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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  11/1/2021

Top Ten of 2021

Okay then…the 2021 UCI road racing season is finished. Things wrapped up over the first week or so of October with no less than five excellent one-day races almost back-to-back: the Giro dell’Emilia on October 2, the rescheduled Paris-Roubaix on October 3, Milano-Torino on October 6, Il Lombardia on October 9, and Paris Tour on October 10. The season may have stumbled a bit back in the early spring, thanks to lingering COVID concerns—several smaller stage races were canceled—but it ended with a bang.

Even with those few cancellations early in the year, it still felt mostly like a full and familiar racing season. The three Grand Tours were back in their proper slots on the calendar and all of them were run at full distance. There were enough of the one-day races and lesser stage races to satisfy most fans. We even had the Olympic cycling circus to add a little extra spice this year.

Now that it’s all over, it’s time for my annual retrospective finale for the year, which I typically present as some form of Top Ten list. This year’s look back will be no exception to that and, in fact, it’s going to be one of the simplest, most straightforward Top Tens I’ve cobbled together in years. Not too many surprises or flukes...some, but not many. Nine out of ten of my selections were also in the top ten of the UCI World Ranking. I’m not thinking outside the box too much.

(Putting this in probably overly simplistic terms, the UCI World Ranking combines the points for One-Day Races and Stage Races. Each of those categories has its own ranking as well and it’s interesting to see how the three lists differ. You could say the World Ranking attempts to identify the best all-around riders. Without doing an obsessive analysis of this, I would say both the UCI system and my own subjective assessment are weighted slightly in favor of stage racing results. Points are awarded for outright wins or high placings in one-day races. In stage races, big points are awarded for the overall win or high finish and fewer points are allocated for stage wins. This sets up an interesting situation where riders from a breakaway grab all the points on a given stage while, back a ways, a leader in the GC battle might put time into his rivals. He’ll improve his overall position but not gain any points on the day. Of course, the big pot of points awaits at the end for winning the entire stage race.)

But enough fiddly stuff about points. Let’s get after the list…

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

Jonas Vingegaard10. Jonas Vingegaard, 24, Denmark, Jumbo-Visma

Vingegaard is the one rider on this list who did not finish in the top ten in the UCI World Ranking. (He was 18th but 5th in the Stage Race Ranking.) He didn’t do a lot but what he did do really caught our attention. He was Jumbo-Visma’s second captain at the Tour de France, there to either help team leader Primoz Roglič or to take up the reins if Roglič flamed out. After Roglič crashed on Stage 3 and eventually abandoned, Vingegaard stepped into those big shoes and filled them pretty well, finishing 2nd overall in only his second Grand Tour. He was 2nd behind eventual winner Pogačar on the two decisive mountain finishes (Stages 17 and 18) and 3rd overall in both of the full time trials…definitely an all-around performer.

He also won the Coppi e Bartali stage race, winning Stages 2 and 4 and the Sprint jersey. He won Stage 5 at the UAE Tour and was 2nd overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, taking home the Young Rider jersey. It’s going to be interesting to see how Jumbo-Visma parcels out the team leader assignments between Roglič and Vingegaard next year. 

 

Joao Almeida9. Joao Almeida, 23, Portugal, Deuceninck-Quick-Step

Almeida first caught our eye at the 2020 Giro d’Italia where he took over the lead on Stage 3 and held onto the maglia rosa all the way through Stage 17, eventually finishing 4th overall. I confess I did not think too much about him then or since but he has proven to be a consistent and persistent competitor, up near the front in many races. Perhaps it’s time to think about him a bit more seriously. He finished 9th in the UCI World Ranking and that’s where I have him on my list. How did he get there? He won the Tour of Poland, winning Stages 2 and 4 and the Sprint jersey. He won the Tour of Luxembourg, winning Stage 1, the Sprint jersey and the Young Rider jersey. He won his national time trial championship, and had loads of top five and top ten finishes, including another good showing at the Giro: 6th overall this year. Lately it seems as if whenever I’m watching the top riders duking it out in the final, decisive miles of a race, Joao Almeida is there, mixing it up with the big boys. He can climb. He can time trial. He’s on a strong team. He’s only 23…

 

Sonny Colbrelli8. Sonny Colbrelli, 31, Italy, Bahrain-Victorious

If Jonas Vingegaard is one of the flukey surprises on this list, Sonny Colbrelli is definitely the other. Who saw this coming? He’s been around a while…at least a dozen years as a pro. He is ostensibly a pure sprinter. At least that was his reputation until this year. At 5’9” and 163 lbs, he has the classic build of a sprinter. But he embellished his resumé in some unexpected ways this season. He won the Italian road race championship. He won the European Road Championship. Won the Memorial Marco Pantani. Won the Benelux Tour stage race, securing the overall with a bold, 50-km solo breakaway on Stage 6. Won Stage 2 and the Sprint jersey at the Tour de Romandie and Stage 3 and the Sprint jersey at the Dauphiné. Add in a pocket full of top tens and you already have a good season. But wait…

The real surprise for me came at the Tour de France. On Stages 9 and 16—both seriously hilly mountain stages—he finished 3rd and 2nd. Admittedly, he put himself in those positions by getting into the day’s breaks. But in each stage he stayed at or near the front all day, while other supposedly better climbers were falling away. It was like, “Yo, Sonny? You’re a sprinter! What do you think you’re doing?” All that was fun but he saved the best for last: he won the grand Monument of Paris-Roubaix on October 3. (A word about this year’s Roubaix. It had been postponed from its traditional April date but it had April showers written all over it. All of the cobbled sections were slippery-sloppy soups of danger and drama. It seemed like someone was sliding out and going splat in the mud every mile. The riders looked like they’d been sprayed, top to bottom, with chocolate mousse. It was great fun to watch from the warm-and-dry comfort of home but it was the classic Sunday in Hell for the riders.) Mile after brutal mile, Colbrelli clung doggedly to the wheel of one-day powerhouse Mathieu van der Poel and then had just enough juice left to outsprint him in the velodrome. All of his season’s hard work landed him in 7th place in the UCI ranking. 

 

Mathieu van der Poel7. Mathieu van der Poel, 26, Netherlands, Alpecin-Fenix

I have van der Poel well up on this list but with some grudging reservations. He won quite a few races this year but many were in either cyclo-cross or mountain biking. I honor those disciplines but they normally fall a bit outside my reckoning when thinking about my Top Ten riders. However, he also won a fair number of road races so I’m willing to accept his whole, year-round body of work. He did win quite a few races in cyclo-cross, including the World Championship (for the fourth time). (Cyclo-cross is a winter sport, its season running from the end of the road racing season until early spring. This would have been for the ’20-’21 season.) And he won on the road. He won Stage 1 of the UAE Tour, won Strade Bianche (much of it unpaved), Stages 3 and 5 of Tirenno-Adliatico, Stages 2 and 3 of the Tour de Suisse, Stage 2 at the Tour de France, and had at least eight other top-five finishes, usually in big events, such as 5th at Milano-San Remo, 2nd at the Tour of Flanders, 3rd at Paris-Roubaix, and 4th and 5th on two more Tour de France stages. All of that toil added up to 5th in the UCI World Ranking.

 

Richard Carapaz6. Richard Carapaz, 28, Ecuador, INEOS Grenadiers

Carapaz didn’t do much but he did just enough to make this list in 7th place and to end up in 8th place in the World Ranking. He won the overall at the Tour de Suisse, including winning Stage 5. He was 3rd overall at the Tour de France. He was a busy beaver throughout le Tour, attacking whenever he thought it might work…but it never did.  It was clear almost every day that for Pogačar, he was just a minor irritant. He couldn’t even stay ahead of the little upstart Vingegaard. Still, a podium step at the Tour de France is nothing to sneeze at. But the best thing he did this season, and what gets him on this list, was win the Elite Road Race at the Olympics, bringing home the gold medal for Ecuador.

 

Julian Alaphilippe5. Julian Alaphilippe, 29, France, Deceuninck-Quick Step

There aren’t a lot of victories in Alaphilippe’s 2021 palmarés but the ones that are there are good ones. Most important among them was the World Championship Road Race, defending his rainbow stripes from last year. The course in Belgium was very much like one of the spring classics, with short-but-steep ups and downs all day long. He loves that sort of topography and he attacked with his usual bravado. Some analysts felt he might not have won had the powerful Belgian team not messed up their tactics so badly. But hey, that’s their problem, not his. He also won La Fleche-Wallonne, just nipping Primoz Roglič at the top of the Mur de Huy. We won Stage 1 of the Tour de France and Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico. Those were his only wins but he also had no fewer than 24 top ten finishes, including 2nd at Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He ended up 4th in the World Tour Ranking.

 

Egan Bernal4. Egan Bernal, 24, Colombia, INEOS Grenadiers

Bernal earns his place on this list because of winning the Giro d’Italia back in May. He won two hilly stages—9 and 16—to carve out his lead, and then he and his team managed things the rest of the way. It wasn’t an overwhelming smack-down of his rivals but it was enough. It seems like he’s been a fixture at or near the top of the racing world for quite some time now, so it’s a mild surprise to see that he also took home the Young Rider jersey at the Giro…to remember he’s still only 24. But the two stages and the overall are the sum total of all his wins this year. He had 17 other top ten finishes, including a 6th overall at the Vuelta a España. He’s 6th in the World Ranking. The fact that I leapfrog him over Alaphilippe (4th) and van der Poel (5th) highlights my slight bias toward stage racers over one-day specialists. In the UCI Stage Race Rankings, he’s 3rd.

 

Wout Van Aert3. Wout Van Aert, 27, Belgium, Jumbo-Visma

What can we say about this guy? He finished 2nd in the World Tour ranking and 1st in the One-Day Race ranking. He dazzled at the Tour de France, pulling off the rare trifecta of winning a mountain stage, a time trial, and a sprint finish (on the final stage in Paris). That prompted some folks to wonder if he could reinvent himself as an all-rounder and win a Grand Tour. The answer to that, at least for now, is no. They conveniently forget that he won that Ventoux mountain stage out of a break. Were he a true GC threat, he would not have been allowed to get up the road, building a big time cushion. On any other hilly stage, where he hit the slopes with the main group, he always was gapped, sooner rather than later. He can climb better than 95% of the racers out there. But the other 5% will leave him well behind.

Nevertheless, he is an extraordinary talent. He reiminds me of Peter Sagan in his prime, with the added value of being one of the best time-trialers on the planet. He won three major cyclo-cross races and was 2nd in four more. And while van der Poel won the cyclo-cross World Championship race, Van Aert won the season-long points championship. (So the two of them ended up just about even in that series, as they have done now for the past seven years.)  He won Stages 1 and 7 and the Sprint jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico and finished 2nd overall. He won Gent-Wevelgem, Amstel Gold, and the Belgian Road Race championship. He won those three prime-time stages at the Tour de France. He won the Tour of Britain, winning Stages 1, 4, 6, and 8. He was 2nd in the World Championship Time Trial and 2nd in the Olympic Road Race. He had at least another 16 top tens that I can track down. He will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

 

Primoz Roglic2. Primoz Roglič, 31, Slovenia, Jumbo-Visma

Roglič had another monster season, although it had its blemishes along with its many triumphs. Most notably, among the triumphs, he won his third Vuelta a España in a row, winning Stages 1(ITT), 11, 17, and 21 (ITT). He was 1st overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, winning the ITT, the Sprint jersey and the Mountains jersey. He won the gold medal in the time trial at the Olympics. He won Stages 4, 6, and 7 at Paris-Nice and shoulda, coulda, woulda won the overall had he not crashed twice on downhills on the final stage. That was one of his big disappointments, although a worse one was crashing on Stage 3 of the Tour de France and eventually abandoning on Stage 9. 

An aside about crashing. I don’t know if anyone keeps close track of how many times racers crash. I know it’s a lot and that all of them do so sooner or later. But Roglič seems to do it frequently. In addition to the crashes noted above, he also crashed at the Vuelta. The talking heads were wondering why he even needed to be hammering that downhill as hard as he was. He had the race well in hand and there was not much to be gained, but there he was, taking needless risks on a wet road. In the end, it only cost him a few seconds but it might have been worse and cost him the stage, the overall…perhaps his season or even his career. Before taking up bike racing, Roglič was a ski jumper. He won events in that discipline. His personal best was a jump of 607 feet. He also crashed very badly in one event. If you’re interested, you can find the video on YouTube. It’s cringe-inducing. The point of this digression is that the guy is certainly fearless or close to it. But maybe a little moderation would not hurt. That said, I don’t think his crash at the TdF was due to him pushing the envelope. He just got caught up in a mid-pack tangle. Anyway…

He finished the season with a splashy flourish, winning the Giro dell’Emilia on October 2 and Milano-Torino on October 6. He also finished 4th on Lombardia on October 9. (I’ve provided links for both these events because they were so entertaining and also because they showcase Roglič doing what he does best. The Emilia link only goes to the SteepHill website. Scroll down to the highlights for October 2 and click on the link for the last 10-K. That one is especially tasty and worth a look. The Milano-Torino highlights are shorter but they both look a lot alike in terms of how the major players do what they do. Note that at the end of Milano-Torino, Tadej Pogačar is with Roglič and finally can’t stay with him.) Altogether, he had 14 top tens, not counting his wins. He was 3rd in the World Ranking and 2nd in the Stage Race Ranking.

 

Tadej Pogacar1. Tadej Pogačar, 23, Slovenia, UAE Team Emirates

Once again this year, I had a tough time deciding between Primoz Roglič and his Slovenian rival, Tadej Pogačar, as to who is best and who is second-best. Last year, during the virus-mauled season, I punted and left them equal, saying, “Maybe let’s wait until the end of 2021 and revisit that question.” Well, now it’s the end of the 2021 season and the jury is in. Tadej by a nose.

He thoroughly dominated on the biggest stage, winning the Tour de France for the second year in a row, along the way winning Stages 5 (ITT), and 17 and 18 (two big mountaintop finishes). He also distanced all his GC rivals on two other mountain stages behind breakaways. As was the case last year, he took home the Young Rider and Mountains jerseys. (It’s worth noting that the UCI deems the Tour de France to be a bigger prize than the other two Grand Tours. It awards 1000 points for the overall at the TdF but only 850 for either the Giro or the Vuelta. Also more points for a stage win: 120 vs 100. I’ve often said in recent years that the Vuelta is at least as hard as the Tour but the suits who make the rules apparently disagree.)

He won the UAE Tour, winning Stage 3 and the Young Rider jersey. He won Tirreno-Adriatico, winning Stage 4 and Young Rider and Mountains jerseys. He won the Tour of Slovenia, taking out Stage 2 and winning the Mountains jersey. He won two of the most prestigious Monuments, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia. In each of those races, he was in the front group through all the hilly stuff— both races have loads of hilly stuff—but he won both of them in sprints to the line. He took the bronze medal in the Olympic road race, losing 2nd to Van Aert by a whisker. However, his actual sprint was faster than Van Aert’s…he just started farther back. The point is, the guy is arguably the best climber in the world and one of the best time-trialers, and he can sprint with the best of them. Maybe he couldn’t beat the pure sprinters in a wide open field sprint, but among the all-rounders who might contest a sprint at the end of a hilly stage? He’s right there.

As I noted a month or two ago, the most telling difference between Pogačar and Roglič is probably age. Roglič is listed as 31 for this past season but he will have turned 32 by the time this column hits the street. Almost nine years older than Pogačar. All else being equal, that has to favor Pogačar in the long run. And in the short run—right now—he’s already just a hair ahead.

I find it interesting to note that there are nine different nationalities represented on this list with Slovenia the only one to repeat, and the two of them are the top two on the list. The one other rider in the UCI World Ranking top ten who did not make my list--Matej Mohoric, 10th--is also Slovenian. How is it that Slovenia, a country with a population less than that of Houston, can have three riders in the top ten while the USA’s top rider is Nielson Powless in 53rd, with no other Yank in the top 100?

I din’t have to do much agonizing to come up with this year’s ten best. There aren’t any other riders close enough in either accomplishments or points to be seriously considered. No Honorable Mentions. Of course, many other riders won races, especially if you count every stage of every stage race. But no one did enough to really stand out. So it goes. About half of the riders on each of my Top Ten lists will be new each year. That usually means youngsters coming on and veterans fading away. But every so often we get a weird one, like gristled vet Sonny Colbrelli catching fire and making us all smile. Who will make the list next year? We can make some informed guesses but we can’t really know until the races are run. For now, we back away from the race videos and head outside to ride through whatever is left of Indian Summer and on into the dark side of the year. And if we get some rides rained out this winter, we promise not to complain. We need the water!



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