The Vanishing GC Sprinter

Apr 27 2012

Brad Wiggins’ performance earlier this week in the first stage of the Tour of Romandie was a rare treat for the modern cycling fan: a real Grand Tour contender duking it and taking the win in a bunch sprint.

It wasn’t in a Grand Tour, of course, and it took a couple pretty serious climbs to thin out the field, but still—watching Wiggins reach back to his trackie days to hold Liquigas’ leadout, jump from the cheap seats, and even gamely extend his twiggy little elbows in the final meters was pretty damn cool:

The last time I saw something like this, it was 2004 and the biggest race in the US was a mid-April appointment in Georgia. Taking advantage of a field thinned by some late climbs, and leaning on his unique ability to lay down power at a high cadence, Lance Armstrong made a late surge in a fast, downhill sprint. Hate the Texan all you want, but respect the skills and instinct—rest day refills almost certainly didn’t help him here:

For all its current novelty, the sight used to be much more common. Eddy Merckx was a frequent contender and winner in bunch sprint stages, and as recently as the 1980s, Bernard Hinault made it something of a tradition to battle with the sprinters on the Champs Elysees. The Badger barely missed out in Paris at the end of his final Tour win in 1985, and scored convincing yellow-clad wins in 1979 and 1982:

If you’re a retro-grouch, you’ll call it the death of panache, and if you’re a techno-geek, you’ll chalk it up to modern training and equipment allowing cyclists to become more specialized. While a few modern GC contenders—Danilo DiLuca and Alejandro Valverde come to mind—have managed to regularly produce a mean finishing kick, unless El Imbatido can show me something different this summer, I’m inclined to say that both their stints as Grand Tour riders were more triumphs of biochemistry than multi-disciplinary focus.

But I’m guessing the main driver for the decline in overlapping ability is economic. When salaries were low and riders needed off-season jobs, they didn’t really get to train year-round. They came into the season on little or no fitness, and those with the most natural ability ended up winning in a fairly wide variety of finishes. With season-long sponsor pressure to perform dulling the razor’s edge of fitness, a rider’s ability just to perform through an endless barrage of race efforts outstripped the importance of fine-tuning a natural inclination toward sprinting or climbing for a few weeks in mid-July.

With today’s sponsors bankrolling year-round training and massive on- and off-course support, the single-digit percentages that separate the specialist from the rouleur have become minutes on the hills and bike-lengths at the line. As training became targeted toward peaks at Grand Tours or a handful of one-day events, entire teams coalesced around the specific abilities of a given rider. Mario Cipollini’s Saeco team perfected the sprint train, Armstrong and US Postal perfected the comprehensive approach to winning Grand Tours, and nowadays, there’s precious little ground between them—though one does hope today’s GC winners are somewhat less “comprehensive” in their preparation than Armstrong.

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15 Responses to “The Vanishing GC Sprinter”

  1. Cosmic Osmo 28 April 2012 at 12:54 am #

    i was delighted to see Wiggo take a sprint. hes a real all-rounder.

  2. Cosmic Osmo 28 April 2012 at 4:49 am #

    I just remembered another great sprint from a british gc rider.

  3. Otto 29 April 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Appreciate the shout out for GC rider sprint wins (+1 for hinault) but I wouldn’t classify LA in 2004 in that category – that was pre cancer when he was a one-day rider not a GC rider. Still a gutsy win but let’s put it in the right category.

  4. Sebastian 29 April 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    That was a neat win, wasn’t it? I’m trying to remember other post-Merckx GC riders who pulled this same trick: getting on the front really early and putting in such a huge turn of speed that the “real” sprinters couldn’t come around. Hinault did it for an entire lap around the Roubaix velodrome once; I feel like Lemond did it too, though perhaps in smaller venues like the Coors. Evans’ Giro stage win in 2010 was also a very long sprint, but it was uphill and not against the specialists.

  5. Cosmic Osmo 29 April 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    @ otto. a quick wiki search on LA will show you he won his first TDF in 1999.

  6. Sebastian 30 April 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    Also (sorry, one more thing) — I can’t help but feel deep down that somehow the hyperspecialization of cycling now is a kind of agreed-upon fiction. TDF riders don’t win Paris-Roubaix because they’ve all been told that they can’t (and don’t want to jeopardize their July plans). But I suspect that if you actually compelled TDF riders to do well in a PR-style event, the results would tell a differnet story. Look at group who contested that wet, atrocious cobbled stage from Wanze to Arenberg in the 2010 Tour: a sprinter-rouleur (Hushovd), a TTer-classics rider (Cancellara), an all-rounder (Evans), and a pure climber (Andy Schleck). That was a stage that every big burly guy in the pack wanted to win, and yet they were bested by Evans and Schleck. At some level, I think, quality will still out.

  7. poser 30 April 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    and who could forget Fabian Cancellara winning stage 3 of the 2007 tour in the yellow jersey. not *exactly* the same scenario, but still one of my favorite tour finishes of all time — more of a 1k TT than a field sprint; it’s amazing to watch an entire peloton fail to reel him in.

  8. Cosmic Osmo 1 May 2012 at 6:44 am #


    i wonder if contractual obligations have anything to do with it. just like some pros arent allowed to ski or sky dive, maybe wiggo isnt allowed to race PR. or maybe its just the nature of how teams split up victories.

    also there is some truth in the “cobble specialist” lighter riders just dont ride as smoothly (read: efficiently) as heavier ones over the rough stuff. you cant beat physics.

    one thing that always got me was why a hard man like jens never showed anything on the cobbles…

  9. Sebastian 2 May 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Good question re: Jens. The difference between the skill-sets of light and heavy riders makes intuitive sense, but I’ve never understood why it is that roulers — guys who specialize in driving in long breakaways — don’t translate into pave specialists. I know that Boonen has a certain sprinter’s kick that Jens lacks, but don’t they both have “big engines” in the same sense?

    (I’m also curious as to why Cancellara is one of the few TTers who’s also good at the flat classics. Again, you’d think that the skills would transfer, but you practically have to go back to Francesco Moser to find a similar case.)

    And good suggestion re: contractual obligations. It’s certainly true that higher pay in today’s cycling world has made teams more cautious about how they use their riders. You’re not going to spend a few million bucks on a Wiggo and then let him try his luck foolishly on the stones of Arenberg. But I wonder if any GC guys are expressly forbidden by contract to do so. (Hey, while they’re at it, they might also consider including a few haircut clauses for their higher-visibility guys . . .)

  10. Il Grillo 2 May 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    You’re Anglophone bias in this article almost made me puke Cosmo.

  11. Il Grillo 2 May 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    Woops, that should be your instead of you’re.

  12. Otto 7 May 2012 at 12:56 am #

    @Cosmic osmo you are so right. Of course I was thinking 1994 not 2004. Doh!!

  13. Adam 11 May 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Even dismissing Valverde and DiLuca I can think of a couple
    2004 Giro Stage 2 with Cunego.
    2005 Tour Stage 21 with Vino.
    Early 90’s whole bunch of Bugno wins.
    Laurent Jalaber – Vuelta Winner, and sprinter.

  14. thomas kanyak 19 June 2012 at 7:48 am #

    Vanishing? vanished.

  15. Andy 28 June 2012 at 9:54 pm #

    I’m trying to come around on Wiggins. It’s still hard for me to see him at the top of the podium in Paris. But I think it’d be great to see him do it. Check out another great Tour preview here

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