I’ve been watching the Tour de France for a fair number of years. I’m still a student of the race and love to watch any film and video I run across. In my memory, relative to their years, the three best sprinters I’ve seen were Alessandro Petacchi, Mario Cipollini and Jean-Paul van Poppel.
I’m aware that Erik Zabel tops these guys for the sheer number of green jerseys he won, but he didn’t have the acceleration Petacchi, Cipollin and van Poppel had.
That’s what separated them from the garden-variety, faster-than-a-speeding-Ferrari sprinter—their stunning acceleration. From helicopter shots you could see the pedal stroke in which they unleashed their full power, as incandescent as the light that comes with a switch. In two pedal strokes you could see their relationship change to the riders around them; they simply gained more ground.
One of my favorite shots of all time was of a head-on finish from the ’87 Tour in which van Poppel in his Superconfex-Yoko jersey has taken the V. and has four of the race’s finest sprinters lined up, at least a length behind him. Outclassed is, I think, the technical term. It’s easy, in these more cynical times to wonder if maybe he was on something, but my speculation ends at the idea that his competitors were almost certainly on whatever he was on. Move along, nothing to see here.
At their absolute best, Cipollini and Petacchi both could drop riders during a sprint; Petacchi once dropped Cipo. But in each of the examples I can think of, Petacchi and Cipo gapped guys who … well most of us never thought they were up to the task.
In Stage 2 of the 2009 Tour de France we got a rare look. We saw the man who is arguably the world’s finest sprinter drop, yes drop, another sprinter who is undoubtedly in his ascendancy. With Tyler Farrar fixed squarely to his wheel, Mark Cavendish simply rode away from him.
Normally, when one fine sprinter is on the wheel of an even great sprinter, they will at least hold on and come off their wheel to gain a foot or two as they cross the line. The gain isn’t enough for the win, but they at least claw back some distance, now matter how tiny. Farrar is, to his credit, a young guy at the top of his game. He’s sure to get better, but he’s as fast as he has ever been and yet, he simply couldn’t match the acceleration of Cavendish while firmly planted on his wheel. This is significant because he was fast enough not to have to fight for Cavendish’s wheel and yet, Elvis left the building. Indeed, Farrar was so fast, no one could even come around him.
Cavendish is better than the other sprinters by order of magnitude. He’s like the guy fast enough to race the Pro/I/II event but keeps racing the IIIs just to have the chance to win. Cavendish needs a mandatory upgrade. Too bad there’s no one fast enough to compete against him.
The real question for the flat stages of this year’s Tour will be if anyone can ever outfox Columbia-HTC to beat Cavendish to the line.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.