The Secret Pro on the best and worst of season 2021

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It’s the end of the year which means it’s time for … the 2021 Secret Pro Awards!

It’s big mileage time in training now, and all those hours on the bike have given me plenty of time to think about the past season and what went right and wrong. In essence, it’s given me time to reflect on what was a much more “normal” season.

Of course, things are not quite fully back to normal – far from it. I do miss the big crowds we’d have roadside way back in the pre-pandemic days. That, and the numerous journalists who harassed us at the start, and at the finish, seconds after we crossed the line.

Anyway, I’ve come up with a handful of awards that span the 2021 season. If anyone has any ideas on what shape the trophy should be, I’m open to suggestions.

OK, let’s get on with the first award …

Best race of the season

From a fan perspective, it’s an obvious win for Worlds, held in the heartland of cycling: Flanders. The crowds, the atmosphere, the smell of beer – it was as if everyone had agreed that that was the race where two years of pent-up fandom was to be released.

From a pure spectacle perspective, it has to be Paris-Roubaix, and I mean the whole weekend. It was just a joy to see it held again, and in those conditions, it made for a classic Classic.

But from a rider’s perspective, the award has to go to the Benelux Tour. I bet you didn’t expect that.

Crowds on the Muur at the 2021 Benelux Tour.

Why the Benelux Tour? Well, it’s a race that delivers as much joy as it does disappointment. It’s seriously underrated by the cycling fan base … or at least the cycling fan base outside of Belgium, as the roads are lined with fans for a week.

It’s a great atmosphere. It’s also super tough. You have guys coming off the back of the Grand Tour campaign, guys setting themselves up for Worlds. You’re in that period of the year where people may be scrambling for contracts, too, so all this makes for some seriously tough racing. It’s hard, but it’s also a really friendly atmosphere as it’s not under the spotlight either.

Year in, year out, it’s a race I look forward to. Simple as that.

Worst race of the season

The Benelux Tour. Please see all the reasons above about it being tough, but imagine you’re on a bad day.

Really though, I should give the worst race of the year to a race that is actually crap for reasons other than it being tough on the body. In fact, it’s an easy award to hand out. Step right up, Tour of Poland.

Usually, the Tour of Poland and the Benelux Tour are held at roughly the same time. You do one or the other, and everyone hopes they have the Benelux Tour on their calendar because if you’re unfortunate enough to be sent to Poland, you’re in for a pissy week.

The organisation is an absolute mess. Unless you have Polish staff on the team, you’re in for transfer times between stages that add up more than they should. Why? Well, if you haven’t got local knowledge or someone with the gift of the local gab who know how to chat to the local cops, those cops are sure to dick you around.

They just seem to enjoy being difficult at any given chance. I’ve been on teams with and without Polish staff, and trust me; it makes the difference. The organisation, on the whole, is just a shambles.

The Tour of Poland – not TSP’s favourite race.

Most underrated rider

This was an easy decision to come to. I feel Jasper Stuyven of Trek-Segafredo has quietly impressed many this season. Think about it – he’s had a really impressive season. Some major results mixed with some major rides that didn’t quite work out in his favour. That win at Milan-San Remo was a cracker. It was a savvy, bold and brave move. Many others would have faltered in his position.

Then there was his second place on stage 7 of the Tour de France behind Matej Mohorič (you know the stage – the one with that questionable and slightly dumb victory salute). It wasn’t the result Stuyven was looking for but still an absolutely stellar ride nevertheless. Again, something you wouldn’t have had him down for. It was a solid, solid ride.

Then, lastly, the result that I’m sure will cut him up for a long time but one that he should be proud of: his fourth at Worlds, and in his home town. Sure, he was off the podium, but look at who he was up against. I guarantee you we will see more of him in 2022. He’s proved what he’s capable of and the results that stung will only encourage him more. He’s going to be one rider that steps up a level next year, I’m sure of it. Trek-Segafredo will be rallying around him more than ever, or at least I hope they will.

I’ve also got to shout out Jonas Vingegaard of Jumbo-Visma. Second at the Tour behind Tadej Pogačar, and doing it after the team’s designated leader, unfortunately, had to abandon? Chapeau.

Stuyven winning the 2021 Milan-San Remo.

Most overrated rider

There can only be one winner here, and that’s the young gun Remco Evenepoel. He seems a nice, unassuming character in the media. He is always smiling in the press shots with a slice of pizza close by. But he has a bloody lot of growing up to do.

Yes, he’s still only 21, but there’s been a few young talents the past few seasons that haven’t had the same chip of their shoulder as young Remco does. Much of this is down to the media. He’s been hyped up by the world’s cycling press and even more so by the Belgian media. But he’s still very much a kid.

There have been times when he’s been told off like a naughty schoolboy by more experienced riders in the peloton, who have just had enough of his arrogance and stupid behaviour. Eddy Merckx was right about what he said about fielding him at Worlds: they shouldn’t have. Then again, with so many talented riders on the Belgian team, there will always be the ones who just look after their own interests.

Remco Evenepoel on his way to victory at the Coppa Bernocchi in October.

Best result

Gianni Moscon coming in fourth at Roubaix. Just off the podium, probably pissed off at that overly inflated tire.

Him not winning was a good day for cycling fans. We all know if he’d managed to stay away, it would have really left a bitter taste in our mouths for what was a cracking edition of the Queen of the Classics. You know what I mean: Ineos screwing up Moscon’s tire pressure on his spare bike while he was out front, helping him lose the race, resulting in a moment of collective joy for cycling fans. You could almost feel the sigh of relief on social media when he went down a second time, and the group behind caught then dropped him.

I’ll be honest, though: I’ve never had a problem personally with Moscon in the peloton. He’s a pleasant enough bloke to chat to. But then again, I’ve never got on the wrong side of him; a place I don’t ever want to be.

Craziest moment

It can only go to one guy: Wout van Aert.

At the Tour, the guy won a mountain stage (that, I’ll remind you, went over Ventoux twice), a time trial, and the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées, plus he worked his socks off for Vingegaard. That’s a good season, let alone a good three weeks.

What makes me smile is that he’s a guy that no one in the peloton has a problem with either, unless he gets on the front. You can’t begrudge the guy at all for his victories or the style he wins them in. He’s as nice and calm as he comes across in the multiple post-race interviews he has to conduct. He’s not the type of guy to push his weight around in the peloton, either.

I know it’s probably obvious, but if Jumbo ever decided to go all-in for the green jersey at the Tour, there’d be no way anyone could challenge him for it.

Worst team tactics

This may be a bit unfair as it was from one of the last races of the season, so it’s pretty fresh in my mind. I’m sure there are others that should or could take this award, but I’ll hand it to Bora-Hansgrohe for how they rode Roubaix.

What on earth were they up to? It wasn’t just the way they rode but the team they fielded. The race hadn’t been held for two years, and we knew weeks in advance that it was going to be a grotty, grim day — one for experienced big lads. For the most part, they got it right, but why send Maximilian Schachmann?

They could have rounded out their Sagan period with a win, if not a solid result. The only reason they sent Schachmann was for a bit of experience prior to next year’s Tour, but it sure seemed a waste.

During the race, Sagan crashed with Daniel Oss up the road, and the team had Oss sit up for Sagan. If I’d been DS that day, I’d have let Oss ride his own race; that would have been a great gesture by Sagan. Instead, they got no result at all. A real disappointment from a team that should have been in the mix.

Surprise of the year

This one goes to Peter Sagan and his move to TotalEnergies. Now, many people may be rightfully thinking: “WTF, Sagan to a ProTeam that’s never managed to get the best out of any non-French rider?” But hear me out: I don’t think it’s too bad an idea at all. At least for Sagan.

Sure, I would have liked to see Sagan stick with Bora. He’s been an instrumental part of what has made that team successful and helped develop it from a Pro Conti squad to one of the best teams in the world. Not just in terms of results but with the team’s infrastructure too. He’s now at an age and position ideal for him to become a rider who could guide and teach the next generation. But that isn’t his style or what he wants to do yet.

If you look at Bora’s roster for 2022, you’ll notice that it hasn’t just been cobbled together since it was announced Sagan was leaving. That’s been a work in progress for some time. Team manager Ralph Denk isn’t stupid; he would never pin his hopes and dreams on Sagan forever. He knew he had to develop talent and a team. I guarantee you that Sagan jumped ship because he and Denk didn’t see eye to eye on Sagan’s role within the team. It’s sad, really.

I really hope that things work out well for all involved at TotalEnergies. If Sagan and all he brings with him – the whole Specialized setup, Sportful, and all their expertise – are accepted by Jean-René Bernaudeau and his riders, we may have another Bora-style morph on our hands.

That would be great for cycling. Then maybe in a few years, when Sagan is ready to move into a mentor role, we may have what could have been at Bora.

From all I hear, however, there are going to be a few hurdles to overcome. First, the language barrier. TotalEnergies is the Frenchest of French teams. I’m sure if you cut them, they bleed a mix of Ricard and Cognac. Sagan is in no way going to learn French, so others will have to learn English. It will be a Mexican standoff. That, or a two-camp situation that isn’t good for anyone. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on how it all pans out.

OK, there we go, the awards show is over. There are not as many awards as you get at the Oscars, but hopefully enough to keep you entertained. I’ll just let the band start now, and as the curtains close, it’s time for you all to head off to the after-party.

Until next time, cheers, and enjoy the winter miles.

The Secret Pro

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