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Tour de France

Inside the Tour, with John Wilcockson – Cavendish on top of the world

Sprinters who are capable of winning stages of the Tour de France rarely keep winning for long. They either burn themselves out (either mentally or physically) or soon lose the leg-speed that’s so essential for winning a highly charged field sprint at 40 mph. In view of the astounding finishing speed and dominant margins of victory shown by Team Columbia’s Mark Cavendish in his stage wins at Toulouse on Saturday (and in Châteauroux on Wednesday), I thought it was worth seeing where the 22-year-old Brit stacks up again great sprinters in recent Tour history.

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By John Wilcockson

So how does Cav' compare?

So how does Cav’ compare?

Photo: Graham Watson

Sprinters who are capable of winning stages of the Tour de France rarely keep winning for long. They either burn themselves out (either mentally or physically) or soon lose the leg-speed that’s so essential for winning a highly charged field sprint at 40 mph. In view of the astounding finishing speed and dominant margins of victory shown by Team Columbia’s Mark Cavendish in his stage wins at Toulouse on Saturday (and in Châteauroux on Wednesday), I thought it was worth seeing where the 22-year-old Brit stacks up again great sprinters in recent Tour history.

The chart I’ve compiled shows the most successful sprinters of the past 60 years, decided by the number of Tour stages they took in sprints (it doesn’t include stages won in time trials or solo breakaways) and the span of years between a rider’s first and last Tour stage wins (even though he may have competed in more, or fewer, Tours). For instance, the most success British sprinter before Cavendish was Barry Hoban, whose first two stage wins came in solo breaks (in 1967 and ’68). He then took six Tour sprint wins over a seven-year period, and competed in a total of 12 Tours.

Based on the number of sprint stage wins per year, the just-retired Tom Steels is the most successful Tour sprinter: He won nine stages in a three-year period for a 3.0 average. Steels is followed by two other Belgian sprinters (who raced in the 1960s and ’70s), Ward Sels and Freddy Maertens, who averaged 2.3 and 2.0 wins per Tour respectively.

However, by far the winningest Tour sprinter since World War II was Frenchman André Darrigade, who took 21 stage wins between 1953 and 1964 — but in those years only 120 to 130 riders started the Tour. It’s much tougher to win mass field sprints today where there are 50-percent more riders and almost twice as many teams.

In the more recent era, three men have won 12 stages (the retired Mario Cipollini and the still active Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen). Cavendish most resembles McEwen in terms of his leg speed and acceleration, but he can hold top speed for much longer than the Aussie. One reason for this is the Manxman’s physique; his calf and thigh muscles are much more solid than the Aussie’s. The other reason for Cavendish being able to sprint for a longer period is his background in track racing — he has already won two world titles in the 50km two-man Madison. That’s an event in which you not only have to work hard to gain laps but also contest long sprints every 10th lap.

In physique, Cavendish most resembles Zabel, who, at 38 years of age, is more competitive in this year’s Tour than he has been for a few years. In the three field sprints this past week, he was fifth at St. Brieuc, third at Châteauroux, and fifth in Toulouse. Zabel’s performances (even though he hasn’t won a Tour stage since 2002) show that Cavendish has every chance of racing at the top level into his 30s.

As for Cipollini, he was a very different type of sprinter, needing a fast lead-out train over several kilometers and using his tremendous power to hold a steady top speed for up to 300 meters, as opposed to the Cavendish style of sprinting out of the saddle to accelerate past his opponents in the last 200 meters. Also, Cipollini would have won far more than his 12 Tour stages had his teams been invited to the Tour in more years than they were.

The Tour organizers denied Cipollini so often because they said he always pulled out of the Tour when the mountain stages were reached (true!). That’s in sharp contrast to the feisty Cavendish, who said Saturday in Toulouse, “I didn’t come here with the intention of stopping — that’s not fair to my team, my sponsors or the Tour de France. I’ll ride at 400 percent in the mountains, if I need to, to get through.”

With that attitude, and with a potentially long Tour career lying ahead of him, Cavendish clearly has the potential to challenge the 21-sprint-win record of Darrigade. The curly-haired Brit has the attitude needed by a top sprinter, and he is quickly gaining the charisma of a star like Cipollini. But Cavendish also remembers his roots, working in a bank on the Isle of Man before deciding to shoot for a career in pro bike racing.

As he said Saturday, after easily taking the second Tour stage win of his young career, “I know I’m the luckiest guy on the planet.”

Tour de France sprinters Sprint
wins
Years Average wins
per Tour
1. André Darrigade (F) 21 11 1.9
2. Freddy Maertens (B) 12 6 2.0
3. Mario Cipollini (I) 12 7 1.7
4. Erik Zabel (G) 12 8 1.5
5. Robbie McEwen (Aus) 12 9 1.3
6. Walter Godefroot (B) 10 9 1.1
7. Tom Steels (B) 9 3 3.0
8. Jean-Paul Van Poppel (Nl) 9 8 1.1
9. Djamolidin Abdujaparov (Uzb) 8 5 1.6
10. Ward Sels (B) 7 3 2.3
11. Rik Van Looy (B) 7 7 1.0
12. Tom Boonen (B) 6 4 1.5
13. Patrick Sercu (B) 6 4 1.5
14. Guido Reybroeck (B) 6 5 1.2
15. Barry Hoban (GB) 6 7 0.9


(NOTE: Irish sprinter Sean Kelly, won only five Tour stages over a six-year period, mainly because he switched from being a pure sprinter to an all-arounder in his 14 starts at the Tour.)

Into the Pyrenees
There was only one change in our list of GC favorites on stage 8, with Riccardo Riccò moving up one place to 27th. The time gaps remained the same. That won’t be the case on Sunday’s stage 9. After a long, long preamble over the plains south of Toulouse and through the foothills, the stage will climax with two Cat. 1 climbs, the Peyresourde and Aspin, both of which are tackled by their steeper, longer sides. The big questions concern race leader Kim Kirchen, third-placed Stefan Schumacher and fourth-placed Christian Vande Velde: Can they stay with the top climbers if they decide to attack prior to Monday’s more formidable climbs?

With the finish Sunday in the valley after a long descent from the Aspin, a small group will probably contest the finish in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. The most likely stage winners are Samuel Sanchez, Damiano Cunego (if he can regain the climbing legs he lost in the Massif Central) and, yes, Kirchen. With fog and 50-degree temperatures forecast on the high peaks, and rain at the finish, it’s going to be another tough, spectacular day!

OUR 11 FAVORITES(after eight stages)
1. Kim Kirchen (LUX), Team Columbia 32:26:34
2. Cadel Evans (AUS), Silence-Lotto at 0:06
(4. Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Chipotle at 0:44)
5. Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank at 1:03
6. Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Caisse d’Epargne at 1:12
8. Stijn Devolder (BEL), Quick Step at 1:21
11. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1:27
12. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 1:34
13. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at 1:56
14. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 1:58
17. Damiano Cunego (ITA), Lampre at 2:09
27. Riccardo Ricco (ITA), Saunier Duval at 3:52