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.
Ah yes, the Rapha-clad kings of Disruptive Marketing. Everyone’s favourite bunch of happy-go-lucky podcasters and content-creators out for a good time and the occasional UCI WorldTour point.
Amid the duck jersey noise and alt-cal #vibes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that EF is nothing more than a plucky crew of social influencers who found themselves cajoled into racing grand tours and monuments in between video shoots.
Actually, this is a group of classy, gifted riders of whom plenty should be expected. Don’t be fooled by their lush moustaches and overpriced apparel: EF Education – Nippo are a serious team and deserve to be judged in a manner befitting their talent.
Notwithstanding the above, rumoured budgetary tightness means that this looks a slightly weaker squad than in previous years. Gone for 2021 are headliners Mike Woods, Sep Vanmarcke and Dani Martinez, as well as others like Tanel Kangert and Simon Clarke. For better or worse, and intentional or not, a changing of the guard seems to have taken place.
As a result, and without falling into the trap of anglocentrism, Hugh Carthy may now be considered the team’s marquee name (though Ruben Guerreiro, Sergio Higuita, Michael Valgren, Alberto Bettiol and, in particular, Rigo Urán, may disagree). The 26-year-old Briton has evolved into an excellent GC candidate, as shown most clearly by his run to the podium at the 2020 Vuelta, the highlight of which was a spectacular win atop the Angliru.
That victory on stage 12 in Spain was only Carthy’s second WorldTour win so there’s still a long way to go before we can genuinely talk about him in the same breath as the likes of Primož Roglič and Richard Carapaz, who finished ahead of him at the Vuelta. That said, he will be among the favourites for every race he targets in 2021, and rightly so.
There’s every reason to believe Carthy will improve this season and continue his upward trajectory. He should win races and they could be big ones; he has to be considered a real contender for the major week-long stage races. In light of Tao Geoghegan-Hart’s Giro win, only a fool would rule out someone like Carthy eventually winning a grand tour – but the latter doesn’t have a team like Ineos behind him, so if it does happen, it’s probably going to take a while.
We don’t yet know exactly how EF will set up their team for the three-weekers (it’s believed Urán will lead in France) but it’s impossible to foresee a situation whereby they don’t give Carthy full support for a GC charge in at least one of them. Maybe the Vuelta, again, will be Carthy’s domain. Whatever happens, he won’t let anyone down.
Guerreiro was impressive at the 2020 Giro, taking stage 9 up to Roccaraso and also securing the KOM jersey. He was hit by a driver with a vehicle in December but there are no reports of a long-lasting injury and the Portuguese rider is aiming to do two grand tours in 2021. He has also asserted that “the team is going to give me a leadership role for some five-day races.”
That seems like a good idea. It’s difficult to see him ever being a serious grand tour GC threat but he looks like a guy who would be very much in contention for the punchier, week-long stage races. Stage-hunting in the 21-dayers seems like something at which he will excel (he already has, in fact) and there’s every reason to believe that Guerreiro is a rider with whom we’ll become very familiar in years to come.
Colombian climber Higuita, meanwhile, was on impressive form in the early months of last season. He finished 3rd overall at that fateful Paris-Nice, ahead of big names such as Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali. That performance came a matter of weeks after he won the Tour of Colombia, beating Egan Bernal, Dani Martinez, Esteban Chaves et al.
The post-lockdown portion of his season wasn’t as stellar but he still managed to finish in the top five on stage 2 of the Tour de France. Eventually he abandoned the race after being accidentally chopped up by Bob Jungels on stage 15. It was a sad end for Higuita but if truth be told he hadn’t been lighting things up and appeared to be largely rowing in behind Urán’s GC bid.
Higuita has already won a grand tour stage at the Vuelta in 2019 and it looks as if stage-hunting in the high mountains will become his stock-in-trade at the three-week races. At 55-60kg he’s never going to be able to mix it with the bigger men in time trials – unless it’s basically a hill climb – so GC doesn’t look a realistic aspiration in any grand tour with multiple TTs. As with Guerreiro – and as evidenced by his showing in the Race to the Sun – he’s likely to be a threat in the shorter stage races and should end up with a hatful of grand tour stages by the end of his career.
For 2021 it seems Higuita has the Olympic road race as his number one target but he also mentions the Ardennes classics as a long-term goal of his. At this point he has no real pedigree in that arena but he certainly has the profile of someone who might thrive at races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège. That may be a few years down the line, however, and it appears that this season will again comprise of grand tour stage-hunting, stage-racing and riding in support of his team-mates.
One of whom will be Urán, who turned 34 a few weeks ago. Don Rigo was pretty good last year, taking 8th overall in the Tour, but his most recent race-win (excluding TTTs) was 33 months ago, in June 2018 at the Tour of Slovenia. It’s not uncommon for GC riders to go through long droughts; that’s just the nature of racing for time rather than top steps. But it’s not grossly unfair to suggest that Rigo’s best days may be behind him.
Still, he’s a wonderful character, a talented climber and an excellent captain. Promisingly, Urán finished ahead of proven testers like Geraint Thomas and two-time French ITT champ Pierre Latour in the final stage TT at Étoile de Bessèges last week, but perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into that (particularly given Thomas revealed he was on a very bad day). Regardless, it would be stupid to dismiss this man completely. KONM likes him a lot so we’re hoping he can finally add to his individual palmarès in 2021.
Away from grand tours and GC, 2019 Tour of Flanders winner Bettiol looks at first glance like the kingpin of this team’s classics department. But, in fact, there’s plenty of depth within this squad and EF should be a force to be reckoned with on the bergs and pavé in 2021. Valgren, Magnus Cort, Jens Keukeleire and Sebastian Langeveld all have documented classics pedigree, while there’s also reliable help in the form of several proven backups and domestiques like Mitch Docker, to name but one.
Bettiol, Valgren and Keukeleire are probably going to be the primary protected riders in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Cort’s number one targets may lie elsewhere while Langeveld, at 36, is presumably going to be expected to ride in support of others – though it shouldn’t be forgotten that he earned a top 10 at Roubaix as recently as 2019.
Danish powerhouse Valgren has had a tough few years, which could be put down to the fact that he was part of one of the weakest WorldTour setups, NTT/Dimension Data. Prior to joining that team he was outstanding, winning Amstel Gold Race and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2018, at which point it seemed he might make the step up to superstar level.
For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and now Valgren will be aiming to rebuild his status as one of the peloton’s premier classicists. With a classics unit like EF’s around him, it’s possible that we’ll see a revival of his fortunes in 2021 (though a broken hand at Étoile de Bessèges wasn’t an auspicious start!). This man can ride and we’re hoping to see him on the podium at big races this season.
Bettiol hasn’t won a non-TT race since he took the Ronde, nearly two years ago. That’s a bit of a surprise – but then again, so was the fact he won the race in the first place. Honestly, we just don’t know what to make of him. Was that performance in Flanders a once-off? KONM doesn’t believe so (and even if it was, WHAT a once-off!).
So, I don’t know, let’s just wait and see what happens? He’s obviously talented and there are so many potential mitigating factors that might have affected him in 2020 that it would be a mistake to judge him on the past 12 months. If he gets a chance in a big classic, there’s nothing to say he won’t take it and add to his CV.
Belgian rouleur-sprinter Keukeleire has been around the block a few times and has an admirable collection of wins to show for it. He wasn’t to the forefront in 2020 for his team but looks set for another packed classics programme in 2021. His only podium in a truly major classic was 2nd at Gent-Wevelgem in 2017 but he is a serious threat in the semi-classics and will be a vital part of the machine for EF at the big ones. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him getting a good result at an E3 or a De Panne.
As it stands, we’re not entirely sure of what Cort’s calendar will look like but according to ProCyclingStats he’ll be at the Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race, as well as Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo, the tour of the Basque Country and some early season French races. He may well be slated to work for his compatriot Valgren at Amstel but KONM wouldn’t be shocked if Cort ended up with a win at some point before the end of April.
Over the past few years much of Cort’s programme has centred around grand tours and he justified that approach by coming up with stage-wins at the Vuelta and the Tour. But he also has a classics heritage, perhaps most notably an 8th at MSR in 2018. Considering the race is on his list for this year, you might expect that a serious tilt on the Via Roma is going to be a big aim for the first part of his season.
Cort can sprint and he can punch. He may find himself clinging to the heels of the elite punchers over the Cipressa and Poggio but if he gets to the final few kilometres in the leading group, it would be a brave punter to bet against him. The Dane is an underrated rider and KONM thinks he’ll find himself on the top step at more than one race in 2021.
Finally, it’s worth focusing on some of this team’s emerging talent. Ecuador’s Jonathan Caicedo (27) is probably too old to be considered a youngster, but he really made a name for himself for the first time on Mt Etna at last year’s Giro so we’re comfortable enough describing him as an emerging talent. Keep an eye on him at higher altitudes in 2021.
There’s also Daniel Arroyave, Simon Carr, Neilson Powless, James Whelan, Julius van den Berg, Jonas Rutsch and Will Barta, all of whom are capable of becoming well-known names in the sport. There’s plenty there for the anglophone world to get excited about, while Arroyave, van den Berg and Rutsch could develop into respected riders in future years.
2021 team hotness rating: 7/10
Transfer business rating: 6/10
Likely 2021 leaders: Alberto Bettiol, Hugh Carthy, Ruben Guerreiro, Sergio Higuita, Rigo Urán, Michael Valgren
Potential breakout riders: Daniel Arroyave, Simon Carr, Neilson Powless, James Whelan
2021 kit rating: 7/10