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Our choice for No. 3 in the list of Greatest Road Sprinters over the past four decades is Erik Zabel. In a pro career spanning 17 years, the former East German won some 200 races; he was the only rider to win the Tour de France green jersey six times, was a rare sprinter to have a spell as No. 1 in the UCI World Rankings, and approached an Eddy Merckx record with his four (almost five) victories in Milan–San Remo. But because of Zabel’s recent admission that he used doping products for the middle eight seasons of his lengthy career, there will always be an asterisk against his name.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
That admission came to a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, in July 2013 and caused him to resign his posts as a coach with Team Katusha, a director of Hamburg’s Vattenfall Cyclassics and a member of the UCI’s pro cycling commission. But his admission concerned races a decade earlier, beyond the World Anti-Doping Agency’s eight-year statute of limitations [which has since been increased to 10 years under the 2015 Code]. Given that qualifying factor and the fact that several of his former Deutsche Telekom teammates also admitted their culpability without jeopardizing their racing careers, we need to look at Zabel’s results without a jaundiced eye.
Born and raised in East Berlin, he was the son of a well-known East German racer of the 1950s, Detlef Zabel, who was good enough to win stages and place top 10 at the Eastern Bloc’s Tour de France, the Peace Race, a.k.a. Warsaw–Berlin–Prague. Son Erik would also ride the Peace Race (placing 11th and taking the points classification in 1992), but he first showed his speed on the track in team pursuit (speed he would later use as a pro to win 14 six-day races on the winter velodromes).
In his last race as an amateur, Zabel was a favorite (with Lance Armstrong) at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic road race—and took the bunch sprint for fourth place behind the three-man breakaway sprint won by Fabio Casartelli.
Zabel soon began winning pro races, starting with the opening stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in March 1993; he won his first classic, Paris–Tours, in 1994, taking a 67-man sprint (he’d also win at Tours in 2003 and ’05); and at his second Tour de France, in 1995, he won two stages (adding 10 more in the following seven years).
Zabel’s first monument came in 1997 at San Remo (this image), where he out-sprinted Alberto Elli at the head of a 40-strong group, while rival sprinters Johan Museeuw and Laurent Jalabert were both involved in the crash seen here. The German would win Milan–San Remo three more times in the next four years—and looked to have won a fifth in 2004 but he raised his arms in celebration too soon and Óscar Freire nipped him on the line.
Zabel’s other classic wins included the Amstel Gold Race, Scheldeprijs and Frankfurt GP. His biggest regret was not winning worlds, twice coming in second (to Freire in 2004 and Paolo Bettini in 2006) after taking third in 2002 (behind Mario Cipollini and Robbie McEwen).