The open era: Why aren't we seeing one sprinter dominate the fast finishes at the Tour de France?

No rider has been able to dominate the bunch sprints at the Tour so far, a trend that isn't unusual

By winning today’s stage, Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) became the fourth different winner from the five bunch sprints of the Tour de France so far. First Biniam Girmay (Intermarché - Wanty) emerged from the wreckage of a late crash to take the spoils in the reduced bunch finish on stage three; then everything fell into place for Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan) on his historic day on stage five; Dylan Groenewegen (Jayco-Alula) unleashed his peerless speed when given a clean run-in to the line to take victory the following day; and now Alpecin-Deceuninck at last perfected their lead-out to deliver Philipsen for glory today.

Only Girmay has doubled-up on stage wins so far, and even his second win at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises was arguably not a pure sprint finish, given the draggy nature of the finishing straight. This has been a Tour de France of wide-open, unpredictable bunch sprints, with a wide field of quality fastmen all capable of winning on their day.

That contrasts starkly with what happened last year. Then, Jasper Philipsen was virtually unstoppable, winning all four of the bunch sprints contested in the first and second weeks, as well as leading the bunch on final week stages where the breakaway succeeded, and only missing out on the final stage on the Champs-Élysées to Jordi Meeus.

Biniam Girmay

Back then, it seemed as though we were entering a new era of sprinting, in which Philipsen would be the man to beat, and everybody toiling behind him. But things have not developed that way this Tour. The Belgian hasn’t had the luxury of being dropped off so perfectly by Mathieu van der Poel every day this time, with the Dutchman misfiring some of his lead-outs. Even on days that he has been well-positioned, his kick hasn’t been as devastating as last year, as when he was beaten to the line in Saint Vulbas by Cavendish. And while he attracted controversy with some of his sprinting last year, this time he actually has been penalised for causing danger, being relegated from his second place finish on stage six. His aura of invincibility has dissolved.

In the wider context of cycling as a whole, perhaps we should not be surprised. Philipsen’s showing last year was anomalous when compared with recent editions, in which it has become increasingly rare to see a sole sprinter dominate. In fact, that year he became only the second sprinter to win more than three stages at a single edition in any of the last six Tours de France (the other being Mark Cavendish in 2021). In the other four Tours the sprints have been shared around between a multitude of riders, in much the same way as has happened this year.

Before this shift occurred in 2018, it was common for there to be a stand out star sprinter at every Tour de France, with hauls of at least four stages commonplace. Whether it was Marcel Kittel (2017, 2014, 2013), André Greipel (2015), or, of course, Mark Cavendish (2016, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008), there was generally one man who was faster than the rest, and the results would vary little throughout the Tour. Looking further back, pure fastmen Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini would approach sprints in a similar way, be it at the Tour or the Giro, accumulating huge hauls of stage wins while being regarded as comfortably the fastest man in the peloton.

In the years since 2018, it’s often looked like a new, young successor to this lineage of sprinters was emerging, only for them to never follow on from their early success. Fernando Gaviria burst onto the scene by winning two stages in the first four days of his debut in 2018, only to deliver diminishing returns ever since; Caleb Ewan appeared to have everything it took to be a serial winner when he won three stages in 2019, but has still yet to better that tally; Fabio Jakobsen bounced back from his serious injury to win what felt like a watershed stage in 2022, only to subsequently lose his form; and now Philipsen is toiling to rediscover his success from 12 months ago.

The trend can be recognised in the other Grand Tours, too. While two sprinters, Tim Merlier (Soudal–Quick-Step) and Jonathan Milan (Lidl-Trek), managed to win three stages each at this year’s Giro d’Italia, the only rider to win more than that in a single edition since 2018 was Arnaud Démare (in 2020). At last year’s edition, we witnessed no less than seven different sprint winners — perhaps the most glaring example yet of this new open era of spriting we’re in.

So what has caused this shift away from the previous era of sprinting patrons? Perhaps the answer lies not in the sprinters themselves, but in the teams supporting them. When Cavendish, Kittel and Greipel ruled the roost in the bunch sprints, it wasn’t just their superior sprints that led to their success; it was their lead-out trains. Cavendish’s Team Columbia, Kittel’s Giant-Shimano and Greipel’s Lotto-Soudal were able to take control at the front of the peloton in the final kilometres with a consistency that we haven’t really seen in recent years, and reliably drop their man off in the prime poston.

Before then, the long, red line of Cippolini's Seaco team, or Petacchi’s Fassa Bortolo, also became synonyms with sprint finishes, defining what a lead-out train was and providing a template for the sprinters to come. And more recently, though the sprinter at the end of it changed each year, Quick-Step have been the dons of sprint finishes; it was them that guided Cavendish to his four stage wins in 2021.

Tour de France 2024 stage 10 sprint

What seems to have changed is that the deference that was once paid to these teams is no more. Old-timers like Cavendish talk about a lack of respect in the modern peloton, as in recent years all manner of teams will mix it up in the bunch sprints, not content to let one team dominate uncontested. Everybody fancies their chances, and as a result different riders will be in the mix on different days, depending on which lead-out train has success; hence the fact that, on separate days this year, Cavendish, Groenewegen and Philipsen have looked like the fastest sprinter in the race.

Alpecin-Deceuninck have tried to become the new lead-out leaders, and last year seemed to have perfected the formula by using one of the best riders in the world, Van der Poel, as the last man in their train. Philipsen’s four wins suggested that formula was successful, but this year they’ve been unable to withstand the challenge of others.

With a handful of sprint stages left, there’s still a chance for them to reassert themselves, and Philipsen could yet run out with a haul of up to three more sprint victories, if he builds from today’s success and gets into the groove he was in last year. But one thing is for sure — the other sprint teams won’t make it easy for them, and will not sit back and simply let them lead out their man uncontested.

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