Blazin' Saddles: Who will win the most sprints this season?
With the likes of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff all in action this week in the Dubai Tour, we take an in-depth look at this season's stellar sprinting landscape. It may be too early to make any rash judgments, but the early form of some of the peloton's fast men indicates that this year's sprints should be more fiercely contested than ever before.
The clichéd transfer merry-go-round played out this winter as former Sky rider Elia Viviani replaced Marcel Kittel at Quick-Step Floors while the Belgian team's former Mark Cavendish void-filler himself replaced Emirates-bound Alexander Kristoff.
All four of the above riders have convened in the United Arab Emirates for the Dubai Tour this week – another early chance to see some of the hottest sprinting talent do battle, a month after the likes of Andre Greipel, Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan went head-to-head Down Under. All this while Fernando Gaviria stretches his winning legs in Colombia and Bryan Coquard seeks an elusive maiden win for his new Vital Concept team in France…
And despite all eyes on Messrs Kittel, Cavendish and Kristoff on Tuesday's Dubai Tour opener, it was Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen – the LottoNL-Jumbo sprinter who came of age on the Champs-Elysees last summer – who drew first blood in the desert. With a revitalised Viviani picking up a second win of the season in Stage 2, Cavendish finally opened up his account for Dimension Data on Thursday as Kittel's teething troubles at Katusha continued.
But 2018 is barely weeks old and the big prizes are still to come. Who, once the dust has settled from a whole season of bunch gallops, will come out on top? Let's take a closer look at all the major sprinters…
Marcel Kittel, 29 – Katusha-Alpecin
Strengths: His hair? But seriously, give Kittel a train and catch him in a confident mood and the big German is practically unbeatable. Ask everyone else in last year's Tour.
Weaknesses: He may be the biggest flat-track bully out there, but Kittel can disappear when things don't go his way. Ask Michael Matthews.
Most likely to say: "I never expected to win five stages here – this is a complete shock."
Verdict: Once he gels at Katusha-Alpecin, his rivals will be the ones needing the caffeine shampoo.
Cavendish opens 2018 account with Dubai stage winEurosport
Mark Cavendish, 32 – Dimension Data
Strengths: Experience and consistency. Cavendish's victory in Stage 3 of the Dubai Tour meant the Manx Missile has now hit the target in 13 consecutive seasons as a pro. There's also the question of hunger and unfinished business: last year, Cav crashed out of the Tour in the first week but he's still only four wins away from levelling Eddy Merckx's all-time stage win count.
Weaknesses: He's getting no younger nor is his ability to avoid huge pile-ups getting any better. And while it can spur him on to great things, Cavendish's temper often gets the better of him.
Most likely to say: "Wow, two more and I'm level with Eddy. I couldn't have done it without my team, especially Bernie Eisel."
Verdict: He should add to his Tour tally but will struggle to match Merckx. Still, there's life in the old dog yet.
Alexander Kristoff, now of UAE-Team EmiratesEurosport
Alexander Kristoff, 30 – UAE-Team Emirates
Strengths: Versatile and consistent, the European champion can win on uphill drags and over the cobbles as well as in straight, flat or technical finales. Or at least, he could.
Weaknesses: Recently, his consistency has been more a question of consistently finishing in the top ten, rather than topping podiums. It remains to be seen how he beds in with a new team. Far from the fastest, Kristoff also relies on a lot of his rivals having an off-day.
Most likely to say: "I'm happy to finish second again but next time I'd like to win. And not just in the Arctic Race."
Verdict: Kristoff will clean up in the Norwegian races and is due a return to the top in the monuments, but it's hard seeing him come good in the ultra-competitive Grand Tours in the same team as Fabio Aru and Dan Martin.
Fernando Gaviria celebrates another winEurosport
Fernando Gaviria, 23 – Quick-Step Floors
Strengths: Not only is he tipped to be the next big thing, the Colombian seems to be living up to his billing.
Weaknesses: The odd lapses of concentration and headless-chicken moments can result in road rash and 50-to-0 in 1.5 seconds – but that's a peril of the occupation. If you have to find a weakness in Gaviria, you'd be forced to say he's perhaps a tad lightweight.
Most likely to say: "I never expected to win so many stages on my debut Tour…"
Verdict: Surely a triumphant first appearance in France this July with wins over the course of the season hitting double figures and perhaps a podium on the via Roma in March.
Elia Viviani (Quick-Step) wins stage 3 of the Tour Down Under 2018Getty Images
Elia Viviani, 29 – Quick-Step Floors
Strengths: The fact that most people underestimate him. Having learned his trade on the boards, Viviani has speed in bucket loads – and already has wins in Australia and Dubai for his new team.
Weaknesses: Perhaps his positioning and the confidence-blocker that comes from not being a bona fide member of the sport's elite sprinters – yet. Add to this the fact that one of his biggest obstacles to stardom rides for the same team.
Most likely to say: "While I'm happy Fernando is winning so many big races, I didn't leave Sky to be his deputy."
Verdict: A lot depends on the selection process at Quick-Step but you get the impression that Viviani will certainly add to his solitary Giro win while at his new team. But with Gaviria around, he may not get a chance to do so in the Tour.
Peter Sagan - People's Choice Classic 2018 - Getty ImagesGetty Images
Peter Sagan, 28 – Bora-Hansgrohe
Strengths: All round ability, confidence, fearlessness and the wow factor.
Weaknesses: Are there any? In pure sprinting terms, the triple world champion is not the fastest. Although he gets over this through his positioning, bike-handling and reading of the situation.
Most likely to say: "I always knew that the trick to winning here in Innsbruck was to lose a few kilos. Can I win five? Sure I can."
Verdict: Expect Sagan to win stages in any major race he enters and be in the monuments mix.
André Greipel Tour Down UnderGetty Images
Andre Greipel, 35 – Lotto-Soudal
Strengths: Of all our sprinters, Greipel has been there, done that, got the t-shirt. His record speaks for itself and, now in his 15th season, the powerful German has already picked up wins over younger rivals Down Under. It also helps when you have one of the current best lead-out trains in the business.
Weaknesses: Greipel is the oldest of the top sprinters and cannot produce the goods consistently across a whole Grand Tour anymore – as reflected in his fruitless Tour in 2017 (ending a run stretching back almost a decade)
Most likely to say: "I knew last season was a blip. It's great to be back to winning ways on the Tour."
Verdict: Greipel is still capable of delivering the goods even as those around him get better. Whether he'll enjoy a final flourish or continue his slow decline is anyone's guess.
Michael Matthews beats Greg Van AvermaetGetty Images
Michael Matthews, 27 – Team Sunweb
Strengths: Like Sagan, Matthews can do everything. And in cycling, being Sagan-lite is no back-handed compliment.
Weaknesses: Depends on a reduced field and a slightly uphill ramp when it comes to out-sprinting the fastest; Tom Dumoulin's GC ambitions also provide a distraction.
Most likely to say: "Even I knew that I wasn't going to retain the green jersey this year."
Verdict: More of the same – that's to say victories, but not in their droves.
Dylan GroenewegenGetty Images
Dylan Groenewegen, 24 – LottoNL-Jumbo
Strengths: The Dutchman resembles a Greipel Mark II and is no longer short of belief following his breakthrough win in Paris last July.
Weaknesses: He still has lots to learn and can be a bit clumsy.
Most likely to say: "Had I known that my victory in Dubai would be my last for a few months, I wouldn't have believed you."
Verdict: Still a work in progress, Groenewegen has what it takes but is perhaps not ready to consistently battle with the best – yet.
Arnaud Démare wins the Brussels Classic 2017Getty Images
Arnaud Demare, 26 – FDJ-Groupama
Strengths: Self-belief and a loyal, accomplished troupe of pilots around him.
Weaknesses: The Frenchman is not the tidiest or fairest of sprinters and has been criticised for testing the patience of race juries.
Most likely to say: "The crash was not my fault and I deny getting assistance from the team car – check my Strava files."
Verdict: The French champion will pick up wins for sure, but will they be on the sport's centre stage? It's doubtful.
Australia's Caleb Ewan in 2017Getty Images
Caleb Ewan, 23 – Mitchelton-Scott
Strengths: With his flung-forward kicking style, the Australian has been described as the new Mark Cavendish. High praise, indeed.
Weaknesses: Inexperience – the 23-year-old has yet to ride the Tour so it remains to be seen how he copes with the pressures and alongside the strongest field he will face. His Mitchelton-Scott team will also need to juggle with their priorities in the major races, what with the likes of the Yates twins and Esteban Chaves eyeing GC.
Most likely to say: "It's not going to be as easy to complete my Grand Tour grand slam as I'd hoped."
Verdict: Another year of progression is on the cards but a Tour stage win will be too much to ask.
Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis)Getty Images
Nacer Bouhanni, 27 – Cofidis
Strengths: Fearless and direct, and still relatively young and resilient, Bouhanni is an old-school force who doesn't care about making friends.
Weaknesses: The combative Frenchman is prone to slumps in confidence and is no stranger to controversy and crashes.
Most likely to say: "Why always me? A certain former team-mate of mine is just as dirty. Besides, he hit me first. It was merely self-defence."
Verdict: Expect Bouhanni to win a stage in Paris-Nice and in the Giro, make lots of noise, but then disappear for Cofidis in the Tour. A dark horse for Milan-Sanremo?
The best of the rest
Given his lofty record on the Vuelta and that amazing spring campaign in 2015, it may seem harsh not to give John Degenkolb his own sub-section. But the 29-year-old's drop of form – stemming from that horrific training crash two years back – sees Degenkolb instead merely top the best of the resters. Early wins in Mallorca are promising for the Trek-Segafredo man but he now needs to replicate that on the centre-stage.
Ireland's Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) is creeping nearer and nearer to a maiden Grand Tour stage win – although the presence of the man in rainbow stripes does complicate matters for the 27-year-old.
Brits Ben Swift (UEA-Team Emirates) and Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport) will struggle to stand-out – the former because of Kristoff's arrival and the latter because of a lack of wildcard invitations. It remains to be seen if another Brit, Daniel McLay, can make his Grand Tour breakthrough for EF Education First; the 26-year-old has more going for him than his compatriots.
Neither are out-and-out fast men, but Astana duo Riccardo Minali and Magnus Cort Nielsen should get in the mix over the course of the season; the Dane already has stage wins on the Vuelta to his name.
Italians Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina) are apples and oranges and pears when it comes to sprinting: expect a fruit salad of top tens but only the 23-year-old Mareczko has the raw speed to top many podiums, but he'll only do so in races in far flung places.
Combining race craft, the fine arts of sprinting and admirable movement, German youngster Phil Bauhaus came close Down Under and will look to build on his progress for Sunweb when given the chance. And finally, there's forgotten man Bryan Coquard. Snubbed by Direct-Energie last year, the Frenchman will miss a second Tour on the bounce after his new Vital Concept team failed to pick up a wildcard entry.
Is Coquard the best sprinter not to have won a stage on a Grand Tour? Quite possibly. Luckily for the 25-year-old, he still has age on his side but he needs to dodge the banana skins. Things need to pick up soon or we'll be talking about a wasted talent.