By Bryan Jew
Several of the major players in the sprints changed teams this year, something that is sure to shake up the dynamics of the Tour’s field sprint finishes. But five-time green jersey winner Erik Zabel hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s this German rocket who tops our list of the Tour’s best sprinters.
1. Erik Zabel (G), 31, Telekom
Until last year, Zabel had won four straight green points jerseys, but hadn’t won a Tour stage since 1998. Perhaps the arrival of leadout man Gianmatteo Fagnini — formerly Mario Cipollini’s right-hand man — made the difference: Zabel won the second-to-last stage last year, in addition to capturing green jersey No. 5.
2. Alessandro Petacchi (I), 27, Fassa Bortolo
Making his Tour debut, the 27-year-old Italian had nine wins in 2000, including two stages at the Vuelta a España. He will have honed his form in Giro sprints against Cipollini.
3. Jaan Kirsipuu (Est), 31, AG2R
Kirsipuu is always a star in the early season, piling up the wins in the spring stage races and smaller one-day events. His stage 1 win at the 1999 Tour was one of his biggest, and the AG2R rider is ready to score another.
4. Jeroen Blijlevens (Nl), 29, Lotto-Adecco
The tall Dutchman has four Tour stage wins to his credit, but last year his only score was a punch to Bobby Julich’s head on the Champs-Elysées. Plus: A fast finish. Minus: A short temper.
5. Tom Steels (B), 29, Mapei-Quick Step
Four stage wins in 1998, three in 1999, and two in 2000. After suffering through three months without competition due to an infection this spring, will Steels see his Tour win streak end in 2001?
6. Robbie McEwen (Aus), 29, Domo-Farm Frites
The Australian packs a lot of muscle onto his little frame, allowing him to do battle with the bigger men who traditionally dominate the sprints. Domo-Farm Frites may offer him his best support ever at the Tour.
7. Romans Vainsteins (Lat), 28, Domo-Farm Frites
The world champion was one of the main players in this year’s spring classics. That strength will put him in prime position for the Tour’s field sprint finishes.
8. Fred Rodriguez (USA), 27, Domo-Farm Frites
Rodriguez proved his worth for Mapei-Quick Step last year. He has a new team, but a similar role, setting up others while taking his own chance if it arises.
9. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), 27, Crédit Agricole
O’Grady is the classic tough-guy sprinter. He showed just how tough last year, when he rode 87km with a broken collarbone after crashing on stage 6 to Tours. He’ll be back in 2001, chasing the green jersey.
10. Stefano Zanini (I), 32, Mapei-Quick Step
If Steels is out of commission, leadout man Zanini becomes the first option for Mapei. Zanini won on the Champs-Elysées last year after Mapei duped Zabel, but the Italian is more suited for leadout duty.