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After watching yesterday’s 2022 Vuelta a España route reveal (which I will be breaking down for BTP premium subscribers later this week) I was initially surprised to see the race, which has been incredibly sprinter unfriendly in recent history, includes six-to-seven almost purely flat traditional sprint stages. While the narrative in pro cycling has been that major races are shifting away from courses that suit pure sprinters, the 2022 Vuelta represents a decent amount of flat stages, especially for a grand tour that has gotten a reputation for its brutal, no-fluff, mountain-heavy parcours. In an era when the hybrid sprinters like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Sonny Colbrelli are considered gods and many have written off the more old-school sprinters entirely, the reality shows a much more complicated picture and reveals a road-map to relatively ‘easy’ wins and UCI points for struggling teams.
Flat Stages Have Declined, but Sprinters Are Still Winning
If we look at the number of ‘flat’ or potential ‘sprint’ stages that were present at all three 2021 grand tours (Giro:6, TdF:8, Vuelta:6) and are planned for 2022 (Giro:7, TdF:6) the 2022 Vuelta lands just above that average.
Despite a fairly steady number, every grand tour reveal seems to generate the same headlines bemoaning the decline of sprint stages and questioning the role of pure sprinters in the future of the sport. This popular narrative, as well as the decreasing size of teams at each grand tour from 9 to 8, which has essentially destroyed traditional ‘sprint trains’, has even caused some WorldTour teams, like Astana, to fail to include even a single traditional sprinter on their roster for the 2022 season.
This conclusion does make some sense. Along with the rise of ‘super sprinters’ like Peter Sagan, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, who can appear to win everything from Tour de France bunch sprints to mountain stages, there certainly doesn’t appear to be much room left for the one-trick ponies like Caleb Ewan, Pascal Ackerman and Dylan Groenewegen, who have all suffered performance declines in recent seasons.
And if we look at each grand tour from 2021 and its counterpart from 20 years ago, there is an undeniable and clear decreasing trendline in the number of sprint stages.
Number of Flat Stages Per Grand Tour:
2021 Tour de France: 8
2001 Tour de France: 12
2021Giro d’Italia: 6
2001 Giro d’Italia: 11
2021 Vuelta a Espana: 6
2001 Vuelta a Espana: 7
At first glance, this would signal that pure sprinters are indeed a dying breed, and their inclusion in a teams’ grand tour squad is becoming more and more superfluous.
However, if we look a little bit deeper, things get complicated. I took the top 20 sprinters in the Pro Cycling Stats end-of-season Sprinter rankings over the past twenty years and highlighted wins at grand tours from riders in that top-20 in five-year increments. While I have some issues with PCS’s methodology for ranking their sprinters, it does provide a decent overall picture of how the incredibly difficult-to-define category of riders known as ‘sprinters’ is performing as a whole. The results show that interestingly, while the number of raw sprint stages has decreased, the number of stages won by so-called ‘sprinters’ is essentially unchanged over this period.
2021 Grand Tour Stage Wins by PCS Top-20 Sprinters:
2016 Grand Tour Stage Wins by PCS Top-20 Sprinters:
2011 Grand Tour Stage Wins by PCS Top-20 Sprinters:
2006 Grand Tour Stage Wins by PCS Top-20 Sprinters:
2001 Grand Tour Stage Wins by PCS Top-20 Sprinters:
How Sprinters Evolved?
One potential reason for the lack of decrease in ‘sprinter’ victories at grand tours despite a massive decrease in the number of available sprint stages could be an evolution in the type of riders able to win bunch sprints. For example, in 2011, riders like Mark Cavendish and André Greipel, who struggled to get over even the smallest climbs in the front group, ruled the bunch sprints. But flash forward to 2021, and Wout van Aert, who won one of the hardest mountain stages and an individual time trial at the 2021 Tour de France, took top honors on the stage 21 bunch sprint on the Champs-Élysées, which functions as a defacto sprinters’ world championship.
This change could suggest that riders who have both a fast finishing kick, as well as the ability to get over incredibly difficult climbs with the best climbers, are essentially cannibalizing the bunch sprints and pushing their more powerful, but traditional, counterparts out of the sport. With the highly visible rise of incredibly versatile riders who appear to do a bit of everything, this theory makes a lot of sense at first glance. But, when we look a bit deeper and start to stress test it, major cracks start to appear and hint at a more complicated answer.
For example, if we look at the twenty best sprinters in the 2021 PCS Sprinter rankings (summation of PCS points in flat or semi-flat races over a 365-day period), outside of Van Aert, the versatility is potentially lower across the board than it was 10 years ago in 2011. In fact, the PCS season sprint leader in 2011, Mark Cavendish, finished second in 2021, which shows that the old-school sprinter with limited versatility can still thrive in the modern peloton, even as his top-end speed has declined due to age.
2021 PCS Sprinter Top-20 Rankings:
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-20 Overall PCS Rankings: 3
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-20 One-Day PCS Rankings: 5
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-100 Climber PCS Rankings: 3
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-100 GC PCS Rankings: 1
2011 PCS Sprinter Top-20 Rankings:
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-20 Overall PCS Rankings: 5
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-20 One-Day PCS Rankings: not available
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-100 Climber PCS Rankings: not available
Top-20 Sprinters in Top-100 GC PCS Rankings: not available
An Opportunity for the Taking
While the raw number of stages for pure sprinters has decreased across the board, and for the most part, the days of carte blanche sprint trains are gone, it has become incredibly trendy to bring a roster full of super-sprinters (or ‘climby-sprinty boys’ as the great podcaster Benji Naesen calls them) to a grand tour. This means there is little margin left on the medium-hard stages, but that there is now a massive opportunity for the teams who zag and go all-in with more traditional sprinters.
After all, while it looks highly impressive when riders like Sonny Colbrelli and Michael Matthews almost won nearly every stage at the 2021 Tour de France, both riders walked away from that Tour without a single stage win. Meanwhile, a 36-year-old Mark Cavendish, who is the dictionary definition of a pure sprinter, racked up four stage wins due to superior straight-line speed, a few skilled teammates, and the lack of any other true pure sprinters being present at the event. If a team like BikeExchange, who failed to win a single stage with Matthews, had come to the event with a powerful sprinter like Sam Bennett (who was left out of the race by his own DQS team to make room for Mark Cavendish), it is difficult to imagine them walking away with less than a handful of stage wins.
Part of the reason for the decline in the profile of traditional fastmen is that sport’s top pure sprinters like Caleb Ewan, Fabio Jakobsen, Sam Bennett, and Pascal Ackerman have all suffered performance declines since the COVID-restart during the 2020 season, for a variety of somewhat random reasons. While many have interpreted this decline to be a sign of the decline of the sprinter, the numbers show that the wins (and UCI points) are there for the taking. And with so much low-hanging fruit in terms of UCI points across the entire calendar, and with the UCI instituting its new relegation format in 2022 that will see any teams not finishing inside the top-18 in total UCI points booted from the top flight, there is a massive upside available to any team willing to invest the necessary resources.