The world’s best sprinters are bracing for the season’s first major battles in Europe next week at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.
Following scrimmages at the corners of the globe — in the Middle East, South America, Australia and Europe’s early season races — the peloton’s fastest sprinters face off in earnest in the calendar’s first major stage races.
So far in the seasonal fight for sprint supremacy, two names have emerged: Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Elia Viviani (Quick-Step). Coming into March, Viviani has been the hottest of the fast men so far, taking five wins. Groenewegen is hot on his tail with four, including an emphatic victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last week. Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step) also has four, but all in South America.
“Right now, Viviani and Dylan are the best sprinters in the peloton,” said LottoNL-Jumbo sport director Merijn Zeeman. “That can change in every race. Some guys will be moving up with their form. It’s a big fight in the sprints always.”
Behind those top winners, the peloton’s other sprinters have picked up some confidence-boosting, form-confirming victories. John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates) all have two wins each.
Two names typically hovering around 20-win seasons so far are struggling to conjure up victories. Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) won in his third day of racing at the Dubai Tour, but crashed out of the Abu Dhabi tour late last month after a race official car braked in the neutralized start, causing him to hit the ground and suffer a concussion. Officials say he will race Tirreno-Adriatico and likely Milano-Sanremo later this month.
Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) has been slow out of the gate in his switch to Katusha, but came close to a victory in stage 3 at Abu Dhabi.
“When I look at my watch, it’s still February and we still have seven months of the season to go and 70 race days,” Kittel said. “There are many chances to go for victories.”
Is this a new parity? Or are we witnessing a generational shift, with younger sprinters like Gaviria and Groenewegen emerging? Or simply is it a case of blowing out the cobwebs for some of the more established sprinters?
“A victory is always important,” said Greipel, 35, after taking two impressive sprints at the Tour Down Under. “Every one says when you get older, you slow down. We hope to prove them wrong a few more times.”
Coming into 2018, there are more sprinters than ever fighting for fewer opportunities. That should set the stage for exciting sprint battles all season long.
There is no doubt that there are more top quality sprinters and that more teams are putting resources into sprints. With more candidates for each sprint opportunity, it makes each victory mean that much more.
“Teams sprinting is a big part of cycling,” said LottoNL-Jumbo’s Zeeman. “There are a lot of bunch sprints in the season. Unless you are a team completely focused on the GC in grand tours, all the big teams have sprinters now. It’s a way to gain points and to see results.”
At the same time, race organizers are delivering fewer chances for traditional sprint finales. At Tirreno-Adriatico next week, there are two stages out of eight that will all but be guaranteed a sprint finale (stage 2 and 6), while at Paris-Nice, there is only one stage (stage 2) that will all but assure a mass gallop. Otherwise, organizers are throwing in more mid-race climbs to liven up breakaway opportunities and put sprinters under pressure.
And more stages are finishing atop explosive, uphill finales that tip the favor away from pure power sprinters and give riders like Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Julian Alaphillipe (Quick-Step) chances of victory. So much so that many of the top sprinters have stopped going altogether to the Vuelta a España, a race laden with climbs and hilltop finales. Next week, Paris-Nice opens with a steep uphill finale while Tirreno-Adriatico sees explosive finishes in stages 3 and 5.
Many races have become a puncheurs paradise, often at the expense of the pure power sprinters.
“There are fewer and fewer chances for sprinters, especially in the grand tours,” said Matteo Trentin, now Mitchelton-Scott. “That is the evolution of the sport. Sprinters have to change, because you must be able to climb now.”
The number of wins per season is also an important measuring stick. Last year, Kittel and Gaviria won 14 races each. In 2016, Bryan Coquard and Kristoff won 13 races each, with Sagan taking 14. The last 20-win season came with Kristoff in 2015.
Getting wins early and often helps sets the tone for the rest of the season. Viviani has clearly stepped up, and is keen to prove it next week in France.
“I’m not a phenomenon. I work a lot to arrive at my goals, to win the biggest races, to try to beat the best sprinters in the world,” said Viviani, who switched from Sky to Quick-Step for 2018. “After the Olympic medal, mentally and physically I’m really on the top. From that point, I’m really focused on the road. From the last part of the season last year you see, I think, I’m the rider I really want to be. This year, no excuses, I have a really strong team.”
There’s been quite a bit of reshuffling coming into 2018 among the sprint aces. Viviani moved from Sky to Quick-Step, and Kittel from Quick-Step to Katusha-Alpecin. And Kristoff from Katusha to UAE-Emirates. Every year, every sprinter knows they have to prove themselves again.
The most important early season sprint races are still to come. Milano-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem and Scheldeprijs are the most prestigious sprint-friendly one-day events ahead of the grand tours. The ultimate King of the Sprint crowns is usually meted out in the Tour de France, with the final stage down the Champs-Élysées serving as the crown jewel.
“I want to prove something. That I’m good enough to win again, to be there in the classics,” Kristoff said last month. “The first goal will be Sanremo. I’ve been on the podium two times there and I hope I can be on the top again. Even if you’re second or third, for sure it’s a good result, but it’s always the winner you remember.”
Another interesting twist this year to watch for the bunch sprints will be the reduction of one rider per team across the WorldTour. Races like Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico will start with seven riders, while the grand tours will see eight per team.
That won’t be easy to manage for teams hoping to bring a sprinter as well as a GC contender to the major races.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” said Quick-Step sport director Rik Van Slyke. “If you want to bring a sprinter, you need two or three riders to help him. And a GC rider needs at least that many to help in the mountains. The key will be trying to find riders who can do a bit of both.”
In sprinting, you are only as good as your last results.
And with only a few sprint opportunities on tap at both Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, the pressure couldn’t be higher.
Top sprinters expected to face off next week:
Paris-Nice (March 4-11): Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Elia Viviani (Quick-Step), Arnaud Démare (FDJ)
Tirreno-Adriatico (March 7-13): Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Kristian Sbaragli (Israel Cycling Academy), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step), Sacha Modolo (EF-Drapac), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Danny Van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Matthews (Sunweb, still unconfirmed after his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad crash)