As 2023 draws to a close, we thought it was time to reflect on an exciting 2021 of professional cycling, by looking back at our favourite riders of that year, as we looked at our races of the year a couple of days ago. There are no real parameters for any of our choices, it's just down to personal opinion. If you vehemently agree, disagree, or want to suggest something, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Demi Vollering - Adam Becket
There have been times this year where it simply didn’t look like SD Worx could lose a race. The tactic the team used seemed simple enough: one of their star riders would attack, whether that was Demi Vollering, Lotte Kopecky or Marlen Reusser, and the presence of one of these names - or Lorena Wiebes - in the chasing group would muck any coordination or collaboration up, and the attacker would win. It happened at the Tour of Flanders, when Kopecky won, and it also happened at the Amstel Gold Race, when Vollering won.
Amstel was part of an historic week for Vollering, the first point in the Ardennes Triple, which she completed by also winning La Flèche Wallonne and then Liège-Bastogne-Liège, becoming only the fourth person, and second woman, to do so in the process. To win any three races in a row is outrageous, but to win three of the hardest one-day races the women’s peloton tackle with in a week is something even more special.
Vollering’s year was not limited to the Ardennes, though, it was a year of dominance, from Strade Bianche all the way to the Tour de Romandie. She proved that she is very much the heir to Annemiek van Vleuten with her triumph at the second Tour de France Femmes, and if the road up to the Lagos de Covadonga had been just a bit longer, she would have won La Vuelta Femenina too. As it is, becoming the first rider to win the Ardennes triple and the Tour in the same year is the kind of thing that makes a rider of the year. And she was second at the World Championships too.
Mathieu van der Poel - Tom Thewlis
The men’s peloton has been blessed with so many wonderful displays of panache this year although one man has consistently performed at the highest of levels throughout. Mathieu van der Poel.
The road world title that he now holds after his win in the streets of Glasgow was the crowning moment of his year. However, his Paris-Roubaix and Milan-Sanremo wins were exceptional in their own right, particularly the latter, although his performance in Scotland was on another level.
His late attack summed him up perfectly. It was delivered with brute force and fury which forced a seemingly unassailable gap. The following crash - which left him with a broken shoe - should have been devastating but it was in fact the opposite. It seemed to fill the flying Dutchman with a burning inner rage to turn misfortune into triumph as he remounted his bike, thundered up Montrose Street and powered to victory.
There are only a handful of riders who could turn that sort of situation into something positive in a matter of just seconds. Van der Poel is one of them, and that performance perfectly encapsulated why he’s my choice for rider of the year.
Lotte Kopecky - Tom Davidson
No rider has had a season like Lotte Kopecky’s. She won flagship one-day races in the World Championships and the Tour of Flanders, finished second at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, won her first WorldTour stage race at the Simac Ladies Tour, and took two rainbow jerseys on the track.
Her consistency has been staggering, from winning her opening race day at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, to finishing on the podium at the European Championships in September.
Still, it was her performance at the Tour de France Femmes that stands out most to me. Yes, her SD Worx teammate Demi Vollering won, but Kopecky was the star of the week. She took the yellow jersey on stage one, and fought for it all the way to the top of the Col du Tourmalet on the penultimate day. She then crushed the closing time trial to jump from fourth to second on GC.
For most riders, that race would have been career-defining. For Kopecky, it was merely an amuse-bouche for the three world titles she would claim over the next fortnight.
Sepp Kuss - James Shrubsall
Backing the underdog is, apparently, a very British thing. But judging by the support for Sepp Kuss as he attempted to hold off his two, more feted co-leaders for GC victory in this year's Vuelta a España, it's much more widespread than that.
Suffice to say, I was one of the many urging on the US rider as he attempted to follow one attack or another from Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard – the team-mates he had so loyally protected and worked for over the years.
I had a certain level of sympathy for Roglič's view that the road should decide. After all, he had trained very hard to be able to win in moments like these. But, cycling is also about relationships and give and take, and Roglič had, after all, already won one Grand Tour this season.
No one would want to see an obviously weaker rider take the win just for the optics. But Kuss's eventual victory was not that. He was strong till the end – often without the unwavering team support a GC leader would usually be afforded – to take a memorable win.
As his hero's welcome back in Colorado would attest, it was well earned, well deserved.
Honourable mention: Tadej Pogačar - Adam Becket
How could we have a rider of the year list and not mention Tadej Pogačar? Sure, the Slovenian might not have won the Tour de France for the second year running, but he still won 17 races. If he hadn’t broken his hand at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, an incident that definitely impact his tilt at the Tour, it might have been even more of an historic year. As it is, who else but him could win Paris-Nice, the Tour of Flanders, and finish second at the Tour in the same season? And he won his third Il Lombardia in a row.
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