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The Greatest Sprinters In Cycling History

Updated on September 14, 2014
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Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. A keen cyclist, runner, and obstacle racer who ran his first ultra-marathon in 2016.

Mark Cavendish winning a bunch sprint
Mark Cavendish winning a bunch sprint | Source

A guide to some of the best sprinters cycling has ever seen

In the history of road cycling there have been numerous great sprinters. The guys (and girls) who often only see the front of the race for those few brief seconds as they cross the finish line with their hands held high.

It takes a daring risk taker to be a successful sprinter. That and a lot of leg speed and power to force the way through to front as the finish line gets closer combined with the balance of an Olympic gymnast. Modern times have seen the development of specialist sprint trains where teammates aim to deliver their leader to victory.

Some of the best riders in the history of the Tour de France have challenged for the legendary green jersey which crowns the best sprinter as well as winning classic races like Milan- San Remo and the World Championships.

The difficulty in making decisions on the best cycling sprinters of all time

It's always going to be a challenge to specifically select the best sprinter in the sport's histry. Many of the top names have dominated their own era's. How would Freddy Maertens, the record holder for the number of stage wins in a single Grand Tour compare against the raw power in the final couple of hundred metres of Mark Cavendish.

Many commenter's may never have seen some of the greats of days gone by which is why you often see articles protesting that riders like Cavendish are the best ever. Professional cycling now is significantly more organised with sprint trains which makes you think how others may have feared if they had other riders in their team specifically driving them towards the finish line. Riders like Robbie McEwan at times lacked significant team support and subsequently learnt the art of exceptional positioning towards the front of the bunch to use other riders to their advantage.

The most successful pure sprinter in Grand Tour cycling history

Mario Cipollini- Modern road cycling's most successful pure sprinter.
Mario Cipollini- Modern road cycling's most successful pure sprinter. | Source

Which rider has won the most Grand Tour stage victories in the modern era?

When you look at what makes a good sprinter great you have to look at how many stages they have won in the big big races of professional cycling. The Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana are the Grand Tours and are arguably the standard by which it's easy to judge the quality of a sprinter.

The rider than has won the most Grand Tour stage victories in the modern era of cycling is Mario Cipollini with 57 stage victories followed by Alessandro Petacchi with 48 victories throughout their careers.

Mario Cipollini- The first rider to fashion a sprint train

Mario Cipollini is the most successful rider in Giro d'Italia history with 42 stage victories. His emergence at the top of the sport in the late 80's and 90's saw Super Mario fashion the first sprint trains to lead him to victory across the finish line during his most successful days leading the Saeco team.

Regarded as one of the greatest sprinters of his generation, Cipollini added colour and a degree of controversy to the professional peloton with his strong character and refusal to stick to the cultural rules of cycling infuriated the sports governing body.

Cipollini was a marketing man's dream and the sponsors of his teams certainly got their money worth in publicity. He once started a stage of the Tour de France dressed up to celebrate Julius Caesar's birthday prior to the start line as well as being the first trendsetter to match yellow kit to a Tour de France yellow jersey. This practice is now commonplace in professional cycling however at the time infuriated the UCI and led to fines.

Cipollini's bravado made him a cult figure in his native Italy but his alpha-male behaviour has a love or loath effect for many. Despite this his sprinting pedigree is hard to argue against after he won the points classification at the Giro d'Italia on three occasions as well as a total of 57 Grand Tour stage wins. When you add into the mix a win in the World Championships in 2002 and victories in many of the sprinters classics you have an explosive sprinter who defined 90's cycling.

Mark Cavendish wearing the Rainbow Jersey of World Champion

Mark Cavendish, one of the greatest sprinters in the history of the Tour de France in his World Champion jersey.
Mark Cavendish, one of the greatest sprinters in the history of the Tour de France in his World Champion jersey. | Source

Mark Cavendish- Modern cycling's most successful sprinter.

Growing up on the Isle of Man off the coast of England, The Manx Missile knew exactly what he wanted to do with himself. He wanted to be a professional cyclist and a sprinter. Instead of taking the standard British route towards the top through track cycling Cavendish packed his bags and headed over to Europe's hotbeds of cycling to learn his trade the hard way on the road. Cavendish actually spent two years working full-time in a bank to gather the money to head into Europe for his first seasons racing.

The 'fastest man on two wheels' started racing with the German Sparkasse Team before moving on to the legendary T-Mobile Team after winning a 2006 Commonwealth Games Gold medal on the track in Melbourne in the Scratch Race for his beloved Isle Of Man.

2007- Cavendish at T Mobile

Mark Cavendish in his early T Mobile Team days
Mark Cavendish in his early T Mobile Team days | Source

Early professional success for Mark Cavendish

2007 saw Cavendish promoted to the T Mobile Team which saw him take a number of wins across Europe including tasting high level success at Grote Schildeprijs, as well as winning stages in races like the Volta a Catalunya, Four Days of Dunkirk and the Eneco Tour. His first professional season saw Cavendish equal Alessandro Petachi's neo-Pro record of 11 race wins.

2007 also saw Cav's first appearance at the Tour De France. Although a number of crashes in the first few days of the race restricted his ability to get results and limited him to just top-10 positions. Cavendish withdrew from the race when it hit the mighty French Alps.

The Manx Missile and Tour De France Success

Cavendish started the 2008 season well with wins in sprint stages of both the Giro D'Italia and Tour de France under the newly developed Team High Road which later became Team Columbia as new sponsors came on board as T Mobile left the sport.

High Road and it's later guises (Columbia and then HTC) saw the extreme potential of Mark Cavendish and geared the team towards being his sprint train with devastating effect over the next few years, Cavendish became a marketers dream when cell-phone manufacturer HTC came on board as main sponsor with Cavendish at the height of his sprint powers winning stages 2, 3, 10, 11, 19 and 21 of the 2009 Tour de France He sprinted to victory on one stage into La Grande Motte in the Green Jersey with a salute as though on the telephone which will forever go down in photographic memory.

The 2010 Tour De France saw Cavendish winning stages 5, 6, 11, 18 and 20 to take his tally up to an impressive 15 stage wins. 2011 saw further Tour success with a win in the green jersey sprinters classification which had previously eluded him due to a pre-eminent focus on stage wins not intermediate sprint results

Marianne Vos in sprint action

Marianne Vos taking yet another road race vistory in a bunch sprint.
Marianne Vos taking yet another road race vistory in a bunch sprint. | Source

Female cycling's sprint superstar- Marianne Vos

Dutchwoman Marianne Vos is arguably the most versitile cyclist on the planet right now. A multiple cyclocross world champion, Olympic champion and world road race champion her palmares are the envy of her rivals.

Her ability to win from sprint finishes as well as her tenacity in smaller groups maskes her a fantastically talented all-round racer.

Vos has won races consistently since her early years rising up in the sport in the bunch sprints which are relatively common in women's races as well as being competitive from smaller breakaway groups.

The most terrifying sprinter in cycling- Djamolodine Abdoujaparov

You don't get a nickname like the Tashkent Terror without good reason. Djamolodine Abdoujaparov's sprinting style almost looked like he did more sideways than forward movement but it was exceptionally fast with a reckless nature which alarmed fellow competitors.

To cycling fans the 'Uzbek Express' will most likely be known for his crash with a roadside police officer on the Champs Elysées in Paris on the final stage of the 1991 Tour de France when leading the green jersey classification. The crash (in video below) was so bad that Abdoujaporov was unable to be acknowledged as the winner in the closing ceremony after being whisked off to a local hospital for treatment.

His sprinting style was an all or nothing and this led his to a total of 17 Grand Tour stage wins throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Each one was a torment for viewers worried for others' safety yet this style has endeared him to many fans over the years for his tenacious attitude and aggressive sprinting. The Tashkent Terror was successful in claiming three green jersey Tour de France sprint classifications during his career marking him down as one of the best sprinters in the sport's history.

Djamolodine Abdoujaparov's crash on the Champs Elysee's

Erik Zabel- The most successful green jersey winner in Tour de France history

German sprint specialist Erik Zabel is officailly the most successful rider in Tour de France Green (Sprinters) Jersey history having won the jersey six times consecutively between 1996 and 2001 as part of a strong Team Telekom (later T-Mobile) during an era which has sadly been blighted by pharmacological performance enhancement in the professional peloton which were inherently widespread. If you make the assumption he was competing against riders who were also doping at the time he still has to class as one of the greatest cycling sprinters of his era.

Zabel also won one of cycling's key sprinters classics Milan- San Remo (Also known as "La Primavera") four times on a parcours made difficult by a number of challenging climbs. It should have been five wins but for Zabel celebrating.

In the video below you'll see Erik Zabel taking you through the Milan- San Remo course, the climbs and the incident where he lost the 2004 La Primavera to Oscar Freire by celebrating too early.

Erik Zabel talks through the Milan-San Remo course and his 2004 sprint mistake

Which sprinter has won the most stages in a single Grand Tour? - Freddy Maertens

When you think of the brutal nature of a Grand Tour event. 21 days of racing through flatlands and high mountains it's hard to believe a rider could win 13 stages in one Grand Tour event. Freddy Maertens won 13 stages in the 1977 Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain) on his way to victory in the race.

Maertens also jointly holds the record for Tour de France stage wins in a single Tour with 8 stage wins in the 1976 edition which ties him for the record with Charles Pélissier and Eddy Merckx.

A man who'll be defined by a headbutt- Robbie McEwan

The most successful sprinter in 2005 and 2006 according to Simon Crips's sicycling interpretation of the Cycling Quotient ranking system was Austrailia's Robbie McEwan. His cunning and tenacity meant that he didn't need to rely on a sprint lead out train in the same manner as many of his rivals. This independence and intelligence led his to a total of 24 Grand Tour stage wins and an impressive three wins in the Tour De France Green Jersey classification showing incredible consistency.

Robbie McEwan headbutting Stuart O'Grady in a sprint finish in the 2005 Tour De France on Stage 3

A female sprinting legend- Ina Yoko Teutenberg

When Teutenberg entered her first race and fell 500 meters from the finish it would be hard to imagine where the sport would lead her. Coincidently the next day she had some of the local boys at her mercy and in tears as in her second race after beating all barring two boy racers.

Fast forward to today and Ina Yoko Teutenberg has become one of female cycling's most accomplished riders having taken victories across the globe with race victories in events as diverse as the Womens Tour of Flanders (Vlaanderen) and stage wins in the women's tour of Italy- the Giro Donne.

Ina's career has taken her from being a member of the Women's T Mobile team to the American Specialized Lululemon team . Now one of the more experienced riders in the women's peloton, Teutenberg has still remained competitive despite the emergence of many younger riders in an aspect of cycling which is rapidly expanding.

Eddy Merckx- The most successful winner in the history of cycling

Eddy Merckx is the most successful cyclist in the history of the sport., He could climb the high passes of Europe with some of the best, drive over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix like they were a smooth strip of tarmac and he could sprint like a track specialist. Eddy Merckx was the rider with it all. Nicknamed "the cannibal" due for his insatiable need to win.

In his peak riding years between 1969- 75, Eddy Merckx crossed the finish line first in 35% of races entered which shows his true class as a rider. In that era riders didn't simply get to pick and choose the races they entered.

Eddy's dominance of cycling during the late 60's and through the 1970s is further showcased as he's the only rider to win all of the overall race classifications in a single Grand Tour race. Merckx triumphed in the mountains, points and general classifications at the 1968 Giro d'Italia and 1969 Tour de France.

Eddy Merckx- Cycling's most successful racer

Eddy Merckx in racing action. Eddy was arguably the best cyclist in the history of the sport
Eddy Merckx in racing action. Eddy was arguably the best cyclist in the history of the sport | Source

The "God of Thunder" Thor Hushvovd- Hard to beat in an uphill sprint

One of the greatest cyclists to come out of Norway is Thor Hushovd. During a career in which he won three green sprinters jersey classifications in the Toiur de France, Hushvovd was a rider of consistency- challenging for intermediate sprints but really excelling on harder stage finishes where the pure sprinters often struggled as roads climbed upwards towards the finish line.

I total of 14 Tour de France stage victories over an 11 year career mark Hushovd down as a successful rider but it's his consistency that really helped him stand out.

Who's the best sprinter in road cycling history in your opinion?

We're always looking for your feedback here on Hubpages- Please let us know who in your eyes was the best sprinter that the cycling world has seen and who could you see as being the starts of the future?

Thanks for reading

Liam Hallam- CyclingFitness

© 2013 Liam Hallam

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      Liam Hallam 2 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Thanks Vrolingen. I'll have to do a little more research on Nelissen and possibly add him to the list. Thanks for your feedback and stopping by to comment. Liam

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      VROLINGEN 2 years ago

      not only looking on grand tour victories but also a fast men...

      Wilfried Nelissen !!!

    • capon profile image

      Tony Capon 3 years ago from Upminster, Essex, United Kingdom

      On reflection I think it was right to desperate them out. After your next hub (on track sprinters), it would be interesting to "See a 3rd "Road Sprinters-v-Track Sprinters." Happy research, Liam. Tony

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      Liam Hallam 3 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Thanks for the comment Tony. My focus for this hub has been on road sprinters although a piece on track sprinters is definitely an idea going forwards.

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      Tony Capon 3 years ago from Upminster, Essex, United Kingdom

      Liam, No specialist track riders: did you consider any for inclusion? Tony