2021 CLASSICS PREVIEW
CYCLING WEEKLY|March 18, 2021
The sets and stars of cycling’s very own action movies

A stage race is a soap opera on two wheels. It’s a daily dose of team-work and feuds, one day focusing on one plot line, another the next with a different set of characters, but always setting up something for the next day’s instalment.

The Spring Classics are, on the face of it, a simpler beast. Everyone is concerned with getting themselves or their team leader from start to finish, as quickly as possible. A series of self-contained movies, with an overarching connected thread, the Marvel Cinematic Universe of bike racing.

Like superhero antics there is a brutal side to these races, be it the savagery of the Roubaix cobbles or the sharp gradient of the Mur de Huy. Ultimately, though, it’s the characters, the complexities that lie behind the victories, that keep us coming back and why we will be glued to our seats throughout March and April. Get the popcorn ready.

MATHIEU VAN DER POEL 26 | ALPECIN - FENIX

Best result: 1st Tour of Flanders 2020

Mathieu van der Poel only started regularly riding on the road a couple of years ago, but in that time he’s already rewritten the rules of how Classics are raced. Whether he’s launching ludicrously early attacks or, as at the 2019 Amstel Gold, single-handedly towing a group to the finish and still beating them all in the sprint, the Dutchman continually defies conventional racing logic, but keeps winning anyway.

Having struck the first blow with victory at Strade Bianche, he’ll again go head-to-head against Wout van Aert on the cobbles, renewing what is shaping up to be one of cycling’s all-time great rivalries.

JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE 28 | DECEUNINCK-QUICK STEP

Best result: 1st Milan-San Remo 2019

Now in his peak years and wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion, 2021 feels like it could be a defining chapter of Julian Alaphilippe’s career, starting with the Spring Classics.

We all know about the power and punch the goateed Frenchman possesses, but could he transfer those skills to the cobbles? That question was answered pretty categorically last year when he went clear with Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert at the Tour of Flanders, and, although a crash put him out of contention that day, he now looks a major favourite, especially for those Classics contested on the bergs and the Ardennes races.

PETER SAGAN | 31 | BORA-HANSGROHE

Best result: 1st Tour of Flanders 2016, 1st Paris-Roubaix 2018

The emergence of a new generation of stars, coupled with the fact he missed the rearranged cobbled Classics campaign altogether last year to ride the Giro, means the usual hype that surrounds Peter Sagan has largely been absent this season – which could mean he is more dangerous than ever.

The Slovak’s superstar status has played against him in the past, as fearful riders have marked him out of contention, but the new big names will deflect some attention away from him this year and give him more freedom to attack unopposed. If he can rediscover his top form, victories could be there for the taking.

MADS PEDERSEN | 25 | TREK-SEGAFREO

Best result: 1st Ghent-Wevelgem 2020

A world champion at the age of just 23, Mads Pedersen has continued to mature as a Classics contender in the two and a half years since his triumphant day in Yorkshire, and can now be counted among the very top contenders.

His main weapon is his lethal sprint finish, which he used to win both Ghent-Wevelgem last year and Kuurne- Brussels-Kuurne last month. Working in tandem with Trek-Segafredo team-mate Jasper Stuyven, who gave him a perfect lead-out to win the latter, Pedersen will cause a serious headache to all the other major favourites, who will have to find a way to drop him.

WOUT VAN AERT 26 | JUMBO-VISMAMA

Best result: 1st Milan-San Remo 2020

It’s hard to think of a Classic that Wout van Aert isn’t capable of winning this spring. He can outsprint pretty much anyone in the world in a bunch finish, is difficult to drop on the climbs, and can produce huge watts over the cobblestones.

The former cyclo-cross world champion enjoyed his best road season to date last year, winning both Milan- San Remo and Strade Bianche; but, despite losing out to nemesis Mathieu van der Poel by mere inches at the Tour of Flanders, has surprisingly still never won a cobbled Classic. That’s likely to change this spring.

ALEXANDER KRISTOFF 33 | UAE TEAM EMIRATES

Best result: 1st Tour of Flanders 2015, 1st Milan-San Remo 2014

Even at the age of 33, you can still depend on Alexander Kristoff to always be in the mix at the business end of a cobbled Classic. The gnarly Norwegian is a sprinter who gets stronger as the conditions get harder, and always seems to have the strongest sprint at the end of a long, tough day racing in Flanders.

Though it’s been many years since his triumphant Tour of Flanders win in 2015, third in the race last year and victory at Ghent-Wevelgem the year before suggests she still has what it takes.

ANNEMIEK VAN VLEUTEN 38 | MOVISTAR

Best result: 1st Tour of Flanders 2011

As a Spanish outfit, van Vleuten’s new Movistar team isn’t exactly brimming with specialists for the Northern European Classics – but then again neither was her former Mitchelton-Scott team, and she had no problem there single-handedly riding herself to multiple victories.

Aged 38, the Dutchwoman remains as irrepressible as ever, and, although the cobbles aren’t her favourite terrain, at her best she’s still capable of riding everyone off her wheel in the Classics. And as someone who once said she wouldn’t even think about retiring before a women’s Paris-Roubaix was introduced, she’ll relish the chance to ride the race she’s waited her whole career for.

Ones to watch

Most likely to win a large sprint

LORENA WIEBES | 22 | DSM

She might have only just turned 22, but Lorena Wiebes already looks like the long-term successor to Dutch compatriot Kirsten Wild as the fastest sprinter in the peloton. On top of that, she’s much more than just a pure sprinter – she can acquit herself over the cobbles, too, as proven by second place at Ghent- Wevelgem on her debut in 2019, and victory at Omloop van het Hageland last year.

Most likely to ride everyone off her wheel

MARLEN REUSSER | 29 | ALE BTC LJUBLJANA

A late bloomer, having only signed for a professional team in 2019, the stage is set for Marlen Reusser to have a breakthrough season this year. The Swiss rider has at her disposal an imposing diesel engine, which she used to win time trial silver at the Worlds in Imola last year as well as gold at the European Championships the year before, and looks very well-suited to the cobbled Classics – and Paris-Roubaix in particular.

Most likely to win from a small group sprint DAVIDE BALLERINI | 26

DECEUNINCK-QUICK STEP

Deceuninck-Quick Step remain the strongest team for the Classics, and this year they’ve got a new joker in the pack in the form of 26-year-old Davide Ballerini. The Italian has a trick up his sleeve that no one else in the team’s Classics line-up has – a world-class sprint finish, which he used to great effect to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month, a result that confirms his status as a top new Classics contender.

Most likely to break clear on the climbs

TOM PIDCOCK | 21 | INEOS GRENADIERS

Even in this era of burgeoning young talent, Tom Pidcock stands out as something special. Looking at his lightweight frame, you wouldn’t think he’d be a contender, but the Yorkshireman’s multidimensional potential includes being able to handle himself on the cobbles, as proven by his Paris-Roubaix victories at both junior and under-23 levels. Look out for him using his punchy kick to launch attacks over the many steep bergs that characterise the Flemish races.

Most likely to launch long-range attacks

SOREN KRAGH ANDERSEN | 26 | DSM

Could this be the year Søren Kragh Andersen makes a breakthrough as an elite Classics rider? He enjoyed his best season to date in 2020 with two stage wins at the Tour, but is yet to shine on the cobbles. With his powerful rouleur’s engine, he should have everything it takes to succeed in Flanders too.

ANNA VAN DER BREGGEN 30 | SD WORX

Best result: 1st Tour of Flanders 2018

This might be Anna van der Breggen’s final season before she settles into retirement, but that doesn’t mean her form has in any way declined. As demonstrated by the rainbow jersey she’s wearing this year for having won the World Championships last season, she’s still the very best in the world, and has already picked up a win this year on her first day of racing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

With the prospect of adding the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix to complete her already stacked palmarès, she won’t be lacking for motivation, either.

LIZZIE DEIGNAN 32 TREK-SEGAFREDO

Best result: 1st Tour of Flanders 2016

Last year saw Lizzie Deignan return to her best, which was no mean feat for someone who took over a year off from cycling in 2018 to give birth to her first child. However, though victory in the Women’s WorldTour attests to how varied and consistent her successes during 2020 were, one area she did not excel in was the cobbled Classics.

She’s aiming to change that this year, stating that she’s shifted her focus this spring towards targeting the cobbles, and was out familiarising herself with the unique pavé of Paris-Roubaix earlier this month. Watch this space.

LOTTE KOPECKY | 25 | LOTTO-SOUD A L

Best result: 2nd Ghent-Wevelgem 2020

Having shown great potential for several years, Lotte Kopecky made a significant leap last year with podium finishes at both the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem. The only thing missing was a victory, and she’s already put that right this year at the semi-classic Le Samyn, where she used her superior finishing kick to win a group sprint.

Easy to spot in the black, yellow and red of her Belgian national champion’s jersey, Kopecky will now be hoping to build upon that breakthrough win by landing one of the big ones in the coming weeks.

ELISA LONGO BORGHINI 29 | TREK-SEGAFREDO

Best result: 1st Tour of Flanders 2015

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