Racing Analysis: An early look at the state of the world’s best sprinters

The early season is always full of fast finishes. Where do the sport's top sprinters stand?

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It’s been a great start to 2019 for fans of sprinting. Even in mid-March, the WorldTour calendar has already featured more than a dozen sprint battles, and the fast men have delivered one close contest after another. So where do they all stand today?

Last season seemed like a transition year for cycling’s sprinter elite. While ascendant talents like Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria, and Dylan Groenewegen came into their own, longtime stalwarts Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, and André Greipel all found themselves lacking in the results department. Two and a half months into 2019, it sure feels like those rising stars now sit comfortably atop the speedster pyramid. It’s not a changing of the guard; the guard’s already changed.

Three men to beat

Viviani, Gaviria, and Groenewegen were cycling’s top sprinters in 2018. Viviani seemed to win at will all season long. Gaviria and Groenewegen both notched a pair of Tour de France stage wins. So far this season, they have only further entrenched themselves as the three men to beat in the bunch kicks.

Viviani got his first win of 2019 at the Tour Down Under and followed it up with an impressive one-day win at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. Gaviria got his first two victories at the Vuelta a San Juan, and then the pair clashed at the UAE Tour. With its high-caliber field — Groenewegen was the notable absence — the one-week race proved to be an excellent barometer for the state of sprinting early in the season.

“It’s one of the toughest competitions,” Sam Bennett said of the UAE Tour field after winning the final stage. “It’s a high standard.”

Viviani and Gaviria, and their lead out trains, earned high marks in the UAE.

Gaviria’s stage 2 victory was an encouraging sign for his new UAE-Team Emirates squad. The Colombian took the victory with the help of a stellar lead out from Alexander Kristoff. The winner of last year’s final Tour de France stage wasted no time in proving that he has the talent and the mentality required to be an elite lead out rider as well. That bodes well for Gaviria in 2019, particularly as the Tour approaches.

“A sprint is a sprint, and I have to do the same more or less getting into position [as a lead out man],” Kristoff told CyclingTips. “I like to sprint for my own result but here we have a faster guy in the team in the same race.”

Viviani struck back in the UAE Tour’s fifth stage, smoothly transitioning from his lead out into his rivals wheels and then winning a four-wide gallop to the line.

The battle continues this week at Tirreno-Adriatico. Round one went to Viviani, who topped Peter Sagan (more on him in a moment) and Gaviria to win stage 3.

Groenewegen, absent from the UAE Tour, used the first two stages of Paris-Nice to make his own statement. His underrated Jumbo-Visma lead out positioned him perfectly to win a drag race on the opening day, and he followed that up with a dominant victory over a smaller group after crosswinds blew apart the pack in stage 2.

In short, the three best sprinters of 2018 have picked up right where they left off for 2019. For now, they sit atop the food chain in the fastest finishes in cycling.

How the fastest sprinters stack up right now.

It’s a bit unfair for the rest of the peloton that Gaviria went from the five-star Quick-Step train to having the guy that won on the Champs-Élysées last year as his lead out man. He already has the pure speed to beat anyone in the bunch. The one thing he needs to work on is his racecraft — he crashes more than he should, and doesn’t always put everything together in finishes where he should be a big favorite.

Speed: 5/5
Leadout Train: 5/5
Intangibles: 3/5

Groenewegen is not that much older than Gaviria, but did not have quite as much hype coming up. He has earned the sport’s attention now, with three career wins where it all really counts: the Tour de France. Similarly, his lead out does not get as much credit as others around the peloton, but Jumbo-Visma is no slouch in the finales.

Speed: 4/5
Leadout Train: 3/5
Intangibles: 4/5

Viviani took a huge step forward in 2018 after years as a dependable second-tier guy. He has the racing acumen, the speed, and the powerhouse lead out to contend in any fast finish. It will be interesting to see him finally taking on the Tour de France as a featured sprinter this summer.

Speed: 4/5
Leadout Train: 5/5
Intangibles: 4/5

Three wild cards

Sam Bennett, Caleb Ewan, and Peter Sagan headline the next handful of speedsters, fast enough to consistently challenge for victories even when the Gavirias and Groenewegens are in the mix. Others – Kristoff, Arnaud Démare, and Michael Matthews, for instance – fit that description too, but Bennett, Ewan, and Sagan stand out right now.

Bennett’s strong UAE Tour was a great sign of things to come. While Gaviria and Viviani delivered on already high expectations there, the Irishman followed up a string of high placings early with a victory over the more heavily favored pair in the seventh and final stage in Dubai. He has proven at Paris-Nice that his UAE success was no fluke. He won stage 3 in front of Groenewegen, and then overtook a better positioned Démare to take a brilliant stage 6 victory on Friday.

Bennett will be happy about his strong showings after his team announced that he would not be in the Bora-Hansgrohe Giro lineup, with the German squad hoping to give German speedster Pascal Ackermann some three-week racing experience. Bennett expressed displeasure with that decision, but he has been diplomatic after his stage victories on the Arabian Peninsula and in Europe, letting his results speak for themselves. May is still a long way away.

Sam Bennett wins the third stage of Paris-Nice.

In any case, as Bennett pointed out with a smile after his UAE stage win, winning bike races “can’t do any harm in a contract year.”

Ewan made noise in a different way in the UAE Tour. On the one hand, he seemed to be just shy of the top end speed required to snatch a win in the bunch sprints. That said, Ewan flashed a brilliant uphill kick to win stage 4 at Hatta Dam. Those climbing legs should come in handy on the Poggio at Milano-Sanremo later this month. He has shown good form at Paris-Nice, notching a pair of runner-up finishes so far.

As for Sagan, well, he’s Peter Sagan. He can win the Tour of Flanders, and he could be in the mix even at Liège-Bastogne-Liège this April, but he can also win a pure bunch kick when everything goes his way. He looked sharp already in January with a Tour Down Under stage win, and he gave Viviani a run for his money in the first sprint battle at Tirreno, finishing ahead of Gaviria.

Spend enough time reading cycling media and you’re bound to hear that “he’s no pure sprinter,” but Peter Sagan has beaten those pure sprinters on countless occasions.

Three with work to do

Considering the date on the calendar, Cavendish, Kittel, and Greipel, won’t be hitting the panic button yet—but it has been a slower start to the season than any of the trio would have hoped.

In Cavendish’s case, it’s to be expected that he’ll take time getting back up to speed. His 2018 season was derailed by mononucleosis. Sports director Hendrik Redant said he was pleased with his train’s work at the UAE Tour, giving Dimension Data some positives to take away from a winless ride there, but Cavendish suffered a setback at Paris-Nice, abandoning just two stages in.

Kittel’s situation is harder to judge. Without any clear explanation, the German sprinter struggled to put up results in 2018. He needs to bounce back this season, and early returns have not been promising. His Trofeo Palma win in early February was nice, but it came against a lesser sprint field. Like Cavendish, Kittel rode a quiet UAE Tour and abandoned Paris-Nice.

Katusha-Alpecin teammates at the UAE Tour pointed to the lack of lead out man Rik Zabel, who DNFed there and has not raced since, as a tough obstacle to overcome in the finales. Still, a train can only do so much. Kittel has not quite seemed himself for months now.

Greipel’s challenge will be finding his form while also settling into a new comfort zone. After eight successful seasons in the Lotto Soudal organization, he joined French Pro Continental squad Arkea-Samsic this season. He does have one victory to his name so far, a stage win at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, but he has not looked at the top of his game against top-tier competition. Perhaps Father Time is finally catching up with the 36-year-old veteran, or perhaps he just needs some more racing in his legs.

In any case, Cavendish, Kittel, and Greipel can take comfort in the fact that it is, after all, only March. Rivals like Gaviria and Viviani look sharper at the moment, but there’s no guarantee that will remain the case into the summer. Bigger races are coming, bringing with them more opportunities for the fastest finishers of the past few years to right the ship.

For now, they have work to do.

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