There are few scenes in sport which can match the frantic, head-down, balls-out charge to the line that is a bunch sprint. Watching from afar, it resembles a wave powering in to shore, wiping out anything in its path with an all-consuming fury. Slow it down, focus in, and the wave becomes a mass of snarling riders, straining to channel every remaining drop of power from muscle to sinew, to pedal, to road, to speed. Look more closely, and you can start to make sense of the mayhem. The different kinds of rider emerge, different styles, different body shapes and different tactics. This is the complexity that makes it hard to claim that one rider is a greater sprinter than all others. Hard, but not impossible!
Sprinters generally to fall into one of four categories, and with Tim’s help I’m going to look at each of these.
For this, think Olaf Ludwig, Andre Greipel and, of course, Mario Cipollini. These are big guys, often brought into position by organised trains who, when the last lead-out man peels off with 250m to go, can unleash a short, ferocious blitz of power that few can match.
Tim: (laughs) There’s something about Germans, isn’t there? Ludwig, Greipel, and we can add the Argos-Shimano pairing of John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel too. A well-oiled sprint train at full speed is a thing of beauty, and when it’s coupled with a big guy who can lay down as much as 1800 watts over a quarter-kilometre it’s almost impossible to beat.
Cipo’s Saeco team took lead-outs to a whole new level in the 1990s, and we’ve had three or four outstanding exponents of the art in recent years: HTC-Highroad, Lotto-Belisol, the Argonauts. There’s something quite visceral about watching two sprint trains locking horns (or handlebars?) in the last 2-3km of a race, both desperate to establish supremacy and not afraid to rub shoulders in a high-speed game of chicken.
There are bunch sprinters who are able to duck and dive through the lead-outs of other teams and through sheer tenacity and shrewdness, are able to work themselves into a winning position without the need for an entourage that would make Jay-Z look lonely: the wheel-hoppers. Robbie McEwen is a perfect example.
Tim: McEwen’s the archetypal wheel-hopper for sure. It wasn’t that he preferred to work without a train – as he admits, he would have won a lot more stages with one at his disposal – more that he had to out of necessity in teams which had dual agendas, such as Silence-Lotto, which was really geared around Cadel Evans.
Robbie was super-fast in his own right, but he was also brilliant at conserving energy during races and finding the right wheels in the hurly-burly of the final. His positional sense was the best I’ve ever seen. How often did he appear to be nowhere and then suddenly he would pop up and win?
He also knew how to channel his anger effectively. Remember stage one of the 2007 Tour to Canterbury? He crashed late on, remounted, chased back on and snuck past everyone to win. There is no way he should have won that stage. No way.
We also have versatile strongmen, big and powerful, coupled with a hardness and stamina that allows them to compete on heavier terrain, such as the Classics. These strongmen can get over hills, ride in breakaways and possess a tactical shrewdness that gets them into the big moves. Some riders are born this way – think Tom Boonen, Sean Kelly, Peter Sagan and Johan Museeuw – while others like Laurent Jalabert develop their all-round skills as an alternative to the bunch sprint (in Jaja’s case, it was following a pretty nasty crash that he decided to move away from bunch sprint madness).
Tim: I love the versatility of these guys. They’re not necessarily the fastest or the strongest, but they’re fast enough, strong enough and clever enough to take advantage of unfolding race situations, whether it is a solo attack or a group sprint.
Sagan could turn out to be the best Classics man ever but he’s not quite there yet in terms of tactical acumen – for instance, if Boonen had been in his place, he would have won Milan-San Remo. Mind you, the thought that Sagan still has another 5% to find is really quite scary.
This style of rider has also tended to dominate the green jersey at the Tour in recent years, by virtue of their versatility and consistency, winning Classics-style sprints or gaining intermediate points in the mountains. Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire, Sagan – that’s five of the last eight green jerseys between them. (Okay, we could also classify Oscar as a wheel-hopper, but let’s not quibble.)
One of the contributory factors to Jaja’s decision was that he was sharing the bunch sprint with the maniacal Djamolodine Abdoujaparov. He, and one or two other riders I can think of, falls into a unique category: the Kamikaze Maverick. You only need to watch this video to understand what I mean:
Tim: Abdou was certainly fast and brave, but he was basically a nutter on wheels, wasn’t he? He could wipe out half the peloton in half the time it took to say his name. The kamikazes certainly liven up a sprint but I wouldn’t want to be racing against them!
The ultimate sprinter
As I said, all of this variety makes it hard to pick an ‘ultimate sprinter’, but not impossible. There is one name we haven’t mentioned yet, and those of you who know Tim and I will probably have seen where this is leading. The thing is, most of the great sprinters that we’ve talked about really only fit into one category and, taken out of their winning scenario, are often unable to compete. My greatest admiration is reserved for the hardmen and wheel-hoppers, who have an aptitude to adapt to an evolving race, and take chances when they arise. Raw horsepower is one thing, but a great rider should also be able to finish a grand tour or win a classic.
Mark Cavendish has done both these things. In a straight-out sprint, he can beat anybody. He is arguably faster than the fastest powerhouse but also has the opportunism of Robbie McEwen (see Tim’s Cav birthday post for prime examples of both.) Time will tell, but it would not surprise me to see him adapt and sacrifice some top-end speed in the latter stages of his career, in favour of an improved ability to tackle hills. It would be interesting to see what kind of rider he could become. Suffice to say, if Mark Cavendish isn’t the greatest sprinter of all time yet, the likelihood is that, by the time he’s done, he will be.
Tim: When HTC-Highroad dissolved, a lot of people declared Cavendish would struggle without his dominant sprint train. Utter hogwash. Of course, having a great train helps, but how many times have we seen him win on his own wits? How about his World Championship win? Or the Tour stage into Brive last year when he picked off the remnants of the break one by one with a beautifully judged series of mini-sprints? Or stages one and 13 of this year’s Giro?
He’s often slated for lacking versatility because he’s not a great climber. There’s merit in that argument, but equally how many sprinters can win as regularly as he does in both the Cipollini and the McEwen styles? He’s not as powerful as Greipel – the Gorilla puts out about 1,800 watts in a sprint, Cav more like 1,400 – but his acceleration is brutal, he can sustain top speed for longer, and his low body position gives him great aerodynamics. In a headwind sprint his speed is astonishing.
And perhaps most tellingly, he’s usually at his best in the biggest races: 40 of his 101 wins have come at grand tours and world championships.
Cav is a speedster, yes, but he’s much more than that. He’s tactically astute and his desire to win is phenomenal. He doesn’t think he can win races, he knows he can. And he doesn’t want to win races, he needs to win. And it’s that unique combination of factors that mean he’s well on his way to becoming the best sprinter the sport has ever seen.