As you know, I've tinkered with trying to promote certain statistics as a way of analyzing performance, besides the wins and points stuff that, while telling, isn't overly precise or descriptive. And while there's a lot you can't do crunching numbers for race placings, I'm pretty sold on sprinters' stats. So, once more to the well.
This edition analyzes the Big Four, as we head into what looks like an extremely competitive year for grand tour stage sprints. Over the last two years it's become apparent that Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel have been the guys to beat in the bunch gallops, with Alessandro Petacchi more sporadically involved, but occasionally brilliant. The list of guys who can win from the bunch is much longer, but for the sake of containing this exercise, these four will do. A couple changes from past analyses: first, I'm only looking at stage race stage sprints. Classics, even the flat ones, are too different and don't do justice to the numbers. Secondly, Im separating out grand tours from everything else. Whether that's useful, we'll see. And finally, I've switched from "Top 5 %" to "Top 3 %" -- meaning, percent of times the rider finishes in the top three -- not only because 3=podium but because the top five numbers didn't differ much from the top ten. With these elite guys, top five is almost a given. Top three... you start to see some separation.
One final acknowledgement about numbers: sample size is everything. From my rudimentary understanding of statistics, larger sample sizes are necessary to prevent the numbers from being unduly influenced by random things -- in cycling terms, that would be illness, injury, or legal problems. You could argue that sample size here is still ridiculously small, but I'll say this: it's better for this exercise than any other cycling analysis I can think of. And if the samples are small now, well, let's keep doing this for several years and see if we learn something by, oh, 2015*. [*Not a commitment to keep blogging til 2015...]
Oh, and one final, final thing: the CQ numbers are a temporary necessity. I'd love to switch to Podium Cafe points but we didn't do them in 2009. Also, the CQ is split between total season points from all races (too much work to separate out the sprints) on the first line, and numbers taken only from the sprint results being used on the grand tour line (not too much work). OK, here goes:
2010: (best # in bold; worst ital)
|Rider||Events||%Finale||Wins||Win%||AvPlace||Top 10%||Top 3%||CQ Pts|
|Rider||Events||%Finale||Wins||Win%||AvPlace||Top 10%||Top 3%||CQ Pts|
There is no serious dispute as to who the #1 sprinter in cycling is. Cavendish has established himself as the man to beat, particularly in the grand tours. If you have spent more than five minutes watching cycling, you probably already know this.
- Grand Tour Performance: Cav is the only rider whose winning percentage starts high overall and goes up on the world's biggest stages.
- Top Three Percentage -- another Cav strength. Everyone on the list has pretty high numbers, but Cav gets a little separation in the grand tour top three%, and remarkably, for all of 2010, every time he was in the top ten, he was also top three. Why? Because his team kicks ass, and he himself knows how to get in position. And he's wicked fast.
- Average placing: Cav's biggest "failing," done in by a larger number of back-of-the-pack finishes. Given his other qualities, this stat probably says more about the weakness of measuring average placing than anything else. Or, it says that Cav takes the day off when he can't win.
- We all know that Cavendish was unfit for half of the spring this year. Virtually every one of his numbers is down from 2009. So much for sample sizes.
- One number was up though: points scored in grand tour sprints. Since these points were scored in the same number of starts as 2009, that pretty much undermines any argument that he lost something in the dentist's chair.
I have generally thought of him as the #2 sprinter, though between him and Greipel it's an unfinished argument. More on that in a moment. But we do know this: he hasn't slain the Cavendish dragon. Head to head, Cav wins 20-10 over the two years and 14-3 in victory tallies. Still, the story isn't all one-sided. By the end of 2010 Farrar had scored two wins off Cav in the Vuelta, and three of Cav's six wins over Farrar came while the latter had a broken wrist. In Spain, it was 3-2 Cav. Not exactly an ambush. Going forward it's reasonable to expect both of them to continue getting stronger, being generally competitve and professional sprinters. But Cav will always have that lower profile, and Farrar will likely focus less exclusively on the sprints. So don't start sizing up the Wenatchee Wonder for the crown anytime soon.
- Mr. Consistency -- which is a way of saying he doesn't win as often as the others. Farrar is the only rider on the list to start all three grand tours in a both seasons -- among the others only Petacchi did this as much as once. So part of the low winning percentage has to do with putting himself out there more than anyone else.
- Another part of the low winning percentage has to do with facing off against Cavendish in four of the six grand tours covered. Tha'ts life. But another significant number is missing the top three. His finale and top ten percentages are pretty much as high as anyone's, so missing wins and stage podiums suggests he either isn't as fast (debatable) or doesn't get into position as consistently. My money is on the latter, because he's often reacting to the Cav train or the Cav move, coming from farther back. Sometimes you get stuck in traffic.
- Not much change, except in grand tour wins. The picture is of a rider who got to the top echelon in 2009 and spent this year trying to push Cav off the top step. Game not over, but he improved, even counting the broken wrist.
- Interestingly, his top 3% dip this year is exclusively outside of the grand tours, where the % remained the same. I'd have to dig into the stats a bit to find where that happened. Given his other achievements, this is probably an anomaly.
We have already said somewhere most of what there is to say about Greipel. No question he belongs in the "best overall" argument, and no question we will know a lot more about the answer to this a year from now, after he's had a season at the #1 sprinter spot, having to battle Cav and Farrar simultaneously.
But to me he looks like #3, for one simple reason: head-to-head performance with Farrar. In 2009 it was a 3-3 draw, possibly favoring Greipel given his taking the Vuelta points jersey. In 2010, Farrar shut out Greipel, 4-0, including three wins. Terribly small samples, but otherwise there's nothing ambiguous about them.
- Nobody's grand tour numbers vary as wildly from the overall numbers as Greipel's. Mostly not his fault; Cav got two grand tours to choose from, including the Tour, and Greipel was fed mere leftovers. Regardless, the sample sizes are terrible as a result, so either Greipel is a far lesser rider on the big stage, or he maybe just didn't have a great 2010 Giro.
- His win totals are ridiculous, and you can dispute them as even his illustrious ex-teammate did ("shit races"), but Greipel is at least extremely dependable. His top-10, top-3 and finale percentages are collectively very impressive, save for the last Giro, and his average placing suggests very few days of sitting out the action. That's part him, and part HTC-awesomeness.
- Generally very consistent, outside of the head2head and 2010 Giro stuff. Same unreal win totals and percentages both seasons, which is remarkable, shit races or no.
- Still, the stages only got smaller for him in 2010. It's funny to say this, considering his stature, but last season must have been a tad depressing for Greipel. His opportunities didn't improve and his own teammate was degrading him, with no recourse available. Next season, for better or worse, Greipel gets to speak with his legs. That said, I hope Lotto know how to lead him out, because even in the depths of second-team-hood, Greipel has had luxurious leadouts.
Petacchi earns a place on this list for his excellent Tour performance, though
in some ways he's an outlier. He doesn't register as many starts, and he doesn't show up head-to-head as often as the others do -- being Italian and racing more in Italy, and also due to the LPR shenanigans in 2009. But this year he raced in all three grand tours, and he's such a bunch-sprint icon that he belongs in the discussion.
- He and Farrar are the two most similar riders on the list, statistically speaking. Interestingly, they faced off in 2010 alone a whopping 39 times (!), with Petacchi owning a 25-14 edge in the overall kitchen-sink numbers (CQ's head2head includes stages where nobody did anything). Of those 39, Petacchi owns an 8-1 advantage in stages where Farrar had a broken wrist, so in truth they're quite even. Farrar takes a 4-3 edge in wins. Petacchi's edge was 17-10 with a 4-3 win margin in 2009.
- Anyway, by statistically similar, I mean they both race a lot, with consistency, and win enough in all races to keep it respectable, without being dominant anywhere. The Cav factor...
- Petacchi's top ten and top three %s are spectacular. Another guy with both a good leadout and his own knowledge of how to get in position. He separates himself a bit from Farrar here.
- There really aren't any. Which is remarkable for a guy who turned 37 on Monday.
So there you go. Like I said, a few more years' worth of data will lend more meaning to this exercise, but I think it's fun to see even now. Oh, and no Freire or Hushovd here, sorry. You can name another dozen guys who are worth looking at, but... I do have a family and a day job.
Photo by Jasper Juinen, Getty Images Sport