Words by William Fotheringham | Photo: ASO/Pauline BALLET
As the WorldTour men prepare to kick off their season in the GP La Marseillaise, the most obvious and biggest question for 2021 is not whether we will see a season that matches the condensed drama of 2020, but how much of the season will actually happen?
Several of the races planned for February have gone, the Olympic Games have been called into question, and the list of postponements and cancellations through March and April is lengthening by the day. Even so, it’s best to assume that there will be some racing, but it may well be a stuttering, uncertain affair as Europe stumbles through lockdowns of varying severity. With that in mind, let’s look at the story lines that will, given a fair wind, define the months to come…
How will the Wout van Aert vs Matthew van der Poel rivalry develop?
The next chapter of this epic soap opera should be written on Sunday in the world cyclo-cross championships in Ostend, but with any luck it will be a dominant theme throughout 2021 as Van Aert continues to race hard in the Classics and Van der Poel discovers the Grand Tours. Their Tour of Flanders duel was a high point of 2020; all the great one day races of 2021 will have an added edge if the dynamic duo turn up at the start in anything like acceptable form. For Peter Cossins’s take on the pair’s rivalry, view here.
Will Annemiek van Vleuten’s move to Movistar change anything?
The Olympic champion’s move was one of the transfer stories of the winter, but from where I’m sitting, Van Vleuten is so far ahead of the competition on certain courses – think back to Strade Bianche or Omloop in 2020 – that little will change.
Will Jumbo-Visma or Ineos come out on top in the men’s Grand Tours?
Jumbo edged the duel of the galactico teams in 2020, but on paper, you’d expect that to be reversed in 2021, after Ineos’s spending spree over the winter, and with Tom Dumoulin contemplating his future.
Will the new generation of young men’s racers kick on or stall?
2020 was the year when one young revelation after another went to a new level: Remco Evenepoel, Marc Hirschi, Tadej Pogacar, Tom Pidcock, Joao Almeida, Tao Geoghegan-Hart. As Evenepoel’s struggle to return after his crash at Lombardy last year shows, no one is immune from misfortune, no matter how talented they are. Watching their progress will be fascinating.
Will new stars emerge in women’s racing in the wake of the Dutch powerhouse?
Van Vleuten, Anna Van der Breggen, Marianne Vos, Ellen Van and Chantal Van den Broek-Blaak have between them guaranteed Dutch superiority in women’s road racing over recent years, seen to best effect at the World’s and Olympics. But with Van der Breggen retiring at the end of this year and Van den Broek-Blaak hanging up her wheels at the end of 2022, there’s space emerging for a generational change as Vos and Van Vleuten won’t keep going for ever. You’d expect it to begin this year, and behind the established riders such as Lizzie Deignan, Elisa Longo-Borghini and Kasia Niewedoma, there are a load of contenders: Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig, Lizzie Banks, Mavi Garcia, Grace Brown, and Liane Lippert, to name but a few.
Will Lizzie Deignan progress towards a full house of one-day Classics?
In relatively unheralded style, Deignan added La Course by Le Tour, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège to her palmares in 2020. She told me several years ago that she’s a rider who likes to win as many different races as possible rather than trying to win the same ones over and again, and the Olympic road race, Amstel, and Flèche Wallonne are the remaining gaps, plus she told this website last year she is determined to win Paris-Roubaix, as soon as it happens. Landing one or two of these would make for a more than decent year.
Will Froome, Thomas and Cavendish fly or flop?
For differing reasons, the three riders who incarnated British success a few years ago all had tough seasons in 2020. Froome was recovering from his crash of 2019, Thomas struggled to come out of lockdown and then fell off at a critical moment in the Giro, while Cavendish has been coping with Anno Domini and the legacy of illness. Of the three, Thomas’s future looks most straightforward, although he may struggle to find space at Ineos given their plethora of leaders. Cavendish will need to find form fast to earn the confidence of the Deceuninck Wolfpack, while Froome – in spite of his assertion that age is just a state of mind – is returning from a potentially career ending injury at a relatively advanced age for a professional athlete; a stage win and top 20 in the Tour would be more than respectable in that context.
Will a relaunched women’s Tour de France finally become reality?
There won’t be a women’s TdF this year, barring a total volte face from ASO, but it is high time that this project went from warm words to positive action. Given the importance this race could have for the development of the sport’s finances, the details need to be made public so that riders, teams and sponsors can plan ahead.
Will King Julian survive the curse of the rainbow jersey?
The highpoint of Deceuninck’s press launch (for me) was when a journalist asked Julian Alaphilippe if he was worried about bad luck and the rainbow jersey. The answer was a short, sweet, “no.” But in 2020 Alaphilippe lost out in three Monuments in different ways – a crash in Flanders, bizarre tactics in Liège, and, before he won the Worlds, when he met a superior adversary in Wout van Aert at San Remo. Call it a curse or what you will, the rainbow jersey does bring with it unique pressures, and it will be intriguing to see how Alaphilippe rises to the occasion.
Will we see concrete progress on the three biggest issues that beset the sport: rider safety, racial and sexual equality?
2020 saw a new-found willingness to face up to the facts that cycling is a historically sexist sport with a legacy of institutional racism. The season also saw rider safety in the spotlight as never before. That in itself is progress – pretending all is well with the system is the biggest obstacle – and it is now for the UCI and other bodies to move the sport forward. In equality terms, steps such as Trek-Segafredo women placing their team on minimum pay parity with the men’s squad is positive; hopefully the success of champions of colour such as Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado will prove inspirational in opening up the sport.
If you enjoyed this, why not try our review of the 2020 season
‘Racing in the Time of Covid’ – available to purchase here.