By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - Cycling managed to deliver an exhilarating, action-packed season that saw the younger generation, led by Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar, take power despite the season being shortened by the new coronavirus pandemic.
There was a 4-1/2 month hiatus due to restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 but four of the five 'Monument' classics and 18 of 33 World Tour races plus all three grands tours were held.
Paris-Roubaix, the 'Queen of the Classics', was the only major one-day race to be cancelled along with its maiden women's event as the second wave of the pandemic in Europe also threatened the rescheduled Giro d'Italia.
The Mitchelton Scott and Jumbo Visma teams pulled out of the three-week race in Italy following positive COVID cases in their ranks in October, but the event was eventually completed with Britain's Tao Geoghegan Hart prevailing in a nail-biting finale.
It was a remarkable rebound for Ineos-Grenadiers, who lost the Tour when defending champion Egan Bernal pulled out and saw Geraint Thomas abandon the Giro after a crash early in the race.
Just like on the Tour, the British outfit changed their strategy, turning themselves into a less predictable and more attacking team, without four-time winner Chris Froome.
The 35-year-old, who was not part of Ineos-Grenadiers's Tour roster, was never in the mix this year as he failed to get back to his best level after a horrific crash in June 2019.
The 25-year-old Geoghegan Hart was one of several youngsters to shine after Pogacar pulled off the greatest coup in recent history on the Tour, leapfrogging fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic on the last competitive day in the final individual time trial.
Pogacar, then 21, who was the youngest Tour winner since Frenchman Henri Cornet in 1904, rode carefree throughout as Roglic crumbled under the pressure.
Roglic, however, bounced back in style by fighting to win the season-ending Vuelta and also claimed the Liege-Bastogne-Liege Monument after pipping Julian Alaphilippe to the line.
Alaphilippe, a central figure in the season, was then disqualified for an illegal sprint but had already got what he wanted by then after a becoming the first Frenchman to win the world championships road race since 1997.
His female counterpart, Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands, also had a season to remember, winning the road race and time trial as well as a sixth consecutive Fleche Wallonne and the Giro Rosa title.
Women's cycling, however, still struggles with exposure and lost a potentially major sponsor when the Paule Ka team folded before the end of the season. The women's Tour still does not have its own equivalent of the Tour de France.
Alaphilippe could have added the Tour of Flanders to his name but a drop in focus saw him crash into a race motorbike in the finale of that Monument race, where he was contesting victory with Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert.
Dutchman Van Poel beat his Belgian opponent in a two-man sprint finish in the latest installment of their rivalry.
Van Aert, who also impressed during the Tour as a team mate of Roglic, did however win the Milan-Sanremo Monument in August.
Another Belgian, 20-year-old Remco Evenepoel, also burst into the limelight. He has been tipped as the next Eddy Merckx but a freak crash into a ravine in the Giro Di Lombardia ended his season as security became a growing concern in the peloton.
The incident, which ended Evenepoel's season, came after Fabio Jakobsen was put in a medically-induced coma after a collision which the sport's governing UCI said was caused by fellow Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen at the Tour of Poland.
Jakobsen suffered a brain contusion and serious facial injuries and the incident saw riders hit out at race organisers and the International Cycling Union (UCI) for a stage finish they said was too dangerous.
The riders' views have been voiced more this year as the peloton also protested against the length of the 19th stage of the Giro because of bad weather, forcing organisers to shorten the 258-km ride.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris)