Who's the fastest man? New season starts with an unclear sprinting hierarchy

Sam Bennett, Biniam Girmay, Dylan Groenewgen, Fabio Jakobsen and Arnaud De Lie have all won, and Mark Cavendish hasn't even kicked off his year yet

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Heading into the thick of the new WorldTour season, and it is not certain who is the best sprinter, or if there is even one man who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Almost all the big names have raced and won, but there has not been one rider who has cleaned up, set the tone, been dominant.

In Argentina, at San Juan, Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Fernando Gaviria (Movistar), Sam Welsford (DSM) and Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal Quick-Step) all won, while at Etoile de Bessèges, Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny) won twice, and Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty) won at Valenciana.

At the Saudi Tour last week, Jayco AlUla’s Dylan Groenewegen had the chance to prove he was in the box seat; away from the deepest field, he could at least have won at every opportunity, to prove his ability, and yet could only claim one victory, among two podiums. He said he was content post-race, but it was obvious that he wanted more.

“We are happy, and happy with the results,” the Dutchman said. “As a sprinter, you always want another one, and we were close to this. It was possible to win in the second stage, and then today I went too early. Second stage I was a bit late and today I was too early. It was a hard sprint, maybe too hard for me, but it was a nice try.”

Perhaps ominously for his rivals, Jayco have beefed up their sprint train with Zdenek Štybar and Lukas Pöstleberger, and it seems to be operating well: “I think I'm really good, also with the team. Last year we lost each other a lot but now we made a really good start. The team performance was really good, and we know what to do now and for the next races.”

The next race for Groenewegen will be the UAE Tour, where he will meet some of the other pre-eminent sprinters at the first true clash of the year: Soudal Quick-Step’s Tim Merlier, Bennett, and Lotto-Dstny’s Caleb Ewan will all be there, alongside Mark Cavendish, newly of Astana-Qazaqstan, where he will link up for the first time with his designated leadout man, Cees Bol. 

In Saudi Arabia, Bol had a productive week at his new team, finishing third twice and coming sixth overall. How he interacts with Cavendish will be fascinating.

“There's a lot of guys who can win sprints, especially as the parcours are not always super flat and super easy to sprint on,” he explained to Cycling Weekly. “I think you already see this year that there have been different guys who have won sprints.

“The level has gone up in general, there's more knowledge about how to train riders on a specific part of cycling. Maybe there's more purely sprint focused riders than there were ten years ago.”

There are no longer specific teams who challenge at sprints, gone are the days of HTC Highroad vs Quick-Step vs Lotto, with everyone getting into the act. Perhaps last year's obsession with UCI points has reminded squads that winning races is important, and can be done if you have a fast rider.

"Almost every team has a good sprinter and a good sprint train behind him," Bol said. "In the last years it has been more like two or three guys than a full leadout train.

"You need everybody, but you don't necessarily need them all at the finish. You need strong riders, and then two or three guys that can do the last 2km. Before that, it's just about being committed."

All of the above named riders will be itching to put one over their rivals. Even at a race like the Saudi Tour, Groenewegen’s thunderous face at finishing second was all one needed to see how much it matters. Last year's ranking has been thrown out the window, and it is all about how speedy you can be now.

"Last year's form is not relevant, you just start the race and do your best," Bol said. "In the final, you see who's organised and who's not. If you're not organised in the final, it's not relevant to sit on their wheel. But for sure it's interesting to see some guys going well after the winter, but that can change again next month."

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Adam Becket
Senior news and features writer

Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.