Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by LB/RB/CorVos/SWpix.com
It’s 2021….New Year, New You! Or at least that’s the message most sports and lifestyle magazines and websites will be selling to their audiences today and for the rest of January.
The New Year may simply be a change in the date, but symbolically it’s also a chance to wipe the slate clean, even if the cloud of Covid-19 may make that just as great a challenge in 2021, as it was in 2020.
But let’s hope this year will be a lot better than last. January remains the time of year when everyone’s making a fresh start, although the question can’t be dodged — in these uncertain times, how long will that fresh start last?
In pro bike racing, things are no different.
Those riders who’ve, Houdini-like, exited the chaos of 2020 clutching a new contract, are bound to be feeling optimistic. The race organisers are praying that their schedules will go ahead unhindered and those investing in the sport — sponsors, equipment suppliers and TV executives — will also be desperate for the media and the sport’s audience will be free to return to the roadside to support most, if not all, of the major events.
Those of you who’ve checked social media today, January 1 2021, will have noticed the glut of positive feel-good smiles emanating from the accounts of stars such as Richie Porte — back at the old ranch with familiar ex-Team Sky staffers who are now with Ineos Grenadiers — and Mark Cavendish, also making an unexpected return journey to rejoin Patrick Lefevere’s Deceuninck QuickStep team.
For the moment, all’s looking good and there’s cautious grounds for optimism, but then January, the month of training camps, interviews and those first photo shoots, is a time of make-believe. Many seasons ago, I turned up at a team camp near Alicante to interview one team’s superstar, a past Grand Tour winner, making yet another determined comeback.
This season, he told me, it was all going to be so different. He was motivated, serious, focussed on his diet and training, ready to lead by example. Half an hour later, as I sat in the hotel reception listening back to the recording of our conversation, he strolled past, blanking most of his team mates and heading, alone, towards the lift, carrying a box of cakes.
Given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the scheduling of the European racing programme in February, the optimism surrounding those winter signings, the new year feel-good, may linger on into March 2021 and who knows, maybe beyond into April and the Classics. But past that point, reality, as the Grand Tours loom large on the horizon, has a habit of biting back.
If you doubt that, then look at Team Ineos last year.
The cuts and bruises inflicted by Jumbo Visma in the build up to the Tour de France, became gaping flesh wounds by the final week of the delayed French race. That explains why, after that humbling experience, Ineos have called in reinforcements on the bike and in the team cars for 2021, with Porte and Rod Ellingworth just some of the experienced old hands recruited to give the Chris Froome-less line-up a little more heft and gravitas.
So the stage is set, but we also have to keep it real. The kits, the bikes, the cars all may look good, but the harsh truth is that the pandemic rages on around the world. Everything is still a gamble. At least, having been so tested, we now all know just how resilient and enduring our fascination with cycling is.
Eleven months ago, I covered my only completed stage race of 2020, the Tour de la Provence.
Looking back it was a bizarre, dreamlike experience. Bike racing carried on as usual, maskless and unhindered — there were the usual start villages, media huddles, handshakes, face to face interviews, selfies with fans — while just a few hundred kilometres away in northern Italy, thousands were dying and the virus was on the rampage. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that I was among those to get sick within a week of my return.
Back then the received wisdom was that the virus was merely a problem in China. Since then, we’ve learned a great deal and all been doing our damnedest not to get sick. We have also learned to live in limbo, waiting for normal life to resume. Now everyone in cycling knows they need to be prepared too, to adapt, and fast.
So what we learned in 2020, we have to take with us into this year. Nothing, in 2021, not even the Tour de France and the Tokyo Olympics, can be taken for granted.
Whatever 2021 brings, have a Happy New Year. Let’s hope fervently for the best, for everyone, but be vigilant too, and prepared for the worst.
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.