Dream team of the year: Who were the eight best female riders of 2021?
We pick out the eight riders who stood out the most this season
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The 2021 season has drawn to a close - and what a season it was. We were finally treated to the inaugural Paris-Roubix Femmes, alongside an Olympic year with a surprise breakaway road race win and a dominant time trial performance.
It's also a year where we've seen some notable retirements, with the likes of Anna van der Breggen hanging up her racing shoes, albeit not departing from the scene at all as she takes on the role of directeur sportif with Boels-Dolmans.
With so many incredible performances, it's been a push to choose the members of our 'dream team', but we've finally arrived at the eight names we'd choose if we could create our own pick'n'mix roster.
Leader: Annemiek van Vleuten
Van Vleuten’s dominance in 2021 was not limited to one discipline, but spread out to every corner of the calendar. She triumphed in the overall classification at three of the four stage races she competed in, including a resounding victory at Ceratizit Challenge by Vuelta; wins at the Tour of Flanders and San Sebastian meant that no rider won more World Tour classics than her; and she was crowned Olympic champion at the time trial in Tokyo. There’s simply nothing in cycling that can compare with her attacks, which are characterised not just by the speed of the acceleration, but for the way she is able to sustain such power for so long, until anyone who has just about managed to hang on is forced to give up the ghost too.
Climber: Anna van der Breggen
The women’s peloton is still largely denied the chance to take on the huge mountain passes that the men regularly race on, but whenever there was a high-altitude mountain top finish did feature in 2021, it tended to be Anna van der Breggen who conquered it. She just about came out on top in a closely fought duel with Van Vleuten on the slopes of Lagunas de Neila to seal overall victory at the Vuelta a Burgos, and then at the Giro Donne, in the absence of her great adversary and with the support of her peerless team, was unrivalled on the Monte Matajur climb to win by over a minute, a victory that laid the foundations for another overall victory there too.
Sprinter: Lorena Wiebes
Wiebes topped the season win list for the first time in her career with a personal best return of 13 victories, and that stellar achievement only tells part of the story of how commanding she was in the bunch sprints. Extraordinarily, she enjoyed an almost 100% success rate in the bunch sprints she competed in: 12 of her 13 victories came in sprint finishes, only once being edged into second place by Elisa Balsamo. For the most part she easily had the beating of the likes of Balsamo, Jolien d’Hoore, Lotte Kopecky and especially Emma Nosrgaard, who she condemned to second-place on four separate occasions.
Classics specialist: Elisa Longo Borghini
The tricolore jersey worn by Italian national champion Longo Borghini was a common sight in the classics throughout the whole season, as she animated and placed highly in virtually all of the major one-day races. During the spring, a runner-up finish at Strade Bianche was followed a week later by an aggressive victory at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and later podium spots in the final two Ardennes Classics; then later in the year she yet more big results, most notably victory with another solo move at GP de Plouay, a bronze medal at the Olympics, and a podium finish on the historical occasion of the inaugural Paris-Roubaix. Even when she places way off the podium she still tends to be heavily involved — as with her 33rd-place finish Gent-Wevelgem, which she led with just 300m to go before being caught — which is what makes Borghini such a special rider.
Puncheur: Marianne Vos
Her days of being a top climber and winner of tough stage races may be over, but Vos remains the most devastating puncheur in the peloton, something she has in this late stage of her career specialised in and mastered. Five of her seven season wins came via sprints from small groups in races split by rolling terrain, including the classics Amstel Gold and Gent-Wevelgem and stages at the Giro Donne. That powerful punchy kick of hers also saw her sprint to various other high-placings, such as silver medal at the World Championships and podium finishes at La Course and Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
Time trialist: Ellen van Dijk
It might seem strange to name the best time trialist of the year a rider who was not selected to represent her nation against the clock at the Olympics, but whenever Van Dijk had a chance to race against the clock in Dutch colours, she excelled. After narrowly missing out to Marlen Reusser at the European Championships in September, Van Dijk got the better of the Swiss rider at the big one, the World Championships, where she also defeated Olympic champion Annemiek van Vleuten, one of the Dutch riders chosen ahead of her for the Olympics. On top of that, Van Dijk also won time trials at the Healthy Ageing Tour and Lotto Belgium Tour, plus another three runner-up finishes.
Domestique: Leah Thomas
Annemiek van Vleuten is recognised as the most talented rider in the peloton, but there were concerns that her new Movistar team lacked the necessary talent to support her; sure, she might be the strongest rider, but would she have enough protection when the stars-studded rosters of SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo work in tandem to defeat her? Step forward Leah Thomas, another new signing for Movistar who played a crucial role in assisting Van Vleuten in the endgame of the big races and setting her up for victory. She made the selections to stick with her leader in the major spring classics, including Van Vleuten’s biggest win at the Tour of Flanders where Thomas martialled the chasing group while the Dutchwoman was soloing to victory, and was her top domestique for the overall victories at the Tour of Norway and Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta.
All-rounder: Demi Vollering
No rider won as wide a variety of races in 2021 as Demi Vollering. The Ardennes Classics were her happiest hunting ground, with a breakthrough Liege-Bastogne-Liege victory coming in the wake of near-miss second places at Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold, but she also impressed on the cobbles with fifth at the Tour of Flanders, and won La Course. What really set her apart from most of the other one-day stars in the peloton though was how well she also went in stage races — she placed third in the most difficult of all, the Giro Donne, where only the best, pure climbers are able to compete, while also using her time trialing skills to win the GC at the Women’s Tour.
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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.
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