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Here Come The Young, Hungry Sprinters

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Feb, 13, 2015. A generation ago, the peloton’s best sprinters were still winning big races in their mid-30s, including classics, stages of grand tours and world titles. Mario Cipollini had his best year at age 35 when he won Milan-San Remo and the rainbow jersey. Oscar Freire was 34 when he won at San Remo for the third time. Robbie McEwen took Paris-Brussels and Hamburg’s Vattenfall Cyclassics at 36. And Erik Zabel was 35 when he won his final classic, Paris-Tours.

That’s not the case anymore. When, at age 25, Marcel Kittel broke through at the Tour de France two years ago, the pundits started writing about the demise of Mark Cavendish. Cav was 28 at the time, hardly a geriatric. At that same Tour, Peter Sagan won the sprinters’ green jersey at age 23—and repeated last year (but without winning a single stage). A big reason for the fewer number of mass-sprint finishes is the growing proliferation of hilltop and mountaintop stage finishes in all the grand tours—so the true field sprints are going to be at a premium and become more highly contested than ever before.

As for the classics, sprinters rarely get a look in on today’s much hillier courses. There was a time when sprinters ruled the podium at Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, Amstel Gold Race and Paris-Tours. Now, even “the sprinters’ classic,” as Paris-Tours was known, has inserted a nasty series of short climbs in the finale that encourage attackers and leave the sprinters stuck in the pack more often than not.

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Tom Boonen, who started his career as a star sprinter, has had to adapt to the changing courses and develop his breakaway strength. Even so the tall Belgian hasn’t scored big in the spring classics since 2012, when he was 32—he used his still formidable sprint to win Ghent-Wevelgem and then completed the Flanders-Roubaix double thanks to breakaways. And it seems that Sagan has already learned not to rely on his sprint at the classics—he won at Wevelgem in 2013 with a late solo move from a breakaway group.

So what can we expect from sprinters in 2015?

There is still one survivor of the former generation. That’s Alessandro Petacchi, now 41, but after riding as a lead-out man for Cavendish last year he’s now on a minor Italian squad, Neri Sottoli-Ale, that will give him little hope of any more major victories—his last was a Giro d’Italia stage at age 38. After the aging Italian, the next oldest sprinter (though no longer a real sprinter) is Boonen at 35, followed by André Greipel who’ll celebrate his 33rd birthday during this year’s Tour de France. Greipel’s still winning races, but he has been eclipsed by his compatriots Kittel (27 in May this year) and John Degenkolb (26)—who both race for the Giant-Alpecin team. It’d be a surprise if Greipel, who rides for Lotto-Soudal, out-sprints either of these younger men in any future confrontation.

After Boonen and Greipel, the next oldest sprinters are Heinrich Haussler (31) and Cavendish (who will turn 30 in May). Their legs are still young (and fast) enough to maybe repeat their epic 1-2 sprint at the end of the 2012 Milan-San Remo this coming month in Italy. But Cav will be 33 at the 2017 road worlds in Qatar when he next gets a chance to win a second rainbow jersey six years after his world championship victory in Copenhagen.

As for Haussler, his win at last month’s Australian national title race could signal a new start for him at the now-UCI ProTeam, IAM Cycling—although he will have a hard time beating a very similar type of rider, Team Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff (28 this July), who can expect more success ahead after winning San Remo and two Tour stages last year. And his 2015 form is already on target after a bunch sprint win at the Tour of Qatar this week.

The big question, though, is whether Cavendish can make a successful return to the Tour de France after crashing out on opening day last year. If his current form means anything, the answer is an emphatic yes. His Etixx-Quick Step team was impressive last week in controlling the racing to help him get two stage wins and the overall victory at the Dubai Tour—where his favorite teammate Mark Renshaw again showed he’s probably the best current lead-out man in the world.

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To date, Cav has won more Tour stages (25) than any other sprinter in history, and he still has a chance of shooting at the all-time Tour stage-win record of 34 of Eddy Merckx—though that total includes individual time-trial wins, not Cav’s forte. But with that Merckx record as a carrot, Cav still has the fire and bravado needed to shine in the most hectic sprint finishes.

Greipel, Cavendish and Kristoff now represent the “older” generation, while longtime rivals such as Tyler Farrar (31), Matt Goss (28) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (28) are hoping that their combined strength on the MTN-Qhubeka formation will reinvigorate their careers. They have the experience, speed, combined strength and tactical nous to be a force in what should be spectacular stage finishes at the Tour.

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But winning just one of those flat stages will be a tough proposition given the high number of young talented sprinters that have emerged in the past couple of years. Besides (in order of age) Kittel, Degenkolb and Sagan. Look this summer for Team Sky’s Italian signing Elio Viviani (26)—who beat Cav in the other Dubai stage last week with the help of his British teammate, the well-named Ben Swift (27). Then there’s the best trio of sprinters that France has produced in 30 years: Nacer Bouhanni (25) of Cofidis, Bryan Coquard (23) of Europcar and Arnaud Démare (23) of fdj.fr, all of whom have great incentive to do well in their home grand tour—and youth on their side.

All of these names will be around for some time, but it’s very unlikely that any of them will still be at the highest level when they hit their mid-30s like Cipollini, Freire, McEwen, Petacchi and Zabel. Especially when two other potential sprint superstars are just emerging. Australia’s Caleb Ewan and Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria, who are both 20 years old, have each claimed two UCI race wins this past month. If they do succeed in rising quickly to the top then we can give an even more positive answer to that question at the top of the page: Yes, sprinting is a young man’s game.

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson