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My Personal Highlights of the 2022 Season by Matt Stephens

By Matt Stephens

I think it’s fair to say that from whatever perspective you look back upon the 2022 cycling season, the general consensus, distilled into one word, would be along the lines of ‘superb’, ‘outstanding’, ‘historic’  or ‘explosive.’ Whatever one word you would choose to sum up this year, we can all agree it was a season for the ages, for so many different reasons. So, rather than go through 2022 month by month, listing results, rides and races as most reviews tend to do, I’m going to pick out my own personal highlights from my perspective not just as a commentator but more importantly as a fan.

So, to kick things off, I’m going to throw convention out of the window and start in July with the historic and long overdue Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Along with pretty much everyone in the cycling world, I had been eager and excited to finally see the best women riders in the world get their own Tour de France with all the trimmings; crowds, TV and everything else that makes the TDF so special. The race did not disappoint, in fact, it exceeded all expectations. I was lucky enough to be in Paris on the Champs Élysées to see the race speed by in all its colourful glory and what a sight it was – enough for me to get goosebumps. The last time I’d seen the previous equivalent was way back in 1986 at the Tour de France Feminin when I was only 16.

For the remainder of the week, I was glued to my TV, entertained by the thrillingly exciting, dynamic racing. I must confess to shedding a tear when Danish superstar Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig won stage 3 to Epernay in the National Champions jersey, my personal highlight of the race. But what a finale up to the Planche des Belles Filles; the experience and overwhelmingly powerful climbing of Annemiek van Vleuten showing once more why she’s the best. It was also absolutely brilliant to see our very own We Love Cycling ambassador Kasia Niewiadoma taking a historic podium spot too! Women’s cycling deserved this race a while ago but I think the tables have turned. The Tour de France as an entity and cycling as a whole needs women at the Tour de France. I can’t wait to see what’s planned for 2023.

I was on the ground reporting at the men’s Tour de France, which was an amazing experience; it always is. The racing was a cut above, the fascinating duel between Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard will be talked about and dissected for years to come. I spoke to both riders on numerous occasions post-stage and was struck by their vastly different characters; Pogačar; the outgoing, adventurous racer who wears his heart on his sleeve and Vingegaard; the calm, introverted, laser-focused Dane who was often hard to read. And, I think, that was the key to the latter’s success. His mighty Jumbo Visma squad raced with an exceptionally effective, yet disruptively unorthodox tactical plan, exploiting the sometimes reckless, yet wonderful to watch, racing style of Pogačar, hitting him with the most brutal of blows when he was isolated. Then we have to factor in the otherworldly abilities of Wout van Aert. What he did on stage 18 to Hautacam in riding Pogačar off his wheel and setting up Vingegaard to effectively win the Tour de France barring an accident, led many to think, or at least to pose the question, could Van Aert possibly ride for GC? I certainly did in my interview with him that very day!

Víngegaard and Pogačar at the Tour
Vingegaard’s incredible victory. © Profimedia

The racing in the Tour was of such high a calibre that this article could end up being a short book, so I’ll have to be brief – but the sight of Wout Van Aert clad in the Maillot Jaune riding the field off his wheel before soloing to the win on stage 4 to Calais was nothing short of spectacular. Racing at its purest and thrilling. A plan executed to perfection from a team tactics’ perspective but then actually finishing off the plan when the rest of the field expected you to do it, but could do nothing about it in response, apart from watching you ride away, was the stuff of legends. That’s no exaggeration. A joy to behold.

Being on the ground at the Giro d’Italia was also brilliant, as it always is. The Grand Partenza in Hungary was a resounding success and to be there to witness it was something special. Standout moments for me included Mathieu van der Poel’s opening stage win, Mark Cavendish taking his first win at the Giro in 9 years, plus Biniam Girmay’s historic victory into Jesi, ahead of van der Poel, who’s sporting acknowledgement of Girmay’s win just added to the momentous occasion. The climax of the 105th edition of La Corsa Rosa was nothing short of spectacular, with runner-up in 2020, Jai Hindley finally cracking the Maglia Rosa Richard Crapaz on the fearsome slopes of the Marmolada, which I can truly testify is brutal, as I’d ridden up it earlier that day on my Brompton folding bike. To see the joy and elation of the young Australian and the despair of the Ecuadorian first hand, just a few short metres from our commentary point, was sport at its most powerfully emotional.

The Classics are always a treat, the first of which I saw unfold first hand at Milan SanRemo where I was commentating, with the audacious victory of Matej Mohoric, aided by his dropper-post. The thing is, his rivals knew he had it on his bike, therefore expected him to drop like a stone down the Poggio, yet still, no one could stop him! Absolutely brilliant. I also enjoyed this year’s Paris Roubaix, which rarely fails to deliver; Dylan van Baarle soloing to a career best win and Elisa Longo Borghini adding to her glittering palmares with style and panache. Whilst the Tour of Flanders delivered another riveting finale; Tadej Pogačar getting boxed in as the two lead groups came together in the closing few metres and Mathieu van der Poel emerged victorious yet again.

Although Remco Evenepoel had won races leading into Liege-Bastogne-Liege and was looking good, the manner of his win in the oldest of the ‘monuments’ was just another demonstration of his once-in-a-generation class. The violence of his attack on La Redoute could not be answered and the Belgian prodigy time trialled to his first monument win, leaving many of his peers in a state of wonderment. Then in late Summer at the Vuelta a España, he won the only time trial and a mountain top finish to claim Belgium’s first win in a Grand Tour for 44 years, silencing emphatically those who had doubted his Grand Tour ability.

Unluckily, for the rest of the peloton who assembled on the start line in Wollongong, Australia, for the World Road Race Championships, Evenepoel’s form hadn’t ebbed. In fact, it appeared that the Vuelta win had simply honed his condition to a point he could simply do what he wanted. When he did attack to go clear, after repeated attempts on a flat bit of road, his rivals could only watch him sail away, eventually winning by a massive 2 minutes. From hero of a nation to its saviour. “All hail King Remco” was probably said in Belgium at his homecoming reception.

To wrap things up, and at the other end of a career spectrum, the victory of Annemiek van Vleuten in the Women’s World Road race was another true gem within a glittering treat of a season. Riding with a fractured elbow, with the race looking lost, she summoned something that only a true champion could muster to flip the race on its head in the dying metres to claim another rainbow jersey. It was simply magnificent.

I think it’s fair to say the 2022 season was a rare vintage. 2023 has a lot to live up to but I for one cannot wait.