Early this January the leader of UCI WorldTeam Bahrain Victorious, Mikel Landa (31) was asked if he expected cycling’s new generation of young male elite racers to continue enjoying the same kind of runaway success in 2021 as they had experienced in 2020.
“It’s true they’ve proved to be highly qualified riders and they’re highly motivated,” Landa said. “But we’ve got a normal race calendar this year. Let’s see if they can live up to the expectations they’ve generated.”
After a very unusual and tough 2020 for cycling, and all sport, Landa’s comments neatly sum up the main question of the 2021 Men Elite road racing season: how far can cycling’s ‘new kids on the block’ go in a much more ‘standard’ race programme?
The answer is far from clear, partly because no dominating figure, or team, emerged in the Grand Tours or in the Classics last year, in part because the calendar was so unusual. This led to a significant increase in the number of potential contenders in almost all races.
For 2021, that broadening out of the number of successful riders means the battle between cycling’s more senior racers, like Landa, and the sport’s up-and-coming talents looks set to be yet more exciting than usual. Spicing up the competition even further, of course, are some intriguing off-season team transfers.
As the most successful stage racer of his era, despite being absent from last year’s Tour, Chris Froome remains the reference point in his speciality. If, at 35, the Briton takes a record-equalling fifth Tour, it will be one surefire sign that the older generation has once again regained the upper hand. But given this winter he made a headline transfer from Ineos Grenadiers, one of the UCI WorldTour’s most experienced squads, to the comparative newcomers of Israel Start-Up Nation, such an achievement would arguably be even more impressive.
At the other end of the spectrum of Tour de France contenders, at 22, defending champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is the youngest post-war winner of cycling’s flagship race, and was barely a teenager when Froome won his first Grand Tour.
But another key generational battle for Pogačar could be much closer to home. Fellow Slovenian Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) will be itching to prove that his dramatic last-minute defeat in the Tour was a one-off, and that despite being nearly ten years’ Pogačar’s senior, age is no obstacle.
In Roglič’s favour, a stunning repeat overall win in the hard-fought Vuelta Ciclista a España last November has helped the World’s number one ranked rider retain his Grand Tour credentials. But after their absences at the 2020 Tour de France, the return of both Froome and his former team-mate and 2018 winner Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) to the roads of France this July will raise the scale of the challenge considerably for both Pogačar and Roglič.
Meanwhile, Thomas’ team-mate, Colombian star Egan Bernal, is as adamant as Roglič that there will be no repeat of his disastrous 2020 Tour de France, in Bernal’s case sparked by a long-term back injury. On top of which there are yet more new faces in the Great Britain-registered team’s Grand Tours line-up: 25-year-old Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Filippo Ganna, four-time stage winner in the same race in 2020 and widely touted to carry Italy’s Grand Tour hopes in the years to come.
A significant number of seasoned veterans who have also changed squads for 2021 include France’s most successful General Classification (GC) racer, Romain Bardet, who has switched, after many years, from Ag2R Citroën Team to Team DSM. Then heavyweights of the calibre of Adam Yates and Richie Porte, third in last year’s Tour de France, have joined Ineos Grenadiers. Yet another young Grand Tour rider who will be looking to find his feet in a new team is Colombian Miguel Angel López. As part of Spain’s Movistar Team López will be hoping to add a third Grand Tour podium finish to the ones he already collected in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta Ciclista a España in 2018.
On the Classics front another key team change for 2021 among the young guns has been the last minute signing by former Under 23 UCI World Champion Marc Hirschi by UAE Team Emirates. Just 22, the former Team DSM racer may well cross swords with two veterans for whom, like Froome, the number five has become a critical factor in their palmares. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) will want to add a record-equalling fifth Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his career this April, while Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) ‘only’ needs to win Milano-Sanremo this spring to complete his set of five Monuments. Formidable challenges both - but both the Spaniard and the Belgian veterans are formidable racers.
Quite apart from that inter-generational battle, it seems all but certain, too, that the cobbled Classics will see another chapter written in the deep-running rivalry between Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix). With a Monument victory apiece in 2020, their spectacular duel in the Ronde van Vlaanderen-Tour des Flandres was one of the most unforgettable moments of last season.
Together with former UCI World Champion Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) winner of a spectacularly hard Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields last year, their relative youth - all three are 26 or younger - could see their path to more victories threatened by more seasoned riders this spring. Current UCI World Champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) is one such established star name with unfinished business in the Ardennes Classics. And in the cobbles, it is far too soon to write off a multiple former wearer of the rainbow, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) or Olympic Champion Greg Van Avermaet, the Belgian yet another high-profile transfer in 2020, to French team AG2R Citroën Team.
While there have been comparatively few transfers among cycling’s sprinters, Mark Cavendish’s last- minute signing with Deceuninck - Quick-Step is arguably one of the most fascinating switches.
The most successful Tour de France sprinter ever, 35-year-old Cavendish’s goal is to regain momentum after several tough seasons blighted by illness. But the sport’s younger fastmen will be equally determined to prevent Cavendish returning to his former level of success: they intend to ensure their ‘new normality’ remains in place. That is just one of many battles we are likely to see across the board in Men Elite road racing in 2021.