Jonas Vingegaard on stage 11 of the Tour de France.

6 breakthrough stars of the 2021 men’s racing season

The 2021 season saw a handful of pros take big steps forward.

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With the 2021 road racing season now done and dusted, it’s the perfect time to take stock of what we learned from the year. As ever, plenty of superstars continued to do what they do best, with Tadej Pogačar defending his Tour de France title, Egan Bernal bouncing back to win the Giro d’Italia, Primož Roglič racking up his third straight Vuelta a España win, and Mark Cavendish enjoying a massive resurgence en route to four Tour stage wins, to name only some of the big performances by the biggest names this season.

Quite a few other riders, however, took their racing campaigns to brand new heights, making a name for themselves with breakthrough 2021 seasons.

Assuming you’ve already checked out Abby Mickey’s excellent rundown of the breakthrough performances of the year in the women’s peloton, here are six of the big breakthroughs from the men’s side.

Jonas Vingegaard

It’s not as if Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) came out of nowhere, having finished second at the Tour of Denmark and also taken his first WorldTour victory in a stage of the Tour of Poland back in 2019, but the 24-year-old Dane ascended to a new level in 2021.

Vingegaard wasted no time this season in proving that he was a rider to be reckoned with. He took a stage win ahead of Tadej Pogačar on the Jebel Jais climb at the UAE Tour back in February, won two stages and the overall title at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in March, and took runner-up honors behind his teammate Roglič but ahead of Pogačar at the Itzulia Basque Country. Clearly, he had developed into a contender.

That became especially clear a bit further into the season. Vingegaard showed his form with a strong second place on the final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné and arrived at the Tour looking like a valuable domestique for Roglič. His veteran teammate, however, crashed early on in the event would ultimately abandon, leaving Jumbo-Visma without its top option for the GC battle. Vingegaard didn’t miss a beat slotting into the role, and in so doing, he proved his versatility. He rode to third place in the stage 5 time trial and put in an attack that actually put Pogačar into the rearview mirror – if only temporarily – on stage 11. He finished second on two more climbing stages and third in the stage 20 time trial en route to taking overall runner-up honors, an incredibly impressive feat for a Tour debutant who started the race as a support rider.

Vingegaard’s performance, which saw him finish ahead of everyone but the best Grand Tour racer in the world in the biggest Grand Tour of the season, establishes him as a bona fide three-week contender. Jumbo-Visma will have plenty to think about as it plans its strategy for 2022.

Tom Pidcock

To anyone who follows the sport, particularly those who read English-language media, Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) was already a notable enough figure heading into the season, considering his under-23 exploits as a road, cyclocross, and mountain bike racer. It may have seemed like a foregone conclusion to some that he would enjoy success on the road at the elite level – but that’s been true for oh-so-many promising youngsters who didn’t pan out.

Pidcock beating Wout van Aert in a sprint to win Brabantse Pijl.

Pidcock showed early on in the season that he was a contender on a wide variety of terrains. Still just 21 during the Classics, having turned 22 in July, he finished third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and fifth at Strade Bianche, and he took his first pro victory at the Brabantse Pijl. He followed that up with a second place finish at the Amstel Gold Race and sixth at La Flèche Wallonne. There aren’t a whole lot of riders in the pro peloton who can finish on the podium in a mostly flat cobbled race like Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and climb to sixth atop the Mur de Huy, but Pidcock seems set to do that sort of thing for years to come.

Later on in the season, he set his sights on the mountain bike race at the Olympics. He came home from Tokyo with a gold medal.

He had a quieter Vuelta a España than he would have liked but put up a respectable sixth-place finish at Worlds, although he was disappointed with the showing. In any case, Pidcock’s able to stay sharp across the road season, should only improve as he continues to develop. The Ineos Grenadiers, whose one-day record wasn’t overly impressive in 2020, have to be happy with their rising star and the bright future that lies ahead of him.

Ethan Hayter

The Ineos Grenadiers may have four Grand Tour winners, the reigning world TT champ, and the aforementioned Pidcock on the roster, but winningest rider on the team this season was none of those six stars. It was 23-year-old Ethan Hayter, whose big engine and fast finish propelled him to a whopping eight road race victories this season to go with a British national TT title.

Ethan Hayter wins stage 5 of the Tour of Britain.

Hayter was a very promising junior and under-23 rider, taking stage wins at the Tour de l’Avenir and the Baby Giro, among other events, and he seems to have settled right in to life as a member of the pro peloton. Over the course of the season, he stormed to stage wins at Coppi e Bartali, the Volta ao Algarve, the Vuelta a Andalucia, the Tour of Norway, and the Tour of Britain, and he took the overall title at the Tour of Norway and runner-up honors at the Tour of Britain too.

The Ineos Grenadiers mostly opted to send him to non-WorldTour races this year, but he did put up a solid fourth-place finish in a WorldTour one-day at the Bretagne Classic. Expect the British squad to rely on him more in the biggest races next season and beyond.

Sonny Colbrelli

Unlike the first three names on this list, Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) is on the other side of 30 and has been in the pro peloton for a decade. That’s not really the sort of rider we tend to associate with breakthrough seasons, but Colbrelli had one without at doubt in 2021.

Sonny Colbrelli wins Paris-Roubaix.

The 31-year-old Italian came into the season with plenty of lower-level wins on his career palmares, having taken notable one-day victories at races like Tre Valli Varesine and the Brabantse Pijl, but one stage win each at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse marked his only WorldTour wins thus far. His climbing prowess, big engine, and fast finish made him a contender in a wide array of events, but actual wins in the biggest races had mostly eluded him up to this point. This year was a different story.

In April, a stage win at the Tour de Romandie kicked off what would be an impressive stretch for Colbrelli. From there, he would go on to win a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Italian national road title, a stage and the overall win at the Benelux Tour, the European road title, and the Memorial Marco Pantani before he secured the biggest result of his career in October, a victory at Paris-Roubaix.

That last and biggest result was also the most stunning considering his skillset and his lack of experience. Before 2021, Colbrelli seemed like a solid bet for hilly second-tier races, but a pancake flat Monument that he had never raced in his life? We know what he’s capable of now. Looking ahead, he seems like a potential contender to win all but the most climber-friendly of races, which has to make the Bahrain Victorious team pleased five years after he joined the squad.

Ben O’Connor

Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën) raised his profile with a Giro d’Italia stage win in 2020, but after moving to AG2R for this season, he took his career to new heights as an emerging climbing star. Top 10s at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, the Tour de Romandie, the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, and the Critérium du Dauphiné showed that O’Connor had the kind of consistency to make him a reliable contender on uphill roads, and then he really established himself at the Tour de France in what marked his first career appearance in the race.

Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) wins stage 9 of the Tour de France.

O’Connor jumped into the break on stage 9 and soared to a stage win by a big margin, which also propelled him into second overall. A result like that stands on its own well enough as it is, but O’Connor would fight on to defend his GC position as best he could for the better part of two weeks. When all was said and done, he had secured fourth overall, hanging with or near the top climbers in the race on multiple occasions in the high mountains.

It’s tough to say what kind of results in the three-week races we can expect from O’Connor moving forward after his first ever Grand Tour top five, but his strong showings throughout the year suggest that he built his impressive 2021 campaign on a solid climbing foundation that should keep him in the mix for future success.

Stefan Bissegger

In his first full WorldTour season, Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo) powered to three WorldTour victories. That’s no mean feat.

Stefan Bissegger wins stage 4 of the Tour de Suisse.

The 23-year-old Swiss time trial specialist arrived at EF after having established himself as a promising prospect as an under-23 rider, and he quickly made good on that promise this season. In February, he finished second behind world champion Ganna in the stage time trial at the UAE Tour, hinting that the wins would soon come, and they did. He won the stage 3 time trial at Paris-Nice in March, a rainy mass start stage 4 at the Tour de Suisse in June, and the stage 2 time trial at the Benelux Tour in August. He would also finish in the top 10 in the elite TT at Worlds, and registered two other runner-up rides in WorldTour time trials over the course of the season.

Considering his young age, Bissegger should only improve in the coming years. He now has a full season under his belt, and as he matches that experience with continued development, he seems like a good bet to contend for more – and bigger – victories to come.

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