clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Sorting the Sprinters: Who’s On Top?

Come crunch some 2021 data with me to get a picture of who’s who among the fastmen for 2022

108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 13 Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Mark Cavendish has been in the news a few times of late. One was for a horrifying armed break-in at his home, which I can’t even believe how that feels. But before that he was laid up by a crash in late November at the Gent Six Day races, which left him back in England recuperating. On the positive side of the ledger, he had his contract extended for 2022 with Quick Step, and is in the conversation for Sportsman of the Year in the UK. It’s been a pretty wild ride for the Manxman, who came back from several years of poor health and performance to win four stages of the Tour de France — which he wasn’t selected to start until the team had a falling out with Sam Bennett — to equal the career stage victory record of Eddy Merck at 34 wins.

This is the same Cavendish who burst into our conscience at the 2007 Tour, a young kid trying to steal the thunder of the Tour de France’s London start, only to crash out after a few days. The same one who returned to the race a year later and took four stages, along with the title “fastest man in the world,” which he did not relinquish until, I dunno, 2014? This guy was in our lives for a long time, and he’s still there!

108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 21 Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

I don’t intend to go on about Cav, there are enough places to read that story if somehow you missed it the first 500 times around. But it does raise the question, where is men’s cycling at with sprinters these days? When a guy from the George W. Bush era is still your top sprinter, is sprinting OK?

That’s a complicated question and depends an awful lot on what you want out of your sprint scene. If you want to dial back to Cav’s early years, or those of maybe Tom Boonen circa 2006, or more recently one of Marcel Kittel’s top seasons, times when you could point to one rider and say “that’s the fastest man in the world,” then I have bad news for you. But if you’re more attuned to the wide-open competition we see in everything right now (save for stage races targeted by Tadej Pogacar), then these are... pretty good times? There certainly is no one rider we all want to tag with the fastest man label, nor is anyone statistically dominant. So just how good things are now depends on whether you think the lack of a singular figure is a sign of overall quality or weakness.

To get some clarity on what is going on right now, I am dusting off an old method for assessing sprinters — crunching some numbers. This table looks at wins, win percentage, frequency in the top three and top five, and average finish. It uses results where, as far as I can tell, the rider participated in some sort of large bunch sprint. The data isn’t perfect, occasionally up for debate, but there is, I think, enough of it for you to draw some basic conclusions. A couple notes:

  • The point of this data is to spot tendencies, particularly regarding consistency. Personally I would think that teams would value a guy who delivers the best results the most often. Wins are currency, but not all wins are alike, and if you want to point to a particular win or three (e.g. Tour stages), well, that’s still anecdotal. If that’s all you ever win, it raises questions about your versatility (a/k/a the Kittel Effect).
  • I like top 3 and top 5 numbers as a sign of a rider’s ability to get into position. Wins measure closing speed, but if you struggle to find the front of the race at the end, that’s an issue.
  • I ranked riders by most to fewest results, just because the larger pool of results is an indicator of greater power in the data. [If I sound almost, but not quite, like someone who understands the science of statistics, or any science at all, that’s not a mirage.]
  • What’s missing from this data is sprints completely missed. I’d have to look at a lot more results, e.g. when Jordi Meeus finishes 181st in the opening Vuelta stage. That’s an important factor, whether a rider can be relied on to get in position at all, but it’s beyond my grasp for now. Maybe I’ll get a bit more time over vacation and re-run that info. Also missing are any results outside the top 20. A 33rd place could mean a few different things, without taking the time to examine the last 3km video.
  • Finally, I have bolded the best numbers in the table below, and placed in italics those numbers that are a cut above.

2021 sprinter statistics

Rider Results Wins Win % Top 3% Top 5% Avg. Place
Rider Results Wins Win % Top 3% Top 5% Avg. Place
Giacomo Nizzolo 28 4 14 46 64 4.9
Jasper Philipsen 25 9 36 80 92 2.6
Mark Cavendish 23 10 43 78 96 2.3
Fernando Gaviria 22 1 4 27 45 6.8
Elia Viviani 20 7 35 60 80 4
Tim Merlier 18 7 39 61 61 4.1
Niccolo Bonifazio 17 1 6 17 35 8.8
Arnaud Demare 16 4 25 50 62 5.7
Nacer Bouhanni 16 0 0 56 81 3.7
Alberto Dainese 16 0 0 50 68 5.5
Magnus Cort Nielsen 15 5 33 66 66 4.6
Caleb Ewan 14 6 43 71 71 3.7
Dylan Groenewegen 14 3 21 35 50 6
Jordi Meeus 14 1 7 35 64 5.5
Ethan Hayter 14 5 35 57 78 3.6
Vincenzo Albanese 13 0 0 31 38 6.4
Matteo Trentin 11 0 0 45 82 4
Wout Van Aert 10 4 40 80 80 3.7
Sam Bennett 10 7 70 90 100 1.6
Fabio Jakobsen 9 7 77 100 100 1.2
Davide Ballerini 9 2 22 44 66 5.6

From this information, you should probably conclude that Cavendish did, after all, have the best season in 2021 — he raced a fair amount, he led the table in wins, his consistency was good, and of course if we dug into quality of wins, he would check out there too. But if you broaden the discussion to what riders showed some sort of claim for best sprinter going forward, you would have to take more into account than who happened to have matters well in hand in this lone season. So I will break out my conclusions into tiers.

The Surest Bets

Mark Cavendish — It’s weird to say this, but the conclusion can’t be helped: at age 36, the Manx Missile was at the very top of the sport. I didn’t believe it, I’m not sure he believed it. Certainly lots of team managers didn’t believe it, since Cav was Very Available last winter (after pondering retirement) and got picked up on a one-year deal for his services. But after a few years of constant crashes and illness and the weirdness of 2020, when people like me started to see his fading results as fading form, it turned out that he just needed to get right and his lingering natural talent could take over again. The ten wins this year came with a consistency reflected in his average placing (2.3) and 78% podiums. For him to be so good at 36 may be unprecedented, but so is the rest of his sprinting career.

118th Paris-Roubaix 2021 - Men’s Eilte Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Jasper Philipsen — This is no less surprising, but the 23-year-old Belgian shot up the rankings into 10th in the world, on the strength of a very consistent, very high-level season that included two grand tours, one of which (the Vuelta) saw him take stage victories for the first time. I feel like the numbers and the quality make this selection beyond dispute. His raw point total bested Carapaz, Evenepoel and a host of other big names having big seasons. His win total was second only to Cavendish (talking sprints). His large sample size reflects his ability to contest a ton of races, second only to the Swiss Army knife Nizzolo. He bested Cav in Paris (behind Wout). And across all those results, he matched the Manxman’s consistency with 20 podiums in 25 tries. All this on a team where he’s sometimes their third option, behind van der Poel and Merlier. I haven’t exactly broken down film on him (not that I would even know what I was seeing), but this is an incredible record for a young dude.

The Other Guys With a Claim To the Throne

Sam Bennett — A year ago the Irishman was feeling content with having reached the exclusive club of riders to win stages of all three grand tours. Now? He is back out the door to Bora after a bout of knee soreness and Patrick Lefevre assholishness cost him his place at the Tour and any subsequent appearances. His last race was in May. But in his shortened season, Bennett seemed to confirm what he’s been up to for a few years now, making a serious claim to fastest man, winning seven of his ten sprint efforts from the UAE Tour to the Volta ao Algarve, his last race. The only upside is that his downfall paved the way for the July Cavaissance, and who could be against that? But his incomplete season leaves us wondering where he is.

80th Eurométropole Tour 2021 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Fabio Jakobsen — This whole category is basically guys who had incomplete seasons for one reason or another, and Jakobsen’s was easily the most heart-warming version. His return from his horrible crash in Poland in 2020 was hardly expected, but Jakobsen not only overcame his injuries and any psychological scars that might go along with what he experienced — he recovered his speed as well. After a couple months of stage racing for DQS, regaining his race form in support of their other sprinters, the wraps came off at the Tour de Wallonie in July where he immediately scored a couple wins, form he carried into the Vuelta where he took three more stages and the points competition, more or less trading blows with Philipsen and edging him in stages 3-2. Just a stunning turn of events for a guy who went through hell. Jakobsen is two years older than Jasper, but if Jasper is at the top of the sport, then Fabio belongs right there with him.

Wout Van Aert — Another small sample size, because Wout... has a lot of jobs? When making time to contest sprints, he took four victories, plus three more podium places. His sprint win in Paris is as good a single-day surrogate for world’s fastest man, although it tends to feature something less than everyone we would like. When he winds it up, he can beat the best. But it’s not his regular gig.

Caleb Ewan — The most conventional of the shortened season explanations, the Aussie was in fine form as usual until crashing out of the Tour, and apart from a win in the Benelux Tour he never seemed to get his season in gear again. He beat the likes of Merlier, Bennett and some of the other prominent names on this list along the way, so at 28 there is every reason to believe he has a shot at being the top dog again.

BENELUX CYCLING TOUR STAGE FOUR Photo by DAVID STOCKMAN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

The Next Tier

Tim Merlier — Philipsen says his Belgian teammate is the fastest finisher in the world, and his wins at the Giro and the Tour say there is something to that. Merlier comes from the Cross world and at age 30 is only just making his way into the top tier. His consistency is also a tick below the more established bunch sprinters, hence his placement in this category that you could call “guys who might be great but I have some skepticism.” His average placement of 4.1 is off the podium, which seems like a telling stat. Or would, if he weren't part of this three-headed hydra where he isn’t always the team’s pick to win. He’s an exciting rider to watch but let’s pump the brakes until we get another full season of seeing what he can do at the top level.

Elia Viviani — Seven wins says that the Veneto man was back in 2021, after the previous year’s weirdness, but his wins weren’t terribly impressive, he didn’t break through at the Giro, and at age 32 it’s easier to imagine him losing ground than gaining it. But 80% top five says he wasn’t far off his top level, and he’s returning to SKINEOS where maybe we will decide that his two years at Cofidis (after a big run for Quick Step) were more the issue than anything in Viv’s legs.

42nd Tour de Wallonie 2021 - Stage 4 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Dylan Groenewegen — The Dutchman rode a wave of big wins pre-covid to a top place in the sport, but his role in Jakobsen’s crash sent him out into the wilderness, and it remains to be seen whether he ever really makes it back. He’s only 29, and just got released from the more GC-focused Jumbo to get a career restart at Team Bike Exchange, who don’t really have a guy of his caliber these days. Hard to sort out all the politics and feelings he’s dealing with, but if this clears the way for Groenewegen to just race again, this could be a big development in the sprint world.

The Don’t Forget About Me Tier

Magnus Cort Nielsen — Now we are getting into the usual suspects. MCN scored five wins, three at the Vuelta (of varying character) and a Paris-Nice stage among them. I feel like calling him a sprinter is underselling his versatility, and anyway he’s a cut below most of the guys up above though he gets it done often enough to suggest otherwise.

Nacer Bouhanni — Kind of a lost year, again, as his Area-Samsic years have consistently been below what he was for a while at Cofidis. But his top 5% says he’s not completely lost.

Matteo Trentin — He’s won too many sprints over the years for me to leave him off this list, and he contests them still as his top5% shows. But his wins have come more from the classics these days.

Giacomo Nizzolo — Jackie Nitz had his best season in a few years, showing up everywhere (leading the field in sprints attempted) and scoring three wins including a Giro stage for his troubles. For a guy who we thought peaked in 2016, his podium percentage (46%) was a sign of the Milanese really occupying a spot in the top echelons of the discipline. Joining Israel Start-Up Nation should give him continued space to launch next year.

The Maybe Forget About Me Tier

Fernando Gaviria — More ups and downs from the oft-injured Colombian. I guess he could put it all together one of these days, he’s still a mere 27, but am no longer waiting.

CYCLING-FRA-PARIS-TOURS Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP via Getty Images

Arnaud Demare — Now 30, Demare’s career as a sprinter seem to have given way to a pretty awesome career as a classics rider. So sure, you can forget about him coming around Jakobsen at the Tour or whatever, but his last two starts included second in Paris-Bourges and a win at Paris-Tours, so you can’t forget about him in a lot of other races we care about.

Niccolò Bonifazio — Basically a poor man’s Demare.

Davide Ballerini — A younger Bonifazio? Two sprint wins in Provence mix nicely with his Omloop victory. I don’t know what he is, besides a very useful guy.

British Cycling National Road Championships 2021 - Road Race - Lincoln Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

The Next Wave

Ethan Hayter — Best of the kids, though I would have to spend some time watching film to sort out which of the five wins were truly bunch sprints. I believe his profile isn’t pure fastman as much as classics guy with a fast finish — the Boonen package.

Alberto Dainese — I don’t really have an opinion on these other youngsters that’s based on watching; all I have here are numbers. He’s heading into his age 24 season and got in the mix pretty consistently last year.

Jordi Meeus — Another 1998 kid, former U23 Belgian champ, he got hot at the end of the season and won Paris-Bourges, along with some other close calls. With Bennett coming back to Bora (and Sagan out), he should have a chance to make some noise in ‘22.

Vincenzo Albanese — Two years older and maybe doesn’t belong on this list.

Missing from the list are Kooij and Dekker, Groenewegen’s supposed replacements at Jumbo, but they had scant results to date. Keep an eye on them though.

*****

Overall, I’d conclude that we could be in for a really exciting season of sprints next year. There is both quality and depth in the fields — in theory, and whether everyone stays healthy is always a problem. But you have up to ten riders you could call potentially dominant sprinters. The guys on that list are young, old, and prime. They are a bit bunched in Belgium, not surprisingly, but otherwise spread around to the strong teams. There is plenty of drama and intrigue to go along. Even the generational talent guy isn’t any sort of foregone conclusion to win. I doubt we will see a coronation this year but am ready for a constantly shifting high-level competition.