Keep Your Eyes on These Riders for the 2021 Racing Season

·11 min read
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

From Bicycling

The 2021 season already is underway with a string of early season races being run in the south of France.

But on Sunday, the men’s World Tour series (which comprises the sport’s biggest races) begins with the UAE Tour, a seven-day stage race that’s attracted many of the sport’s biggest stars. And while it’s not the most important race on the calendar, it often gives a preview of the riders who will be making the biggest headlines in the season to come.

Here’s a look at 12 male riders to watch (many of whom will be in action at the UAE Tour) heading into the 2021 season.

Julian Alaphilippe - Deceuninck-Quick Step

Photo credit: MARCO BERTORELLO - Getty Images
Photo credit: MARCO BERTORELLO - Getty Images

After hitting double digits in wins for 2019, Alaphilippe only won three last year, but one of them was the world road race championship, which epitomizes the phrase, “Quality over quantity.” Now the Frenchman gets to spend a year—at least—in the rainbow jersey, which gives him added inspiration to continue racing with the aggression and panache that make him one of the most exciting riders in the men’s peloton.

While he’s generally known for the hillier Classics held in the Belgian Ardennes, he will also be fun to watch at the Tour of Flanders. He made the winning breakaway in the Ronde in October, only to crash into a motorbike with about 35km to go. But before the mishap, Alaphilippe looked right at home on the cobbled Flemish roads and hills. Had he made it to the finish...well, who knows? But we do know this: Alaphilippe is a threat to win just about any race he enters. And with his contract set to expire at the end of the season, the competition to sign him will be fierce—and expensive.

Supercharge your riding life with All Access to Bicycling.com! 🚵🏽♀️

Tadej Pogačar - UAE-Team Emirates

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

Few expected Pogačar to win the 2020 Tour de France, but few were surprised either. Only 21-years-old at the time, Pogačar had already proven himself to be one of the most talented young riders in the sport with wins at the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir, the 2019 Tour of California, and a third-place finish (along with three stage wins) at the 2019 Tour of Spain. He can definitely win the Tour, we thought. But not for another year or two. Well, here we are.

Defending his Tour de France victory will certainly be his main goal this season, but Pogačar is a rider who could win any race he sets his mind to. Grand Tours, hilly Classics, cobbled Classics, time trials—there’s nothing that looks to be beyond his skillset.

Primož Roglič - Jumbo-Visma

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

Roglič won 12 races in 2020, but it’s the race he lost that defined his season: after leading the Tour de France for 11 days, he entered the final weekend almost a minute ahead of his compatriot, Pogačar. And, well, the rest is history.

But Roglič rebounded quickly, winning his first Monument (Liège–Bastogne–Liège) before successfully defending his title in the Tour of Spain. He heads into 2021 looking to take another shot at the Tour, where he and his team can hopefully put the lessons they learned last year to good use. From there, he and Pogačar should join forces to challenge for a gold medal at the Olympics, with Roglič a contender in the time trial as well. Along the way, expect to see the former ski jumper winning whatever races he can. Ever-aggressive, he’s never been one to turn down a chance to win a race when the opportunity presents itself, which is, incidentally, perhaps why he faded on the Tour’s final weekend.

Wout van Aert - Jumbo-Visma

Photo credit: MARCO BERTORELLO - Getty Images
Photo credit: MARCO BERTORELLO - Getty Images

Since devoting himself to road racing after several years racing cyclocross full time, van Aert has steadily become one of the strongest riders in the sport, someone capable of winning Monuments, time trials, and pacing his team’s GC leaders through the high mountains of the Tour de France. And 2020 was the Belgian’s best season yet thanks to wins in Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo, along with two stage wins at the Tour de France.

But like Roglič, van Aert’s 2020 season was defined by a few missed chances as well, including second-place finishes in the world championship time trial and road race and the Tour of Flanders. The latter was most likely his most gut-wrenching defeat: Flanders is the most important race of the year for Belgian fans, and to add insult to injury, van Aert lost to Mathieu van der Poel, a fierce rival, and even worse, a Dutchman. Looking ahead, van Aert’s building his 2021 season around three main goals: the spring Classics (watch for Paris-Roubaix), the Olympic individual time trial (scheduled right after the Tour de France), and the World Championships, which are take place on van Aert’s home turf: Flanders.

Mathieu van der Poel - Alpecin-Fenix

Photo credit: Luc Claessen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Luc Claessen - Getty Images

Like Pogačar, van der Poel looks as if he could win any race he sets his mind to. His road season last year was rather quiet—until he defeated van Aert to win the Tour of Flanders. That was all he needed to declare his season a success as he helped his team earn an automatic invitation to all of 2021’s World Tour events—including all three Grand Tours—by virtue of winning the season’s “Professional Continental” (basically, cycling’s Division 1-AA) classification.

Like van Aert, van der Poel will spend the first part of his season focusing on the spring Classics, and then should head to the Tour de France (but only, he says, for the sake of his sponsors). Leaving the Tour early is a real possibility, he told a Dutch website, because he wants to focus on the Olympic mountain bike race. Expect him to end his season with the World Championships in Flanders, another race that he should be a top favorite and another race in which his intense rivalry with van Aert should continue.

Remco Evenepoel - Deceuninck-Quick Step

Photo credit: Luc Claessen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Luc Claessen - Getty Images

Evenepoel was set to ride his first Grand Tour at last year’s Giro d’Italia, but the Belgian crashed into a stone wall and fell into a ravine at the Tour of Lombardy in August, breaking his pelvis and ending his season. Prior to the crash, the 20-year-old was a perfect four-for-four on the season, winning every race he entered (all stage races, to boot). Now 21, his recovery took a bit longer than expected, and he’s only recently been cleared to resume training. But we’re still hopeful he’ll be back in time to make a serious bid at the Giro d’Italia in May. And if he’s not ready for the Giro, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him start the Tour de France—just to gain some experience in the world’s biggest race and build some form for the Olympics in late-July.

Egan Bernal - INEOS Grenadiers

Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD - Getty Images
Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD - Getty Images

Once the 2020 restarted, Bernal looked to be on track to defend his 2019 Tour de France victory. He was racing well and the team selected a roster built to support him (leaving former winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at home). But then the Colombian surprisingly abandoned the Critérium du Dauphiné—his final pre-Tour preparation event—due to back pain. He started the Tour saying his troubles were behind him, but never looked as strong as he did the year before. Finally, after losing large chunks of time on Stages 15 and 16, he abandoned the race.

He’s since spent the offseason working to heal his aching back, and recently announced the Giro d’Italia to be his primary objective—at least for the first half of the season. Often much more mountainous than the Tour de France, the Giro should suit Bernal just fine, perhaps setting him up for another Tour de France bid in 2022.

Chris Froome - Team Israel Start-Up Nation

Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images

Were it not for a crash while warming-up for a time trial at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné, Chris Froome might be a five- or six-time Tour de France champion by now. Instead, he’s racing for Team Israel Start-Up Nation after leaving team INEOS Grenadiers (with whom he won seven Grand Tours), and hoping that his best days haven’t passed him by. The Briton is naturally building his season around winning a record-tying fifth Tour de France, but at 35-years-old and more than three years removed from his last Grand Tour victory, it’s going to be a tall order. Then again, if Tom Brady can leave the New England Patriots and still win the Super Bowl, maybe Froome can leave INEOS and still win the Tour de France.

Peter Sagan - BORA-hansgrohe

Photo credit: LUCA BETTINI - Getty Images
Photo credit: LUCA BETTINI - Getty Images

Sagan had a rough 2020, winning only one race—by far the lowest annual win total of his professional career. He went winless at the Tour de France, and failed to add another green jersey to the seven he’s already won. Something just seemed “off” about the three-time world champion, as if his heart wasn’t in it anymore.

He even made comments in the press indicating that he might retire soon. But the Slovak appears to be entering the 2021 season with a renewed sense or purpose. And he should be: his contract is set to expire at the end of the season, and if he hopes to cash-in one more time before calling it a career, he’ll need to remind potential suitors that he has the motivation to win at the sport’s highest level. But while it seems like he’s been racing forever, he’s still only 31, and with a good result or two in the spring, should be able to convince several teams that signing him is a good investment—and perhaps rejuvenate his already-storied career.

Geraint Thomas - INEOS Grenadiers

Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images

Thomas won the 2018 Tour de France with one of the more flawless rides we’ve seen in recent years. But in 2019—despite starting the Tour in good shape—the Welshman was forced to play second fiddle to his teammate, Egan Bernal. Then, when he and Froome weren’t even selected for last year’s Tour by INEOS, some wondered if he would be racing for another team entirely in 2021.

Well, he’s not, and better still, he’s already been named as his team’s captain for the 2021 Tour de France. And while Pogačar and Roglič will be tough to beat, Thomas is one of the more complete Grand Tour riders in the peloton, and should benefit from the two individual time trials included in this year’s route. Overall, he’s at least a solid bet for the final podium, and a dark horse to win the whole thing should things go his way. What he lacks in flash he makes up for in consistency.

Sepp Kuss - Jumbo-Visma

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

In January, Dutchman Tom Dumoulin announced he was taking a break from professional cycling, a decision that might have created an opportunity for American Sepp Kuss—a name you might not be familiar with, but should start getting to know. Over the past few seasons, Kuss has become one of Jumbo-Visma’s most talented mountain domestiques, someone who can ride alongside his captains—like Primož Roglic—very late into high mountain stages. In fact, at the 2019 Tour of Spain, he was rewarded for his efforts to help secure Roglič’s first Grand Tour victory with a chance to ride for a stage win of his own—an opportunity which he promptly took advantage of by winning Stage 15. His first order of business in 2021 will be trying to help Roglič win the Tour de France, but after that, he might get a chance to lead the team himself at the Tour of Spain, a chance that might not have appeared had Dumoulin not taken a break.

Marc Hirschi - UAE-Team Emirates

Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images

You might remember Hirschi from last year’s Tour de France. Riding for Team Sunweb, the Swiss rider relentlessly animated the race, coming close a couple of times before finally winning Stage 12. After the Tour his good form continued with a win in Flèche Wallonne, a second-place in Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and a bronze medal in the road race at Worlds. His results must have been enough to generate a behind-the-scenes bidding war, because in early January Sunweb (now Team DSM) suddenly announced that it was releasing the 22-year-old from his contract. A few days later, it was revealed that he was joining UAE-Team Emirates. In Hirschi, UAE gained an incredible talent who alongside Pogačar gives the team two young cornerstones upon which to continue building their program. Literally, the rich got richer—and Hirschi did too.

You Might Also Like