Ahead of the 2021 pro cycling season, KONM is previewing every men’s WorldTour team. We’ll do two per week until all are covered. Obviously, given the Covid-related uncertainty surrounding us all, it’s hard to be definitive but for now we’re taking it as if the “normal” schedule of races will go ahead approximately as would have occurred pre-2020.
Where to start with this elite collection of sprinters, climbers, punchers, rouleurs, time triallists and domestiques? Quite simply, there isn’t a better all-round team in the peloton, and that’s been the case for quite some time now.
This is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult preview to write. It seems almost futile to talk about the likes of Julian Alaphilippe, Remco Evenepoel and Sam Bennett: after all, what more is there to say that you don’t already know? Nevertheless, KONM will try to find something to fill the space.
For the purposes of this intro, we’ll just keep it succinct: DQS will win a lot of races in 2021, and they’ll do it in every available arena.
Let’s begin with the current road world champion, whose most recent race saw him slam into the back of a motorbike. The broken hand suffered in that incident at the Tour of Flanders hasn’t deterred him from returning to the scene of the crime in 2021 and it’s clear he wants to make up for lost time in the Ronde, having announced it as a key part of his programme for this season.
Despite his obligations to the Tour de France as a rainbow-striped Frenchman, Alaphilippe looks determined to forge a path in the northern classics over the coming months. Often, he seems to prefer the white-hot, flat-out thrill of going heads-up against the likes of Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel on the bergs and pavé to the more prescriptive process of a grand tour. This is a good thing for cycling: the Tour is a wonderful event but for many the lowland classics are, and always have been, where it’s at. Alaphilippe’s love of these events is endearing and adds significantly to the overall drama.
On top of that, by now Alaphilippe is surely thinking about a clean sweep of the monuments as a way to ultimately define his career. And why not? He’s one of the most genuine all-rounders in the peloton and if there’s anyone capable of achieving such a feat in the current era, it’s the goateed god of the Bourbonnais.
He’s already got Milan-San Remo; he infamously lost Liège-Bastogne-Liège from a winning position in 2020 but he may well finish the job in 2021; he showed himself capable of taking Flanders by getting away with MVDP and WVA prior to that moto-moment; and he looks tailor-made for Il Lombardia if he ever chooses to take it on while in form. The only real question is whether he has the brute force for Roubaix. KONM’s not going to say he doesn’t but it’s easy to feel that this is the one monument likely to evade him.
All that said, it’s hard to see Alaphilippe shying away from the attention and adulation that awaits him on the three-week tour of his homeland. He’s set for another tilt at the Grande Boucle but what shape that will take we must wait and see. Maybe there are still GC ambitions on his part but many observers might see that as folly. Stage-hunting is likely to be the name of the game.
Anyway, we’re not going to waste too much more time working out what Alaphilippe will or won’t win in 2021. We know he’ll have victories and there will probably be a lot of them. Whatever happens, he’ll remain one of the peloton’s biggest draws.
For an Irish blogger, it was heartwarming to see Bennett taking the maillot vert at the 2020 Tour. Bennett’s consistent and high-profile winning over recent seasons has really helped put his country back on the pro cycling map in a way we haven’t seen since Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were ripping up trees, and KONM is eternally grateful for this. The amateur racing scene in Ireland has been quietly thriving (relatively speaking) for a long time but that hasn’t always translated to the professional ranks, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps Sam’s achievements will help ease this process.
But we’re not here to talk about that. In 2021 Bennett will probably be hoping for more of the same. His first target is apparently going to be Milan-San Remo and if he can get over the final lumps he’s got a real chance of winning on the road to Rome. Ominously, though, the last time a genuine sprinter won the “Sprinter’s Classic” was back in 2016 when Arnaud Démare emerged victorious from a reduced bunch of 31.
So it’s a big ask for Bennett there. Many commentators will tell you he climbs better than most of the peloton’s pure fast-men but climbing adequately isn’t enough when you have the likes of Alaphilippe, Wout Van Aert, Greg Van Avermaet and Mathieu van der Poel blasting over the Poggio and Cipressa at the speed of sound. KONM isn’t going to write off Bennett but it’s not hard to feel that a victory in the longest monument may be a step too far (as now appears to be the case for all outright sprinters).
Bennett has also expressed a broader desire to win more one-day classics, which is something you’d expect to be well within his capabilities. It would be no surprise to see him on top steps in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands in 2021. Still, the Tour is surely going to be top of his agenda this season. He’ll hunt for stages and possibly the green jersey again. With an elite team behind him he’s in with a shot of repeating or even bettering his 2020 feats.
To call Quick Step’s classics arsenal “formidable” would be to understate the sheer breadth of quality littered throughout this squad. Let’s just throw some names out there: Yves Lampaert, Florian Sénéchal, Zdeněk Štybar, Kasper Asgreen, Rémi Cavagna. Any one of those would be in the mix for outright classics leadership at most of the other WorldTour teams, yet they are simply links in the chain at DQS.
And that doesn’t even tell the full story. There’s an entire subcategory of high-powered domestiques waiting to deliver these guys: Tim Declercq, Iljo Keisse, Stijn Steels, to name but a few. Oh, and let’s not forget young guns like Mauri Vansevenant, Mikkel Honoré and Andrea Bagioli hoping to make the step up to leadership roles in 2021.
Honestly, there’s just too much ground to cover there, so we’re going to tighten the focus a bit. By now everyone’s well aware of what Lampaert, Sénéchal, Štybar, Cavagna and Asgreen can do. All will be in the shakeup at big classics and the monuments. So, instead of telling you what you already know about them, KONM is shifting the scope towards Vansevenant (21), Honoré (24) and Bagioli (21), whose best work might be seen away from the headline races.
At first glance, Vansevenant looks to have the physique of a pure climber: PCS puts him at 175cm and 60kg. He was 6th on GC at the Tour de l’Avenir in 2019, the same year he utterly annihilated the field to take the overall by more than four minutes at the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d’Aosta Mont Blanc, a hilly/mountainous U23 stage race. In the first stage of the latter race, he finished within two seconds of Ide Schelling, BORA-hansgrohe’s all-round talent, on Mont Blanc. So, a man for the high altitude then?
Maybe. Or, then again, maybe not exclusively. It appears as if DQS might aim him at the punchier, hillier classics. He went to Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne in 2020, as well as some flatter one-dayers like the Brabantse Pijl, Druivenkoers – Overijse, Brussels Cycling Classic and De Panne (three of which, incidentally, were won by Deceuninck riders).
But for a late fall at the Flèche, he might have been in contention for a win. After getting in the break almost from the gun, Vansevenant ended up solo with 20km to go. He remained 35-40 seconds ahead of the pack and being chased by Rigoberto Urán until about 4km left, when he plunged headfirst into a ditch and lost his gap. After about 175km at the front of the race, it was a heartbreaking moment for the young Belgian, who was caught along with Urán at 1.7km to the line, right at the bottom of the final climb, the Mur de Huy.
Regardless, it was a performance that laid down a marker in the mould of the man who went on to win, Marc Hirschi. Dare we say it, there were even shades of Evenepoel. Vansevenant, then, is one to watch closely. 2021 may not be the year he emerges as a star but that year may not be too far down the line. If you see him on the startlist at a lumpy or hilly classic, make a mental note to keep an eye out for him. He may even get a chance in some of the more minor, week-long stage-races. He’s signed up at DQS until 2023, so it’s clear they’ve got faith in him.
So far in his career at Quick Step, Danish rouleur-sprinter Honoré (who was hit by a driver with a car two weeks ago) has operated mostly in the service of others, but he emerged as a powerful rider in his own right at the 2020 Vuelta. He claimed three top-10s in the Spanish grand tour and was in elite company on stage two, finishing on the podium with Diego Ulissi and Peter Sagan after separating from the pack on an uphill finish.
Honoré was there again at the end of stage 13 after battling over two climbs towards the finale to be part of a punchy selection. Perhaps tired from protecting team-mate and pink jersey, João Almeida, Honoré was only good enough for fifth but had done exceptionally well to be able to stay with a group including Tao Geoghegan Hart, Jakob Fuglsang, Pello Bilbao, Vincenzo Nibali, Ruben Guerreiro and two more DQS companions, James Knox and Fausto Masnada.
For such a big man, it’s quite an achievement to be mixing it with such luminaries. Honoré is no climber but he’s no mug on the slopes either. There must be serious power in his legs and there’s reason to expect him to shine on any occasion his team gives him an opportunity in 2021. Possibly, the situations in which he can win races are limited – punchy, uphill sprints or speculative late breaks – but that just means there is more clarity about where he might be best employed. The template for success is perhaps to be found with the rider who won both the Giro stages mentioned above, Ulissi.
Away from those grand tour heroics, we’ve mentioned Honoré as part of DQS’ classics lineup as he seems like the type who might excel on the up-and-down stuff like Strade Bianche and similar. That presumes he will be freed from his duties as an engine, which is by no means a given. It’s entirely believable that he spends the year stage-hunting in the Giro or Vuelta but KONM is hoping to see him do well outside stage-races over the coming months. We’re not suggesting that Honoré is a superstar in the making but, like Vansevenant, he’s worth your attention this season and could end up with a first pro win.
Like Honoré, Bagioli could foreseeably end up going through 2021 being told to target wins in stage-races, but KONM is choosing to believe that he will get his chances in the classics, even if those chances come in the smaller events. The rider himself has expressed a desire to compete in the one-day arena rather than in the major tours, showing some admirable self-awareness in declaring himself unready to challenge for GC at this point in his career.
Speaking to Wielerflits, the young Italian mentioned Liège, Flèche Wallonne and Amstel Gold as his preferred targets. Competition is stiff for protected status at DQS, especially in the Ardennes, so Bagioli may find himself working for others. Such is the strength of his team that there are probably two or three team-mates ahead of him in the pecking order for most races. He could be feeding off scraps but if there’s an opportunity to sit at the top table, Bagioli will take it.
There’s no doubt that this is a man who will play an important role in the future of Italian cycling and where better to learn his trade than at Quick Step alongside several of his compatriots? 2021 is likely to be another development year for Bagioli but don’t rule him out of springing a surprise this season. A win would be a bonus; KONM just hopes his progress continues.
Let’s not forget this team’s burgeoning GC mini-group. Which, for the purposes of this article (and leaving aside Vansevenant and Alaphilippe, who we’ve already covered), we are considering to be: Almeida, Evenepoel, Knox and Masnada. In years past, GC was very much an afterthought for this setup and, frankly, it still is. Without question, this is a classics-first team, but it’s been hard to ignore what they’ve done in stage-races in recent times.
Alaphilippe’s incredible run at the yellow jersey in 2019 was remarkable enough and few would have expected DQS to follow it up with a maglia rosa charge in 2020. But that’s exactly what Portuguese tyro Almeida produced in Italy last summer, wearing pink for most of the race before succumbing to purer climbers over the closing stages.
By now most people will have accepted that that edition had one of the weakest GC lineups seen at the race for quite a while, so it’s difficult to speak confidently about Almeida’s true level. The DQS man faded rapidly in the face of pressure from Wilco Kelderman, Jai Hindley, Geoghegan-Hart and Tao’s super-domestique Rohan Dennis; what does that say about his prospects in a stronger field?
He goes to the Vuelta in 2021, which seems the logical progression for his career and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him do well. It’ll be a case of waiting and seeing with Almeida, who could eventually end up as a genuine star. KONM has no bold predictions: this is an excellent rider, so give him a chance to develop before making a judgement.
And then, of course, there’s Remco. KONM doesn’t like writing too profusely about the Belgian wunderkind, simply because he only turned 21 a few weeks ago and that’s no age to be carrying the weight of a nation’s sporting hopes. Evenepoel has enough on his plate without a mediocre blogger lumping another ladleful of expectation onto it.
Look, the kid is special. He could even be what’s now described irritatingly as a “generational talent”. It would be stupid to pretend to know how his career will pan out, but hey, let’s not chase the guy into anxiety-induced oblivion. Give him a bit of space. All KONM will say is: best of luck with your season, Remco. Enjoy it!
To close off the GC discussion, a few words for Knox and Masnada. There has been a lot of excitement in the anglophone cycling sphere about Briton Knox and it’s largely justified. He earned two top-10s at the 2020 Giro, both mountaintop finishes, and despite working for Almeida throughout he still held on for 14th overall. That’s admirable form and suggests there’s plenty to work with.
As far back as January of last year, Cycling Weekly was asking if Knox could win a grand tour. That’s a remarkable thing to wonder about a man who, at 25 years old (then 24), has not yet won a single professional race, excluding TTTs. For a bit of perspective, Evenepoel, four years his junior, won nine in 2020 alone.
It’s understandable that people get excited about promising young riders from their own country but that’s no reason to overdo it. Knox is a real prospect and 2021 could easily be the year he finally takes his first win as a pro. As with Evenepoel, it’s important to give him some breathing room. First allow Knox the time to win some races at any level, then maybe we can start talking about grand tours. Considering his likely status as a support rider, DQS may not give him much opportunity to do so but, hopefully, this is the season he gets off the mark.
Oh and don’t sleep on Masnada. He finished 9th on GC in the 2020 Giro, within 10 minutes of the maglia rosa, and at times looked every bit as strong as Almeida. This is a classy rider and one who flies somewhat under the radar, having only arrived in the WorldTour last season at the age of 26.
Don’t get us wrong: Masnada is no Alaphilippe and may spend most of the season in service of Evenepoel’s grand tour pursuit. But he can climb and is probably capable of winning some of the less competitive stage-races. If he gets a chance to ride for himself, he’ll take it. If not, he’s an invaluable assistant for whoever is lucky enough to benefit from his help.
At this point, it’s time to start winding up this preview. There are many more riders on this team that we could talk about, not least Fabio Jakobsen and Mark Cavendish. For different reasons, though, it’s best to leave aside any analysis of how their seasons might go. Suffice to say, KONM wishes them both nothing but success in 2021.
We could discuss Álvaro Hodeg, who’s at a crossroads in his career. We could spend more minutes on Ian Garrison, Davide Ballerini and Mattia Cattaneo. But by the end of this sentence, this piece will tick over the 3,000-word mark and there’s only so much time one can take out of one’s life to write a preview that will probably turn out to be completely inaccurate anyway.
So without further ado, we bid you adieu, dear readers.
2021 team hotness rating: 9.5/10
Transfer business rating: 5/10
Likely 2021 leaders: Take your pick
Potential breakout riders: Mauri Vansevenant, Mikkel Honoré, Andrea Bagioli
2021 kit rating: 8/10