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.

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  1. Fishandsteak

    Tyler Farrar is undoubtedly a classy and fast sprinter. His second place would be enough for a win in almost any circumstance, but unlucky for him, Columbia-HTC and Cav are just plain better.

    Cav has always been hungry for wins, and with his legs, team and pathological need to be first he can’t be stopped by traditional sprint tactics. Time that Garmin got a new plan I think?

  2. Robot

    If Columbia-HTC’s lead out isn’t interrupted somehow, Cav will win every sprint. He’s the fastest AND has the most disciplined lead out. The only chance I see of someone taking him is by going early, perhaps as Cav’s third man gives way to his second. Only a surprise and a long, sustained sprint is going to do it.

  3. Marco Placero

    Good example in July 6 sprint after Cavendish was set up by Renshaw with Hushoved right on Cav’s wheel, Cav gapped one of the fastest humans in the pro peloton in about three of those power strokes mentioned. I think it’s percentage of fast twitch fibers plus huge cojones.

  4. bikesgonewild

    …beauty of effort, efficiency & motion comparable to a cheetah about to draw blood…

    …wow !!!…one of the finest ever, i’m sure…

  5. marcj

    It’s a shame there’s no time bonus for sprints anymore. I guess the goal was to keep the race closer through the first week, but it also means a guy like Cav is out of luck when it comes to the yellow jersey. I guess getting the podium and green jersey’s reward enough…

  6. matty

    One of the things I like about watching Cav sprint is seeing him from that head-on camera angle, his ass sticking up above his head, his chin practically at the stem.

    Someone will come around him this Tour, though. We just don’t know who yet… any thoughts on who will do it?

  7. RMM

    One of the great things about bike racing is that a indomitable sprint does not insure a win in a sprint. The other sprinter teams will need to race smarter to overcome the odds of Cav taking every flat stage.

  8. Geoff

    You got to wonder what Ciolek (to the left of Cav in the Milram kit) is thinking. He leaves Columbia because he didn’t want to play second fiddle after seeing Cav come in when he was the anointed sprinter of the future after winning the German elite road title at 19.

    He’s left the best team in the sport to get a shot at winning, and isn’t even coming close!!! He might have been better off staying as a leadout man for Cav.

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