Who is the best sprinter of the last decade?

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.

1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Cavendish 50 351 776 831 833 710 560
Greipel 5 121 102 399 624 558 407 550
Kittel 10 464 270
Degelenkob 23 196 500
Petacchi 22 200 80 670 1380 1171 610 310 443 60 348 498 401 240
Boonen 135 355 395 615 439 510 193 83 9 125
Hushovd 10 20 24 26 115 290 242 573 438 275 273 78 41
Bennati 45 101 5 308 643 550 214 112 282 233
Farrar 4 4 38 76 698 539 306 97
Zabel 470 490 740 835 600 577 120 515 609 317
Bettini 70 3 68 58 55 92 358 430 175
Sagan 85 308 296
Cipollini 791 273 460 735 345 56 55 10
McEwen 335 113 185 670 540 627 632 792 485 297 93 215 124 5
Davis 76 146 110 304 186 168 101 7 164
Freire 156 150 180 155 205 115 328 490 498 217 68 85 30
Steels 328 230 45 103 55 95 115 10
Cooke 20 10 182 320 113 42 103 79 65 64 12 8 28
O’Grady 193 163 160 57 152 288 215 184 76 10 37
Kirsipuu 362 193 285 150 201 155 75 50

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.

1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
1 Cipolloni Zabel Zabel Zabel Petacchi Petacchi McEwen McEwen Bennati Cavendish Cavendish Cavendish Cavendish Cavendish
2 Blijlevens Cipollini Hondo Cipollini Zabel McEwen Petacchi Boonen Zabel Bennati Farrar Greipel Kittel Greipel
3 Zabel Wust Cipollini Petacchi McEwen Zabel Boonen Hushovd Freire Boonen Greipel Farrar Greipel Deglenkob
4 Wust Svorada Kirsipuu McEwen Cipollini Boonen Hushovd Zabel McEwen Freire Petacchi Petacchi Petacchi Guardini
5 Kirsippu Steels Leoni Furlan Cooke Pollack Eisel Bettini Petacchi Greipel Hushovd Van Hummel Sagan Sagan
6 McEwen Petacchi Quaranta Teutenberg Svorada Hushovd O’Grady Freire Boonen Zabel Bozic Haedo Farrar Kittel
7 Steels Kirsipuu McEwen Cooke Edo Alsina Hondo Brown Petacchi Hushovd McEwen Gavazzi McEwen Guardini Goss
8 Quaranta Koerts Vainsteins Freire Kirsipuu O’Grady Davis Bennati Bettini Hushovd Boassen Hagen Dean Bennati Petacchi
9 Guidi Quaranta Svorada Svorada Dean Zanotti Galvez Pollack Napolitano Fernandez Freire Boassen Hagen Rojas Bouhanni
10 Svorada Vainsteins O’Grady Kirsupuu Nazon Nazon Bongiorno Forster Richeze Ciolek Bennati Hutarovich Haedo Viviani

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.

1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Cavendish 1 4 10 17 24 12 14 15 97 12.1
Petacchi 9 5 13 23 21 25 13 14 4 11 8 3 3 152 11.7
Greipel 1 2 2 15 20 22 8 19 89 11.1
Sagan 3 4 14 17 38 9.5
Zabel 10 17 23 16 10 6 2 4 5 1 93 9.3
Boonen 1 2 1 19 14 20 12 16 7 3 2 13 110 9.1
Cipollini 15 6 9 14 4 2 2 52 7.4
Kittel 1 5 1 17 13 37 7.4
Kirsipuu 17 13 18 7 12 8 4 3 1 1 7 2 93 7.1
McEwen 5 2 9 19 7 8 15 13 8 4 3 2 4 90 6.9
Bettini 5 6 5 10 5 8 4 9 3 5 60 6
Hushovd 6 5 9 3 3 10 6 8 2 6 7 4 5 74 5.7
Degelenkob 1 9 6 12 28 5.6
Freire 1 9 3 3 7 5 7 7 9 7 2 7 3 2 72 5.1
Cooke 4 3 9 7 8 3 4 3 2 43 4.7
Bennati 2 2 6 9 10 8 4 3 7 1 52 4.7
Steels 8 7 3 3 3 5 4 33 4.1
Farrar 1 3 1 1 10 8 5 3 32 3.5
Davis 1 2 5 4 2 6 2 4 1 27 3
O’Grady 6 2 2 1 3 6 2 1 3 1 27 1.9

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…

 

 

 

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