Something’s changed in pro cycling since 2020. For years the most prolific winners were the sprinters, now five other riders are taking the spoils, led by Tadej Pogačar.
Almost ever year this century the rider with the most wins at the end of the season was a sprinter, of sorts. The likes of Erik Zabel, Alessandro Petacchi, André Greipel, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish topped the tables. Philippe Gilbert broke this run when in 2011 he pipped Marcel Kittel by one win. Then in 2021 Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič and Wout van Aert jointly led with 13 wins each and in 2022 Pogačar was ahead of Remco Evenepoel. So far this season Pogačar leads with ten wins… ahead of Roglič.
Now this isn’t an absolute change, the sprinters haven’t stopped winning and the likes of Fabio Jakobsen are not far behind. It’s more while the sprinters remain consistent, five riders have risen up beyond them as regular winners: Tadej Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel and Primož Roglič. Among the five, Pogačar is the most prolific and regular is understating things.
Since turning professional in 2019, Pogačar has 236 days of racing and taken 56 wins. That’s a win rate of 24%. (NB it’s possible to have a win rate in excess of 100%. Win every stage in a stage race plus the overall and you can have more wins than race days but let’s go with this ratio as over time it still means Pogačar has won close to a quarter of the races he started). This is exceptional; especially in a sport where the field is typically 150-200 riders and includes terrain and tactics where others thrive.
In 2009 André Greipel’s win rate was 30% and his Colombia-HTC team mate Mark Cavendish got 27%, career peak rates for each. But take their best years and both average around 17-18%. Ordinarily brilliant but Pogačar’s changed the references here. He’s scoring like a sprinter in their prime, and he’s doing season after season.
Non-sprinters can score high. Alejandro Valverde’s win rate in 2017 was 30% but that’s for one year. He got off to a fine start but crashed hard in the Tour de France prologue and his season was over, so only 36 race days, so it’s part a statistical quirk from an abbreviated year. Had he won two stages of the Tour that year his win rate would have declined to about 20% given the extra 20 days of racing. Or crop Valverde’s stats down to best years of 2003-2019, then remove the time where he distracted and then suspended because his doping case, and we get a tweaked career win rate of 11%, solid by el Imbatible but less than half as efficient as the Slovenian prodigy. Now we can tweak stats but the point here is Valverde was prolific for his time but just wouldn’t rate today. Plus it can work in the other direction as Pogačar’s 24% rate includes a first season learning the ropes. Measure Pogačar between 2020 and today and his rate would be 28%.
“If I wanted to get shit small wins, I’d race shit small races”
– Mark Cavendish, April 2010
Cavendish’s dig at Greipel, then both colleagues and rivals, pointed out quality matters. No worry for Pogačar, as two thirds of his wins have come on the World Tour calendar. His win in the Jaén Paraiso this February was his only lowly 1.1 level win.
Pogačar is exceptional here but Van der Poel, Van Aert and Evenepoel are also dominant with a career win rate hovering around 19%, ahead of any sprinter. There are subtle differences in their career paths of course and their schedules, the “two vans” have taken some sprint wins. Van Aert turned pro in 2017 so his rate is sustained over a longer period. So the precise rate is anecdotal but all the same 18-19% is prolific.
Primož Roglič is worth mentioning too. He turned pro in 2016 and his win rate is a creditable 15%. He of course had an early career in winter sports, contract cleaning and supermarket shelf-stacking and it took him a few seasons as a pro to enter his prime. Measure from 2019 to today and his win rate, ahem, jumps to 20%.
Taken alone, Roglič winning 20% of the races of the races he starts is impressive. But it’s the combined effect with the others cited above that is astonishing. Adding up their win rates gets us to 95% but of course it doesn’t mean there’s a 5% chance left for the field, far from it. But it does mean if we have some of these big five riders on the start line there very likely to win. Ironically our Fantastic Five have only race together once: the 2021 Worlds road race in Leuven… and of course Julian Alaphilippe won.
In case you’re wondering about the sprinters, Fabio Jakobsen’s career win rate is 14%. Delivering sprint wins is valuable and he’s probably the most bankable sprinter now although this season suggests there’s no pecking order. A Super Six rather than Fantastic Five? Not yet, his win rate last season was an impressive 20% so another year like that and he can become part of this cartel of riders winning so often. But that’s the point, for years a sprinter like Jakobsen would top the tables when it came to wins, now he’s a percentage point behind Roglič so the sprinters are playing catch-up. One factor is there are fewer opportunities for sprinters, with race organisers trying to spice up stages to enliven TV audiences and this can have a double-counting effect, a pure sprinter is thwarted by a short climb at or near the finish but this rewards one of the Fantastic Five but that’s a story for another day.
Normally if the same riders were winning all the time things might feel boring, a monopoly. Yet for now it’s still exciting to watch. Because for all the stats, the entertainment is not how much they win, it’s in how they win and they’re often not afraid to make bold moves and attack early. Maybe it’s because they know they’re bound to win?