Kings of speed: Who are the greatest Tour de France sprinters of the modern era?

With the Tour de France heading to the Champs-Élysées today, it would only be right to honour this most famous of finish lines by looking at the greatest Tour de France sprinters of the modern era.

So here are our top five kings of speed:

Mark Cavendish
Tour de France Record: 1st: 30, 2nd: 3, 3rd: 4
Also: World Championships (2011), Milano-San Remo (2010)

Surpassed only by Eddy Merckx for all-time wins, the Manxman is the most prolific active Tour de France sprinter.

Although a huge chunk of his 30 stage wins came off the back of the dominant lead-out train developed by the HTC teams, he is also well known for his freelancing, opportunistic style, where he profits from the work of other teams, jumping rivals in his trademark super-low compact position.

He burst onto the Tour scene with four wins in his first appearance in 2008, backed up by six the year after that, and then five in both 2010 and 2011.

Those years of absolute dominance moved him into the consciousness of both the cycling and wider-world.

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Sadly, his star has gradually fizzled since; a result of team choices that did not work out for him (for example, riding on Sky in 2012 when the team were all-eyes on getting Wiggins into yellow), and more recently due to a long battle with Epstein-Bar virus.

There’s so much to say about this feisty character that you could devote thousands of words to him, from his notoriously fiery character – commonly putting journalists in their box when asked an awkward or strange question, to his throwing of headbutts in the peloton.

However, what makes him such an enduring character is that his temper is balanced by a willingness to show his sensitive side, from post-victory tears to his charming bromance with his long-time teammate and helper Bernie Eisel.

Marcel Kittel
Tour de France Record: 1st: 14, 2nd: 2, 3rd: 2

Kittel was the first rider to put up some legitimate challenge to Cavendish’s dominance of the sprints, taking 13 wins across 2013-2015.

The German’s most illustrious years came when under the Shimano and Quick-Step team umbrellas.

The tall, solid powerhouse of a rider was never one to get into a scrappy sprint like his rival Cav, but relied on the work of his lead-out man.

With an ability to hold a top speed for a ridiculously long time, he just needed a team to point him in the right direction and given a clear run at the line.

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More recently riding with Katusha-Alpecin, the immaculately coiffured sprinter’s career slowed, impeded by a stutter in form and confidence, and latterly by issues with mental health, something that has sadly led to him taking a hiatus from racing.

He has recently been linked with signing for Jumbo-Visma, where he would likely play second-fiddle to Dylan Groenewegen.

If you need a quick way of reminding yourself what Marcel is all about, just refer to his Twitter bio, which reads: “I love speed, sprinting, and hair.”

Erik Zabel
Tour de France Record: 1st: 12, 2nd: 22, 3rd: 19
Also: 4 x Milano-San Remo (1997,1998, 2000, 2001)

Although Zabel doesn’t have the same number of stage wins as his countryman Kittel, the number of top-3s in the Tour he’s got, and his huge palmares – including a turn of the millennium stranglehold on Milano-San Remo – leads to many dubbing him the greatest German sprinter ever.

Zabel’s dominance was assisted by his ability to climb, giving him the Sagan-esque versatility to take a streak of six green jerseys from 1996-2001, and get over the tricky final hills of Milano-San Remo as one of the few remaining sprinters in a bunch of climbers and rouleurs.

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Unfortunately, as with so many of his generation, the sheen on his reputation is tarnished by a confession of doping, and the subsequent revelation that his initial ‘confession’ was in fact a half-truth that kept quiet a far wider history of EPO abuse.

Zabel’s blotted copybook forms just a part of the difficult relationship that Germany had with cycling in the period after the Operation Puerto scandal of 2006 and controversy surrounding the German T-Mobile team which also dethroned Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis from the nation’s consciousness.

Erik’s son, Rik, is now racing with Katusha-Alpecin. He too is a sprinter, though so far lacks the prowess boasted by his father.

Robbie McEwen
Tour de France Record: 1st: 12, 2nd: 10, 3rd: 6

Riding in an era where many sprinters would rely on a lead-out train to usher them to victory, the short, lightweight Aussie used impeccable timing and movement as well as an unmatchable acceleration to take his wins – a sort of prototype for the similarly diminutive Cavendish.

And the comparisons with modern-day riders don’t end with Cavendish – like Peter Sagan now, McEwan made use of a background in BMX to keep crowds entertained with wheelies when suffering in the grupetto of the high mountain stages.

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McEwen was well known for being a tireless worker, loving the bike with a passion that many couldn’t match.

The fact that he won a race in each of the 16 years of his career is a testament to his huge desire for the sport and commitment to training.

The incredible length of his career is what enabled him to amass his impressive haul of Tour top-3s – he was never a dominant force, like Cavendish would be after him, but you could never ever rule him out.

When he retired from the sport during his 2012 season with Orica GreenEdge, he took up a role as a sprint coach and tactical advisor.

Mario Cipollini
Tour de France sprint record: 1st: 12, 2nd: 2, 3rd: 4
Also: World Championships 2002, Milano-San Remo 2002, 42 Giro d’Italia stage wins(!)

One of the enduring personalities of cycling, the unique character of ‘super Mario’ almost comes before his palmares.

Sure, we know more about Cipo’s penchant for whipping up controversy with animal print or ‘muscle’ skinsuits, or his seeming fascination with winding up the UCI.

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But let’s not forget that he boasts a stack of Tour wins, more Giro wins than you’ve had pizzas, and a World Champs victory over sprint legends Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel.

Cipollini is credited with ‘inventing’ the sprint train with his Saeco team of the late 90s, and though that provided him a huge advantage in the bunch sprits, his tall, muscled frame gave him a top speed few could rival.

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Cipo’s haul of Tour stage wins is impressive, but he never actually completed the race.

Like all sprinters, he didn’t like the mountains. However, rather than joining the grupetto and grinding it out, he just didn’t start the stage, and instead circulated photos of himself chilling by the beach.

That habit didn’t extend to the Giro however, where he took three of the overall points jerseys – something only possible by completing all 21 stages.

This seeming enmity to the Tour de France was repaid in turn by Jean-Marie Leblanc, then the director of the race, who told him he couldn’t race the 2002 or 2003 Tours – even when holding the stipes of the 2002 World champion.

Cipo’s love of his image and self-idolatry continued after his retirement in 2008 with the creation of his own high-end bike brand, ‘Cipollini’.

Honorary mention: Peter Sagan
Tour de France stage record: 1st: 12, 2nd: 22, 3rd: 11
Also: 3 x World Championships (2015, 2016, 2017), Paris-Roubaix (2018), Ronde van Vlaanderen (2016)

Though his palmares at the Tour exceeds that of Zabel, McEwen and Cipollini, I took the brave decision of not including ‘The Tourmanator’ in the above on the basis of him not being a true bunch sprinter.

Sagan’s modern-day mastery of the green jersey comes from him being good in so many situations, be they bunch sprints, strongman uphill sprints against the likes of Greg van Avermaet and Michael Matthews, or even finishes at the top of a short climb.

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Sagan does, unfortunately, have a reputation for never quite making the finish line first, as is evidenced by his 45 top-3 finishes at the Tour to date – including an incredible 8 top-3s in 2016.

However, because Sagan really is a ‘legend’ in both the proper use of the term and the modern youth sense of the term, he’s gotta get a mention.

He signs autographs while riding his bike up the Tourmalet. He pulls wheelies, bunnyhops, and brings out ridiculous finish line celebrations. And he’s a phenomenal talent.

When I’m a big boy, I want to be Peter Sagan.

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