish achieved this summer. At worst, it was a dreamy end to an already stellar career; at best, the preface to what could be a magical epilogue in 2022. Ten wins in one season is something Cavendish has not managed for five years. Written off, he has written himself back into the narrative. It would take a madman to draw a line through his name again just now.

5. Julian Alaphilippe (Down 1)

Results: Tirreno-Adriatico Stage 2; Flèche Wallonne winner; Tour de France Stage 1; World Champion

French Julian Alaphilippe celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the elite men road race of the UCI World Championships Road cycling, Rad, Radsport, Strasse Flanders 2021, 268,3km from Antwerp to Leuven on Sunday 26 September 2021. The Worlds tak

Image credit: Imago

The Frenchman may never match in a single season the relentless highs of 2019 with that unforgettable stint in yellow, but his previous two years – while only yielding seven wins in total – have seen Alaphilippe secure back-to-back rainbow jerseys while being a constant attacking force in major races.
Since securing the polka dot jersey with his brace of triumphs in 2018, it’s become impossible to conceive of a Tour without Alaphilippe donning the maillot jaune – even if those 10 days in 2019 may prove, ultimately, to be the closest he’ll ever get to ending France’s long wait for a winner. This year, with all eyes on the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, it was Alaphilippe who won the opening stage to add another maillot jaune to his collection.
Earlier wins came in Tirreno-Adriatico and the Flèche Wallonne – to deny Primož Roglič victory on his Mur de Huy debut – while he came close to matching Tadej Pogačar in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the race that is proving to be something of a bête noir for the swashbuckler par excellence.
If the frustrations started to mount up following his opening day win on the Tour – most notably with back-to-back runner-up spots in the Tour of Britain – Alaphilippe repaid the total faith shown in him by his French teammates by doubling up with a second world title in Leuven after a rip-roaring race for the ages. It was a timely reminder of his class and value as a rider us fans are lucky enough to be able to witness riding at his peak.

4. Wout van Aert (Down 1)

Results: Tirreno-Adriatico Stages 1 and 7; Tour de France Stages 11, 20 and 21; Gent Wevelgem and Amstel Gold winner; Belgium national championships; Worlds ITT silver medal; Olympic RR silver medal; Tour of Britain winner and Stages 1, 4, 6 and 8

Wout van Aert

Image credit: Getty Images

We are already very much in “baller” territory and so, as crazy as it would seem to place Alaphilippe – voted rider of the year by the Road Book – in lowly fifth place, it seems borderline criminal to have Van Aert miss out on the podium.
Like the Frenchman, the Belgian all-rounder drops one place this year – this despite more than doubling his win tally in 2021. As impressive as his domination over the roads of Britain was in September, the prolonged highlight of Van Aert’s season was his perfect hat-trick of stage wins in the Tour de France – a victory over Mont Ventoux, a time trial triumph, and a sprint win on the Champs-Élysées ticking all the boxes in the versatility stakes.
But 2021 was also a year of disappointments for the immaculately coiffured 27-year-old: Milan-Sanremo (3rd), the Tour of Flanders (6th) and Paris-Roubaix (7th) all saw Van Aert marked out of contention, silver medals in the Olympics road race and World TTs were frustrating, while the less the said about Belgium’s World Championships road race snafu, the better.
Still, Van Aert even on an off-day is a joy to watch – unless you’re Tom Pidcock and you’ve lost Amstel Gold by the width of a tyre…

3. Mathieu van der Poel (Up 2)

Results: Strade Bianche winner; Tirreno-Adriatico Stages 3 and 5; Tour de Suisse Stages 2 and 3; Tour de France Stage 2

Mathieu van der Poel durante la tappa di Châteauroux - Tour de France 2021

Image credit: Getty Images

The Dutchman enjoyed far fewer wins that his friend and rival Van Aert, but the calibre of those wins was perhaps a touch higher – despite Van der Poel not lasting long enough in the Tour to witness any of the Belgian’s three victories.
Put simply, Van der Poel was author of three of the most astonishing races of the year – notably Strade Bianche (with his thermonuclear attack into Siena), Stage 5 of Tirreno-Adriatico (when he went long in sodden conditions, holding off Tadej Pogačar at the last), and Stage 2 of the Tour de France (where his double attack over the final climb at Mûr-de-Bretagne saw him take the yellow jersey which always eluded his late grandfather, Raymond Poulidor).
There’s a strong argument for each one of those wins being Van der Poel’s greatest ever in a collection of great victories – perhaps only outdone, over the course of the year, by Alaphilippe’s assault on the rainbow jersey in Leuven.

'We sat here today in awe' - Wiggins after Van der Poel's emotional Stage 2 win

But Van der Poel is also human. Given his talent, we perhaps expect more of the 26-year-old, and as such, any failure stands out. Like Van Aert, his season was peppered with disappointments: cracking in the final sprint against Kasper Asgreen at Flanders, crashing in the Olympic mountain-bike race, having his pocket-picked in the Roubaix velodrome…
A season of astonishing highs could well have been something out of this world. And for that tangible fallibility, MVDP rises onto the podium, but is not cycling’s MVP this time round.

2. Primož Roglič (Down 1)

Results: Paris-Nice Stages 4, 6 and 7; Itzulia Basque Country winner; Olympic TT gold medal; Vuelta a España winner and Stages 1, 11, 17 and 21; Giro dell’Emilia winner; Milano-Torino winner

The day Primoz Roglic lost the red jersey for a second time

Image credit: Eurosport

It’s a straight swap at the top with the man who secured his third successive Vuelta crown falling behind the man who has now denied him twice in succession in the Tour.
Crashes were cruel for the former ski-jumper in 2021: big falls denying him the overall victory in Paris-Nice on the final day and taking him out of contention early on in the Tour. A ruthless hat-trick of wins in the Race to the Sun, however, showed the Slovenian to be in fine fettle. He added Itzulia to his swelling palmarès and then almost won in his Flèche Wallonne debut before taking a step back ahead of the Tour.
Roglič had the character and ability to bounce back after his Tour disaster, riding to Olympic time trial gold in Tokyo before bagging four stages en route to yet more Vuelta glory. A couple of scalps in the Italian autumn classics underlined the 31-year-old’s versatility and showed that he’s not yet ready to concede everything to his illustrious compatriot just yet.

1. Tadej Pogačar (Up 1)

Results: UAE Tour winner, Stage 3; Tirreno-Adriatico winner, Stage 4; Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner; Tour of Slovenia winner, Stage 2; Tour de France winner, Stages 5, 17 and 18; Il Lombardia winner

Tou de France winner Tadej Pogacar.

Image credit: Getty Images

It’s a straight swap at the top! The Slovenian’s most successful season to date saw the 23-year-old tyro win across all disciplines and in all different types of races. Pogačar became the first rider in 48 years to win two Monuments as well as the Grand Tour in the same season, the first rider in 42 years to win the Tour and Il Lombardia, and the first in 34 years to win Il Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same season.
The signs that this was going to be Pogačar’s year were there early after he won his opening two races of the season – the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico – before adding the Tour of Slovenia and La Doyenne later in the spring. A slight blip (third overall) at Itzulia Basque Country, however, set the scene for what was expected to be a thrilling duel between Slovenia’s two superstars in July.
In the event, Roglič’s early crash put the elder statesman out of contention as Pogačar, having blitzed the first time trial, effectively sealed the deal on the first major summit finish, tearing through the field in the mist on the road to Le Grand-Bornand. Back-to-back wins in the Pyrenees added gloss before Pogačar went on to become the first Tour winner to take an Olympic medal in the road race after securing bronze in Toyko behind Richard Carapaz and Wout van Aert.

‘Two Monuments and a Tour de France!’ – Pogacar claims stunning Lombardia win

And then, just as rival Roglič was running away with things in the Italian autumn classics, Pogačar put in a timely reminder of his number one status by winning the Race of the Falling Leaves ahead of Fausto Masnada. It was such a dominant season that even the Cannibal himself now admits that Pog is the new Eddy Merckx.

What about those absent from last year’s top 10?

An Olympic road race gold medal, victory in the Tour de Suisse and third place in the Tour de France were not enough to see Richard Carapaz (tenth last year) retain his place in the standings. The Ecuadorian’s solo win in Tokyo was a joy to watch, but his wheel-sucking and negative riding in the Tour left a lot to be desired for a rider still searching for his niche at Ineos Grenadiers.
Teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart (seventh) disappeared without a trace following his fantastic Giro win in 2020. Missing out to veteran Alejandro Valverde in Stage 6 of the Dauphiné was the closest the 26-year-old got to picking up a win in 2021 as the Hackney Condor skipped the defence of his maglia rosa to focus on a debut Tour, only to start from the back foot after crashing in the mass pile-up caused by a spectator on day one.
Off the back of a performance of attacking verve in the Tour, Swiss tyro Marc Hirschi (sixth) was one of the breakthrough stars of 2020. But since his controversial move to UAE – having been released somewhat enigmatically by DSM – Hirschi has struggled for consistency, a single win in the Tour of Luxembourg his only triumph. Like Geoghegan Hart, though, he hit the deck hard on the opening day of the Tour and was playing catch-up in support of Pogačar thereafter.

Hirschi holds off late charge to power away to victory on Stage 2

It was always going to be tough for Arnaud Démare (ninth) to beat his 2020, where his domination in the Giro had fans dumbfounded as to why he was overlooked by Groupama-FDJ for the Tour. The answer perhaps came nine months later when the Frenchman lasted barely a week in France before calling it a day. He, too, had been a victim of the litany of crashes in Stage 3. Things didn’t get much better in the Vuelta, where the 30-year-old was regularly outclassed in sprints despite a full train at his disposal.
On the subject of sprinters, 2021 was a cruel year for Sam Bennett (eighth) who found himself ostracised and humiliated at Deceuninck-QuickStep after a training crash in the late spring. It was a huge shame, given the Irishman struck twice in the UAE Tour, Paris-Nice and the Volta a Algarve. In his absence, Mark Cavendish and Fabio Jakobsen starred in the Tour and Vuelta, effectively sealing the 31-year-old’s departure. Bennett’s parting gift to Patrick Lefevere ahead of a return to Bora was four consecutive DNFs in the autumn.

Special mention: Cort, Jakobsen, Asgreen, Mohorič, Vingegaard, Stuyven

A raft of riders knocked on the door of this year’s top 10, most notably Vuelta stand-out stars Magnus Cort and Fabio Jakobsen. The Dane’s hat-trick of wins over varying terrain did more for moustaches, as least sartorially, than the entire Movember movement, while the Dutchman’s return to WorldTour wins following his horror crash in 2020 put a smile on everyone’s face.
Jacobsen’s teammate Kasper Asgreen was one of the stars of the spring with a terrific win in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic a taste of things to come ahead of his thrilling last-gasp victory over Mathieu van der Poel in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Belgium’s Jasper Stuyven also caused a surprise earlier in the spring with victory in Milan-Sanremo.

Highlights: Stuyven's late attack shocks the big boys at Milan-San Remo

Elsewhere, riders who may have been required to perform domestique roles took advantage of mishaps relating to their team leaders, most notably the young Dane Jonas Vingegaard, who rode to an impressive second place in the Tour following the withdrawal of teammate Roglič. On Mont Ventoux, Vingegaard was the only rider in the entire Tour to drop the dominant Pogačar. Meamwhile, Matej Mohorič bounced back from a terrible crash in the Giro to rampage to two expert solo wins in the Tour, providing proof that Slovenian cycling is not just a two-horse race.
The next of our end-of-season features looks at the biggest disappointments of 2021 and those riders who must do better next year. Messrs López, Landa, Hindley, Geoghegan Hart, Froome, Thomas and even a certain Evenepoel may put in an appearance…
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