FT Baseline Cavendish, Kittel or Greipel: who is the fastest man in the peloton?

FT sprint cyclist ratings

By John Burn-Murdoch and Gavin Jackson

The winner of the Tour de France is typically the fastest climber up the winding paths of the Alps and the Pyrenees, but when the peloton flies down the Champs-Élysées on its final day, the focus shifts to an altogether different type of beast: the sprinter.

Where the elite climbers do battle in high-altitude bouts of cat-and-mouse, the sprinter’s primary weapons are leg-speed, impeccable timing and an almost reckless desire to cross the line first. But who is the best of the fast men?

In an attempt to answer that question, we turned to a variation of the Elo ratings system (more on that below), initially created for ranking chess players but since adapted for several other sports. The system scores participants after adjusting for their relative abilities, so a strong competitor beating a weak competitor will gain fewer points than if the weaker competitor wins.

The results are a good representation of what most fans would expect: Manxman Mark Cavendish was peerless throughout his early career, but his dominance was challenged soon after he departed team HTC Highroad at the close of the 2011 season.

This can perhaps be partly explained by the fact that HTC Highroad built its team and tactics around Cavendish — the sight of its ‘train’ of riders expertly leading him to the final stretch became familiar to TV viewers during his tenure at the team — but there may also have been other factors at play.

In an interview with Daniel Friebe for The Cycling Podcast, Cavendish explained that the dynamics at work in the peloton during the latter parts of a sprint stage have changed considerably over the last three or four years. Where the ‘train’ was once strictly a tactic employed by sprint teams, others now also use it to guide their prized assets, such as Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, to the line safe from the crashes that could occur further back in the field.

As a result, the front of the race is more crowded than it was even five years ago, making the formulaic approach favoured by HTC Highroad less effective than it once was.

But another, more easily identifiable reason for the toppling of Cavendish from the top of our rankings was the arrival of Marcel Kittel. The German, three years Cavendish’s junior, achieved mass recognition when he won four stages at the 2013 Tour de France, but he had already bested the Manxman in sprints the season before that.

And if the 2013 Tour announced Kittel as a contender for the number one spot, the 2014 edition surely laid any doubts to rest. Kittel won another four stages last year and when he crossed the line first on the Champs-Élysées, he had been clear of his rivals for a full year both anecdotally and in our rankings.

Kittel suffered from illness In 2015, sitting out several months of the season with a virus and only recently returning to top level competition. While we wait to see whether there will be lasting damage to Kittel’s form, it is his compatriot André Greipel — a former understudy to Cavendish — who now vies with the ‘Manx Missile’ for the top spot.

Coming into the 2015 Tour, Cavendish and Greipel were as close in our ranking system as they have been in many a sprint finish over the years, but Greipel’s superior form in July, capped with a win on the Champs-Élysées in the Tour’s final stage on Sunday, has edged him clear at the top.

Team Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff won two stages in last year’s edition and had started 2015 strongly, but he crossed the line in Paris on Sunday without a stage win to his name. His rating has slipped accordingly, with the hugely popular Peter Sagan — a talented all-rounder rather than a specialist sprinter — close to passing him.

Methodology

The specific ratings system we used is called ‘Glicko’, named after its creator Mark Glickman. The main difference between Glicko and Elo is the addition of a variable that deals with uncertainty around a competitor’s rating at any time. When a competitor has been inactive for a significant period of time, Glicko factors this in by reducing the extent to which their rating determines the number of points gained/lost in a contest. In effect, the model is saying “I know this person was this good last time they participated, but they’ve not come up against any of these other competitors in a while so things might have changed. Let’s say they’re roughly that good.”

Our starting sample of competitors was every rider who finished in the top two in the Tour de France points classification since 1996, or who won the most sprint stages at a Tour in that time period. We then looked only at sprints where two or more of these riders finished in the first five. Mass sprint conditions are so chaotic that any rider finishing further back than fifth could easily have done so because of external factors, so using only the first five was our — admittedly rough — way of looking only at closely-contested sprints.

We then assigned every rider a base rating of 1500 points before their first sprint, with a new rating then calculated after every sprint against another rider in our sample. To deal with races where more than two of our riders finished in the first five, we treated each multi-participant contest as a series of head-to-heads.

Take the final stage of the 2013 Tour that Kittel won, and Greipel, Cavendish and Sagan followed, in that order. This would be treated as Kittel beating Greipel, beating Cavendish and beating Sagan; Greipel losing to Kittel, beating Cavendish and beating Sagan; and so on. Riders’ ratings are then recalculated after all head-to-heads for this race have been processed.

For clarity of display, we are showing only the six most recently competitive sprinters in the graphic, but races between, say, Cavendish and Erik Zabel were also counted towards both riders’ ratings.

The full list of riders in the sample used for our head-to-heads:

  • Marcel Kittel
  • Andre Greipel
  • Mark Cavendish
  • Alexander Kristoff
  • Peter Sagan
  • Jose Joaquin Rojas
  • Thor Hushovd
  • Alessandro Petacchi
  • Oscar Freire
  • Robbie McEwen
  • Baden Cooke
  • Erik Zabel
  • Frederic Moncassin
  • Stuart O’Grady
  • Robert Hunter

Update:

Our ratings have been updated following the sprint finish that concluded the 2015 Tour de France on Sunday. We have also broadened the sample of riders used to calculate our ratings, including sprinters who met our criteria at one of cycling’s two other Grand Tours; the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. These new additions are as follows:

  • Djamoldine Abduzhaparov
  • Fabrizio Guidi
  • Giovanni Lombardi
  • Mario Cipollini
  • Danilo Hondo
  • Daniele Bennati
  • Nacer Bouhanni
  • Giacomo Nizzolo
  • Tyler Farrar