Best Tour rider ever?

February 11, 2023 Comments Off on Best Tour rider ever?

I said best, not greatest.

With seven straight TdF wins, Lance Armstrong surely holds the title as the greatest Tour rider if the point behind racing is winning. Since all seven wins were stripped after his doping confession, that possibly leaves the title up for grabs between Merckx, Indurain, Hinault, and Anquetil, each with five Tour victories.

But were they the best riders? Merckx, with his 34 wins across every possible type of stage from sprints, to mountain stages to time trials, was obviously the best Tour rider of his generation, to say nothing of the three points classifications and two mountains classifications he won to go along with his five GC wins. Oh, and most professional wins of all time, etc.

At the same time, Merckx himself has argued that you can’t properly compare modern racing with his generation. The fields were much smaller, less international and dominated by four countries, and most importantly were controlled by a rigid hierarchy. Merckx has also often said that were he racing today he would never have amassed the same record.

Cavendish, at first blush, hardly bears being mentioned in the same breath. He has abandoned the Tour to prepare for the Olympics and been kicked out for failing to make the cutoff time, unthinkable for Merckx. He earned many of his wins behind one of the best leadouts of all time, Mark Renshaw, whereas Merckx earned his sprint victories in an era before sprint trains existed, most often taking the win out of a mass scrum to the line. The sheer variety of Merckx’s wins was astonishing. As an example, in the 1974 Tour he won eight times including three time trials, three sprints including the final one in Paris, and two mountain stages.

But there are some holes in Merckx’s claim to being the best. Foremost, his career was riddled with doping accusations and three separate positive tests, one of which got him thrown out of the Giro. As late as 2005 Merckx has said that doping is inevitable at the highest level of sport. Armstrong would certainly agree, not to mention five-time winner Indurain, generally believed to have been the first major Tour success story using EPO. And of course another five-timer, Jacques Anquetil, famously said that to deny the necessity of doping in cycling makes you either a liar or an imbecile.

In contrast, Cavendish has ridden his entire professional career squeaky clean. Even though he began in the EPO heyday, had to compete with the biggest drug cheats in the sport, and saw the demise of countless riders and teams at the hands of doping confessions, exposes, and failed drug tests, Cavendish was never implicated in illegal drug use, ever. Merckx and Anquetil can say whatever they want, but riding and winning clean counts for a lot more than winning dirty.

Nor did Cavendish ever ride like a doper. Unlike the supermen who could do everything, Cavendish could barely do one thing: sprint. As a professional bike racer he lacked the power and the endurance to be successful; as an aspiring racer he narrowly avoided being excluded from the cycling academy that brought him to the pro ranks because he was too slow, too fat, and too weak on the ergometer.

Instead of the cookie-cutter figure and awesome power numbers that were used to define supposedly successful pre-professionals, Cavendish had one thing and one thing only: desire. Like Sean Kelly, Cavendish was willing to endure anything to avoid losing. This meant an entire career of struggling over climbs in the autobus, narrowly or unsuccessfully missing the time cutoff, and generally getting to the finish line on a wing and a prayer.

But if he did make it to the last 200m, you had a fight on your hands. It’s not for nothing that the Franco-Continental-centric Christian Prudhomme called Cavendish the greatest sprinter in the history of the Tour.

Mountain-top solo finishes like the drug-addled performance of George Hincapie at Pla d’Adet in 2005, when the giant one-day classics man easily distanced mountain specialist Oscar Pereiro in one of the Tour’s toughest mountain stages, were never going to happen to Cavendish because he didn’t dope. Searing time trials, with the exception of one 5-km TT win his entire career, were never going to make up his palmares. He lacked the motor and the drugs and the physiology.

However, as my mentor and idol Jeff Fields used to say, “You can’t measure desire,” although in Cavendish’s case you actually can, and it’s called “number of wins.”

With 161 professional victories, Cavendish is the third winningest rider of all time, behind Rik van Looy with 162. Merckx is uncatchable, at 275, and no active rider is anywhere near Cav’s total. Peter Sagan, who retires at year’s end, has 121 wins. No one else is even remotely close, not that Sagan is. My point is that when you look at Cavendish’s Tour stage wins, you see a rider who has literally done the absolute most with the absolute least. No drugs. Wrong body type. And worst of all, no team stability. He’s ridden with eight teams in nineteen seasons, and often he’s had to score his victories as a virtual privateer with no team structure to help.

Compare that to Merckx, who rode with three teams for all but two of his thirteen pro seasons, and with the exception of his three seasons with Peugeot, was the undisputed leader, team boss, and patron not simply of his team but of the entire pro peloton. As recently as 2021, when Cavendish was a last-minute add-on to Deceunick, he was paid minimum wage (40,000 euros), had to bring his own sponsor, and only got to ride the Tour at all because Sam Bennett ran afoul of general madman and team psycho Patrick Lefevere. As a footnote, Cavendish won four stages and almost took a fifth. Lefevere’s thank-you? Keeping him off the 2022 squad and releasing him from the team.

Beyond his limitless will to win, Cavendish was a true innovator. He was one of the first sprinters to understand that aerodynamic factors could add feet or even inches to a finish in a sport where the win is often measured in millimeters. Meticulous about the aero setup of his bike, helmet, and clothing, Cavendish developed an extraordinarily aero sprinting style that is now widely copied by Sagan, Ewan, Groenewegen, and virtually every other small sprinter. But my favorite kudo thrown his way was by Groenewegen, his much younger and promising rival: “He’s the smartest guy in the peloton.”

Cavendish has an extraordinary mind and he uses his photographic recall of course topography as another unusual weapon in sprinting. One interviewer challenged his supposed recall, and Cavendish spent five minutes detailing the entire ten kilometers leading up to his only classics win, Milan-San-Remo in 2009.

When it comes to greatness, it’s pretty easy to decide: look at the win column and move on. But the best? In my opinion it’s the rider who works the hardest, plays by the rules, overcomes adversity, and uses intellect and desire to get level with the playing field.

Cav has won so many stages in the Tour that he never should have even been there to contest. That alone makes him the best. But he’s also on the cusp of taking the most stage wins of all time away from Eddy.

That won’t make him the greatest, but if it doesn’t make him the best, who is?


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