Mark Cavendish wins so often that it’s a news story in itself when he loses, provoking major inquests and minor crises. The Manx Missile has triumphed in at least once race every year since turning professional in 2005 – 13 straight years – during which he has ascended to third in the all-time Grand Tour stage win ranking and second overall in the Tour de France stage win rankings.
But just how often does Cavendish actually win at the Grand Tours? Just how “efficient” are riders at winning stages? We crunched the numbers to find out.
What is efficiency?
This involved coming up with some notions of how to define “efficiency.” Let’s use Cavendish as an example for how I did this.
The first thought was simple to take the number of stages won, and divide them by the years in which they won them. For Cavendish at the Tour, this would be 30 divided by a count of 2008-2013, 2015 and 2016, ie 8. This would give us a figure of 3.75 wins per Tour.
But this would be a misrepresentation of Cavendish’s participations, as he also started both the 2007 Tour, as a young T-Mobile hot shot keen to start in his own country and go for a stage win in Canterbury, and in 2014, where he had the chance to take the yellow jersey in his mother’s hometown. So he has actually taken part in 10 Tours. Recalculating his wins by participation then, Cavendish has 30 wins divided by 10 participations, which gives a nice round 3.0 wins per Tour participation.
Alas, even that is not accurate however, because, as you’ll remember, Cavendish crashed out of the 2014 Tour on the first stage, went home for the Olympics in both 2008 and 2016, and left the race after a couple of mountain stages in 2007. He has thus raced less stages of the race than someone who has started and completed ten complete Tours.
If we started looking at participations historically as well, it would give disparities, as the number of stages in a Grand Tour has only been 21 since 2000, varying from 6 (1903 Tour) to 31 (1937 Tour) otherwise. Even then, stage cancellations have meant recent Giri, for example 2013, have only had 20 stages raced. To say a rider competing in just 6 stages in 1903 had the same opportunities to win as one with 31 stages ahead of them in 1937 would be unfair.
As a result, we have to actually count the number of opportunities a rider has had, ie the number of stages they have raced. By this measure.Cavendish has actually completed 165 stages of the Tour, rather than the 210 you would expect of someone who has started ten editions of the race. We can thus look at his win rate via two methods:
- The number of stages per win, ie how many stages he has on average ridden for each win. This would be 165/30 = 5.5 stages per win
- The % win rate, which is the reverse sum: (30/165)x100, which gives 18.18%, meaning Cavendish has won just under one fifth of every Tour stage he has competed in.
These last two statistics are the fairest measure – so let’s have a look at the current peloton and see who has the best figures for each Grand Tour, and for overall.
(A note on the “Stages” calculation – if a rider takes abandons a stage, that stage is still counted as they participated. Thus, a rider who abandons on stage 10 will have a stage count for that Tour of 10, whilst a rider in the same race who does not start stage 10 will have a count of 9, as this is the number of stages they have started.)
The Historical Big Boys
Some historical context. Here is a list of the ten riders with the highest number of stage wins to their name, and their corresponding statistics as above.
As you can see, we’ve finally found a measure at which Eddy Merckx doesn’t come out on top of, with his win rate at the Grand Tours actually marginally below Cavendish. It does show the difference in the Wins/Participation ration and stage ratios though, as Merckx would be over a win a Tour ahead of Cavendish if it was just by participations.
Alfredo Binda’s exemplary win rate of over 37% can partially be explained by his era, the late twenties and thirties, where the Giro had around 12-14 stages. Thus, winning “only” four or five would give him the ratio he has – still an incredible feat.
Freddy Maertens is arguably the most impressive performer however.Maertens racked up 35 stage wins in just six grand tours, he actually “only” won stages in five, including a stunning 13 in his one Vuelta participation, giving him a staggering 62% win rate at the event. He also managed a 30% win rate at the Giro, and just under 20%.
Elsewhere, one notable stat is Rik Van Looy’s stages per win figure at the Tour, which is the only one of anyone in the top ten that is over the 21, ie over the amount that would generally consitute one Tour. At 36, it infers that Van Looy took over 1 and a half Tours for every stage win he racked up at the event, whilst others averaged 5.6 stages for all Grand Tours.
The Modern Peloton
By my count, there are 179 riders who are either still riding or retiring in 2017 who have won Grand Tour stages (not counting cases like Luca Paolini and Chris Horner), with a total of 477 stage wins between them. But who should you have in your team if you want to guarantee stage wins?
Unsurprisingly, it is the sprinters who are the men you want if you want to bring in some sponsor pleasing victories. Arguably, the magic figure to aim for is to have a figure of one or more wins per participation, meaning that you essentially produce, on average, a stage win for every Grand Tour you enter (yes, yes, it doesn’t bear out in practice, but what does with cycling statistics?) Only 14 men achieve this statistic, and once you remove those who have only raced one Grand Tour (which perhaps unfairly voids Magnus Cort-Nielson’s two wins at the 2016 Vuelta), you are left with:
Cavendish is unsurprisingly out in front, with a 17.266% win rate at Grand Tours, and averaging around 6 stages per stage win. He seems to have forgone the Vuelta after taking its points jersey in 2010 then abandoning in the heat of 2011, with the Tour of Britain seemingly replacing the Spanish race as his Worlds preperation of choice. Still the benchmark for sprinters, with an average of nearly three wins for every Grand Tour he enters.
Patrick Lefevere’s choice to replace Cavendish with Kittel for the 2016 Tour didn’t seem to pay out, with Kittel only taking one win to the Manxman’s four, but it still feels like a good move for the future. Along with Cavendish and Degenkolb, Kittel is one of the only riders who has a wins/participation ratio of two or more at a particular Grand Tour, and shares the honour with Cavendish of being one of the two riders who on average win two or more stages per participation. He also boasts a 33% win rate at the Giro – aided mainly by the fact he’s only raced 11 stages of it due to abandons.
A man who actually does guarantee a stage win (he has won at least a stage of every Grand Tour he has entered since 2008), “The Gorilla” might not be spectacular, only winning more than one stage in 4 of his last 11 Grand Tours, it is that consistency that makes him such a valuable asset. He will turn 35 at this year’s Tour de France, which passes through his native Germany – what bet extending his remarkable run in Dusseldorf?
The double World Champion’s Grand Tour stage winning form is about as flamboyant as his personality – it’s boom or bust for Sagan, who has racked up five Green jersey wins in succession in a competition increasingly designed to reward stage wins over consistency despite not winning any stages in two years. Indeed, Sagan’s 57 stage drought at the Tour was a story in itself, accumulating nine second places as he went. But when he wins, he wins lots, and with his beard and mane becoming a distinct news story in itself, you may as well just employ him for that publicity, if you can afford him…
Degenkolb probably would have been higher up this list had his much-publicised crash not meant 2016 was a barren year. Still yet to get the elusive Tour win to complete his Grand Tour set (he has been second five times), he has won five, four and one at the Vuelta. Not a pure sprinter, and in the past put to work for Marcel Kittel, Degenkolb now suffers from being in a B-list that prefers the type of finishes that an increasingly classy list of riders such as Van Avermaet, Trentin, Ulissi and Matthews compete for.
With Sunweb having ditched Kittel and Degenkolb to focus on Tom Dumoulin’s GC ambitions, bringing in Matthews, a man who sprints without a leadout train, seems like a bit if a token attempt to ensure they’re still represented at the sharp end. Matthews has won a stage of every event he has entered bar the 2015 Tour, with his multiple wins giving him the magic 1/1 wins/participation ratio. Better suited to the rock and roll of the Giro than the pace of the Tour, Matthews has to pick and choose, hence his relatively high stage/win ratio.
Diego Ulissi isn’t even a sprinter, but he has won six stages at six Giros, albeit one being awarded when he came third and Pablo Lastras and Giovanni Visconti got relegated for handbags, so he achieves the magic ratio. Maybe he’d like to try it somewhere other than his home peninsula?
Honourable Mention: Nacer Bouhanni
Bouhanni only has a ratio of 0.714, but then he’s only managed to ride 79 Grand Tour stages, despite starting 7 Grand Tours. He’s only finished one, the 2014 Giro, where he won the points jersey, and these days, he struggles to get to the start, not that we’d say that to his face, given the reason is he was punching people. His stages to win ratio is actually better than Degenkolbs, which should give some indication of his power if he can actually get to the start.
The Best of the Rest
This list shows the rest of the riders who have raced more than one Grand Tour by their win rate, which suggests that a top Grand Tour contender should be next on your list if you want to win stages (getting expensive this). Dumoulin, Froome, Nibali and Valverde hang just off the coat tails of the sprinters at the top of the board, along with a splattering of time trialists.
Of course, this also shows the danger of such statistics if you wanted to form some kind of Moneyball team with them. Tom Boonen has a 1/1 ratio at the Tour, and wins a stage for every 26 he races, but hasn’t raced that event since 2011, and intermittently turned up at the Vuelta (and a cameo at the Giro).
So, unsurprisingly, the bombshell of this article is that if you want to win stages, hire a sprinter or a Tour winner. Wow. So deep.
George Hincapie and Jens Voigt have started 17 Tour de Frances each, with 353 and 333 stages raced between them. They’ve been rewarded with 2 and 1 stage wins respectively, meaning that Hincapie has won 0.283% of all the stages he’s raced at le Grand Boucle. Better than none I guess…
Hincapie also has the unenviable record of the man who had to race the most stages for one win during his career – 402. Riders have ridden more stages – Alessandro Petacchi rode 547 – but they all managed more than one stage win. Hincapie technically doesn’t even have that: it was wiped off by USADA in 2012.