After looking at the climbers and the classics- what about the best sprinters of all time? Here’s my selection of the riders who have impressed most in the bunch sprints and racked up the Grand Tour stage wins.
Mark Cavendish (2005-Present)
It would be outrageous to not include Mark Cavendish in a sprinters list. If his record is not enough to convince you of this fact (it should be), then watching a compilation of his Team Colombia-High Road wins will. If you don’t have time for that, just watch one of his four Champs-Élysées wins from 2009-2012; preferably from a wonderfully captured side view. The pick of the bunch is 2010, where he springs out from behind his rivals and takes metres out of them in a matter of seconds. Although, to some extent, he did that every year. The Manxman has won every Grand Tour points jersey once and can also boast a World Championship title. He would have won the Tour De France points competition again had it not been for the tactics of Thor Hushovd and Peter Sagan. In truth, the competition has never been the Brit’s main focus. He likes to win stages and he is remarkably good at doing so. No rider has won more Tour De France stages excluding time trials. Cavendish burst on to the scene in 2008 with his team completely mastering the lead-out train. Since then, Cavendish has gone from strength to strength and, at his best, is in a different class to his rivals. After a dip in form he returned to stun his rivals and add four more Tour stages in July 2016.
Achievements: 30 Tour De France stage wins, 15 Giro d’Italia stage wins, 3 Vuelta a España stage wins, 3 Grand Tour points jersey wins, 1 World Championship.
Mario Cipollini (1989-2005, 2008)
Mario Cipollini was the best sprinter of his era and is one of few men who could claim to be more successful than Mark Cavendish. In truth, his wonderful career spanned more than one era and the Italian won Grand Tour stages in every year from 1989 to 2003, with just one exception. His record in his home tour, the Giro, is incredible and in the mid-90s his victories in the race were not just expected but almost guaranteed. He won the points jersey on three occasions, each separated by five years, and saved the best till last with his dominant 2002 showing. To win the jersey required Cipollini to finish the race and this was not something he always intended to do! A high-profile figure in the sport, Cipollini fell out with race organizers by abandoning many tours as the gradient started to rise. The Mario-Show would often end after the first week when he decided against riding through the Alps or Pyrenees. However, his departures have not damaged his legacy; if anything they underline the fact Cipollini was the purest of sprinters. He will also be remembered for his extravagant appearance; his slick hairstyles and wonderful range of sunglasses were occasionally paired with specially made animal print kits. Incredibly fast and strong, Cipollini was not beaten often in a bunch sprint.
Achievements: 12 Tour De France stage wins, 42 Giro d’Italia stage wins, 3 Vuelta a España stage wins, 3 Grand Tour points jersey wins.
Jean-Paul Van Poppel (1985-1995)
Back in the 1980s bunch sprints were a little different. For starters, a lack of lead-out trains made for closing stages where winners were not often evident until the last moment. It could also be said it was a time where no one sprinter ruled over all others, making for unpredictable outcomes to bunch sprints. It is therefore impressive that Dutch sprinter Jean-Paul Van Poppel amassed 22 Grand Tour stage wins in just an eight year period. Van Poppel was brave sprinter and could win from a variety of different positions. He won the final stage of the Tour de France in 1988 leaving it late to charge round the outside of Guido Bontempi and Britain’s Malcolm Elliot. It was his fourth win in that year’s Tour – a time where he was considered the best sprinter in the world. Van Poppel was not only an inspiration for future Dutch sprinters but for those who use guile, as well as power, to ensure they are the first man home. He was a master of following the right wheels and making well timed bursts of acceleration. Van Poppel has been keen to stay in the sport since his retirement managing a number of teams. Until 2013, he was the Sporting Director of a Vacansoleil team that both his sons – Boy and Danny – were riding for. The sprinter is remembered as one of the most successful Dutch riders of all time.
Achievements: 9 Tour De France stage wins, 4 Giro d’Italia stage wins, 9 Vuelta a España stage wins, 1 Grand Tour points jersey win.
Alessandro Petacchi (1996-2014)
In 2003, Alessandro Petacchi had a season so good that his wins that year alone would be justification enough for a place in this list. Then a Fassa-Bortolo rider, Petacchi rode all three Grand Tours and won a whopping 15 stages. Incredibly, Petacchi took on Italy’s sprint king Cipollini at the Giro and outperformed him by six wins to two. It was a tour which marked the emergence of a new hero, and signalled Cipollini’s career was drawing to an end. It is difficult to not compare the two but in later years Petacchi steered away from the limelight and showed his dedication to cycling with some domestique duties during his time with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Petacchi’s 2003 was followed up by a superb 2004 in which he broke records at the Giro d’Italia by winning nine of the 20 stages, missing out on perhaps just one flat stage. Anybody who watched cycling at the time would have experienced the same sense of amazement at what Petacchi was doing. His absence from the Tour de France from 2005-2009 may have contributed to his superiority being sometimes forgotten. He sits behind only the legendary Delio Rodriguez in the list of Vuelta a España stage wins. As if to remind people of his successes, Petacchi returned to the Tour de France and won the points competition in 2010, aged 36.
Achievements: 6 Tour De France stage wins, 22 Giro d’Italia stage wins, 20 Vuelta a España stage wins, 3 Grand Tour points jersey wins.
Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (1990-1997)
For the third article in a row, the fifth spot has proved highly challenging (and fun, if you like compiling lists as much as I do). Some of today’s most talented sprinters were considered but eventually Djamolidine Abdoujaparov was chosen. The ‘Tashkent Terror’ was an unbelievably powerful, fierce, and sometimes dangerous rider. In the closing stages of a race if Abdoujaparov was not already motoring past you, you might have felt inclined to move out of his way. If you have not already seen it, his spectacular crash on the Champs-Élysées, followed by the painful pedal strokes he needed to complete the race, is well worth a watch. Aside from his unbending desire to be the first man over the line, Abdoujaparov nurtured his craft well. In fact, he has the most points jersey wins of any man in this list- a sign of his consistency and dedication to sprinting. In 1994 he won the points competition at both the Tour and Vuelta, racing against the likes of Cipollini and Jan Svorada.
Achievements: 9 Tour De France stage wins, 1 Giro d’Italia stage win, 7 Vuelta a España stage wins, 5 Grand Tour points jersey wins.
And an honourable mention to Robbie McEwen! Though not as fast as Cavendish, as dominant as the Italian pair, or possessing the power of Abdoujaparov, McEwen won all sorts of sprints with his clever moves. Even without a lead-out train, McEwen overcame the likes of Erik Zabel and put Australia on the map with his victories. Certainly one of my favourites, McEwen could emerge from anywhere to take victory. I am sure Robbie would find a place on other Top 5 lists.