After a tumultuous year of musical calendars in 2020, the Spring Classics returned to their usual spot this season, with many taking place just six months since the previous edition.
For the women, the season started much later than usual, but once the WorldTour racing finally kicked off in early March at Strade Bianche the action came thick and fast. Now that the Classics are done for another year and as we approach a lull in the calendar, let’s look at what we’ve learned from the 2021 Classics and what it means for the rest of the season.
The level is higher than ever
Going into the 2021 season much was made of the fact that the talent within the peloton was spread more evenly between the teams. Although after the first few races it looked like SD Worx had a vicehold on the peloton, the trend was quickly bucked when Grace Brown won Brugge de Panne and — between Strade Bianche and Amstel Gold Race — each WWT race had been won by a different rider.
Throughout the Classics, Annemiek van Vleuten — who dominated the past few seasons — was unable to launch her trademark long-range solo moves with the same success as before. Only in Flanders did she manage to slip away solo. Although it is likely that she is saving her best form for the Tokyo Olympics in July, it is testament to the collective strength of the women’s peloton that she no longer seems to be a head and shoulders above the rest.
Teams are riding more cohesively
The variation in results and the lack of outright dominance by one single rider also speaks to the renewed cohesion within women’s teams. The increasing professionalisation of the women’s peloton means that now, more than ever, riders are able to dedicate themselves in a way they might not have been able to before. The result within WorldTour teams is reinforced rosters full of riders who are nearly all individually capable of winning riding for their leaders.
Never celebrate early
You’d think cyclists might have learned this lesson by now given the myriad cautionary tales of the genre, but Van der Breggen’s heir apparent Demi Vollering of SD Worx found out the hard way at Brabantse Pijl. She celebrated on the line just as Ruth Winder of Trek-Segafredo performed the consummate bike throw to pip her in a photo finish.
Just days later, at Amstel Gold Race, Marianne Vos almost fell foul of the same folly after none other than Vollering herself came in hot to the line with a bike throw causing the celebrating Vos to give a concerned-looking sideways glance. Fortunately for Vos and Jumbo-Visma it wasn’t as close as it looked.
Covid is still causing problems
The calendar might be more recognisable but Covid is still proving to be a menace to riders and teams. Trek-Segafredo have been especially plagued by both Covid and non-Covid-related illnesses with trusty domestique Ellen van Dijk testing positive, followed by newly-signed sprinter Chloe Hosking. Then, Lizzie Deignan missed out on some of her favourite races throughout the Ardennes after a recurring illness and Ruth Winder was forced to sit out arguably her best chance at a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege after coming into contact with someone outside of the team bubble who later tested positive.
Team DSM also fell foul of the virus, having to withdraw their team from Liege-Bastogne-Liege after a positive case, as did the Continental team Parkhotel Valkenburg.
Of course there’s also the continued absence of roadside fans who give races such as La Fleche Wallonne their iconic atmosphere. Here’s hoping that this won’t be a talking point next Classics season.
Women’s cycling is just as exciting as usual
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Classics season it’s that women’s cycling is just as — if not more — exciting and dynamic than ever. The women’s teams really take the fight to each other from the gun and races rarely follow any kind of formula. The myriad options for who might win any given race make it even more unpredictable and nail-biting to watch.
Who is on form?
Anna van der Breggen
Anna van der Breggen has so far been her usual, inimitable self in her final pro season. The current Olympic and World Champion has, as ever, shown herself to be both an unbeatable champion in her own right and an invaluable teammate. Her record seventh consecutive La Fleche Wallonne victory last week was an indication of just how strong van der Breggen is, few riders give the impression that they could win any race should they so choose to in the way that she does.
Demi Vollering has emerged as something of a protegee to van der Breggen in her first season with SD Worx. The 24-year-old is only in her third pro season but has rapidly climbed through the ranks and on Sunday claimed her first World Tour victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege thanks in part to Van der Breggen’s efforts. An all-rounder with a fast finish, Vollering is sure to go on to achieve great things.
Elisa Longo Borghini
Elisa Longo Borghini has stood on the podium for four of the eight WWT rounds this year so far. She followed up a second place at Strade Bianche with a barnstorming solo move to take the win at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and hasn’t slowed down since. A few tactical errors meant she perhaps missed out on a win or podium in a few races but she’s factored in almost every WWT race in 2021.
When is Marianne Vos not one to watch? On her new team of Jumbo-Visma, Vos is the only rider to have won two WWT races so far this season, taking both Gent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold Race. She might not have been able to match the firepower and climbing prowess of SD Worx at Liege-Bastogne-Liege but she’s still on flying form and will always be the favourite to win a sprint from a reduced bunch.
Photo credit: Alex Broadway/SWPix.com
Annemiek van Vleuten
Although we haven't seen the unbridled dominance of recent seasons from van Vleuten, her Classics season on new team, Movistar, can nonetheless be described as a success. A win at Tour of Flanders from a solo break showed a return to form after a slower start and while she hasn't cleaned up in her usual manner, she's been in most of the crucial moves throughout the races and stood on three WorldTour podiums so far.
During the earlier cobbled Classics, Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky continued her streak from 2020 to deliver some impressive results at the highest level. While she narrowly missed out on a win, it won’t be long before she takes one when she gets her chance to sprint.
Grace Brown made her mark at the end of last season as she took the win at Brabantse Pijl from a solo break. This season she continued as she’d left off, taking her first WorldTour win and an impressive third at Flanders. When the time trial specialist comes back to racing she’ll certainly be one to watch.
Equally, Emma Norsgaard of Movistar made her mark on the peloton during March, showing off her sprinting prowess against some of the fastest legs in the women’s peloton.
Photo credit: Thomas Maheux/SWPix.com
Who is still looking for results?
The winner of last year’s WWT overall, Lizzie Deignan has had a Classics Season marred by illness. Her best result so far is 12th at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, well below her capabilities and what she would likely be looking to achieve. Last year, Deignan and teammate Elisa Longo Borghini teamed up to form a formidable duo. Deignan has not raced since Flanders on the 4th April, let’s hope that she can fight off whatever illness is troubling her and comes back to getting the results we’re used to seeing her achieve.
Kasia Niewiadoma has had a great Classics campaign by most standards, with one WorldTour podium at La Fleche Wallonne and second at Dwars Door Vlaanderen in a two-up move with Annemiek van Vleuten. She showed herself to be on fantastic form and barely missed a key move. Her heartbreaking near-miss at Amstel Gold Race after Elisa Longo Borghini stopped cooperating while the two were away won’t be easy to forget, however, but it might just stoke up her determination for upcoming races.
Many thought that Team BikeExchange might be left rudderless this season in the absence of Annemiek van Vleuten, but Amanda Spratt has been waiting in the wings for a while now. Grace Brown delivered in the cobbled classics but Amanda Spratt seemed ever so slightly off the mark during the Ardennes. Perhaps her form is still building and we will see more of her at the pointy end of upcoming races.
Photo credit: David Powell
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig
She certainly has the legs, but she hasn’t had the luck. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig is another rider who has been zeroing in on a result but hasn’t quite managed to follow through this season. The talented young Danish rider is still looking for her first WorldTour win and despite coming close -- including a podium at Trofeo Alfredo Binda -- she still hasn’t quite managed to check that one off the list.
Team DSM haven’t quite given their new sponsors the Classics season they would have liked. While Lorena Wiebes gave the team their first win in new colours at Scheldeprijs 1.1, WorldTour podiums have thus far eluded them. The combined firepower of Juliette Labous, Floorjte Mackaij and Wiebes has brought plenty of top-10 results but they will likely be going back to the drawing board before the next few races.
Ale BTC City Ljubljana
Another WorldTour team yet to stand on a WorldTour podium this year are Ale BTC CIty Ljubljana. Granted, the team are lacking the big-name firepower of other squads but we have seen better from Spanish national champion Mavi Garcia and former World Champion Marta Bastianelli in recent seasons. Garcia in particular has been mixing with the favourites, especially in the Ardennes, along with Marlen Reusser but so far they have been unable to finish the job.
The upcoming stage racing and hilly Spanish classics arguably suit both leaders better, perhaps we will see them on a podium sooner rather than later.