The Tour de France’s greatest ever sprinters

From Pelissier to Cavendish, the fast men forever etched into Tour de France history

Mark Cavendish started the Tour de France for the tenth time this year, and with four stage wins reminded everyone of just how good a sprinter he is.

Cavendish was named the Tour’s greatest ever sprinter by L’Equipe in 2012 with no other sprinter winning as many stages of the race as the Manxman – in fact, following his stage six victory in Montauban, the only man with more Tour stage wins than him is the great Eddy Merckx with 34.

Mark Cavendish has won 29 Tour de France stages in his career (pic: Sirotti)

Add to that his points classification win in 2011, and the yellow jersey he finally pulled on after stage one of this year’s race, and you can see why L’Equipe afforded Britain’s most successful male professional cyclist such an honour.

But if Cavendish is the greatest ever, how do all the other great sprinters to have raced the Tour de France in its 103 editions compare?

We’ve picked out nine of the greatest fast men ever to take on the Tour. Are there any you would add to the list?

Mark Cavendish (GBR) – 2007 to present

Mark Cavendish made his Tour de France debut in 2007, during which he suffered two crashes and abandoned as the race headed into the mountains. It was an inconspicuous start given what was to follow.

Despite only riding the first 13 stages of the following year’s Tour – due to training for the 2008 Beijing Olympics – Cavendish picked up his first four stage wins in the race before bagging six in 2009 and five apiece in 2010 and 2011.

Mark Cavendish wins on the Champs-Elysees in the rainbow jersey of world champion (pic: Sirotti)

Riding for the HTC-HighRoad team, he and his lead-out train were simply untouchable at their best as Cavendish bagged the green jersey in 2011, crowning his win with a victory on the Champs-Elysees.

His era of dominance ended thereafter, but – in the jersey of world road race champion – he won three times in his solitary season with Team Sky, twice in his debut year with Omega Pharma-QuickStep and last year went clear into third place on the list of all-time wins thanks to his 26th career triumph.

And just as he was being written off in some quarters, the Manx Missile added four more wins to his palmares in 2016, to go second in that list behind Merckx and pull on the yellow jersey for the first time.

Tour de France stage wins: 30*
Tour de France points classification wins: one (2011)

Andre Darrigade (FRA) – 1952 to 1966

Frenchman Andre Darrigade has been dubbed the greatest French sprinter of all time by Raphael Geminiani with his phenomenal speed (and stamina) earning him 22 stage wins in his illustrious career.

Darrigade’s sprinting style meant he could win sprints from far back, often opting to lead out bunch finishes and ‘challenging others to pass him’, according to journalist Rene de Latour.

Andre Darrigade, left, outpsrints Frans Melckenbeeck to win stage two of the 1962 Tour de France – Darrigade pulled on the yellow jersey as a result (pic: Dutch National Archive, via Wiki Commons)

Darrigade’s sprinting ability didn’t just earn him stage wins either, with him wearing the yellow jersey 16 times in all too – winning the opening stage of the Tour in four consecutive years between 1956 and 1959, and again in 1961.

The Frenchman also twice won the points classification, in 1959 and 1961, and remains one of only six riders to have bagged 20 or more stage wins at the Tour.

Tour de France stage wins: 22
Tour de France points classification wins: two (1959, 1961)

Mario Cipollini (ITA) – 1993 to 1999

Exuberant Italian Mario Cipollini’s sensational sprinting exploits may have been more centred on the Giro d’Italia, but he still found time to win 12 Tour de France stages and spend time in the yellow jersey.

Cipo’s well-publicised dislike of the mountains meant he never contested the green jersey, and his teams not being invited from 2000 to 2003 – despite him being world champion at the time of the latter race – also didn’t help.

He sits in the Tour record books, however, having won the race’s fastest ever stage in 1999 as part of his post-war record four consecutive stage wins.

Mario Cipollini’s exploits at the Giro are more famous, but he still managed 12 Tour de France stage wins (pic: Sirotti)

But regardless of the bare statistics, few can doubt Cipollini was one of cycling’s greatest ever sprinters, not just at the Tour.

His 42 Giro d’Italia stage wins remain a record, and with his Tour and Vuelta a tally added to that, his career tally stands at 57 Grand Tour stage wins.

Tour de France stage wins: 12
Tour de France points classification wins: none

Erik Zabel (GER) – 1995 to 2008

Where Cipollini opted not to contest the green jersey at the Tour de France, Erik Zabel monopolised the points classification at the turn of the millennium.

The German won the green jersey six years in a row, from 1996 to 2001, and also celebrated 12 wins in all – picking up two on debut in 1995 and collecting his final victory in 2002.

Erik Zabel’s six consecutive points classification wins remains a Tour de France record (pic: Sirotti)

Like Peter Sagan today, Zabel picked up points with a serious of consistent finishes on the sprint stages and could climb better than his fellow sprinters too.

But where Sagan has struggled to win stages, Zabel had no such problems – no German rider has won more stages, despite Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel closing in fast.

Tour de France stage wins: 12
Tour de France points classification wins: six (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001)

Freddy Maertens (BEL) – 1972 to 1981

With Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck dominating the Belgian cycling scene, it was going to take somebody pretty special to steal the limelight.

And while Merckx’s achievements on the road remain unparalleled, Maertens at least gave the Belgian faithful a new hero to celebrate – when he was not feuding with the more popular Cannibal at least.

Freddy Maertens won the Tour de France green jersey three times

Maertens was primarily a sprinter, but versatile enough to win the 1977 Vuelta a Espana – where he won 13 stages – and his Tour de France record stacks up well too,

Three times he claimed the green jersey, with his 1976 victory arriving courtesy of a record-equalling eight stage wins – five of which were from sprints and three against the clock.

Tour de France stage wins: 16
Tour de France points classification wins: three (1976, 1978, 1981)

René Le Grevès (FRA) – 1933 to 1939

René Le Grevès’ 16 Tour de France stage wins are all the more remarkable when you consider how short his professional career proved to be.

Journalist Jean-Paul Ollivier has dubbed him the Tour’s greatest sprinter, and he was certainly the greatest of the later interwar years – not least between 1934 and 1936 when he collected 14 of those 16 victories.

René Le Grevès was one of the foremost Tour de France sprinters of the interwar period (pic: Publci Domain, via Wiki Commons)

He was also crowned French champion in 1936, his annus mirabilis as he won six times at that year’s Tour before his star began to wane a little.

Le Grevès’ final stage win came in 1939 before the Tour was cancelled due to the war. The Parisian-born sprinter survived the war but died in 1946 in a skiing accident.

Tour de France stage wins: 16
Tour de France points classification wins: N/A (not run until 1953)

Robbie McEwen (AUS) – 1997 to 2010

Australian fast man Robbie McEwen was the first of his countrymen to win the points classification – something he achieved three times in his career.

McEwen relied on tactical nous and all-out pace rather than a sprint train as such, but that didn’t stop him clocking 12 Tour de France stage wins in all.

Robbie McEwen was the first Australian to win the green jersey and has more Tour stage wins than any of his compatriots (pic: Sirotti)

His first arrived on the Champs-Elysees in 1999, while his victory in Paris again in 2002 was enough to see him usurp six-time points back-to-back points classification winner Zabel.

He also wore the yellow jersey for a single day in 2004, before recovering from two bad crashes to win a stage and bag his second green jersey.

McEwen’s final stage win in 2007 was all the more remarkable because he recovered from a late crash to return to the bunch and win the kick to the line – proving not only his resilience but his sprinting speed.

Tour de France stage wins: 12
Tour de France points classification wins: 2002, 2004, 2006

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (UZB) – 1990 to 1997

Uzbekistani sprinting legend Djamolidine Abdoujaparov did not earn the nickname “The Tashkent Terror” for nothing.

Abdoujaparov’s sprinting style was unorthodox to say the least – at worst, it was erratic and dangerous – but it was also clearly effective as he clocked nine stage wins.

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov won three green jerseys (pic: Sirotti)

Winner of the points classification three times, in 1991, 1993 and 1994, Abdoujaparov claimed the green jersey on the first of those occasions despite a now infamous, high-speed crash during which he hit the barriers on the Champs-Elysees and had to beat the pain barrier to win the stage unaided.

Not all of Abdoujaparov’s victories came from sprints – in fact his last at the Tour, in 1996, was a breakaway in the mountains – but there was no doubting where is best ability lay until his 1997 retirement.

Tour de France stage wins: nine
Tour de France points classification wins: 1991, 1993, 1994

Charles Pelissier (FRA) – 1922 to 1939

Former French ‘cross champion turned sprinting extraordinaire Charles Pelissier reached his zenith in the 1930 Tour de France, one year on from his first Tour stage win.

Now, some 86 years on from that 1930 race, there is still no rider who has bettered his eight stage wins – despite Merckx and Maertens both matching it.

Charles Pelissier, second left, pictured with his brothers (pic: Public Domain, via Wiki Commons)

Pelissier’s record is all the more incredible when you consider he also finished second on seven occasions that year – there was no green jersey at the time, but you can guarantee the Frenchman would have won by a country mile had there been.

The following year he ‘only’ won five – wearing the yellow jersey for the second time in consecutive years early in the race.

Pelissier won twice more, at the 1935 Tour de France, before at the age of 36 the war curtailed his professional career.

Tour de France stage wins: 16
Tour de France points classification wins: N/A (not run until 1953)

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