It was quite a season, but as ever, there were a few standout rides.
In reverse order...
10. Magnus Cort - Vuelta a España stage 6
When Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo) attacked his fellow escapees 1.5km from the top of Alto de la Montana de Cullera, it looked more like the last gasp of a doomed breakaway than a race-winning move. At this point the peloton were a mere five seconds adrift, and the final super-steep gradients of almost 10% looked perfect for the puncheurs and climbers behind, not a rider like Cort who is known above all for his sprinting. Yet against the odds the Dane hung on, and still had a small gap when Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) launched his sprint 200 metres from the finish, and found a second wind to just claim victory where so many others have fallen prey to the insatiable Slovenian. Cort would go on to win two more stages at the Vuelta, but this remained the best ride of the lot.
9. Caleb Ewan - Milan-San Remo
Not to take anything away from the actual winner of the race Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), whose combination of both brain and brawn made him a worthy victor, but Caleb Ewan’s (Lotto-Soudal) was the ride that really stunned us at Milan-San Remo. Pure sprinters like him are supposed to drift back on the Poggio and hold on for dear life, not, as the Australian somehow managed to do, crest the climb second in line, ahead of such esteemed puncheurs as Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep). That must have taken a huge effort, yet he still had enough fuel left in the tank to win the sprint on the Via Roma — though unfortunately for him it was a sprint for second, after Stuyven had managed to escape up the road.
8. Michael Mørkøv - Tour de France stage 13
One striking thing about Mark Cavendish’s history-making haul at the Tour de France this summer was how straightforward they all seemed — there was no squeezing through impossible gaps, death-defying acrobatics or late surges from behind for any of his four wins. That was down to the excellence of his Deceuninck-QuickStep lead-out train, and Michael Mørkøv in particular, who produced his masterpiece for Cavendish’s Merckx-equalling victory on stage 13. It’s testament to Mørkøv’s strength of mind that he remained calm when the team atypically lost control of the peloton inside the final kilometre, surfing wheels and keeping Cav at the front; and its testament to his pure speed that, seated in the saddle having finished his lead-out, he still had the legs to finish second behind his leader.
7. Ben O'Connor - Tour de France stage 9
In a year of long solo breakaway success stories, Ben O’Connor’s Tour de France triumph atop the climb to Tignes was the grandest of them all. What stood out about this victory was the sheer scale of it — he reached the finish a whopping 5-07 ahead of second-place having climbed virtually the entire 20km final climb alone after dropping Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo) at the bottom, which was almost four times that of the next biggest winning margin (Matej Mohoric’s 1-20 on stage seven). A late surge in the peloton from Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) might have ensured that his virtual yellow jersey never became a real one, but this revelatory ride laid the foundations for what would ultimately be an unexpected fourth-place finish on GC.
6. Daniel Martínez - Giro d’Italia stage 20
There’s a widely circulated picture of Dani Martínez turning back towards his struggling Ineos Grenadiers teammate Egan Bernal in the pink jersey, his right arm raised in a gesture of encouragement after rival Simon Yates (BikeExchange) had escaped up the road on the Sega di Ala. It’s a powerful image that attests to both the physical and emotional importance intrinsic to the role of super-domestique, yet it wasn’t even Martínez’s best supporting ride of the Giro d’Italia. That came three days later, when Bernal, once more put on the backfoot this time from a long-range attack from Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious), was again able to sit on Martínez’s wheel for virtually the entirety of the final Alpe Motta climb, dropping everyone else in the peloton to finish third on the stage, and secure Bernal’s pink jersey.
5. Primož Roglič - Olympics time trial
2021 saw another huge haul of victories and superb performances from Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), not least during his successful title defence at the Vuelta a España, but the standout came at the Olympics time trial. Not only did he manage to get the better of all the world’s top specialists in a discipline that isn’t even his main speciality, he did so on the back of uncertain form, having had to abandon the Tour de France and underwhelmed on his comeback ride at the road race. More impressive still was the margin of victory, which during a storming second half of the course extended to an enormous 1-01 over Tom Dumoulin in second.
4. Wout van Aert - Tour de France stage 11
Of Wout van Aert’s famed hat-trick of stage wins at the Tour de France, the one in the Alps on stage eleven was the most extraordinary. That’s because it came in the terrain this uniquely gifted all-rounder is supposedly the weakest in — the high mountains. He won in style, too, dropping esteemed pure climbers including Bauke Mollema, Kenny Elissonde (both Trek-Segafredo) plus Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) halfway up the second of two ascents of Mont Ventoux, arguably the most mythical mountain in cycling, and soloing to first the top and then the finish at Malaucene to win by a grand margin of 1-14.
3. Mathieu van der Poel - Strade Bianche
From his double attack on the Mur de Bretagne to take the yellow jersey at the Tour de France to his 50km solo win the notoriously difficult Tappa dei Muri stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, several rides from Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) could have made this list, but his acceleration up Via Santa Caterina to win Strade Bianche is the one that lingers most in the memory.
The numbers (which show the Dutchman to have produced a maximum of 1300 watts) back up the impression of the eye, which perceived an attack of barely comprehensible power as he rose out of the saddle and stamped on the pedals, rendered all the more extraordinary by the fact that he’d already dropped the entire field bar Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) on one of the toughest races of the season.
2. Julian Alaphilippe - Worlds Championships road race
The glittering career of Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is full of destructive race-defining accelerations, but what made his defence of the World Championships title arguably the most special ride of his career was that it featured several such attacks. He was constantly off the front, going clear on no less than five occasions — twice during the preliminary circuit in Leuven to force the decisive selection, and then three in quick succession in Flanders to go clear and solo to victory. With each attack he showed a willingness to lose it all in pursuit of glory, yet somehow had the reserves to go again, and ultimately won by the biggest margin at a men’s Worlds road race in 26 years.
1. Tadej Pogačar - Tour de France stage 8
One of the all-time great seasons also featured one of the best days anyone has ever had at the Tour de France. On a cold, wet day in the Alps, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) took it upon himself to attack on the penultimate climb of the stage, the Col de Romme, despite there still being over 30km to ride until the finish. Not one of his GC rivals — among them some of the best climbers in the world — could follow, and his advantage grew and grew and grew until it had reached an enormous 3-20 over the next small group of chasing overall contenders.
We’ve seen yellow jersey winners demolish their rivals and virtually win the Tour on the first day in the mountains before, most notably during the reign of Chris Froome. But whereas Froome always relied on his Team Sky train of mountain domestiques to set him up, what made Pogačar’s exploit so brilliant was that he did it all himself, putting his nose to the wind with both the Col de Romme and Col de la Colombiere still to crest, and storming up both to take an intimidatingly crushing victory that all but ended the hope of every other contender at the Tour.
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