I'm a little tardy with these comments, but I thought the above image could stand on its own merits (since it's officially the beginning of March). Given the competitors in the sprint above, this had to be one of Mario "Il Re Leone" Cipollini's easier victories.
But the image also got me to thinking about not only who the best sprinter was/is but also what team had the best lead out train to deliver the package?
Oude Granny wasn't even born yet to see what Alfredo Binda accomplished in his lifetime at the Giro, or was way too young to remember the greatness of Freddy Maertens. But I did see and remember Sean Kelly. Which brings up another point, what truly classifies a person as a sprinter, especially since most, back-in-the-day, never really specialized.
So as far as "true" sprint specialists, its hard to argue with a Mario Cipollini in his prime. His constant accelerations in the stretch often left his competitors unable to kick past him when he finally did decide to make for the line.
But because his sprinting style required such a concerted effort by his lead out train, its easy to argue for someone like Robbie McEwen, Tom Boonen, Oscar Freire, Thor Hushovd, Baden Cooke, or Eric Zabel well before another Cipollini-like sprinter in Alessandro Pettachi (for all his dominance in the Giro, he's had trouble containing a parasitic (following or jumping into Ale-Jet's old Fassa Bortolo lead out train) sprinter like McEwen).
Does it all come down then to a matter of taste or talent? For sheer guts, McEwen's your choice. For sheer top-end speed its hard to look past Ale-Jet or the Tornado. For Oude Granny, I've always been partial to those who could contest a sprint after getting up and over the big bumps or rollers, like an Alejandro Valverde.
But whatever your flavor, it's truly a magnificent sight to see a sprint train fly past the barriers close to the finish line launching their leader or to see a McEwen or Freire jump on various wheels before spotting the perfect hole to squeeze through before the swarm closes it. One thing is for certain, the finishes have gotten more exciting (and dangerous) with the growing amount of people specializing and capable of contesting for a win.