2021 UCI World Tour Bicycle Racing

There’s traditionally an annual Tour de France thread in this forum, and last year with the topsy turvy schedule we ended up using that thread for the Tour, the Giro, the Vuelta, the World Championships, and various of the Classics that had been rescheduled to fall. So this year I thought I’d start a thread to discuss racing from the beginning of the season. Well, almost the beginning. “Opening Weekend” was last weekend, with Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

If you’re not particularly conversant in bicycle racing and have questions, feel free to ask. Team tactics can sometimes be pretty baffling if you’re not familiar with how they work.

If you’re interested in watching and don’t know where to get access, two major streaming services are Flobikes (https://www.flobikes.com) and GCN+ (GCN+ Live racing, Highlights & Analysis + Documentaries, Shows & Adventure Films). Both have annual subscription fees, and there’s no way to buy less than a year, which admittedly kinda sucks for someone wanting to casually watch just a few races. There are various highlight packages posted on Youtube for the thrifty. Do note that options vary across the globe, and who has rights to which races in various regions does vary so check before you buy. In the US, I believe NBC does televise some races, though probably mostly just the grand tours.

I’ll try to post before most of the more significant races to provide a heads up of what’s happening, and when I’m ambitious perhaps a brief description of the event and its history.

For example, tomorrow is Strade Bianche, a one-day race in Tuscany prominently featuring numerous segments of gravel roads (the “white roads” after which the race is named) on its course. It’s a relatively recent race, having only been held since 2007 where most of the classics date back to well before WWII, but it has rapidly gained prestige and prominence due to having been the scene of very compelling performances. Best was 2018 when it was raining:

A course that is almost never flat, yet doesn’t feature giant mountains means that’s is a rare race where grand tour GC-oriented riders can duke it out with the Classics specialists. Last year’s Tour winner Tadej Pogacar is lining up, fresh off a dominating win of the UAE Tour the week before last, but he’ll have a tough challenge with last years winner Wout van Aert and world cyclocross champion Mathieu van der Poel, and of course world road champion Julian Alaphillippe being the key favourites.

After so many events delayed and cancelled last year, I’m really looking forward to this season. Hopefully I’m not the only poster here prior to the Tour beginning in July.

Compelling races today, and a somewhat interesting difference between the men’s and women’s editions.

The men’s race was ridden hard, but uncomplicated. There were little in the way of tactical teamwork or strategic attacks and counterattacks. It was pretty much just a matter of the strongest riders ramping up the pace on the hardest sections of the course and dropping everyone but the very fittest. The fittest turned out to be pretty much the group everyone expected, and of those the red hot favourite entering the race proved the strongest in impressive fashion. After attacks by Alaphillippe had thinned out the lead group to just 7 riders, Mathieu van der Poel dropped a ridiculous acceleration on the final gravel sector and distanced everyone but Alaphillippe and 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal. And then in the last kilometre he did it again, and at that point no one could match him.

Takeaways: van der Poel clearly in amazing form coming off the cyclocross season, but in my mind it raises doubts that he’ll be able to hold onto that form come the big cobbled classics in April. Egan Bernal after finishing 3rd has to feel good about things heading into the Giro d’Italia, which is his major target race this year. The Giro even has a mini-Strade Bianche stage with gravel sectors. No other major surprises though various riders are clearly a bit uneven in form coming out of the off-season. That’s to be expected, though.

On the other hand the women’s race was won by someone no one had predicted as a result of classic team tactics. The lead bunch of the race was still 30 or so riders at 6km to go. Team SD Worx (formerly known as Boels Dolmans - switched title sponsors for this year) as usual had more riders than anyone else, unsurprisingly including Anna van der Breggen, current world road champion and all-round superstar. However, the group also included large numbers of other extremely strong riders. All the usual suspects were there. Annemiek van Vleuten, Elisa Longo Borghini, Marianne Vos, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Katya Niewiadoma, Ellen van Dijk, etc. So, to improve van der Breggen’s odds, SD Worx had Chantal van den Broek-Blaak launch an attack. This is standard team racing tactics. Have teammates of your lead rider launch attacks out of the group. The competing teams will have to expend energy reeling those attacks back in, while your leader can just follow the wheels. And if the competition doesn’t respond to the attack, well then the teammate who attacked might just win outright - which is actually why Chantal Blaak has former world champion bands on her jersey. That’s exactly how she won the world championship a few years back for the Dutch, attacking in the final kilometres for the benefit of van der Breggan, only to have no one actually respond. She soloed to victory.

Today, however, Italian champion Longo Borghini bridged to Blaak, and then Blaak played the other team tactics card. She refused to take turns on the front once Longo Borghini on the basis that she was riding for van der Breggan in the group behind (who never managed to work together well enough to bring the pair back). Longo Borghini, who in an even contest probably would have beaten Blaak on the steep climb in the final kilometre, was instead beaten by a fresher Blaak, while van der Breggen won out of the group behind to take third.

Next up, two overlapping one week stage races, Paris-Nice starting tomorrow, and Tirreno-Adriatico starting Wednesday. I won’t recap them stage by stage unless something particularly interesting happens in one of them.

So tomorrow is Milan-San Remo, the first monument of the season. There are five one-day races that are called “monuments.” They are the most prestigious and generally oldest of the races on the calendar. This is the 112th edition of Milan-San Remo, for example. The remaining 4 are the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Il Lombardia. But we’ll get to them. Milan-San Remo is my least favourite of the big name classics. It’s monstrously long (almost 300km) and for most of the race is just a flat ride, so nothing happens. Near the end there are two shortish climbs. Historically attacks on those climbs were reeled in by the bunch, and the race would end in a bunch sprint, but for the past few years the race has been won from either a solo attack on the last hill, or out of a small group that formed following attacks on the last hill. Any which way, only the last 20 minutes are worth watching. Streaming rights for this race are held by GCN+.

Both of the early one-week races provided a lot of spectacle, however. Paris-Nice had a bit of a weak GC field especially after Team Ineos’ Richie Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart crashed out in separate incidents, and last year’s Vuelta winner and Tour runner up, Primoz Roglic, won a couple key stages in imperious fashion to take a commanding lead. Then he crashed twice on the final stage. After the second crash the peleton was not hanging around, and his team burned themselves out trying to get him back in. They almost succeeded. At one point he was only about 50m from the back of the peleton. But he couldn’t quite bridge, and ended up isolated, riding in alone 3 minutes down on the bunch and ceding the race win to Max Schachmann. We later found out that he’d dislocated his shoulder in the first crash.

Tirreno Adriatico had a much stronger field. Current Tour champion Tadej Pogacar, 2019 Tour winner Egan Bernal, Mikel Landa, Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet, Joao Almeida all looked like GC threats, and the trio of ludicrous talents Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Julian Alaphillipe all looked likely to mop up most of the stage wins. Pogacar, fresh from winning the UAE Tour, put in a dominant performance to win the overall and has to be viewed as a favourite to defend his Tour de France title come July. The three musketeers did manage 5 stage wins out of 7 between them. But the most compelling one was Stage 5 last Sunday. On a miserably cold rainy day, van der Poel launched a solo attack from 50km out, over a course that repeatedly tackled a short but vicious climb. He was holding on to a couple minute lead over an elite group of chasers including most of the aforementioned names up till about 16km to go. While van der Poel was no threat in the GC, having lost 20 minutes on the mountain stage the day before, it was nonetheless GC leader Pogacar who emerged from the chasing group to try to run him down. Van der Poel was clearly at the end of his energy, and Pogacar was closing rapidly but came up just short. Van der Poel crossed the line with a 10 second lead, and promptly collapsed in a heap. When asked why he’d attacked from so far out he said, “I was cold.” Jeez Mathieu, everyone else just got a jacket from the team car.

I’m kind of a casual fan. Was watching the World Championships last year and saw Chloé Dygert’s awful accident. Any word on whether she’s recovered and is she back to racing this season?

I’m not actually sure. So far as I can tell, she has yet to start a race. She got into some hot water for some social media posts last fall, but other than that hasn’t made it into any cycling news stories since the crash.

Well that was unexpected.

Race won by Jasper Stuyven of Trek-Segafredo, who no one had on any favourites list. I think everyone expected attacks on the Poggio (3.5km @ 3.7%, max gradient 8%, top of climb 5.5km from the finish) by Alaphillipe, van Aert, or van der Poel would result in one or two of those, possibly with one or two unexpected extras, trying to stay away on the descent and hang on for the 2km flat run-in. But Team Ineos set a blazing fast pace on the lower slopes of the Poggio, so fast that no one could attack till Alaphilippe had a dig with less than 1km to the top. His attack didn’t break clear but did distance all but a dozen riders. Amazingly one of those that made the cut was Caleb Ewen, a pure sprinter, which complicated tactics for everyone else.

And then, Stuyven attacked while still on the descent, and instead of closing him down the usual suspects looked at each other to see who would chase. Various riders did try, but it wasn’t quite enough and while the group sprint did get within touching distance it was Stuyven across the line first, easily the biggest win of his career. Ewen unsurprising outsprinted the rest for second, with van Aert in 3rd, triple-World Champion Peter Sagan in 4th, and van der Poel in 5th.

Sagan’s finish was a surprise. He contracted the 'rona a couple months back and lost a lot of training time, and has looked in pretty poor form at Strade Bianche and whichever of Paris-Nice or Tirreno Adriatico he was in, can’t remember which because he only ever showed up in the coverage momentarily as he was getting dropped on climbs.

A few things about Milan Sanremo:

-Stuyven owes a beer to Soren Kragh Anderson who bridged and towed him a ways toward the finish. Don’t think he would’ve won without it.

-MVDP puts himself in bad positions pretty regularly. He was like 50th on the way up the Poggio and likely worked to hard to get to the front to be able to attack.

Good on Ewan for messing up the tactics of MVDP, WVA, and Alaphilippe as no one really wanted to chase Stuyven as the person who does definitely loses.

-watched about the final 4 hours and enjoyed it quite a bit.

I’ll likely watch Catalunya on my lunch next week. All the stages look potentially interesting. I’m curious to see if Sepp Kuss can put in a decent time trial on Tuesday.

The Catalunya parcours looks really excellent, yeah.

Stuyven absolutely doesn’t win without Kragh, but Kragh was riding in his own best interest, not in the interests of Stuyven. He was one of the worst sprinters in the final group and would have finished near the bottom of it if it had come to a group sprint. By bridging to Stuyven and then not fussing that Stuyven sat on his wheel Kragh was riding for second place. He knew he couldn’t out-kick Stuyven, but if the pair made it to the line ahead of the group then he’s on the podium, which he’ll never be if the group arrives together. Didn’t quite work for him, but it was definitely his best play. If Stuyven could have taken one more turn, then maybe it would have, but if you watch Stuyven try to sprint as Ewen and van Aert are bearing down on him I think you’ll agree that Stuyven didn’t have anything left.

Are you watching the Lanterne Rouge podcast or Youtube channel? Easily the best discussion and tactical analysis I’ve ever seen.

Lanterns Rouge is great, just listened to the episode in question and that makes sense to me.

The only thing I’m learning from Catalunya right now is that I don’t see a way someone beats Pogacar in France this year assuming he arrives fit. Thomas isn’t even as good at TTs as Pogacar and Carapaz and Geoghegan Hart can’t even climb as well let alone TT. Roglic might out sprint him a few times up a mountain but he will lose that back and more during the TTs. Nobody on any other team is even close. I’m still looking forward to it though.

I dunno. I mean, I’m not going to put money on Pogacar being beaten, but it’s not remotely a sure thing that he’ll win. Roglic looked very good at Paris-Nice, crashes in stage 7 notwithstanding, and he has a very good ITT himself. I know he lost the Tour in the ITT last year, but he was 5th on what was clearly a bad day for him. Pogacar’s ride that day was insane, and unusually far ahead of the field compared to his usual ITT results. Jumbo Visma has a very strong supporting cast as well, even without Dumoulin.

I wouldn’t write off Ineos, either. It’s not quite clear who their strongest GC rider is at the moment and there’s a bit of a worry about them adopting a sort of Movistar-esque triple leader strategy that results in no one doing well, but they’re going to be showing up with 3 former grand tour winners.

Meanwhile, Team UAE have got very little in the way of support for Pogacar. He got away with that last year, because he was sort of flying under the radar till right near the end. This year the other teams are going to be actively trying to isolate and attack him. What is Pogacar supposed to do if Ineos start attacking with Thomas, Porte, Geoghegan Hart, and Carapaz one after the other if Jumbo Visma decline to chase? Close down all the attacks himself? Let one who’s a couple minutes down ride off up a mountain and pace the other three up so they can attack him late? UAE did pick up Majka for this purpose, and McNulty is looking reasonably strong, but that’s not anything like the mountain trains Jumbo Visma or Ineos can field. Last year he just rode on the back of JV’s train and they let him, because they were riding against Ineos. That won’t happen again.

Independent of their teams, Pogacar would be a clear favourite, for sure. Including the teams, things are much less clear.

Anyways, we’ve got the Classics and the Giro to watch before we get to the Tour, though it sounds like Paris-Roubaix is threatened with canceling again. :frowning: :cry: :sob:

According to the French Sports Minister, Roubaix is not called off as of yet. It seems like the worst case scenario is that it will be postponed - which is good. One of the broadcasts last week suggested maybe moving the start, but that is only speculation. Either way, it seems like it will happen at some point.

Milan Sanremo gave me plenty of hope for an exciting monument season because of the surprise winner. As much as I love MVDP, Alaphilippe, and WVA - and I do - I was nervous about them winning all of them. It is more fun this way. Gent Wevelgem this weekend and it looks to have a decent field, but I expect WVA will be the overwhelming favourite. I can’t see Van der poel or Alaphilippe listed, but the list I’m reading might be incomplete.

I’d just like to say that I have very little to contribute to this thread, as I rarely have the time/inclination to actually watch the races, and therefore know almost nothing about the sport - but I really enjoy and appreciate following along here (as I have for the past few years). So I just wanted to thank people posting about them, so you know there is at least one inactive but appreciative reader!

Oh man, I just got around to watching E3 Harelbeke (race held Friday), the opening race of the cobbled classics. Absolute masterclass by Deceuninck Quickstep in team tactics. The strongest two riders in the race were, as usual, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. And yet, DQS take 1st place with Asgreen, 2nd with Senechal, and 5th with Stybar. Van der Poel did manage to get onto the last step of the podium, but van Aert fell out of the top ten. Just so, so beautiful. They blew the race apart on one of the nasty cobbled climbs with about 60km to go and had overwhelming numbers in the front group, then Asgreen went on a long-range solo attack allowing those overwhelming numbers to sit in the wheels for the entire second half of the race. And everyone else just let them! Not that there was really much to be done about it. It’s just, I mean, this is how the team tactics are described in the textbook, but they never work out in quite so clean a fashion in real races. Except at E3, apparently. Eventually a select group caught Asgreen with about 14km to go. That select group included two of his teammates (who had been doing no work with Asgreen off the front of course) who then started contributing, while Asgreen sat on the back of the lead group. Then he somehow had the energy to attack again with 5km to go and no one followed. Or rather, everyone in the group (no less than van der Poel, van Avermaet, Naesen, and van Baarle) tried to bridge across at one time or another, but every time one of them did, they had either Senechal or Stybar right on their wheel. Oh man one day racing is so much more fun than boring trains in stage races.

And perhaps the results at the Ronde van Vlaanderen are not the foregone conclusion that some had been predicting.

Meanwhile, the Volta Catalunya has been a bit meh. With no Slovenian GC riders in the race, apparently the Ineos train is once again unbeatable. Bright spots however with Esteban Chavez dialing back the clock to take a solo mountain victory and Sagan showing that his season isn’t totally lost to covid with a sprint win this morning.

Up next, Gent Wevelgem tomorrow, the cobbled classic normally expected to end in a sprint, followed by Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and the Ronde next weekend.

De Ronde van Vlaanderen. The second of the Monument classics, and probably the second biggest one-day race in the calendar after Paris-Roubaix. The peloton will line up tomorrow for some 254km, with 19 cobbled climbs looming in the second half of the race. Three times each over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg as the course loops its way through the Flemish countryside, as well at the Taaienberg, Kopenberg, and numerous others. Where Roubaix is a race for the powerhouses, this is a race for the punchy climbers. We’re once again expecting the three musketeers to be fighting it out at the end, though hopefully this year Alaphilippe doesn’t DNF himself by crashing into a motorcycle. Streaming rights in North America are held by Flobikes, and in Europe I believe by GCN+/Eurosport.

It’s a big race on the women’s calendar too, where it’s hard to look past the SD Worx combo of van der Breggan and van den Broeck Blaak. However, Trek Segafredo is fielding a powerful team as well, and van Vleuten is always dangerous. Plus she just picked up her first win since her move to Movistar at Dwars Door Vlaanderen.

In other news, Paris-Roubaix has been postponed. It’s been pushed from next weekend to the beginning of October. This makes me sad, though with any luck the vaccine rollout will have France mostly back to normal by then. Maybe even fans lining the Arenberg Forest and Carrefoure de l’Arbre?

Results from the last week: Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend on the men’s side saw the race blown to smithereens in the crosswinds before the TV coverage even began. The front group of those splits was never pulled back, and slowly whittled down to a group of mostly classics sprinter types. But Wout van Aert was the only one in the group with a teammate, and when the sprint finally happened there was never any doubt. On the women’s side it was just a hard race of attrition, and Jumbo Visma doubled up with Marianne Vos demonstrating why you never want to come to the line in a group containing Marianne Vos, unless you actually are Marianne Vos.

Midweek we had Dwars Door Vlanderen, where Team Ineos’ Dylan van Baarle went on a solo raid from 50km out. An elite group of pursuers were 20-30 seconds back almost the entire remainder of the race, but just couldn’t find enough cooperation to bring him back. For the women, van Vleuten and Niewiadoma got away with 36km left and outclassed the pursuit. As mentioned, Annemiek van Vleuten took her first win of the season by outsprinting her erstwhile companion at the line.

Been neglecting to update this.

De Ronde men’s edition was some fine racing with a lovely twist. The usual threesome (Alaphillipe, van Aert, and van der Poel) went in as favourites, with the consensus view that Alaphillipe wasn’t quite as strong as the other two but had a much better team around him. And behold, as the cobbled sectors ticked by it did indeed look like those three would be contesting the win, with a small group including each of them, plus Haller and Teuns of Bahrain Victorious and, critically, Caspar Asgreen, Alaphillipe’s teammate and winner of E3 the previous week in that tremendous DQS team tactic clinic. Attacks flew left and right, and in the end it was van der Poel with Asgreen for company instead of the expected Alaphillipe who were alone at the front and unlikely to be caught. The peanut gallery was screaming at Asgreen to sit on van der Poel’s wheel thinking he was guaranteed to lose to van der Poel in the sprint, but Asgreen had more faith in himself than the pundits and pulled turns all the way to the 1km mark, and then crushed van der Poel in the sprint. Absolutely tremendous cobbled classics campaign for the Danish champion.

The women’s side had compelling racing as well, but the narrative is much shorter. Annemiek van Vleuten is some sort of alien, rode away from the bunch on the Paterburg, and soloed to the line somehow losing no time whatsoever to a group of seven chasers including the likes of van der Breggan, Longho Borghini, Uttrup Ludwig ,and Brennauer. I have no idea how she does that sort of thing. (For those with little familiarity with women’s racing wondering who van Vleuten is, you may recall her horrific crash at the Rio Olympics where it looked like she’d snapped her neck on the fast downhill section.)

In other news, a couple weeks back Alejandro Valverde convincingly won the GP Miguel Indurain, a one-day race in Spain. Last week was the Tour of the Basque Country, a 6-day stage race with very little flat terrain, won convincingly by Roglic over Pogacar and Yates (the one riding for Ineos, not the one riding for Bike Exchange). Anyone thinking that Pogacar has any advantage over Roglic in ITTs will need to take note of the 28 seconds Roglic put into his fellow Slovenian in just 14km. I expect this is the last we’ll see of the guys aiming at the Tour until the Dauphine or Tour de Suisse.

Nothing of note this past weekend, as it would have been Paris Roubaix. Up next are the Ardennes Classics, with Amstel Gold this coming weekend, Fleche Wallone the following Wednesday, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege the weekend after. Where the cobbled classics favour the strongest, the Ardennes races favour the punchiest, so we’ll see if anyone can beat Julian Alaphillipe up the Mur de Huy. It’s also quite likely to be Valverde’s final campaign in the Ardennes, though it would be a surprise to see him win any of these races that he dominated for so long.