One of the peloton’s most beloved riders, German sprinter André Greipel, got the gorilla off his back with a win at the Challenge Mallorca on Sunday.
Like his longtime rival, Mark Cavendish – who won four stages at the Tour of Turkey last month – Greipel didn’t break his winless streak on cycling’s biggest stage. But when you’re a sprinter in the twilight of your career, you take what you can get, and a minor result takes on a greater symbolic significance.
The life cycle of a top sprinter is a fickle thing. To be at the top of the game requires blistering speed, bravery, and tactical smarts, along with a committed lead-out train. When a rider discovers that magical formula, it can look effortless. When they don’t, the gap between wins can seem interminable.
The last time André Greipel won a race was in late January 2019, half a world away on the west coast of Africa at the UCI 2.1-rated Tropicale Amissa Bongo. The German veteran had just been dropped by Lotto-Soudal, and just started what would be a one-year stint with Arkea Samsic.
Arkea Samsic management was clearly hopeful that Greipel would deliver great things, but Amissa Bongo was one of the few bright spots in one of his quietest-ever seasons. At that year’s Tour de France – one of Greipel’s happy hunting grounds – he only cracked the top 10 on a single occasion, finishing sixth on the Champs-Elysees.
At the end of that year, Greipel signed a three year contract with Israel Start-Up Nation, a cushy gig that would see him through to retirement. In a torrid 2020 season that was disrupted by COVID-19 calendar interruptions, Greipel’s most prominent result was, again, sixth on a stage at the Tour de France. At the Tour Down Under, where Greipel has won a colossal 18 stages over his long career, he went winless.
Which brings us to 2021, the island of Mallorca and the 1.1-rated one-day Trofeo Alcudia-Port d’Alcudia, part of the Challenge Mallorca. On a largely flat parcours in the Spanish sun, the race came down to a bunch sprint.
Two veterans, André Greipel and Alexander Kristoff – a gorilla and a stallion – went to the line together, moving left toward the barriers in lockstep. As the line approached, Greipel was holding Kristoff off by half a bike length.
A sprinter’s professional cycling career is defined by milliseconds and millimetres, but when you stretch those tiny measurements out across a decade, they add up. As Greipel crossed the line first to take his 157th win, his trademark smile stretched across his face.
Greipel’s storied career has included 22 Grand Tour stage wins, alongside other results big and small. This one wasn’t one of the big ones.
But in the moment, you get the sense that it was one that mattered.