At the finish of stage five of the 2015 Tour de France in Amiens, while dolefully discussing his third place with the press, Mark Cavendish hit the nail on the head. “I think instead of the news being that I’m beaten again, maybe it should be that Greipel has won,” he said.
But this is the perennial reaction to André Greipel’s big victories. When his nemesis loses, the focus is always on where the Briton failed tactically or whether he is out-of-sorts. Greipel’s own power, tactical nous and achievement is rarely given the recognition it deserves. He has finished in Cavendish’s wheel on so many occasions that he remains in his shadow, even as the winner.
Few would consider the German a cycling great, but his week as the pre-eminent bunch sprinter at the 2015 Tour de France emphasises that this must change. The score, as of writing, is Greipel 2-1 Cavendish. “He’s a monster, one of the best sprinters in the world now. In a few years’ time, he will also belong in that group,” his Lotto-Soudal team manager Marc Sergeant said.
Perhaps Cavendish and Marcel Kittel are more extrovert personalities or possess more eye-catching accelerations, but Greipel’s strength, consistency and prolific win rate is just as impressive.
Season in, season out since 2008, “the Gorilla” has been a winner in the double figures. His tally is now approaching the 120 victory mark. The past criticism that he is a flat-track bully – a winner of “shit, small races” as Cavendish once said – seems inapplicable. You can only win the events put in front of you, and he takes a lot of big ones too: three Giro stages, four in the Vuelta and now eight in the Tour, including two in this year’s race already.
Has anything changed this season? The 32-year-old altered his programme slightly, missing the Tour Down Under. “I have the impression that he’s still fresh,” Sergeant says. “Mentally, he’s also a bit stronger.”
His success is also down to the nature of this Tour’s first week. “The strange thing is that this Tour is different when it comes to bunch sprints. The first one was 24 guys, stage five was about 50 or 60. That shows that the race was hard. And when the race is hard, he is one of the strongest,” Sergeant says.
Being a champion isn’t just about winning races either. On and off the bike, Greipel is principled. “Every sprinter has a sort of aggression, but he will never do something to hurt somebody in the bunch, do dangerous moves or make other guys crash. Because he’s a guy with values,” Sergeant says.
“Often, you see sprinters not doing things for team-mates. If André can do something for them, he does. In a mountain stage, he helps by giving out bottles.”
“He’s also always giving advice to younger riders, something he didn’t have at the beginning of his career. He said the older guys didn’t want to tell him the secrets of success because they were afraid of losing their place. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake,” Sergeant says.
A big part of Greipel’s success is down to the efficiency and unchanging nature of his Lotto sprint train. Save for the effective recent introduction of Jens Debusschere, the likes of Greg Henderson, Lars Bak and Marcel Sieberg – leadout man at the races, best man at his wedding – have been there since 2012.
Greipel has now won at least one Tour stage in the last five editions of the race. Only seven other men have done that, and they’re all cycling greats: Gerrie Knetemann, Thor Hushovd, Mark Cavendish, Nicolas Frantz, André Leducq, Miguel Indurain and André Darrigade.
This consistency when sharing an era with Mark Cavendish is all the more impressive. Undoubtedly, Greipel’s win tally and reputation have been blighted by regularly coming up against modern bunch sprinting’s colossus.
There seemed needle between the pair when the Manxman first came through at HTC-Columbia, usurpring Greipel. That has long since given way to great mutual respect. “He is a phenomenal sprinter,” Cavendish said of Greipel after losing on stage five of the 2015 Tour de France.
The old maxim goes: “Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired.” It seems like neither is out of energy yet.
Mark Cavendish dominated an era and Marcel Kittel has burned brighter in recent seasons, but André Greipel might just outlast both of them. Surely there is room in this generation for more than one great sprinter.