A Mount Fuji showdown adds a glint of Olympic gold to a 2021 cycling season in which Tadej Pogacar must expect a ferocious counter-attack from the big guns targeting the main prize, his Tour de France title.
Ineos’s defending champion Egan Bernal wilted in September’s delayed edition of the Tour and Jumbo star Primoz Roglic choked leaving the door ajar for Pogacar’s stunning smash-and-grab.
Although Ineos won the Giro’ d’Italia with Tao Geoghegan Hart and Roglic took the Vuelta a Espana, they felt like scant consolation.
Bernal returns to the fray stronger, his back problem resolved, the shadow of Chris Froome gone from the team, and powerful recruits Richie Porte and Adam Yates ready to support him.
“The truth is we are preparing for the Tour de France, it’s the most important race in the world,” Bernal said in a break from altitude training in Colombia this week.
The Tour de France starts slightly earlier than usual on 26 June, and finishes as the Olympic Games start in Tokyo.
The Giro d’Italia runs from 8-30 May, the Vuelta a Espana starts on 15 September and the world championships are in Flanders from 18 September.
Pogacar’s amazing last-gasp win on last year’s Tour de France proved that ‘gung ho’ tactics, even without a strong team, can deliver.
“I have never seen such a good generation,” five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault, now 66, told AFP in December.
“(Remco) Evenepoel, (Mathieu) van der Poel, Bernal, Pogacar… there’s a whole crowd of them!”
The boss of Deceuninck Quick-Step Patrick Lefevere told AFP he agrees with Hinault.
“Who can say why the wine of one year is better than another?,” Lefevere told AFP.
His team won more races than any other over the past two seasons and the Belgian said 2021 may provide as many surprises as 2020.
“Who knows what can happen in 2021?,” he said of his breakout star Joao Almeida who wore the Giro leader’s pink jersey for 15 days in 2020.
“Nobody saw it coming. At 20, to do that on his first Grand tour and finish fourth in the GC isn’t just great, it’s absolutely fantastic.”
High praise from Lefevere who has world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Irish Tour de France sprint-points champion Sam Bennett and veteran winner of 30 Tour de France stages Mark Cavendish on his star-studded roster.
Amid this cluster of talent, wunderkind Evenepoel would still be just 20 if he were to win either the Tour, Giro or an Olympic gold in 2021.
Winner of every race he entered in 2020, his season ended in disaster, however, with a horrifying plunge into a ravine at the Tour of Lombardy last August.
He broke his pelvis in the accident.
Should plans remain the same as last year, riders will be hurried from the Champs Elysees at the end of the Tour straight to Charles de Gaulle airport for a flight to Tokyo and a shot at Olympic gold.
“I can tell you that my riders are fascinated by it (an Olympic gold), they want it and it has a major effect on them,” said Lefevere.
Way before Tokyo, however, four-time Tour de France champion Froome will have an early chance to impress with new team Israel Start-Up Nation.
The 35-year-old makes his bow at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina at the end of this month.
Meanwhile, and in a sign of the times, Pogacar’s UAE Emirates team were all vaccinated against Covid-19 this week in a cycling first.