What distinguishes the greatest sprinters in cycling history? Surely, their palmarès. A massive amount of Grand Tour stages, a handful of points competition jerseys, a few Classic wins and possibly a World Championship victory or two make up the rider profile we were looking for to write this feature. And a few names immediately came to mind: Erik Zabel, Mario Cipollini, Mark Cavendish... So much for the more recent riders that have made history in the cycling sprint (or are still doing so).
But what about those who raced and won before our time? More than 100 years have passed since the creation of the Tour de France and there have been quite a few brilliant and prolific sprinters around. For those of our readers who still remember André Darrigade or Rik van Steenbergen, we had to dig deeper in the history books - and discovered that the task of assembling an all-time top ten list of best sprinters would not be such an easy one after all. Bearing in mind that the points competition was created only in 1953, we had to take into account that bunch sprint finishes actually are a recent phenomenon of modern cycling, and that teams were not organised to that effect during the first part of the last century.
And what about those riders who combined fast finishing speed with the strength to win even the hillier Classics, such as Rik van Looy or Sean Kelly? What about the legendary Eddy Merckx, whose all-encompassing palmarès also includes many sprint victories and points jerseys? Did they also fall into the sprinters category?
We decided to include only one of them in our ranking - Sean Kelly for his four green jerseys - and to concentrate on more contemporary stars such as Robbie McEwen, Oscar Freire, Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi: the masters of fast finishing speeds, modern lead-out trains and perfect positioning. Finally, we reached our goal of ending up with ten names instead of 15, and pondered the possibility of placing them in an order of importance... But according to which parameters? Number of Grand Tour stage wins? With an astonishing 57 stages to his name, 'Super Mario' would then be the unmatched winner of that category, closely followed by 'Ale-Jet' with 48 victories.
But what about Zabel's nine points competition wins at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana? And Freire's three World Championship titles? Maertens' 13 Vuelta stages in 1977? Which of them have more value? We therefore decided to place our all-stars of sprinting in no particular order and leave it to the Cyclingnews Forum users to debate in the long winter weeks before racing action will begin again in 2012.
The King of the Green Jersey by far. With his six consecutive points competition victories at the Tour de France, 'Ete' Zabel has earned his spot in our ranking easily, not even counting his three points jerseys at the Vuelta or the 20 Grand Tour stages (12 at the Tour, 8 at the Vuelta) he lifted his hands to. The German, whose most successful years were spent working for the Deutsche Telekom and later T-Mobile squad, also managed nine Classic victories, amongst which four times Milano-Sanremo. It should have been five at La Primavera, but an unforgettable moment in his career came when he was caught on the line of the Via Roma by Oscar Freire in 2004, having raised his hands too soon.
Zabel continued his career until 2008 with Team Milram, competing alongside Alessandro Petacchi, before becoming a tactical consultant at Team Columbia and helping Mark Cavendish to his 2009 Milan-Sanremo win. Now aged 41, he has just been recruited by the Katusha team as a sprint advisor.
Love him or hate him, but only few would disagree that 'Super Mario' has changed the face of modern cycling forever: not only did he win the greatest amount of Grand Tour stages ever for a pure sprinter (57 compared to Merckx's 64), he also did so with a style and charisma that are impossible to imitate. Laughing in the face of the UCI with his ever-changing lycra dress-ups, Cipollini also won the Giro d'Italia points competition three times - but never finished one of the eight Tours he rode.
The tall Italian, whose greatest victories also include one Worlds title in Zolder 2002, as well as 'La Classicissima' Milan-Sanremo the same year, certainly never lacked the self-confidence that true sprinters need in order to battle it out in the final run to the line. Cipollini's explosiveness as well as his good looks made him an all-Italian hero, a star deeply worshipped by a crowd which needed him to show off his attitude as much as he did.
Another record-breaking sprinter was the Belgian Freddy Maertens: 55 victories within the sole season of 1976 speak for themselves. That year, Maertens claimed eight victories at the Tour de France (tied with Merckx and Charles Pélissier for the most in a single Tour) and one year later, seven stages of the Giro d'Italia, before abandoning the event in the beginning of the second week. Add to those figures an unforgettable 13 Vuelta a Espana stages he also won in 1977 - which even made him a Grand Tour winner! - and his six consecutive stage victories at the Dauphiné Libéré in 1975, and you end up with certainly the greatest sprinter of the 1970s.
Maertens' top speed was legendary, and so was his open rivalry with fellow countryman Eddy Merckx. At the 1973 Worlds, Maertens and 'the Cannibal' both lost out in the final sprint - a perfect scenario for plenty of polemics. In 1976, Maertens takes his revenge and the rainbow jersey, which he surprisingly wins one more time in 1981 in a glorious but short come-back following several years of ill-luck in the late '70s.
"The Tashkent Terror" - his sole nickname says it all. Djamolidine Abdoujaparov was a feared man in the peloton of the early '90s, not only for his raw power in the last few hundred meters of a race, but also for his unpredictable trajectories which saw him burst to the finish with his head down between his shoulders, elbows out, possibly eyes closed.
His willingness to risk absolutely everything brought him a total of 17 Grand Tour stages and five overall points competitions (three at the Tour de France), but also a dreadful crash on the 1991 Tour de France Champs Elysées when he first won the green jersey. However, this did not change the Uzbek sprinter's aggressive sprinting style in the years thereafter. "Abdou" made us dread every mass sprint finish he was involved in, secretly praying before our TV screens. He finished his career in the same excessive way he conducted it, by testing positive for bromatan several times during his last pro year, 1997.
One of the most versatile riders in history, Sean Kelly deserves his mention in this column for his four green jerseys won at the Tour de France (which makes him runner-up to Erik Zabel), a total of 16 Grand Tour stage wins and another four points competitions at the Vuelta - of which he was also a general classification winner in 1988. An Irish farmer's son, Kelly had the ability to suffer more than others, and a willpower than earned him a total of eleven Classic wins, encompassing all kinds: from Giro di Lombardia (three times), Milan-Sanremo (twice), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (twice) to even the cobblestone nightmare of Paris-Roubaix (twice, again), Kelly was able to shine on all terrains.
He even won a total of 26 stage races, including an astonishing seven consecutive wins of Paris-Nice and four overall victories of the Basque Country. Post-career, Kelly put his vast experience to the service of Eurosport race commentary and founded his own cycling team.
One of several highly impressive sprinters of the beginning of the millennium, Robbie McEwen could arguably be labeled as the most cunning and independent of them all. The Australian never truly relied on a state-of-the-art lead-out train like some of his greatest rivals did, and still managed to sneak up to the line in the very last seconds, following his natural instinct for the best possible rear wheel. He won the Tour's green jersey three times, and a total of 24 Grand Tour stages.
McEwen may not have been the dominant sprinter during his most competitive years, but he was always a factor to be dealt with and made life hard for his opponents. Next year, the 39-year-old will leave his second home in Belgium for the first Australian WorldTour team, GreenEdge.
Also counting amongst the best tacticians of his fellow fast men is Spaniard Oscar Freire. Similarly to McEwen, the man who spent most of his career at Dutch team Rabobank often caught his rivals off-guard when they least expected him. Only three other riders in history have also achieved Freire's three World Championship titles, and he combined them with another three Milan-Sanremo victories, one overall green jersey win at the Tour and a total of eleven Grand Tour stages.
Even though Freire has had several setbacks during his career - including back and neck problems, saddle injuries - he still won a total of six Classics. In 2010 Freire became the first Spaniard to win Paris-Tours and on that occasion set the fastest average speed in a Classic race ever: he covered the 233 kilometres at an average of 47.73 km/h.
At 26 years of age, Mark Cavendish has already achieved a stunning palmarès, which is likely to grow even more impressive in the coming years. The "Manx Express", current World Champion, has 30 Grand Tour stages to his name (of which 20 at the Tour de France). Cavendish started his absolute supremacy in 2009 when he showed he was able to win Milan-Sanremo after already having scored four stages at the Tour the year prior. He continued with a record-breaking three consecutive wins of the most prestigious Tour sprint finish, the last stage on the Champs Elysées, and proved his consistency by taking the points competitions first at the 2010 Vuelta, then at the 2011 Tour.
'Cav' may have a controversial personality, but this could well be a factor of his success as many great sprinters and top riders in general show a dominant personality. Nevertheless, maturity comes with age and in the case of the Manxman, this can only be to his advantage.
The Italian fast man's reign reached its peak from 2003 to 2005, but in the space of those three years Alessandro Petacchi managed to achieve the greatest number of wins of all riders each season. 'Ale-Jet' seemed unstoppable when in 2003, 15 of his overall 24 victories were obtained at the three Grand Tours. One year later, he dominated the Giro d'Italia, taking an unbelievable nine stages as well as the maglia ciclamino in the 2004 edition. Petacchi was also very successful at the Vuelta, where he won a total of 20 stages and the blue points jersey in 2005.
That same year, every sprinter's dream - and especially an Italian's - was achieved when he surged to victory on the Via Roma in Sanremo. But his second points classification jersey at the Giro in 2007 - and all this victories during that time - were annulled following a positive doping control for salbutamol and a one-year suspension. But Petacchi came back, and made another dream come true in 2010 when he proved to be the most regular sprinter at the Tour de France.
The last spot in our non-exhaustive ranking was hard-fought, and it came down to either Thor Hushovd or Tom Boonen. But looking at the two riders' palmarès, the Norwegian still had shown more regularity in the Grand Tours, and also a greater amount of stage victories. The "God of Thunder" Thor has won three points competition jerseys, of which two at the Tour de France, where he also achieved ten of his 14 Grand Tour stage victories (compared to six Tour stages for Boonen).
Of course, one could argue that neither Hushovd nor Boonen are pure sprinters, but when it comes down to a mass run to the line on a slightly rising road, only very few can match the 2010 World Champion. Arguably, the Belgian has more Classic victories to his name, but these should count for a Top Ten of Classics riders instead of this rating of the fast men. Hushovd remarkably combines his strength with speed and has proven during the span of his 11-year-career that he remains a force to be reckoned with.