Blazin’ Saddles: The biggest disappointments and must-do-betters of the 2021 cycling season
Some riders made the headlines for the wrong reasons in 2021 or, arguably worse, did not even make the headlines at all. With a new generation of superstars clearly emerging, some competitors have fallen way off the pace while others simply do not seem capable of hitting the heights once expected of them. Read on to see who needs a change of fortune in 2022.
Our next end-of-season review looks back at the previous 12 months by looking ahead and working out which riders need to pull out the stops to redress the balance and get things back on track.
These include the two riders who disappeared without a trace after occupying the top two spots on the pandemic-delayed 2020 Giro d’Italia, the rider whose spectacular Vuelta meltdown led to his contract being torn up, and a GC star who just cannot seem to catch a break – whichever team he may be (co-)leading.
Here are the season’s biggest disappointments who will be hoping to bounce back in 2022 and beyond…
Winning the maglia rosa on the final day of the rescheduled Giro d’Italia in the year of the pandemic seems an eternity away for the 26-year-old, still without a win since his Sestriere heroics in 2020. Twice the Hackney Condor came close in 2021 – finishing second to Gianluca Brambilla in Stage 3 of the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var and pipped by Alejandro Valverde in Stage 6 of the Critérium du Dauphiné – but his long-awaited Tour debut was ruined by a crash on the opening day.
It will be interesting to see if Geoghegan Hart returns to the Giro next year or if he’s part of the team supporting either Egan Bernal or Richard Carapaz in France. Time will tell if his Corsa Rosa win was a one-off but it’s certainly hard imagining a scenario right now where he leads Ineos at a Grand Tour again.
'He's come in a bit hot' - Tao Geoghegan Hart crashes out
Jay Hindley (Team DSM)
Unlike the man who pipped him to Giro glory in 2020 at the final hurdle, Hindley returned to the race where he made his astonishing breakthrough – not that you would remember any of his performances.
The Australian didn’t once finish in the top 10 of a stage before withdrawing ahead of the final week. His results over the course of the rest of the season were not much better. The 25-year-old will hope for an upturn of fortune when he races in the colours of Bora-Hansgrohe next year. Perhaps linking back up with his old Giro 2020 pal Wilco Kelderman will bring out the best in Hindley again…
Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious)
No rider has left more teams to improve his chances of being a leader elsewhere than Mikel Landa. He left Astana because of Nibali and Aru, Sky because of Froome and Thomas, and Movistar after being third wheel behind Quintana and Valverde in the infamous trident. No sooner had he joined what was Bahrain-McLaren than Wout Poels and Pello Bilbao rocked up. The Basque rider seems jinxed.
When finally in a position where the stars aligned – entering the Giro with both good form and as undisputed leader – he crashed out after being taken down by another rider in the opening week. In his absence, Damiano Caruso had a blinder; ditto Jack Haig and Gino Mäder once he pulled out of the Vuelta.
Landa was ‘bit of a prat’ – Smith
Now 31, it seems like Landa is back to third or fourth place in the pecking order, yet he still has two more years left on his contract to prove his ability over three weeks. We all know he’s superb on his day – he won the Vuelta a Burgos this year, after all – but Landa really needs that day to come more often, and on the centre stage.
Miguel Ángel López (Movistar)
Derailed early in the season by Covid, the Colombian bounced back by winning the Vuelta a Andalucia and the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge – results which saw him and Movistar sign a two-year contract extension ahead of the Tour just six months after his arrival from Astana.
López came a solid, if unspectacular, sixth in the Dauphiné before things started to go downhill fast. Zero top-10 finishes in the Tour saw him withdraw just days from Paris when almost two hours down on the race summit. And just when he looked to get things back on track with what would have been a third Grand Tour podium finish, López, two days after a superb mountain-top stage win, threw all his toys out of the pram and quit the Vuelta on the penultimate day.
Angered at seeing his third place disappear in front of his eyes as teammate Enric Mas went clear further up the road, López had a meltdown and climbed off his bike – an action which resulted in that freshly prolonged contract being torn up. The 27-year-old has now DNF’ed his last three Grand Tours and returns to Astana with his tail between his legs.
Miguel Angel Lopez ‘spat the dummy like a spoilt child’
Still, with Vincenzo Nibali no spring chicken, López should at least get leadership status again after struggling with Movistar’s complicated trident set-up. Next year will be integral for the once-promising Colombian to get things back on track.
Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation)
The four-time Tour de France winner’s first year outside the Sky-Ineos bubble wasn’t exactly a success: he didn’t once crack the top 10 of any stage of any event and finished the race he still claims he can win for a fifth time ninth-from-last, over four hours behind a rider who will surely soon eclipse his victory tally.
The 36-year-old blames this partially on a re-infection of the bilharzia parasite worm which apparently blighted the earlier part of his career. Either way, it doesn’t look likely that Froome will ever bounce back from that career-threatening crash in the Dauphiné in 2019. Fail to make any in-roads next year, and it’s hard to envision a peloton including Chris Froome in 2023.
Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers)
Victory in the Tour of Romandie and podium finished in Catalunya and the Dauphiné meant the Welsh veteran entered the Tour with a fair bit of wind in his sails. A nasty crash in Stage 3 put paid to his GC chances although he gamely battled to Paris – but to what end? He struggled for form and fitness in the second half of the season – and although he’s extended for another year, it would be a surprise to see the 35-year-old get the leadership nod ahead of Egan Bernal or Richard Carapaz now.
'Does not look good' – Thomas dislocates shoulder in nasty crash on Stage 3
Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers)
Runner-up in Catalunya and Romandie ahead of victory in the Dauphiné, Porte’s return to Ineos after stints at BMC and Trek certainly got off to a promising start. But the 36-year-old struggled in the Tour and now it looks like any future success he has at the British team will be as a sporting director rather than a rider.
Laurens De Plus (Ineos Grenadiers)
The 26-year-old Belgian did not feature for his new team after his withdrawal from Itzulia Basque Country in April, De Plus having ridden a mere 18 race days since his move from Jumbo-Visma. The 2019 BinckBank Tour winner was forced to take a step back after being laid low by fatigue and a viral infection.
De Plus has returned to full training since September and is currently on a training camp with Ineos Grenadiers, for whom he will hope to make more of an impact in 2022. His best result last season was 10th in the GP Miguel Indurain.
Ivan Garcia (Movistar)
Signed from Bahrain-McLaren to give Movistar more bite in the sprints and a viable leader figure for the classics, the Spaniard faltered in his first year. Hardly a big winner prior to arrival, Garcia didn’t once make the podium and it remains unclear how the team can coax the best out of this diamond in the rough.
Tiesj Benoot (Team DSM)
Things haven't really gone to plan for the promising Belgian since his Strade Bianche victory in 2018. A move to Team Sunweb from Lotto Soudal yielded just one win in 2020 before things really went south this past season. Zero wins and only a handful of top 10s to his name, Benoot struggled for form and consistency, lasting just 10 days in the only Grand Tour he took on in 2021.
Then came the bombshell from DSM in the form of a pre-Christmas announcement: Benoot and his employers had agreed to part ways with immediate effect. "During the 2021 campaign it became clear that Benoot could not deliver on his commitments, which reflected in his performances both on and off the bike," read one of the cattier parts of the team's statement.
A day later, it was announced that Benoot had joined Jumbo-Visma on a two-year contract. The 27-year-old is the latest big name and under contract rider to leave DSM under a cloud in recent years after Marc Hirschi and Tom Dumoulin. The pressure is now on Benoot to reach his potential at his new home. Only time will tell if the problem lay with the rider, or the team...
Marc Hischi (UAE Team Emirates)
Eyebrows were raised when Team Sunweb let go of their breakthrough star of the 2020 Tour de France – but the 23-year-old Swiss has hardly pulled up trees since his controversial move to UAE. Of course, by joining a team led by Tadej Pogačar, you’re not exactly going to have free reign to go on the attack in the same way that Hirschi had at Sunweb. And it hardly helped his personal ambitions that he crashed badly early on in the Tour.
Hirschi did pick up a win in the Tour of Luxembourg later in the season, and he came runner-up in his last race of the season, the Veneto Classic. In theory, 2022 should be kinder to a rider who still qualifies for the white jersey classification for another two years.
Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma)
The Dutchman had already fallen low in the pecking order at Jumbo-Visma when he announced he was taking a sabbatical from the sport in January. The 31-year-old made his return at the Tour of Suisse, building up his form ahead of the Olympics where he snared a time trial silver medal behind trade teammate Primož Roglič.
A fully fit and stable Dumoulin would be a real asset to any Grand Tour team and if he can replicate his running form (a recent sub-33-minute performance in the Maastricht 10k is even more impressive than Adam Yates’ sub-three-hour marathon) then the odds are in favour of Dumoulin getting his career back on track, so to speak, in 2022.
'Very good news' - Engels reacts to Dumoulin's comeback
Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
For all his indubitable talent, Evenepoel’s season will be remembered more for his Giro implosion and public spat with Belgium teammate Wout van Aert than it will for his eight wins and Grand Tour debut following his fightback from injury. He perhaps needed a season like this for personal growth and to recover physically from his tricky 2020, and next year we should see the 21-year-old back to his best.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
He’s young, he won a mountain bike Olympic gold medal after battling back from injury, he was seriously competitive in the Ardennes, plus made his Grand Tour debut before finishing sixth in the Worlds – it’s not as if Tom Pidcock’s first season as a WorldTour pro was remotely bad. Indeed, there were times when Pidcock even out-Remco'ed Evenepoel as the most exciting prospect in the sport. But, like Evenepoel, there’s been a lot of hype – and like Evenepoel, that hype is for genuine reasons – so, is it so wrong to have expected a little more from a rider only one year younger than Tadej Pogačar?
Of course, he came within a debatable photo-finish of beating Wout van Aert twice in four days – and victory in Amstel Gold so soon after De Brabantse Pijl and against such stellar opposition would have been quite something. Just as sixth place in his debut Flèche Wallonne (despite a nasty spill), fifth in Strade Bianche and third in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne would be – for anyone else except Julian Alaphilippe – a pretty tidy return.
'Oh that's a shame' - Tom PIdcock involved in crash at Fleche Wallonne
It was that Vuelta performance, perhaps, where the questions have come. On the one hand, getting through a maiden three-week race in one piece so soon after a spell on the sidelines was admirable. It could even become a key transformative landmark in Pidcock’s burgeoning road career. But expectation was sky high after that gold medal in Tokyo, and on terrain which seemed to suit his strengths, the 22-year-old Yorkshireman seemed a bit at sea in Spain, only once cracking the top 10.
Chalk it down to experience and come back stronger – as will no doubt be the case – and this will all seem rather ridiculous. So best stop digging now. But it’s a sign of just how much of a talent Pidcock is that we can be left a little disappointed by his returns in 2021.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Early wins in Romandie and Catalunya looked promising, and the former triple world champion did win a stage and the ciclamino jersey in the Giro. But things then dried up for the 31-year-old. He didn’t last two weeks in the Tour, and his only wins were routine box-ticking exercised in the national championships and Tour of Slovakia.
Poor Peter. Not only has he lost some of his zip, he’s no longer the force he was on the kind of punchy finishes where Alaphilippe, Roglič, Pogačar, Van Aert and Van der Poel reign supreme. Off to TotalEnergies next season, things may go the same way as when another former Paris-Roubaix winner made the same journey a few years back…
'Wow!' - Sagan caught up in crash at Paris-Roubaix
Sam Bennett, Arnaud Démare, Fernando Gaviria, Dylan Groenewegen, Elia Viviani
Slim pickings for top tier sprinters who weren’t Mark Cavendish, Fabio Jakobsen, Jasper Philipsen, Tim Merlier and – before his Tour crash – Caleb Ewan…
Sam Bennett started the season strong enough, but a knee injury in training put paid to his Tour hopes, opening the door to teammate Cavendish and a rather unsavoury (and entirely one-way) spat with Deceuninck-QuickStep manager, Patrick Lefevere.
But with Sagan off to do battle in French Pro-Conti races, a return to Bora has opened up for Bennett – especially given Pascal Ackermann is heading to UAE Team Emirates, where Fernando Gaviria experienced a fairly humdrum year. Cycling Covid’s patient zero, the Colombian has twice been waylaid by the virus and only notched a single win all year. Four DNFs in his last five races sums up Gaviria’s 2021.
After a decent enough start to the year – with a flurry of nine wins in the space of two months – Arnaud Démare hit the wall (after hitting the floor) in the Tour, and was well off the pace in the Vuelta. So dominant in the 2020 Giro, the Frenchman has suddenly become yesterday’s man, although ended on a high with victory in Paris-Tours.
‘Cathartic moment’ as Démare seals Paris-Tours success
Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen also struggled for form following his injury and ban layoff after the incident which almost ended Jakobsen’s career in 2020. Just three wins for the Jumbo-Visma fastman means his position on the sprinting hierarchy is unclear alongside the likes of emerging compatriots David Dekker and Olav Kooij, and new arrival Christophe Laporte.
And, indeed, no sooner had we written that sentence than the news broke that Groenewegen will join Team BikeExchange on a three-year deal which seems to suit all parties, not least the rider himself who will now be assured of selection for the Tour, where the last of his four stage wins came in 2019.
All seven of Elia Viviani’s wins for Cofidis came in his second season, the Italian turning the page on a 18-month barren patch to display a bit of the form of old. But the 32-year-old was off the pace in the Giro and he’ll be banking on a return a former team (Ineos Grenadiers) will rekindle some of his fighting spirit.
Bob Jungels (AG2R-Citroën)
Remember the multiple Luxembourg national champion who twice finished in the top 10 of the Giro? No, we don’t either. Just three years ago, Jungels was pushing for a top 10 finish in the Tour. But since joining AG2R from QuickStep, the 29-year-old has sunk without a trace. Zero Grand Tours this year, and zero top 10s from 40 race days. The decline is alarming.
There are mitigating factors: first, a back injury; then concussion from Amstel Gold; finally, and most concerning, surgery for iliac artery endofibrosis. A far larger worry for AG2R is the idea that this kind of arrested development may be inherent within the squad: between them, Oliver Naesen, Greg Van Avermaet, Lilian Calmejane and Jungels contributed zero wins all year.
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-PremierTech)
After a barren run, the Dane picked up at least one win every season since 2017, successfully transitioning from a GC nearly man to a stage hunter and classics man capable of winning the hilly Monuments. But the 36-year-old’s last win was that Il Lombardia triumph in 2020 and he joins an already ageing Israel Start-Up Nation squad very much a fading force.
Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo)
The Lancastrian climber was unable to build on his Angliru heroics from 2020, withdrawing from the Vuelta in the opening week less than a year after his breakthrough podium finish. Eighth in the Giro was solid but very unspectacular, and although he grabbed a win in Burgos, he registered DNFs in all three of his final races of a rather rotten season.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ)
The stuffing seems well and truly knocked out of the Frenchman, who hasn’t been the same since his heartbreaking implosion in the 2019 Tour. Pinot didn’t make the start of any three-week race this year, nor did any wins come elsewhere – the after-affects of his Tour crash from 2020 still apparent. The 31-year-old has now been superseded by compatriot David Gaudu chez Groupama, as well as the incoming Michael Storer.
Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal)
The successful breakaway specialist specialised in breaking away unsuccessfully in 2021. Time after time we saw the Belgian try his luck, but nothing – bar a win in Barcelona in the Tour of Catalunya – stuck. He either picked the wrong moment, didn’t have the legs, or was simply outclassed by the younger generation. Still good value for his food pictures and pithy tweets during Grand Tours, it remains to be seen if the 35-year-old can ever spring the same kind of surprise as he once could. A violin in a world of synthesisers – albeit a lovely, vintage, Stentor model.