A year is a long time in cycling, and 2023 was packed with about as much drama as any season we can remember. We’ve taken a look back at each of the last 12 months, picking a story in each that helped shape and define the season as a whole.
January: Cavendish signs for Astana
The career of Mark Cavendish has never been short on drama, and last year was an especially tumultuous rollercoaster ride. It’s easy to forget that up until mid-January he had not yet signed for a team for the 2023 season, his future still uncertain, until Astana Qazaqstan stepped in. That began what was one of the most emotive narrative arcs of the year, from the high of winning the final stage of the Giro d’Italia, to the low of crashing out of what was supposed to be his final Tour de France, and culminating in the twist ending of his extending his career by one more season to have another crack at the Tour de France stage record.
February: Kool defeats Wiebes at UAE Tour
The early-season races in February might not be considered the most important, but they can set the tone for how the rest of the year will play out, as was the case at the women’s UAE Tour when Charlotte Kool got the better of Lorena Wiebes. Racing against each other for the first time since Wiebes left Team DSM for SD Worx, Wiebes was stunned by her former lead-out rider on stage one, when Kool stormed past her on the finishing straight to take victory. Wiebes gained her revenge the following day to win stage two, but Kool proved the first victory wasn’t a fluke by getting the better of her again on the final stage sprint. This marked the changing of the guard in the peloton’s hierarchy, and Kool would go on to become the first sprinter since 2018 to end the season with more wins than Wiebes.
March: Team-mates Vollering and Kopecky‘s tense photo finish at Strade Bianche
In hindsight, the multitude of talent at their disposal made SD Worx an unstoppable force in 2023, but the way Strade Bianche finished back in March showed how such strength could potentially cause problems. Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky made it to the top of Piazza del Campo together, whereupon they engaged in what many found an unseemly sight of tacking each other on in a sprint, Vollering edging the victory in a photo finish.
The tension was palpable, but the following races put paid to any doubt that they would not be able to work together. Kopecky won the Tour of Flanders while Vollering won the sprint for second in their next ride together, while the same happened in reverse a week later at Amstel Gold. Then at the Tour de France Femmes they claimed an unlikely and even more impressive 1-2, with Vollering claiming overall victory and Kopecky climbing better than ever before for second, the pinnacle of what turned out to be a sublime partnership, despite the rocky beginnings at Strade Bianche.
April: Pogačar crashes out of Liège–Bastogne–Liège
Prior to Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Tadej Pogačar was enjoying a run of form astonishing even by his high standards. He followed up back-to-back overall victories plus a handful of stages at the Ruta del Sol and Paris-Nice with Classics victories at the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, a run of victories interrupted only by a still very respectable fourth at Milan-Sanremo and third at E3 Saxo Classic. He was therefore the hot favourite to add Liège–Bastogne–Liège to that list of victories, only to dramatically crash out early on. Looking back, it might just have been the most pivotal moment of the whole men’s season, as it not only paved the way for Remco Evenepoel to win instead (his biggest result of the season) but the injuries sustained to his wrist and the subsequent two months of racing preparation he was forced to miss might just have been the primary cause for his defeat to Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France.
May: Evenepoel tests positive for Covid
Just when it seemed that the days of Covid disrupting races was over, the virus reared its ugly head again to force Remco Evenepoel out of the Giro d’Italia. The Belgian was in the pink jersey at the time, and appeared to be the frontrunner for overall victory, even if he had looked a little off his best when he only narrowly won the time trial at the end of the first week. The covid positive revealed why he looked a bit off, and his withdrawal paved the way for Geraint Thomas and Primož Roglič to battle for victory, with the latter taking it in dramatic fashion on the penultimate day mountain time trial in front of thousands of Slovenian fans on Monte Lussari. And the outcome of Evenepoel’s forced withdrawal continued to have a knock on effect for the rest of the season, as Evenepoel instead turned his attention to the Vuelta a España, where, despite falling out of GC contention, he helped shape the race with a starring role, winning three stages and the mountains classification.
June: Gino Mäder dies after Tour de Suisse crash
The cycling world was in mourning during June after the tragic death of Gino Mäder, who crashed fatally during a stage of the Tour de Suisse. It was a horrible time particularly for his Bahrain Victorious team-mates, and the overwhelming emotions felt by them was apparent a month later when each of Pello Bilbao, Wout Poels and Matej Mohorič dedicated their Tour de France stage victories to the Swiss rider. The tragedy put into perspective the importance of cycling, but also again highlighted the persisting safety issues that put competitors' lives in danger following similar incidents in recent years, and that need urgently to be addressed if more fatalities in the future are to be avoided.
July: High mountains determine fate of the Tours de France
Both the men’s and women’s Tour de Frances were expected to be close contests between two closely-matched rivals, and in each case it took a single mighty mountain to dramatically break them up.
Jonas Vingegaard had already handed Tadej Pogačar a brutal blow by thrashing him in the stage 16 time trial at the men’s Tour de France, but the following day’s climb of the Col de la Loze was where he defeated him for good. The Slovenian was dropped early on the climb, uttering the now infamous words: “I’m gone, I’m dead,” while Vingegaard flew away to gain nearly six minutes. The showdown at the Tour de France Femmes between Demi Vollering and Annemiek van Vleuten was a more tactical affair, with both riders risking losing the yellow jersey to Kasia Niewiadoma by engaging in a cat and mouse game against each other, but Vollering eventually broke Van Vleuten with an unanswerable attack on the Col du Tourmalet to win by a similarly handsome margin.
August: World Championships route divides opinion
The route of the World Championships was subject to much debate during August, with some feeling the countless twists and corners of the inner-city circuit resembled too much a criterium route than a proper road race, while others argued its technical nature was part of the challenge and made up for the lack of a single genuinely hard climb. What can’t be denied is the excitement of the racing it produced. The cream eventually rose to the top during an ever-fluctuating men’s road race as four of the best riders in the world rode away from the field, before Mathieu van der Poel attached for a spectacular victory; and the women’s road race ebbed and flowed with similar excitement before Lotte Kopecky eventually powered away for a solo win.
September: Van Vleuten’s last ride
One of the all-time great cycling careers came to an end at the Simac Ladies Tour in September, when at the age of 40, Annemiek van Vleuten called it a day. Her final ride may not have been a victorious one (the overall honours went to Lotte Kopecky instead), but it as a fitting send off, as she relaxed during the final lap of the Arnhem circuit, waving to the many cheering Dutch fans who had flocked to the roadside to bid her farewell. She had announced her intention to retire at the end of this season all the way back in the summer of 2022, and a mixed season featuring successes (.defences of her Giro Donne and Vuelta Femenina titles) and disappointments (only managing fourth at the Tour de France Femmes, and failing to win a Classic) did not tempt her to change her mind. Her leaving the peloton marks the end of an era.
Image: Getty Images
October: Roglič signs for Bora-Hansgrohe
Weeks of speculation came to an end in early October when Primož Roglič announced that he had signed to ride for Bora-Hansgrohe next year. The transfer signalled a significant shift in the world of cycling, with Jumbo-Visma losing one of the riders most influential in making them the strongest team in the world, and Bora-Hansgrohe at last adding a top tier Grand Tour rider to lead their quality roster of climbers. Roglič’s departure came in the aftermath of a discordant, albeit ultimately very successful, Vuelta a España, in which the Sloveninan finished third overall as part of a historic podium clean sweep for the team but felt he was hamstrung in his desire to win it for himself. This race was the apex of an unprecedentedly brilliant season for Jumbo-Visma in which they won all three Grand Tours, multiple Classics and almost 70 races in total; but perhaps Roglič’s move away will mar the moment they tilt over to the other side of the peak reached this year?
November: Ellingworth leaves Ineos
As a veteran of the Ineos Grenadiers staff who has been with the team since its inception in 2009 (save for one year away in 2020 at Bahrain Victorious), Rod Ellingworth is closely associated with the huge amount of success that team enjoyed during the 2010s. So when it was announced in November that he would be leaving the team, it felt like another significant break from their era of success, at the end of a season in which they regressed yet further. Not only did they fail to win a Grand Tour for the second season running, they did not manage a single stage race title at WorldTour level, and their sole major Classic came at Strade Bianche courtesy of Tom Pidcock. Ellingworth’s departure is another sign that the team is sorely in need of a major reset, but the promise is of one circulating through rumours of Remco Evenepoel’s arrival failed to come into fruition.
December: Giro Donne Women announced
The very fact the Giro Donne route for 2024 was announced as early as December was cause for relief, given the farcical nature in which this year’s route was confirmed mere weeks before the start of the race. Star names such as Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky chose to skip the race altogether, a damning indictment given how the race was once considered the pinnacle of women’s cycling. RCS Sport have taken over the duty of organising the race, which it’s hoped will bring an end to years of mismanagement and elevate the race back to its former status, worthy of comparison with the hugely successful Tour de France Femmes.