The 10 best moments of the 2021 women’s racing season

As we await the start of a new year of racing, let's look back at the wonderful season just gone.

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As we recently discussed on Freewheeling, 2021 was something of a transition season in women’s cycling, for a few reasons. The pandemic, subsequent lockdowns, and cancelled races hit 2020 hard – the first season to feature the new two-tiered WorldTour and Continental system – and this year we were still seeing the effects of cancelled and postponed events. Elsewhere, some of the biggest names in the sport were set to hang up their wheels at the end of this year, the likes of Anna van der Breggen leaving behind some very big shoes to fill. 

Then, of course, there was the looming prospect of a newly revamped 2022 calendar featuring as its headliner the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, as well as the addition of more new races alongside familiar events that will (hopefully) return to their usual calendar slot. 

It might have been a year of flux for women’s cycling, but that doesn’t mean the 2021 season was without excitement and drama. Here are some of the best moments in women’s cycling from 2021 as chosen by me and approved by my esteemed Freewheeling colleagues, Loren Rowney and Abby Mickey. 

Elisa Longo Borghini winning Trofeo Alfredo Binda

Spring brought with it one of the longest-running standalone women’s races on the calendar, Trofeo Alfredo Binda. It was the first time in two years the race was held, after the pandemic put paid to the 2020 edition entirely. After SD Worx put on a dominant performance at Strade Bianche to set up Chantal van den Broek Blaak for the win, all eyes were on them for round two of the women’s WorldTour.

But it was Trek-Segafredo who were strongest on the day, firing off their immensely strong domestiques such as Tayler Wiles and Ruth Winder as the race went over the climb towards Cunardo. Binda takes place on a circuit and it was on the second time up the climb that Kasia Niewiadoma of Canyon-SRAM launched a move with Elisa Longo Borghini hot on her wheel. Determined to put on a show in what is essentially her home-town race, the Italian national champion jumped over Niewiadoma’s move and shot down the descent solo. 

Longo Borghini was never seen again for the rest of the race, with a group of strong riders behind simply looking at each other and allowing her gap to grow. After a frighteningly dominant ride the Trek-Segafredo rider crossed the line resplendent in the tricolore with a margin of 1:42 ahead of Niewiadoma, Marianne Vos, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Soraya Paladin, and Mavi Garcia. 

Down to the wire at Brabantse Pijl

Although not a WorldTour race, the Belgian 1.1 attracted a cast of stellar competitors thanks to a course containing some of the climbs that were to be featured in the World Championships later in the year. 

With one 18 km lap to go, six leaders managed to break away: Vollering, Winder, Elisa Balsamo, Juliette Labous, Leah Thomas, and Joscelin Lowden. Seemingly determined to keep the move going, Vollering did the lion’s share of the work on the front to keep the gap hovering at around one minute. 

The SD Worx rider neutralised a move by climber Lowden with just under 1 km to go but it was Balsamo who kicked off the sprint in earnest. As the Italian faded, Winder and Vollering passed her on either side coming to the line in unison but it was the Dutch rider who threw up her fist in celebration.

Excruciatingly, as the minutes passed and the commissaires scrutinised the photo finish it was determined that the US national champ had in fact taken the victory by a hair’s breadth thanks to a perfectly timed bike throw – testament to the experience of Winder, and a lesson learned for the 24-year-old Vollering. 

A record-breaking seventh La Fleche Wallonne for Anna van der Breggen

On to the Ardennes and the spotlight was on Anna van der Breggen to win a record seventh edition (in a row!) of Flèche Wallonne before retiring at the end of the season. After some illness in the days before, Van der Breggen played down her chances, emphasising the fact that her team had plenty of options on the Mur de Huy. 

During the race, Van der Breggen’s team were forced to work hard after missing the first break, with Karol-Ann Canuel putting in a huge effort to pull the move back before the first time up the Mur – but to no avail. 

On the second lap, however, the break started to tire and it wasn’t long before the peloton was whittled down to a select group including the reigning Queen of the Mur. Ruth Winder made a dangerous move just before the final approach to the climb and it was left to Van der Breggen’s teammate, Vollering, to reel the American back in before the foot of the iconic hill. 

Van der Breggen was looking in control as the group caught Winder at the foot of the Mur and led the entire way up as riders fell victim to her pace. Only Niewiadoma challenged her with some tenacious digs at the world champion but it wasn’t enough to stop the Dutchwoman from crossing the line first and cementing her place in history. 

Van der Breggen then turning superdomestique for Vollering’s first WWT win 

Abby profiled this moment wonderfully in a piece entitled ‘The selfless brilliance of Anna van der Breggen’ which perfectly encapsulates the rare but fantastic sight of seeing the world champion sacrifice her own chances for a teammate. 

With her SD Worx teammates Niamh Fisher Black and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio having already spent a large chunk of Liège-Bastogne-Liège off the front, Van der Breggen came through and obliterated what was already a reduced peloton over the final climb. 

The move was so strong that none other than Marianne Vos found herself distanced, leaving a group of five including Vollering, Niewiadoma, Longo Borghini, and Annemiek van Vleuten. Van der Breggen positioned herself on the front and continued to stretch out the group for most of the final 10 km after which she even led out the sprint, paving the way for Vollering to take her first WWT win. 

Elise Chabbey outsprinting Lizzie Deignan on home soil

If you had to place a bet on who might win a sprint between Lizzie Deignan and Elise Chabbey the safest call would usually be the Brit who is known as a punchy rider.

On stage 1 of the first women’s Tour du Suisse, however, it was Chabbey who took the day. The Swiss national champion spent most of stage in the break with Deignan, her teammate Mikayla Harvey, and her two compatriots Marlen Reusser and Jolanda Neff, who managed to hold off a second chase group. 

Over the past few seasons Chabbey has made a name for herself as a tenacious and aggressive rider. True to form, with 15 km to go Chabbey attacked the break, taking Deignan with her. The pair stayed away to the line with Deignan looking likely to edge the Canyon-SRAM rider out in a fast finish. However it was Chabbey’s impressive tactics in forcing Deignan to open her sprint early that meant the former world champion all but led Chabbey out and the Swiss rider came around her to take the win on home soil.

Coryn Labecki’s emotional win at the Giro Donne

We didn’t see as much of the Giro Donne as we were promised or would have liked, but the final stage brought some memorable images. 

After losing out to Emma Norsgaard on stage 6, Coryn Labecki (neé Rivera) seemed determined to take her chance on the final stage of the 10-day race. The American sprinter got herself into a break with race leader Van der Breggen, Chabbey, Deignan, and Longo Borghini, and the five riders arrived at the final kilometre with a 40-second advantage. Deignan led out the sprint but Labecki was too fast, carrying more speed to the line and taking the stage. 

In her post-race interview, Labecki dedicated the win to her father, who had recently passed away from COVID-19, and to her fiance. “[My dad] was watching me from above, and that was for my dad,” Rivera said at the finish. “It’s my fiancé’s birthday and I’m not home so that was for my two guys.

“I feel really strong and I have a lot of motivation, I had an angel on my shoulder today.” 

Anna Kiesenhofer winning the Olympic road race 

Who could forget the day that an unassuming Austrian mathematician out-foxed everyone to take the gold medal. While it’s true that failed tactics from the Dutch team (and others) contributed to her win, Anna Kiesenhofer well and truly earned her gold medal in Tokyo. 

An ‘amateur’ rider through technicality alone, Kiesenhofer has a pedigree in the sport that includes a win on Mont Ventoux and some impressive ITT performances. Having spent just a fraction of a season on a pro team in 2017 the Austrian realised that riding in the pro peloton was not for her and stepped away from road racing to focus mainly on riding against the clock. 

It was her aversion to being in the bunch that spurred the 30-year-old into instigating the break – which went away from the gun – taking Anna Plichta, Omer Shapira, Carla Oberholzer, and Vera Looser with her. Having spent the months and years leading up to the race carefully studying data including temperature acclimation, Kiesenhofer knew exactly what she was in for and rode a composed race. As her breakaway companions tired, she attacked and rode away, time trialling her way to the line and eventually claiming gold by a margin of 1:15. 

It was a win that put women’s cycling on the world stage at a global event and reclaimed the essence of the Olympic Games. Characteristically, Kiesenhofer maintains her lack of interest in going pro and her advice to young riders is “don’t trust authority.”  

Ellen van Dijk finally winning her second elite ITT world title 

As our Unsung Heroes series demonstrates, we love to highlight those who spend much of the season working for others, and it’s always satisfying to see them take individual success. 

Ellen van Dijk is a textbook example of a rider who spends much of the season emptying the tank on behalf of her teammates. When she is able to ride for herself, however, she shows just how strong she is and what she is capable of as an individual rider, especially in time trials. 

After winning the European Championships road race in September, it was clear that the Dutchwoman was carrying incredible form going into the World Championships in Flanders later that month. She had won the ITT world title once before – in Firenze in 2013 – but had never managed to reclaim the title since, despite coming close. 

The 30.3 km flat and windy Flanders course was perfectly suited to Van Dijk’s strengths and the powerful Dutchwoman covered it in a time of 36:05 with an impressive average speed of 50 km/h. 

Van Dijk went down the ramp almost an hour ahead of the favourites meaning she had a long and tense wait in the hot seat before discovering that she had won. 

“For me, time trials are my favourite discipline and something I love with all my heart,” she said after the race. “It feels like my discipline and I knew this was going to be a really good course for me. I put everything into this, and that it worked for me is a dream come true.”

Elisa Balsamo winning the Road World Championships

After four years in Dutch hands, the women’s rainbow jersey now belongs to Italy. 

Huge crowds greeted the riders in the cycling heartland of Flanders as they traversed the two hilly circuits around Leuven. The Dutch team played multiple cards throughout the race with Van Vleuten especially active and defending champion Van der Breggen, in her final race as a pro, taking on a domestique role. Ever present at the front of the race were the blue jerseys of the Italians. After a 13 km solo move in the closing stages of the race from Garcia it was Van Vleuten who took on the work to pull her back and the Dutch continued to fire off riders.

Despite various attempts from the Dutch and others at establishing a move, a reduced group came into the finale of the race together. Niewiadoma put in some valiant attacks given her lack of teammates including on the final ascent of the steep Sint Antoniusberg, but it was the Italians who managed to line up their leadout for Balsamo.

Longo Borghini was the last rider to lead out the 23-year-old who was up against Vos in the final sprint. Despite going head-to-head with the GOAT, the young Italian kept her cool and won the rainbow stripes.

The first ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes

Last (chronologically) but absolutely not least. After more than a year of anticipation since it was first announced, the women’s peloton was finally able to race its own Paris-Roubaix. 

The race may have been a shortened version of the long-established men’s Hell of the North but it still retained much of the character including many of the iconic cobbled sectors.

Rain greeted the riders for the first time since 2002 making for a muddy and slippery race. With 80 km still to race, Deignan was the first rider to hit the first cobbled sector, the Hornaing. By the end of it she had a lead over the rest of the shattered peloton which she would maintain for the remainder of the race while riders behind her fell victim to the ice-like surface.

Despite a valiant pursuit from Vos, Deignan rode into the iconic Roubaix Velodrome alone to take an historic victory. 

It was a seminal moment for the women’s peloton. Finally, they were able to share in the rich history and culture of a race that enthrals and inspires fans. And, yes, that includes the showers

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