What were the best stage races of 2021?

Would you agree with our top picks?

holland ladies tour
(Image credit: Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

10. Simac Ladies Tour

The overall lead changed hands a total of three times in what was an exciting, closely-fought Simac Ladies Tour, formerly named the Holland Ladies Tour. After Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and Alison Jackson (Liv Racing) each enjoyed a day in yellow following their respective stage wins on the opening two days, Marlen Reusser (Ale BTC Ljubljana) lay down the first real marker with a comprehensive ride in the time trial. Being one of the many riders caught out in a huge crash the following day weakened her position, however, and Chantal van den-Broeck Blaak wound up snatching victory from her when she formed part of a race-defining breakaway on stage four.

9. Men’s Tour de Suisse

Carapaz and uran in tour de suisse

Carapaz and Uran battle it out 

(Image credit: Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Compared to Ineos Grenadiers’ other stage victories at races like the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie, what made the Tour de Suisse a more exciting race was how relatively understrength they were, leaving Richard Carapaz having to fend for himself. That gave Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) encouragement to attack after he moved to within just 17 seconds of Carapaz after a storming time trial win, and the Ecuadorian had to dig deep in order to neutralise the Colombian and seal overall victory. As for the earlier, non-GC stages, they were lit up by the panache of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), who won twice and held the yellow jersey for a couple of days.

8. Paris-Nice

Primoz Roglic Paris Nice crash

Not the ideal conclusion for Roglič

(Image credit: Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Had Paris-Nice finished just a day earlier, it would have been a pretty forgettable race: although Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quickstep) sprinted excellently for a couple of stage wins, and there was a breakthrough time trial victory by young Suisse Stefan Bissegger (EFF Education-Nippo), Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) had been so superior in the previous GC stages (of which he won three) that there was no real contest for the overall honours. However, what had been a procession suddenly became a free-for-all when the Slovenian crashed on the very last day. With the top prize now to play for on what was a short, intense stage, the attacks came towards the end, with the Astana-Premier Tech duo of Alexander Vlasov and Ion Izagirre trying, but failing, to overthrow the new virtual leader Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe). 

7. Vuelta a España 

miguel angel lopez vuelta summit finish

López solos Altu d’El Gamoniteiru

(Image credit: Photo by Gómez - Pool/Getty Images)

Sure, the GC race was a bit of a damp squib, the only real threat to Primož Roglič’s (Jumbo-Visma) stranglehold on the Vuelta a España overall coming from the Slovenian himself crashing after going too hard down a descent. But the many summit finishes the race is famed for still provided plenty of excitement — especially in the final week, during which time Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) embarked on a daring long-range attack on the stage to Lagos de Covadonga, and Miguel Ángel López (Movistar) won on the new, brutal and mist-covered Altu d’El Gamoniteiru, only to abandon the race in a huff and lose his podium place to Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) on a tumultuous final day in the mountains. 

6. Women's Vuelta a Burgos

Anna van der Breggen

Van der Breggen outsprinted Van Vleuten at the top of Lagunas de Neila

(Image credit: Getty)

This was to be the last time Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) ever did battle for overall victory at a stage race before the latter’s retirement at the end of the season, and the contest was a worthy send-off for the Dutchwomen’s great rivalry, with Van der Breggen edging the win by outsprinting her opponent at the top of Lagunas de Neila on the final stage after the rest of the climb had failed to separate them. Yet it wasn't always obvious the race would result in a duel between them, with the overall swapping between three different riders during an exciting opening three days, which also saw one of the season’s most joyous celebrations as Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig at last ended her World Tour duck with a stage win.

5. Giro d’Italia

Egan Bernal

Bernal celebrates his win 

(Image credit: Getty)

Even if Egan Bernal’s winning margin of 1-29 was the biggest in any of this usually very tightly contested Grand Tour since 2015, the other elements that help make the Giro d’Italia such a reliably beautiful event remained. The Dolomites and the Alps were their usual magnificent selves and hosted challenges to Berna’s supremacy from Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) and Simon Yates (BikeExchange), the likes of Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and contributed to the day-to-day spectacle with outstanding individual rides for stage wins, and the Montalcino strade bianche stage lived up to the hype, with Bernal and his Ineos Grenadiers teammates brilliantly laying the foundations for their overall victory.

4. Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta

van vleuten breakaway win stage three vuelta

Van Vleuten's 50km solo break saw her move into the lead 

(Image credit: Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

The four-day long Ceratizit Challenge might be the shortest stage race on this list, but there was still time for the race to turn on its head halfway through. Marlen Reusser (Ale BTC Ljubljana) appeared to be in control of the race, having won the opening stage by a significant margin and solidified her overall lead in the following time trial. Her one problem? Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), who exploded the race when she attacked on a descent over 50km from the finish on stage three. Neither Reesser nor anyone else could keep up with her, and even though she appeared to be struggling in the heat after moving into the virtual overall lead, she found a second wind and powered away to complete one of the most exciting turnarounds of the season. 

3. Tour de France

Mark Cavendish on stage 15 of the 2021 Tour de France

Cavendish's return to winning was a fairytale for UK fans

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The other Grand Tours often produce more engaging GC races, but they can’t match the Tour de France for sheer star power, the benefits of which were pronounced at this year’s edition. Sublime, headline-making rides from the sport’s biggest names occurred almost every day during the first week, starting with Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Mathieu van der Poel’s (Alpecin-Fenix) stints in yellow, and followed by Mark Cavendish fairytale return to winning ways. Add to that the jaw-dropping hat-trick of stage wins from Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), as well as the sheer number of outrageous solo attacks to take stage wins, and there was more than enough to keep us enthralled every day, and to make up for the lack of any challenge to Tadej Pogačar’s supremacy. 

2. Itzulia Basque Country

primozroglic takes overall win basque tour

Tadej Pogačar congratulates eventual winner Primož Roglič

(Image credit: Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The Itzulia Basque Country provided what turned out to be the only see the mouth-watering contest that a crash denied us at the Tour de France: that between the two Slovenian superstars, Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar. As it happened, the battle was as much between their respective teams Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates as it was between the riders themselves. After Roglič had gained the upper-hand by winning the opening time trial, and Pogačar had made some inroads by outsprinting him on the first GC road stage, their respective teammates Jonas Vingegaard and Brandon McNulty attacked the following day, the yellow jersey passing on to the latter. That set up a tactically intriguing endgame, and it was Jumbo-Visma who came out on top as Roglič broke clear on an early downhill while Vingegaard excellently marked both UAE riders out of contention.

1. Tirreno-Adriatico

van der poel stage 5 tirreno attack

Van der Poel's stage five attack forced the GC contenders to work

(Image credit: Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

A perfectly balanced route treated us to the unlikely GC showdown between Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), a heavyweight contest that proved to be the best of the year. Van Aert had voiced his desire of targeting GC at a stage race this season, and delivered on that promise at Tirreno-Adriatico, earning crucial bonus seconds by winning the opening bunch sprint and making the top three in the following two uphill finishes (won with explosive accelerations by Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel respectively), and keeping himself within shot of the overall title by valiantly limiting his losses on the Prati di Tivo mountain top finish. 

The highlight of the race was the so-called ‘Tappa de Muri’ stage the following day, when the race split into pieces in the aftermath of an early (and stage-winning) attack from Van der Poel, prompting the two GC rivals to slug it out in epic stormy conditions. Ultimately, Pogačar gained enough time going into the final time trial to secure a hard-fought, riveting victory.

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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.