At the Rouleur Classic next week, we will devote a solid amount of stage time to celebrating the sprinters. Gracing our platform will be two of the best of the current era, in Caleb Ewan and Sam Bennett; the greatest ever, Mark Cavendish; and Adam Blythe, who has won more races than anyone gives him credit for. About time, I say, because we’re in a golden age of finishers and the sport appears unwilling or unable to recognise it.
It seems that is in part, and somewhat ironically, because there is no one rider currently dominating the sprints. For some reason a single rider or team maintaining a stranglehold in the mountains is seen as boring, whereas one doing the same on the flat is lionised. Is it that we all possess a secret attraction to the alpha brute? I may only have a “C” in AS level Psychology but I know enough to steer clear of that one.
The days when a Cavendish or a Kittel could cruise to four or five stages are gone, or at least on hiatus. We shouldn’t mourn them. Not because we didn’t enjoy watching greatness be great but because, objectively, the hallmarks of exciting sport are competition and unpredictability.
This past season has been as competitive and unpredictable as any in memory. Any one of half a dozen could make justifiable claims to be the best sprinter in the world: Bennett, Ewan, Elia Viviani, Dylan Groenwegen, Pascal Ackermann, Mathieu van der Poel. And that’s without Fernando Gaviria, whose year never really got going, and Peter Sagan who “only” managed a stage of the Tour de France and his seventh green jersey. The big six all won ten races or more. As with Radiohead albums, a case can be made for each of them, and no-one is wrong.
Even that lot don’t have an oligopoly. The winner of Tour de France opener in Brussels? Mike “who?” Teunissen. Stage 10 of the Giro? Arnaud “oh yeah, him” Demare. Gent Wevelgem? Alexander Kristoff.
Based purely on win volume, it would be easy to conclude that Elia Viviani had a worse season in 2019 than 2018. When I spoke to him at Six Day London this week, however, the Italian, sounded far from disappointed with his haul. Who a sprinter beats, he pointed out, matters at least as much as the total. This year every one of those riders, at one point or another, beat every other.
And they all do it differently. Viviani likes as long a lead-out train as he can get. Though it definitely isn’t dead, some fastmen do forego them entirely, and all that means is they depend more on the support of the squad to keep them fresh before the finale.
The equalising of the levels may have something to do with the fact that almost no team is prepared to devote all their resources to supporting a single sprinter at the moment. The odds of their rider being the one to finish off the move are too long to justify it. The best example is Jumbo Visma, who backed a GC bid at the Tour as well as going for individual stage wins, but they’re far from alone.
It also might be a bit chicken-egg, as the decision to hedge only amplifies the uncertainty. It feels a lot less likely that a break will be pulled back these days because there often isn’t the firepower to do it. When it does happen, in how many races this year were you able to identify, and train an eye on, the ultimate winner as they went under the kilometre-to-go kite? Any? Be honest…
Which is a good thing. It’s one the Grand Tour organisers should be taking advantage of, and making the most of, rather than treating as an afterthought. I’m not going to try to argue that this year’s Tour was too exciting, but excitement doesn’t always look like man marking man up massive mountains. Sometimes it’s a furious flat finish, Carlton Kirby going mental, ten slow motion replays and a “pick that one out.”
We can’t wait to hear what Mark Cavendish thinks of it all next Saturday.