Following the truncated, scrambled and often spectator-free 2020 season, 2021 was about as much a return to a normal racing calendar as we could have hoped for while still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Pretty much all the major races took place, back mostly in their usual order, giving us a comprehensive racing season with all of the biggest names competing for all the top prizes.
So, after watching all that cycling, we’ve decided to embark upon the (possibly futile) quest of ranking the 100 best riders of the year, spanning both the men’s and women’s pelotons, and all disciplines across the road.
Despite the UCI’s attempt through the WorldTour, there does not exist an adequate world ranking or league table the same way there is in other sports. In many ways, cycling is like several sports within a sport, with many overlapping layers but no single means of establishing a clear hierarchy encompassing all its various elements.
How do you compare the achievement of winning a Classic with winning a stage race? Or placing, say, in the top ten of the Tour de France, versus winning a minor non-WorldTour ranked race? To what extent is it possible to evaluate riders in the men’s and women’s peloton?
Should consistency be valued higher than someone who’s largely absent but lands one big result? And what about the efforts of domestiques, whose personal sacrifices often go uncredited despite their crucial role in enabling a team-mate’s success?
One of the beauties of cycling is that there is no objective answer to any of these questions, which is what can make debating the merits of one rider over another such fun.
So without further ado, here’s our pick for the top 50 riders of the 2021 road season.
50 - 41
50 Anna Kiesenhofer (30, Austria)
More so than any other rider on this list, Kiesenhofer is here for one ride and for one ride only — her shock win at the Olympics road race, which was a consequence not just of miscalculations from a radio-less peloton, but also her own unexpected strength and resilience.
49 Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (26, Denmark, FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope)
She might finally have broken her WorldTour duck with a stage win at the Vuelta a Burgos, but, for all her infectious charisma off the bike, Ludwig is still better characterised by unfailing dependency than her star quality, registering six finishes between third and eighth during the WorldTour spring Classics.
48 Gino Mäder (24, Switzerland, Bahrain-Victorious)
Mäder began the season as a talented climbing breakaway specialist, claiming stage wins at the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de Suisse (plus a devastating second-place behind Roglič at Paris-Nice), and ended it as a bonafide GC contender, with a revelatory fifth place finish at the Vuelta.
47 Wilco Kelderman (30, Netherlands, Bora-Hansgrohe)
Only those watching closely will have noticed that Kelderman finished as high as fifth overall at the Tour de France, but such stealthy consistency built upon his podium finish at the Giro last year and confirms him as being one of the most dependable, complete Grand Tour riders in the peloton.
46 Jack Haig (28, Australia, Bahrain-Victorious)
Having for years been a talented but unspectacular climber, Haig broke entirely new ground with his podium finish at the Vuelta, announcing himself as a genuine Grand Tour contender.
45 Kasia Niewiadoma (27, Poland, Canyon-SRAM)
The highest ranked rider on this list without a win in 2021, Niewiadoma nevertheless continued to be in the mix of many of the top races, claiming top four finishes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne and Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and bronze at the Worlds.
44 Peter Sagan (31, Slovakia, Bora-Hansgrohe)
A modest season by his own very high standards suggested that one of the great riders of this generation has passed his peak, but Sagan was still good enough to win a stage and the points classification at the Giro, plus a couple of other WorldTour-level sprints.
43 Max Schachmann (27, Germany, Bora-Hansgrohe)
A successful defence of his Paris-Nice title and fourth overall at the Tour de Suisse demonstrated that Schachmann is now a serious force to be reckoned with in stage races, while third at Amstel Gold Race consolidated his status as one of the best in the hilly Classics.
42 Ben O’Connor (26, Australia, Ag2r Citroën Team)
Few thought O’Connor would be capable of maintaining a high position on GC at the Tour de France after catapulting up to second overall following a spectacular breakaway stage win in the Alps, but he further improved on the form he showed earlier in the season in making the top eight at both the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné to seal fourth overall.
41 Tom Pidcock (22, Great Britain, Ineos Grenadiers)
Pidcock well and truly lived up to the hype in his first season as a pro, adjusting startlingly well to the top level in the spring with multiple high finishes in the Classics (including victory at Brabantse Pijl), and returning to the road post-Olympics to place sixth at the World Championships.
40 - 31
40 Geraint Thomas (35, Great Britain, Ineos Grenadiers)
Any doubts that age might have caught up with the former Tour de France winner were dispelled during a run of third, first and third place finishes at the Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné respectively. Unfortunately, the familiar problem of crashing prevented him from replicating that form at the Tour.
39 Emma Norsgaard (22, Denmark, Movistar Team)
Norsgaard burst onto the scene this year as one of the brightest young stars, in both the Classics and bunch sprints. Were it not for her archrival Lorena Wiebes (who edged her into second on four separate occasions), she would have amassed even more than the six victories she did manage.
38 Fabio Jakobsen (25, Netherlands, Deceuninck - Quick-Step)
Understandably, it took Jakobsen some time to readapt to the peloton following his eight-month layoff recuperating from last year’s awful crash. But after picking up a couple of small wins in July, he was back to his very best at the Vuelta a España, winning three sprints and the points classification.
37 Lotte Kopecky (26, Belgium, Liv-Racing)
Following her move up to a WorldTour-level team, Kopecky continued to impress in the northern classics with victory at Le Samyn and second at Ghent-Wevelgem, while also developing a new-found prolific cutting edge, notching up a career-best total of eight wins.
36 Caleb Ewan (27, Australia, Lotto-Soudal)
Before a crash at the Tour de France compromised his season, Ewan had been looking the fastest sprinter in the world, with two Giro stages the highlights of his five wins before July. Also astonished with his improved climbing to place second at Milan-San Remo.
35 Marlen Reusser (30, Switzerland, Ale BTC Ljubljana)
Silver medals at the World and the Olympics plus gold at the European Championships confirmed Reusser’s status as among the world’s very best against the clock, a skill she also used as a foundation for podium finishes on GC at stages races like Holland Ladies Tour and Ceratizit Challenge by Vuelta.
34 Magnus Cort (28, Denmark, EF Education-Nippo)
Cort has always been a solid sprinting allrounder, but at the Vuelta he scaled new heights, showing jaw-dropping range to claim three spectacular and diverse stage victories, and even nearly made it four in the time trial. He also won a stage at Paris-Nice.
33 Simon Yates (29, Great Britain, Team BikeExchange)
The Giro d’Italia has long been something of a white whale for Yates, so for him to finally make the podium (as well as land another stage win) was a major career milestone. He also won the Tour of the Alps.
32 Richie Porte (36, Australia, Ineos Grenadiers)
Upon re-signing for Ineos, Porte reacclimated himself to his old super-domestique role with aplomb, finishing second on GC while guiding team-mates to overall victory at both the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Romandie, before going to win the Critérium du Dauphiné— arguably the greatest result of his illustrious career.
31 Chantal van Den Broek-Blaak (32, Netherlands, Team SD Worx)
Blaak’s last full-season before retiring was also one of her most successful, earning her customary annual big Classic win at Strade Bianche in March, and also achieving a rare stage race overall victory at the Holland Ladies Tour.
30 - 21
30 Enric Mas (26, Spain, Movistar)
The only rider aside from Egan Bernal to make the top six in two different Grand Tours this year, sixth place at the Tour and especially second place at the Vuelta confirmed Mas as one of the consistently best GC riders in the world.
29 Ellen van Dijk (34, Netherlands, Trek-Segafredo)
Having already won the Healthy Ageing Tour and made the podium at the Lotto Belgium Tour and Holland Ladies Tour earlier in the season, Van Dijk discovered some of the best form of her career in September, capitalising on a pan-flat course in Flanders to be crowned world time trial champion, and winning the European road title with a bold solo attack.
28 Remco Evenepoel (21, Belgium, Deceuninck - Quick-Step)
Twenty-eighth might seem a low rank for a rider who has so astonished us with his ludicrously dominant rides to win races like the Brussels Cycling Classic and the Tour of Denmark, but since returning to racing post-fractured pelvis Evenepoel he’s been off the pace in the highest-level races — with the exception of the Worlds time trial, where he took bronze.
27 Elisa Balsamo (23, Italy, Valcar-Travel & Service)
Having shown signs during the spring of gradual development with top five finishes at Classics like Ghent-Wevelgem and Classic Brugge-De Panne, Balsamo made a huge leap into the elite by winning the Worlds in Flanders, a ride that proved she so much more than just a top sprinter.
26 Matej Mohorič (27, Slovenia, Bahrain-Victorious)
From June until September, Mohorič reached a level we’ve long expected him capable of. He followed two huge solo Tour de France stage wins with runner-up finishes on GC at the Tour of Poland and the Benelux Tour, and fell just short of what would have been a first WorldTour Classic win at Clásica de San Sebastián.
25 João Almeida (23, Portugal, Deceuninck - Quick-Step)
A slow start meant Almeida didn’t repeat his heroics of last year’s Giro, but an excellent run of results in stage races — the highlight being overall victory and two stage wins at the Tour of Poland — confirmed his formidable talent.
24 Damiano Caruso (34, Italy, Bahrain-Victorious)
One of the revelations of the year, Caruso defied his age to discover the best form of his career, surprising everyone by finishing second at the Giro d’Italia, and picking up victories at the Giro and Vuelta to be one of only two riders to win stages in two different Grand Tours.
23 Lizzie Deignan (32, Great Britain, Trek-Segafredo)
Illness might have hampered Deignan's spring, but that was quickly forgotten by one result that will go down in history — her astonishing lone breakaway to win the first ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes. She also won the Tour de Suisse and placed fourth at Giro Rosa.
22 Tim Merlier (29, Belgium, Alpecin-Fenix)
In just two years Merlier has grown from sub-WorldTour obscurity to one of the very best sprinters. This season he won the opening bunch sprint stages at both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, and achieved a prolific run of victories in Belgian semi-Classics.
21 Jasper Philipsen (23, Belgium, Alpecin-Fenix)
It was easy to overlook Philipsen’s runner-up finishes amid Mark Cavendish’s heroics at the Tour, but the young sprinter stole the spotlight at the Vuelta with two stage wins, then carried that form to win four Classics in the space of just 10 days during September, extending his season total to a bulky nine victories.
20 - 11
20 Lorena Wiebes (22, Netherlands, Team DSM)
No rider, man or woman, bettered Wiebes’ win tally of 13 in 2021. She began her prolific streak in smaller races, especially springtime Belgian semi-Classics, before starring in some of the calendar’s most illustrious stages, winning two bunch sprints apiece at the Giro Donne and Women’s Tour, before capping her year off with victory at Ronde van Drenthe — a result that proved her credentials in the Classics in addition to the bunch sprints.
19 Jonas Vingegaard (24, Denmark, Team Jumbo-Visma)
There were signs early in the season that Vingegaard had developed into an elite rider, including a stage win atop Jebel Jais at the UAE Tour, overall victory at the Coppi e Bartali stage race, and most notably a brilliant supporting ride to finish second overall behind team-mate Primož Roglič at Tour of the Basque Country. But nothing prepared us for just how good he was at the Tour de France, where, despite being on debut, he looked every bit a fully-fledged Grand Tour rider, excelling in the climbs, time trials and final week to finish second overall.
18 Jasper Stuyven (29, Belgium, Trek-Segafredo)
On the occasions of the very biggest rouleur-friendly one-day races, Stuyven was almost invariably in the mix, whether it was sealing fourth at the Tour of Flanders with a late attack, or missing out in the sprint for the medals at the World Championships. It was his victory at Milan-San Remo that made his 2021 though, and should earn this underrated rider the recognition he is due for being one of the best Classics riders in the peloton.
17 Filippo Ganna (25, Italy, Ineos Grenadiers)
Despite another exemplary Giro d’Italia, where he yet again earned a clean sweep in the time trial stages while also helping his team leader to overall victory, doubts were cast over Ganna’s status as the world’s best time trialist when he finished an underwhelming fifth at the Olympics. Those doubts were dispelled pretty emphatically at the Worlds though, where Ganna — his focus now entirely on the road having also trained for Italy’s gold medal-winning team pursuit in Tokyo — stormed to victory to successfully defend his title.
16 Kasper Asgreen (26, Denmark, Deceuninck - Quick-Step)
Mathieu van der Poel might have attracted more hype during the spring, but by defeating him in a two-man sprint at the Tour of Flanders, having also won E3 Saxo-Bank the week before, Asgreen crowned himself the undisputed king of the 2021 Flandrian Classics. In addition to being one of the top Classics riders, the Dane also excelled against the clock, winning two time trials and coming just seconds short of a medal at the World Championships.
15 Elisa Longo Borghini (29, Italy, Trek-Segafredo)
Borghini’s bold approach to racing continues to make her one of the most thrilling cyclists to watch, and she produced plenty more jaw-dropping rides and major wins in 2021. Her all-or-nothing attitude often results in her achieving ‘all’ (most notably her long-range solo wins at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and GP Plouay), yet she very rarely ended with ‘nothing’ either, as demonstrated by her extraordinary consistency — of the nine WorldTour one-day races she competed in, she made the podium in six of them, and only once finished outside the top eight.
14 Adam Yates (29, Great Britain, Ineos Grenadiers)
Yates’ move from Team BikeExchange to Ineos Grenadiers turned out to be a resounding success, as the Brit enjoyed the best season of his career. He flourished most in the early season stage races, winning Volta a Catalunya and finishing second at the UAE Tour as the only rider to get near Tadej Pogačar, but also competed for overall victory at a Grand Tour for the first time in five years with fourth at the Vuelta, and achieved a first-ever Monument podium with third at Il Lombardia.
13 Sonny Colbrelli (31, Italy, Bahrain-Victorious)
Arguably the most improved rider of 2021, Colbrelli transformed from being one of the sport’s nearly-men to one of its most prolific winners. He picked up a career-high eight wins, five of them at WorldTour level (including a surprise overall victory at the Benelux Tour), plus a European Championship title, while also establishing himself as a top Classics man — a status sealed with the undisputed highlight of his season, the stunning victory at Paris-Roubaix.
12 Demi Vollering (25, Netherlands, Team SD Worx)
Much was expected of Vollering following her transfer to Team SD Worx, and she delivered with aplomb, confirming her as the new star rider both for her team and her nation. Beginning the season without a WorldTour win to her name, she ended it with three of the most prestigious, using her vicious finishing kick to win small group sprints at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Course, and her time trial ability to win the overall classification at the Women’s Tour.
11 Mark Cavendish (36, Great Britain, Deceuninck - Quick-Step)
Cavendish wrote himself one of the all-time great sporting comeback stories in 2021, rising from the doldrums of a three-year drought and chronic health problems to once again reclaim his status as the world’s best sprinter. His four-stage haul at the Tour de France to equal Eddy Merckx’s record was of course the highlight of the year, but his six other wins throughout the season meant he also achieved more victories than any other sprinter in the men’s peloton.
10 - 1
10 Egan Bernal (24, Colombia, Ineos Grenadiers)
Any doubts that the back problems that plagued Bernal’s 2020 would persist were happily dispelled as he won the Giro d’Italia. That resounding victory was a masterclass in how to exercise total control of a Grand Tour from start to finish, while sixth overall at the Vuelta made him arguably the best performing Grand Tour rider of the season, and a podium finish at Strade Bianche proved his Classics credentials.
9 Richard Carapaz (28, Ecuador, Ineos Grenadiers)
Third at the Tour de France (having before ridden excellently to win the Tour de Suisse) confirmed Carapaz as probably the best Grand Tour rider outside of the ‘big three’, even if he was too exhausted to also compete for top honours at the Vuelta.
But the result that really made his 2021 was the Olympics, where he used his explosive climbing and instinct for when to make a move to win gold, and claim one of the most exclusive honours in cycling.
8 Marianne Vos (34, Netherlands, Team Jumbo-Visma)
You might have though Vos would have run out of worlds to conquer in cycling, but victories at Amstel Gold Race and Ghent-Wevelgem Classics filled in some of the few gaps remaining on her bulging palmarès, and the way she chased after Lizzie Deignan at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix to finish second demonstrated her voracious appetite for yet more success. Elsewhere she broke several more records, reaching the landmark of thirty stage wins at the Giro Donne, and becoming the most decorated rider at the Road World Championships with a ninth (in this case silver) medal.
7 Julian Alaphilippe (29, France, Deceuninck - Quick-Step)
An extraordinarily aggressive ride to defend his World Championships title in Flanders was undoubtedly the highlight of Alaphilippe’s 2021, but where the Frenchman really impressed was how he honoured the rainbow jersey with stellar performances throughout the whole season.
Prior to that glorious day in September, he was once again one of protagonists of the spring with podium finishes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Strade Bianche plus another Flèche Wallonne win, and stole the headlines on the opening day of the Tour de France with a stage win and yellow jersey.
6 Mathieu van der Poel (26, Netherlands, Alpecin-Fenix)
Before a detrimental back injury sustained at the Olympics compromised his second half of the season, Van der Poel had already accumulated seven stunning victories prior to July with his inimitable panache, including Strade Bianche with one of the most powerful accelerations you’re ever likely to see.
A stage win and week spent in the yellow jersey made for a perfect debut Tour de France, and though his subsequent crash prevented him from peaking in time for the Worlds, he recovered in time to make the podium at his debut Paris-Roubaix, another cobblestone masterclass following his runner-up finish at Tour of Flanders in the spring.
5 Anna van der Breggen (31, Netherlands, Team SD Worx)
Whereas most riders retire with their best years already behind them, Van de Breggen bows out of the sport still at the very peak of her powers, and as one of the best riders in the world. She was the queen of stage races in 2021, winning both the Vuelta a Burgos and the Giro Donne for the fourth time in her career, and didn’t let up in the Classics either — among her 10 victories this season (the third-highest total in the women’s peloton) were Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a record-extending seventh consecutive Flèche Wallonne title, while she added another Olympics medal to her palmarès in Tokyo with bronze in the time trial.
4 Wout van Aert (27, Belgium, Team Jumbo-Visma)
Men’s cycling hasn’t witnessed the like of Wout van Aert for many decades. This year his unparalleled all-round ability reached new heights when, having hinted at his new capabilities by finishing second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico via stage wins in the opening bunch sprint and closing time trial, he achieved a sublime hat-trick of stages at the Tour de France: one in a time trial, one on the legendary slopes of Mont Ventoux, and one on the grand sprinting boulevard of the Champs-Élysées.
On top of that, he was once again one of the very best in the Classics with victories amid the Dutch hills at Amstel Gold Race and the Belgian cobblestones at Ghent-Wevelgem, and also won silver in the Worlds time trial and another silver on a very challenging Olympics road race route.
3 Primož Roglič (32, Slovenia, Team Jumbo-Visma)
Over the last few years, Roglič has reached such a level of excellence that his victories now build up with a sense of inevitability. That’s what happened at Tour of the Basque Country, where no-one, not even Tadej Pogačar, could prevent him from claiming overall victory. And it’s also what happened at the Vuelta a España, which he triumphed in for a record-equalling third successive edition. From the moment he first took red after winning the opening time trial in Burgos to sealing victory with another win against the clock in Galicia, he never looked under any serious pressure, and the way he coasted through the final week confirmed that the late collapses that have previously derailed his Grand Tour campaigns are a thing of the past.
The only stage races Roglič didn’t win (Paris-Nice and the Tour de France) were the ones in which he crashed out of contention, and the mental fortitude he shows to bounce back from these setbacks is part of what makes him such a special rider and such an endearingly engaging character. That, and a multidisciplinary talent that marks him out from other Grand Tour stars of the recent past — not only did he once again shine in the classics, winning Milan-Torino and Giro dell’Emilia and placing second at Flèche Wallonne, he also crowned his season with gold in Tokyo in the time trial, making him just the third rider in history to win a Grand Tour and being crowned an Olympic champion in the same season.
2 Annemiek van Vleuten (39, Netherlands, Movistar)
For the last half-decade Van Vleuten has vied with her compatriot and great rival Anna van der Breggen for supremacy in the sport, and in 2021 came out clearly on top, winning the WorldTour at a canter with victorious rides in races as varied as the Tour of Flanders to the Tour of Norway and Ceratzit Challenge by La Vuelta stage races. With Van der Breggen retiring and Van Vleuten (despite being a whole eight years her senior) marching on, she is now the undisputed queen of the peloton.
For all her success in the WorldTour, it was the Olympics that made the Dutchwoman’s season. She was determined to exorcise what happened in Rio five years ago, when she devastatingly crashed out when appearing on the verge of victory, and even chose to skip the Giro Donne and La Course to perfect her training. That only compounded her heartbreak on the line at the road race when she belatedly realised that she only won silver and not gold; but the way she picked herself up to destroy the field three days later in the time trial testified to her status as a real sporting great, and at last saw her crowned an Olympic champion, meaning she can now say she’s conquered almost every major title in the sport.
1 Tadej Pogačar (23, Slovenia, UAE Team Emirates)
There was no doubt who the best rider of 2021 was. Not only did Pogačar enjoy a better season than anyone else, but also one of the best any rider has ever had, following in the illustrious footsteps of Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi to become only the third rider in history to win the Tour de France and two Monuments in the same season.
Virtually every race Pogačar put his mind to he ended up winning. He waltzed to victory in races that were significant to both him (the Tour of Slovenia) and his team (the UAE Tour), as well as at Tirreno-Adriatico, meaning that four of his five stage race appearances ended in overall victory.
His wins at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and ll Lombardia and bronze medal at the Olympics road race almost felt like afterthoughts, as if he turned up thinking he may as well give it a go — a truly astonishing accomplishment given the elite competition targeting those races.
With 13 wins in total (higher than any other rider in the men’s peloton, sprinters and one-day specialists included), he’s exercising a level of dominance no man has managed since Bernard Hinault; and at just 23 years of age, the best might still be to come.
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