Cycling growing professionalisation and diverse race calender has meant that nailing down a ‘best rider’ has become pretty tricky to achieve, even for notoriously talkative cycling fans who love nothing better then arguing their corner on whom it should be. This diversification has separated cyclists into distinct groups, rather then the Merckxian steamrollers of the past who would do every event (unless you were Bernard Hinault, who called Paris-Roubaix ‘bullshit’ and only turned up to win it, adding to his palmares to plug a gap, then to ‘defend’ it by showing up the year after), and so we are blessed with ‘specialists’ – the climbers, the time triallists, the hilly classics men, the cobbled classics men and the sprinters. Of course, some crossover occurs in these categories – Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan are difficult to place, for instance, and someone like Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome can both climb and time trial, perhaps creating a new category of ‘GC contenders’. But these anomalies aside, does it make it any easier to adjudicate who is ‘the best?’
Well, you’ll have to judge for yourself, as is always the case. I’ve spent a bit of time using the excellent Cycling Quotient ranking system (http://www.cqranking.com/men/asp/gen/start.asp) to produce a set of rankings over the years for a few of these categories, which hopefully shed a bit of light on the situation. First up is the sprinters of the last decade, and yes, I’m using the historical definition of decade, rather then the normal one, as this allows us to stretch ‘decade’ out a bit. But first to the line wins you say? It’s not always as simple as that…
The first step in this process involved listing the top sprinters in my mind from 1999 onwards. Obviously this meant that points jersey winners had to be in, so Cavendish, McEwen, Freire, Pettachi, Sagan, Zabel, Boonen and Hushovd were all in, as well as the Teutonic generation of Greipel, Kittel and Deglenkob. A sizeable Aussie contingent was added, as O’Grady, Davis and Cooke used to duke it out, and then the other included Bennati, the ever second Farrar, Paolo Bettini and some golden oldies in Tom Steels, Mario Cipollini and Jan Kirsipuu. What then proceeded was to find which was the best rider through their CQ points, and so I produced the following table.
The table is a little tricky to interprete, so here’s the top 10s from each year in terms of sprinters. Notable trends include Cavendish’s run of 5 years as the best in the world (although he was 11th in 2007), as well as Erik Zabel’s impressive run at the top. Judging by these trends, Cavendish, Zabel, Cipollini and McEwen are the most consistently in the top few placings, and it seems that very few sprinters have a longer ‘bumper’ period then a couple of years, as further evidence will suggest – the best most can expect is a couple of years of solid wins.
So I decided that visualing these trends would be better, so here’s the adjoining graph.
Petacchi has the highest score from his incredible 2003, and we can see that Cavendish is being caught by the chasing pack which is coming together at it’s closest since the 2006-2007 messy sprints, before the High-Road trains saw Greipel and Cavendish pull away from the field.
Of course, the above is ranking sprinters on the basis of the quality of their wins, rather then the quantity. But is for instance 5 wins, of say, 2 stages of the Tour, Milan-San Remo, a Giro stage and the Vuelta indicative of a better sprinter then one who wins 20 races across the year? That’s up to you, dear reader, but if quantity is your thing, then this next table will be right up your street. The two right most columns are a running total of the number of wins the rider has accumulated in the time period, whilst the right-most number is the average number of wins they have taken in the years they have won a race.
What this tells us is that Cavendish, Pettachi and Greipel are the only riders to average over 10 wins a year in this period (Zabel probably would if it was extended), with Boonen a surprise number 6 for win frequency, perhaps boosted by his epic 2006 campaign, although you could argue this was balanced by a dismal 2011. What is also notable is that very few riders amass more then 20 wins in a year: just Cavendish, Petacchi, Greipel and Zabel have managed it, with Petacchi managing it 3 years in a row. But even 10 wins in a year is rare, and even rarer is too repeat this as well. Sprinters seems to chug along at a low win rate only to have a annus mirrablis or two, before slinking back to the shadows. This is still deceptive though – Freire is below Hushovd for win rate, and near identical for number of wins, but their palmares are markedly different: Freire can boast 3 World Titles, 3 Milan-San Remos, Paris-Tours, Ghent-Whevelgem, a Green jersey and 4 Tour stages to Hushovd’s one world title, no monuments, Ghent-Whevelgem, stages in all three Grand tours and a couple of points jerseys. Freire’s wins are of a higher quality, yet on figures alone, Hushovd would be the better sprinter.
Here’s the graph of win data.
Again, we can see that the wins are being split more evenly in the last couple of years, following a couple of years of domination, although domination is the trend, with two lines always seemingly way above the rest.
So who is the best? I’m afraid I can’t answer that, only provide the tools for you to use…