There’s something comforting about the the Tour de France. Every year the same rituals and routines, whether pre-race previews, the familiar stage towns, the peloton riding past sunflowers… and Mark Cavendish winning stages.
Cavendish got his 34th stage win and equals the record set by Eddy Merckx. Comparisons with Merckx arise because they’re level on stage wins but there’s not much to compare, they are very different riders competing in their own eras. Put frankly Merckx won his 34 stages on the way to a lot more.
But Cavendish as the best sprinter of all time. It’s a subjective exercise although given Cavendish has also win Milan-Sanremo, the Worlds, stages in the Giro and Vuelta to make 155 pro wins, plus the surprise longevity of his career make him an obvious pick. Proximity can be a bias, see the way the “greatest songs of all time” always include a sprinkling of contempory hits that won’t stand the test of time when the same poll is done five years later. But Cavendish isn’t just impressing today, we can remember his older hits too. There’d be no argument here if forced to pick “the best sprinter” but each rider is a product of their era.
André Darrigade, the Hare of the Landes, won 22 stages of the Tour de France and two green jerseys, two in the Giro and was world champion in 1959. All this in an era when bunch sprints were more rare, there were more openings for attackers, indeed he took some wins solo too. Today Darrigade runs a bookshop in the seaside town of Biarritz and when the Tour visits France’s south western corner he’s often a podium guest to greet the day’s winner.
Freddy Maertens was more than sprinter but won plenty of sprints. As Wikipedia will tell you, between the 1976 Tour and 1977 Giro, Maertens won 28 out of 60 Grand Tour stages, including 13 in one Vuelta on his way to winning it overall. He won the worlds and the green jersey competition three times plus a stack of classics.
Mario Cipollini was the best in the early 1990s and 2000s and a big personality to go with his prolific wins. Many teams had used sprint trains before but Cipollini and his Saeco team perfected it. Cipollini, a world champion too and Sanremo winner too, won more stages of the Giro than Tour, in part because that was what his Italian team wanted; his squad were not invited to the Tour because the organisers were frustrated with his altitude sickness, he’d flee for the beach as soon as the mountains arrived. Coming from a team time trial background his long sprints impressed, he could launch with 300 metres to go and win. But working with Michele Ferrari dented his image and revelations about his personal life have done more damage, this doesn’t affect his palmarès, just you might not see him invited to trade shows or TV studios as much.
Mark Cavendish now has 34 stage wins, a world title, the green jersey from 2011, a world championship, Sanremo and more. Arguably the only thing missing is Paris-Tours and a big Flemish classic like Gent-Wevelgem. But Paris-Tour has lost its lustre for the sprinters and Gent-Wevelgem has mimicked the other Flemish one day races by adding more climbs and cobbles to become a Ronde clone rather than the classic all the sprinters have to win. Anyway, Cavendish hasn’t stopped yet, there’s still Libourne and Paris if he can get past the Pyrenees.
All the suggestions above are light, just the headline wins and they’re deliberately served up to avoid making conclusive comparisons. There’s little point trying to parse a palmarès and compare win counts, the quality, the manner of the wins and more. It could be a fun way to spend a winter evening but it’ll always be subjective: invent a ranking and it’ll probably tell us more about the person doing the ranking than the sprinters.
Even comparing Cavendish isn’t easy, his stage win today comes 13 years to the day when he won his first stage. Could the “Cav” of today beat the Cav of old? Probably because sprinting has got faster, riders frequently use 54T or 55T chainrings, bikes, wheels, clothing and helmets are more aerodynamic. Perhaps if we could put today’s Cavendish on his old Columbia team-issue Giant from 2008 then the younger version would win. But by now we’re going down rabbit holes and and imaginary software simulations.
Cavendish winning today is a fascinating story of survivorship bias with so many rival sprinters falling by the way. Dylan Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen’s comebacks need more time, Fernando Gaviria’s faded, Caleb Ewan’s crash took him out, Tim Merlier’s yet to finish an Alpine stage race, Mathieu van der Poel’s left to focus on the postponed Olympics, Arnaud Démare missed the time cut. Plus Sam Bennett banged his knee setting off the chain of events that put him out of the Tour… and in came Cavendish to a Tour with a route to suit as well. He can only beat who is in front of him but it’s this longevity that impresses, that he is still around to pop up for these wins aged 36. Besides today nobody goes “ah but Darrigade didn’t have to face Jean Graczyk or Pierrino Baffino in the 1950-something Tour” or “Merckx would have had 35 if he didn’t puncture that day”. History records the winners.