Who's the best sprinter in the world? Ask the cycling pundits and you're probably getting an answer of Sam Bennett, some would say Arnaud Demare or Caleb Ewan, and from there you can say that Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Dylan Groenewegen would probably get some votes as well.
In terms of recent results Bennett has 12 wins with 11 other podiums and Ewan has eight wins, with seven other podiums. Demare has 13 wins and six other podiums, but he tends not to come up against the other top sprinters as often, so we'll focus on Bennett vs Ewan in particular.
So why is Caleb not the top of the pack, obviously I'm coming from a parochial Australian perspective here, but looking at some of his recent sprints, I think there's some pretty clear indications why Ewan consistently places behind Bennett. All the videos are from the start of the 2020 season to now, you can watch the video above if you're in Australia.
Ok, first thing to tick off, who is faster?
Of course this a vexed question and there's more that goes into each sprint than pure A to B speed, including how fresh each rider is arriving in the finale and also how the positioning has gone in the last few kilometres and where exactly they start in relation to each other. Ewan looks to be faster than Bennett, though if you want to say it's equal, that's okay by me.
Stage 7 of the 2021 UAE Tour Ewan win- this was the most equal of their recent match-ups, we'll see some of the other ones from the UAE Tour later on. Watch how Ewan, well-positioned at the front, feels the surge in pace from next to him, latches onto Bennett's wheel then sprints to the win.
This is arguably not an even sprint, Ewan has to put in an acceleration by himself to get onto Bennett's wheel, but this is the closest example I could find where both were going for the win and there was a relative similar run to the line afterwards.
Stage 4 Tour Down Under Ewan win- sharp final corner wipes off all their speed and it's a drag race to the line from there. The overhead gives a great indication of the relative pace of the two riders and because they're going from low speed to their full sprint, there's less emphasis on drafting and relative speed coming into the finale and more just pure power.
Maybe you make some allowance for Ewan being a bit more keen to compete in Australia than Bennett, but regardless it was a pretty awesome display of power.
2021 Brugge-De Panne Bennett win - no Ewan here this is just an example of why Bennett wins so much. He has three Deceuninck-QuickStep riders in front of him with 600 metres to go, Morkov only hits the front with 300 metres to go, Bennett's sprint in the wind is only from 150 metres to go against two other riders and it's just a perfect situation for him.
So that's how you're supposed to do it, where then are the problems for Ewan and Lotto Soudal? We'll start with the most obvious issues in the past few years.
Stage 6 2021 UAE Tour Bennett wins, Ewan 12th- The thing to keep an eye on here is the amount that Ewan has to battle. He gets separated from his main leadout man Jasper De Buyst, Tosh van der Sande is around Ewan, but not really in much of a helpful fashion and Ewan has to fight a lot in that final kilometre to get anywhere near the sprint. Ewan has to try and take a good wheel in Bennett because his leadout is all over the place and not in a position to deliver him in the top spot.
Both Dekker and Viviani want Bennett's wheel, currently occupied by Ewan and both are coming from either side of Ewan, also from above the rear wheel of Bennett, really giving Ewan no way to fend them off. Eventually, Ewan fights his way back but comes up against a wall of riders in the final sprint and soft pedals to the finish.
Meanwhile, Morkov bides his time and pilots Bennett into position to launch from the front in the inside line on the slight bend to the line and the Irishman is good enough to finish it off.
Stage 5 of the 2020 Tour Down Under- also known as the race where Roger Kluge leads out the opposition. This is where Kluge was second wheel through the final corner, Ewan's dropped back to sit tenth or so in this much reduced bunch sprint, but Kluge doesn't have any awareness of the situation and does a full leadout, ending up gapping the field with Nizzolo on his wheel.
If you watched Morkov on the previous sprint, he was the lone leadout for Bennett, and had his head on a swivel constantly to make sure Bennett was in his slipstream. That's not something that Kluge does until he swings off. He has at least two-double takes as he waits for Ewan to pass him, he had no idea where Ewan was.
So that's the disconnection between the leadout and the sprinter, as you can see on this stage, a major issue.
Stage 4 2021 UAE Tour- while De Buyst is a good leadout man, he's clearly not quite got the power and nous of Michael Morkov, and it shows in small ways that mean that Ewan isn't in the best spot to win. Ewan has to settle for Bennett's wheel here rather than competing to launch his sprint from in front, which is normally the best spot, allowing for wind of course.
This highlights why even a small position is crucial, Bennett takes a gap that Ewan can't fit through and Ewan's longer line around Morkov takes him much wider and consigns him to third on the day. Again, Ewan has to use up some energy to jump onto Bennett's wheel as well, so even in these sprints that look relatively equal from where they launch, there are all these little benefits that Bennett is getting but Ewan isn't.
Stages 3 and 11 of the 2021 Tour de France, I'll let the master in Robbie McEwen take you through these wins in the video, but bear in mind both of these are incredibly tough and unlikely wins, both times sprinting into a head wind that has allowed Ewan to make up a lot of distance from behind taking the benefit of other sprinters' slipstreams in the finale.
Look at the titles from those Tour de France victories, 'comes from nowhere', 'comes late to secure thrilling win'...
If he has to take wins in the biggest races like this, they are going to be limited to the finishes where Ewan's pure talent can show through and he isn't hamstrung by positioning problems and having to expend energy. With Bennett, it's a combination of the leadout and his talent that delivers the wins, and he's in a much better position consistently to deliver those victories.