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Greatest Road Sprinters #5: Alessandro Petacchi

Petacchi didn’t have the flamboyance of a Cipollini or the consistency of an Erik Zabel, but he did have perseverance and ambition.

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There have been very few sprinters as prolific as Alessandro Petacchi, our No. 5 choice among the Greatest Road Sprinters of the past four decades. He turned pro at age 21 in 1996, riding the first four years of his career with a minor Italian team. So it wasn’t until the powerful Fassa Bortolo team signed him in 2000 that he began winning sprints on a regular basis, with a lead-out train that gave the 6-foot, 160-pound Italian the impetus he needed.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

His first big victories were two stages  of the Vuelta a España that year…but it wasn’t until 2003, at age 29 that his career really took off. That season, he won six stages of the Giro d’Italia (including this one at Catania on stage 5, taking a heads-down sprint from world champion Mario Cipollini), four stages of the Tour de France and five stages of the Vuelta a España!

Petacchi didn’t have the flamboyance of a Cipollini or the consistency of an Erik Zabel, but he did have perseverance and ambition. Take his favorite classic, Milan–San Remo, whose finale hugs the Ligurian coast, not far from his hometown of La Spezia. He rode this monument no less than 16 times, and at the seventh attempt, after coming in fourth the year before, Petacchi won La Classicisima in 2005, several bike lengths ahead of Danilo Hondo of Germany, Thor Hushovd of Norway and defending champion Oscar Freire of Spain.

That was the only monument he won, though he did win two other sprinters’ classics: France’s Paris–Tours in 2007 and Belgium’s Scheldeprijs in 2009. But the grand tours were Petacchi’s true stomping ground. In all, he won 22 stages at the Giro (the last in 2011 at age 37), 20 stages at the Vuelta and six at the Tour. And he’s one of the rare sprinters to have won the points jersey at all three grand tours.

Now retired, Petacchi (as reported in Gazzetta dello Sport this week) is going to rent out an apartment he owns on the coast at Lido di Camaiore to the peloton’s hottest new sprinter, Colombian Fernando Gaviria, who, like Petacchi, has already won Paris–Tours and has the potential to repeat the Italian’s stage-win successes at the Giro and his victory at Milan–San Remo.