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Meet the Fastest Cyclists in Rio: Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish

Mark Cavendish, left, and Peter Sagan (Getty Images)
Mark Cavendish, left, and Peter Sagan (Getty Images)

Cycling’s popularity usually peaks in July during the Tour de France, but this year the sport’s summer gets a boost from the Olympics. If you already tuned in to Rio’s road race or time trial events — cycling’s two flagship competitions that make up the 21-day Tour de France — you’ve seen the biggest cycling events at the Olympics, but not necessarily the ones that will be the most exciting. That’s because two of the biggest stars of this year’s Tour, and cycling in general, haven’t even mounted their bikes yet in Rio. Instead, over the next few days, they’ll be participating in cycling competitions that are radically different from those on the Tour. Let’s get to know two of the fastest men in cycling: Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish.

Who are these guys? Peter Sagan is a cyclist from Slovakia. Mark Cavendish is a cyclist from the Isle of Man. They both can pedal very quickly.

So, these two compete to win the Tour de France every year, right? They compete, but they don’t usually win. The winner of the Tour de France’s general classification — its most famous one — is the rider who completes the 21-stage race in the shortest cumulative time. So the race is usually won by “climbers,” or riders who can ride up and down mountains quickly, where it is easiest to exhaust other competitors and create time gaps. Climbers usually have the most exceptional endurance capabilities of all the riders in the field and have relatively low BMIs, carrying most of their weight in their legs. Here are the arms of Chris Froome, winner of three of the past four Tours.

Sagan and Cavendish are not built like elite climbers. They’re sprinters (though Sagan occasionally excels on hills, as well) who create value in flat races, where they ride with a group for most of a race and then attempt to finish first by accelerating at the end of a stage. Due to rules that grant the same time to riders whose wheels are immediately behind those of others, most of the field generally finishes in the same overall time on flat stages. So Sagan and Cavendish’s skills often don’t help build a time gap, which they would need to compete for the general classification. Instead they compete for the cash prizes that come with top finishes, placement in the points classification (the leader of which wears the green jersey in the Tour), and, of course, for glory.

What makes them special, then? Sagan, who is only 26, has won the green jersey at the Tour de France each of the past five years, putting him just one win away from tying the overall record for most finishes atop the points classification. He’s fast enough to finish in the top three of most sprints on flat stages, but also versatile enough to pick up points on hillier stages and even mountains, on occasion. Sagan isn’t renowned because he’s the absolute fastest rider on the course, but because he has no clear weaknesses. Climbers generally can’t sprint and sprinters generally can’t climb, but Sagan can do a bit of both.

Cavendish is the absolute fastest rider in cycling, full stop. But he has many weaknesses. Cav can’t climb mountains well and is a mediocre-at-best time trialist. But he won four stages in this year’s Tour, bringing his total to 30 — just four short of the great Eddy Merckx for the most all time. (Cavendish skipped the last four mountain stages and gave up a chance to compete in the final flat stage in Paris, the greatest prize in cycling for sprinters, to prepare for Rio). On mountain stages, Cavendish probably has the worst fame-to-finish ratio of any cyclist in the world, but on flat roads, there is no one else like him.

Why didn’t they compete in the road race in Rio, if that’s the flagship event? The road race in Rio isn’t a flat stage, so it isn’t suited to the strengths of either Sagan or Cavendish. If they didn’t have other options, Sagan and Cavendish may have competed in the road race just for the enjoyment of being an Olympian, but these men are exceptionally talented cyclists, so …

What are they doing at the Olympics? Cavendish is competing in two Olympic events, the team pursuit and the omnium. Both are track events, meaning that they are contested on an indoor, oval-shaped course called a velodrome on bikes that don’t even have brakes. The world’s other top sprinters, such as Germany’s André Greipel and Marcel Kittel, decided to skip the Olympics completely to focus on the rest of their road racing seasons. Cavendish is the only top-flight cyclist to decide to move away from his main discipline to compete for a medal in Rio, except for Peter Sagan.

If Cavendish’s move to the track would be like Andy Murray deciding to compete only in mixed doubles in Rio, Sagan’s move would be like Novak Djokovic deciding to compete in table tennis. He’s racing in the mountain bike event.

What does a mountain biking competition even look like? Here are some highlights of the race from London:

Obviously this is very different from road racing. The course features rocky terrain, jumps, and a lot of dirt. The skills required for mountain biking are very different from those required on the road and the track. Aerodynamics aren’t important in mountain biking — being able to control your bike precisely is. Luckily, Peter Sagan is the best bike handler in road racing. He also grew up on mountain bikes, winning a junior world championship in 2008. Still, Sagan picking up the event after years away, in the Olympics, no less, is nuts. But, as Jason Gay pointed out a few weeks ago, Sagan is famous for doing things that few other athletes would even consider.

Has any other cyclist done a shot-for-shot remake of a number from Grease? Not according to my records.