10 things that moved me in 2021: José Been

José didn't have a bunch of favourite new products this year; she did have a few things that affected her, though.

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Like every year, CyclingTips staff recently wrote about their top 10 favorite products for the year. My favorite things in 2021 are much the same as they were in 2020 – I still ride the same bike, use my old bike computer, and have exactly the same shoes. When things are good they don’t need to change.

But I still wanted to write something. So, instead of 10 product recommendations, I came up with a list of moments this year that moved me in whatever way, shape, or form.

(I do want to slot in a little podcast recommendation because I listened to hours and hours of this one. It’s called Casefile and it’s an Australian true crime podcast. Some episodes are 30 minutes and some are many, many hours. If true crime is your thing, give it a shot.)

1. Paris-Roubaix Femmes

The hype was real. There was not a cycling media outlet not interested in the first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. The fact Paris-Roubaix now has the adjective ‘hommes’ basically says it all. Men are not the standard any more. This race was the biggest step forward in women’s cycling in a while.

The win by Lizzie Deignan was dominant, smart, and awe-inspiring. The chase of Marianne Vos was courageous but futile. It was a cat and mouse game between two of the best riders in the world, a battle that goes back to the rainy streets of London in 2012. 

I cried when the riders entered the velodrome. For me, this moment came after a few months of feeling utterly horrible. All of a sudden, being there and seeing all these amazing inspiring and very dirty athletes – from the first across the line, to the youngest (Maud Rijnbeek), to the last one (Manon Souyris) – moved me to tears (and honestly, that rarely happens).

I saw Britt Knaven following in her dad Servais’s footsteps, Alison Jackson visibly soak in the atmosphere, and Trixi Worrack smile across the finish line for what she then thought would be her last race. There were a million stories but most of all there was hope in the air that day.

The future champion of Paris-Roubaix was watching, I am sure of it, and she now realizes that there is nothing girls can’t do in cycling. In the words of Lizzie Deignan herself (because she has more right to speak on the matter): “I raced today with the power of generations of women who were denied the opportunity.”

2. Julian Alaphilippe vs the Belgians

Normally at a (men’s) world championship I check Twitter to see who is in the breakaway of the day. They get a huge lead and then about an hour or two before the finish the fun starts. Plenty of time to ride, clean the house, walk the dog, nap, and then tune in with a cup of tea and see who wins the rainbow stripes. 

I checked the breakaway and saw it had a few riders from countries you’d expect in a world championship early breakaway, like Jambaljamts Sainbayar from Mongolia. (He won the UCI 2.1 Tour of Thailand only a few weeks ago by the way.) The standard scenario. Oh how wrong I was!

There was attacking at 160 km from the line and then four continuous hours of relentless bike racing. We had Remco Evenepoel who did or maybe not completely follow team orders. There was Jasper Stuyven who, in his hometown of Leuven, was awfully close to a medal. There were Belgian fans – so many of them everywhere – and then the man who couldn’t lose but did because he is only human: Wout van Aert.

The Belgian team was – as always – a million feature stories in one. Until Julian Alaphilippe attacked his socks off and showed who was boss. It’s another year of rainbow stripes on his chest and frame for the Frenchman after a dominant performance.

It was the world championship rounding off a perfect year of long-range, courageous attacks, instead of formulaic, boring racing. I understand not all riders are thrilled by this new concept but oh boy, as a fan I just can’t wait for what next year brings.

3. The dogs of Instagram

Demi Vollering is not only on her way to quickly becoming the best cyclist in the world, she is also a joy to follow on Instagram. That is because she shares the most amazing views from her training grounds. She does hikes when she has a day off and she sleeps in a van when she and her boyfriend are adventuring. She has endless energy and a perpetual smile.

That in itself makes me smile but it’s mostly because of her dog Flo that I follow her. Flo is a black and white bundle of joy – she’s a Friese Stabij, an ancient Dutch breed. It was bred to hunt and retrieve, but also to guard the house. The breed standard says they have endless energy. That’s why Flo and Demi are a perfect pair. 

Flo runs next to the bike and when she is tired after 20 km Demi picks her up and carries her in a special backpack to ride some more. Flo follows Demi when she’s skiing. They climb mountains together and camp in the wild. Flo went to a Christmas market with Demi. I think Flo is living her best life and it makes Demi’s Instagram feed such a joy to follow. 

And there is also cyclocross dog Mia Rochette. She came in second in the doggy cross at Iowa but won the hearts of fans around the world with her adventures as shown on Instagram. “Mia adds a sense of normalcy to our life and she keeps me humble,” said her owner Maghalie Rochette. “She sees the same person, always, whether I win or lose.”

Honorable mentions go to Monaco-based adventurer and charmer maltipoo Ralphy (Poels). And a special mention to my own Spanish rescue Ella.

4. Mathieu van der Poel

I think just writing the name “Mathieu van der Poel” in this top 10 should be enough but, OK, I will elaborate a bit more. He and Wout van Aert are the reason I started watching cyclocross a few years ago. Before that I found it to be a weird Flemish folklore thing. This year there was another world championship, a rocket attack at Strade Bianche, and some top-notch racing in Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Roubaix, but in the end there can only be one MvdP moment of the year.

That was stage 2 of the Tour de France, his very first Grand Boucle. He stepped in the footsteps of his grandfather Raymond Poulidor who despite all his success never wore the yellow jersey. It was up to his grandson to set the record straight. Talk about pressure. 

The Alpecin-Fenix team started the Tour de France in retro jerseys commemorating Poulidor who passed away in 2019. On the opening stage, on the steep slopes in Landerneau, Van der Poel couldn’t match the pure display of power by Julian Alaphilippe. He lost 18 seconds but on day two there was a plan. 

There were bonus seconds on the first passage of Mur de Bretagne. The Dutchman grabbed those but it visibly cost a lot of energy. What followed was Van der Poelian. He attacked again on the second and final climb up the Mur. Two kilometres long and 6.8% average. He beat everyone by at least six seconds and Alaphilippe by eight. The yellow jersey was finally on the shoulders of a Poulidor.

The little wink to heaven gave the world goosebumps. What a moment. 

5. Pandemic panic

It was another pandemic year. It was the extra year no one wanted and few had anticipated but it was another year with restrictions. For those of you not following me on social media … it has been a pretty rough year for me personally due to the pandemic. There was so much turmoil in the world and I experienced the overwhelming feeling I couldn’t change a thing about all the pain people (and animals) were suffering.

I was just being swept away by an endlessly flowing river of bad news, hatefulness, discussions, protests, and negativity. It all went down so bad that I developed an anxiety disorder. 

Then I got COVID, which enhanced my already lingering fear of suffocating and dying, then I broke my foot, and then my dog Romy died. It was a lot in two months.

Through it all the bike was there. Sometime I was so overcome by panic that I was afraid to ride outside. I was also afraid to choke and get a heart attack when riding on the trainer indoors. I panicked live on air when commentating for Eurosport, breathed my way through a job in Spain, and tried to keep it together Zooming with riders for interviews. Fear was everywhere and totally not rational. 

Fear is never rational but it is incredibly powerful. Fear is a thing that consumes the body and the mind. Everything hurt from my toes to my neck. It also costs huge amounts of energy when your heart rate is always 10-20 beats higher than normal. The mind never stopped but the body didn’t either. I became exhausted and that was a trigger to more panic. It was a vicious cycle I had to break.

Through it all, though, I experienced the power of sharing. I started sharing with people around me what was going on, I shared with employers, and I shared with social media. Sharing lifted the burden. The panic disorder was still mine and a sometimes very lonely fight, but I never felt alone. There was nothing but understanding from my family, friends, colleagues, and employers, and through my darkest times, windows and doors opened. 

6. Elisa Longo Borghini 

There are few riders that make me smile more than Elisa Longo Borghini. It’s an unmistakable fact she is an amazing bike rider. Her solo win in her ‘home’ race, Trofeo Binda, was just one of the strongest things I have seen this year but she is also – more importantly – an amazing human being. 

If the world would be only half as caring as she is, we would all be better off. Yes, she is a top athlete and wants to win but she is genuinely equally excited when she helps someone else win. And it shows every time it happens. She is the embodiment of fair play and sportsmanship – or sportswomanship in this case – and the best example to young riders.

Elisa is the kind of person always thanking others. She is the person putting a smile on her teammates’ faces. When Tayler Wiles explains in the first episode of The Run Up that Elisa always has her helmet and chamois on at least an hour before the race, you can’t help but picture it and smile too. She is always a joy to interview – open and honest.

Elisa, if you read this: please never change.

7, 8 and 9: the features

Ten things are a lot to come up with so I will just mention three things in one. I am fortunate to have a place here on CyclingTips to share with you the stories of the peloton. There are as many stories as there are riders but these three really stood out for me this year.

Lauretta Hanson is the embodiment of a domestique. She takes pride in helping others win. Sometimes – or more often than not – she is not even in the live broadcast because her work is already done before TV coverage begins. The folks at home often wonder how her races went. Lauretta has one answer to that: her races went well when her teammates did well.

In this feature, my first face-to-face interview in what felt like forever, she explains what being a domestique means. I still read the interview with the smile it gave me when writing it. That’s what I want to achieve. To me Lauretta is an example of selflessness that many could – honestly – use a little bit more of. 

The man of the year was Tadej Pogačar but I wanted to write a feature highlighting Urška Žigart, his girlfriend and bike racer at BikeExchange. I sent Tadej a direct message because, to my amazement, he was following me on Twitter and proposed this. He was super happy it wouldn’t be about him for once, but about her. On my Zoom screen I saw two people who absolutely adore each other, a conversation that started a bit restrained but then became an open and fun chat. I am confident I got that across to your screen to read.

I think I have a soft spot for the worker bees of the peloton. That’s why I also love our series Unsung Heroes so much. Tim Declercq is the top worker bee of the men’s peloton. We all know that action will take a while to happen when Tim and his shining white teeth are visible at the front of the peloton. In this feature Tim explains why he is at peace with being a domestique working for others, because in his philosophy we should all do the things we excel in. He doesn’t excel in winning but he does excel in creating the circumstances for others to win. 

10. People

Amid all the hating, fingerpointing, angry-tweeting, and black-and-whiting that seems to come with a global health crisis, it’s hard to remind yourself over and over again that no one is 100% evil. Nor 100% good, except the one who has good in his name.

I live in faith that God puts the right people on my path and often desperately tries to direct me away from the ones I shouldn’t cross paths with, or invest energy in. This year was full of amazing examples of the right people in right places: a message when I needed it most, old-fashioned post cards, a well thought-out present, a helping hand or a friendly word of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on at the velodrome in Roubaix, a pep talk, or even just a simple smile.

People made this year better for me. Look around you, or scroll through your (social media) contacts and you will know who those people are for you. Let them know what it meant they were there at that particular moment or moments in your life. Sometimes they don’t even realize the impact they had. Pay it forward and help bring some light in these challenging times. 

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