Cake wars of the peloton

Jonny and Iain rank years of pro cyclist birthday cakes.

Iain Treloar & Jonny Long
by Iain Treloar & Jonny Long 09.06.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos and Kristof Ramon
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The Giro d’Italia has been run and won, and with it, another series of pro cyclist birthday cake moments pass into the annals of history. The 2023 edition of the race saw Cavendish feted with a cheesecake, his compatriot Geraint Thomas celebrated with a (much bigger) pink number, and some all-round wholesome good times for both recipients.

But the Giro d’Italia birthday cake is not a unique phenomenon. Over the years and across the globe, riders have received decadent desserts in the desert, buns on balloons, cream on fingers. And it got us thinking – do these competitive cyclists of the professional peloton care about the quality of their cakes? More to the point, can we rank and review the cakes of the WorldTour?

So that’s what we’ve done.


We are nothing if not thorough here at Escape Collective, so we have devised an internal methodology based on a five-factor scale to assist in the process. Each cake is assessed out of five for:

That means – after we average the top three values between us – there are 25 possible points per cake, and after a careful scouring of our photographic archives, we have 17 entrants. Plus a couple of pictures of Eddy Merckx smashing a champagne bottle because we found them funny.

Which cake will prevail?

Mark Cavendish’s small cheesecake

Jonny: First off, I think the one thing in this universe that Mark Cavendish has probably never shouted at is a birthday cake. But I’m happy to be proven wrong. The cake itself seems an apt choice for a slightly sullen and sodden Giro d’Italia, where the riders were forced to battle through horrendous conditions.

The cake is understated but nice touches like the pair of maybe-fake-strawberries on top inspire hope. As for the perceived moistness, notice how the knife easily slips into the cake, yet when the camera cuts to Mark Cavendish sampling some, he’s taking the wafer of white chocolate off the top. And even then he only pretends to eat that.

Maybe he’s being ultra conscious in the COVID-comeback Giro, or maybe the cake just sucked (and if it’s not good enough for Cav, it’s not good enough for anybody.) As for je ne sais quoi? I think it’s just about small enough to invite enough mystery, which sometimes is all you want from a cake. A solid 3/5.

Iain: I disagree – I think that Mark Cavendish probably has shouted at a birthday cake in his life. If you were to twist my arm, I’d say that this hypothetical scenario would most likely have happened during his Dimension Data days, with Cavendish reaching boiling point over an unadorned sponge cake. “Not even some icing sugar?”, he’d bellow, before launching it at a soigneur’s head.

Otherwise, I like his cheekily decadent bite of a sliver of white chocolate and the compact dimensions of the cheesecake. Can’t be doing with the ribbon around the bottom – too much admin.


Geraint Thomas, pretty in pink

Jonny: I’m going to cut to the chase. This cake looks shit. You can actually see the sponge suffering under the weight of all that marzipan, and apart from the pink jersey on the top, which is admittedly a nice touch, it looks like someone could only be bothered with one circumference of frills before passing that off as the intended style. A cake baked this far into the Giro, and with the hefty compensatory marzipan, can’t taste good, let alone melt in the mouth.

The physical presentation of the cake has been discussed but what about the actual presentation? Geraint Thomas, an affable chap at the worst of the times, looks more miserable here than when he lost the Giro a few days later. I also feel that using Tina Turner’s ‘Simply The Best’ the day after her death is bad vibes in this instance. Don’t know why, just a feeling I’m getting. So the je ne sais quoi is a 0 for me Clive.

Iain: You’re a harsh critic, Jonny. I think the cake probably looks better than Cav’s from a few days earlier – it’s pretty clear who has the more generous slice of the Giro organiser’s dessert allocation – so Thomas’ tight-lipped smile strikes me as a little ungrateful. That said, marzipan can piss right off, and the density of the cake necessitates a solid board beneath it, suggesting that both flavour and mouthfeel would be sub-par. I’ll give it 2 for je ne sais quoi, purely because of the colour coordination. It’d be a three if they were playing the Nutbush.


Oscar Freire’s desperate fingerful

Stage 4, 2006 Ruta del Sol. Photo: Cor Vos

Jonny: There is a lot to unpack here but we probably don’t want to get too deep into the weeds. Let’s just be grateful this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Two women holding a cake while Oscar Freire pulls one woman’s finger towards his manky gob so he can lick icing off of it? Do you want me to throw up, Iain?

Charitably, we could argue this is an important relic of times gone past. Just like how the film 2012 was an instructional movie of what to do when faced with natural disaster, right? Because of the grasping of the finger, I can’t tell whether Freire has sensed the deliciousness of the cake or is just four days into sharing a twin room with a teammate. Because we’re a serious news outlet, I’m going to give this one 2s across the board in my scoring.

Iain: I wasn’t expecting a 2012 reference from you here, Jonny, but if Oscar Freire is John Cusack and the finger of cream is an incoming tidal wave, then I suppose I can see where you’re going with this. There is a similar desperation to this scene, but intriguingly, it only seems to stem from Freire himself; the other three show no apparent signs of distress. At this point in his career, Freire is a three-time world champion, but I think there is a warped humanity in the fact that he is also apparently just a little boy in need of his sweet treat.


Big birthday baked bonanza for Balsamo

Stage 5, 2022 Giro d’Italia Donne. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Now we’re talking! Finally a cake big enough to share with the whole team if not the entire race. The colours are a delight, the undulation of the cake’s topography is enchanting, and Elisa Balsamo looks chuffed at the entire thing. It doesn’t exactly look delicious, however, and has such structural integrity I can’t imagine its moistness moving me at all. But there is a man with a sash (that is probably, hopefully not far-righty, but does look a little bit far-righty, sorry) taking a photo on his phone of Balsamo’s birthday armpit. Je ne sais quoi of the whole scene is off the charts. Full marks on that front.

Iain: I don’t think that the undulation of the cake is enchanting, Jonny; I think it signals an uneven rise beneath the fondant. If it wasn’t so generously proportioned I think we’d be right back where we landed with Geraint Thomas. The vibes are much more wholesome, though, and the local mayor (I’m taking a guess here) seems genuinely pleased to celebrate Balsamo’s birthday and/or co-opt it for some nationalistic social media points-scoring. That’s a victory of sorts, even if I’m not sure whether it’s one we can applaud.


Fabian Cancellara knows where the fingers are (his cake)

Milano, Italy, 2016. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: It’s probably just the fish-eye lens of the camera that make Fabian Cancellara’s right arm look like Lord Voldemort’s, but don’t let that put you off what looks like a delicious post-press conference birthday offering. Maybe we should give all cyclists cake after enduring press conferences, creating a Pavlovian feedback loop with the quality of their answers translated into how good the cake they get is. In this instance, however, we’ll trust the grin on Alexander Kristoff’s face, who looks like he’s having a 4/5 time.

Iain: This all looks a bit fussy for me, honestly, although I appreciate the rococo craftsmanship in those carefully piped meringue swirls. But all for what? For Cancellara to stab while the Stavanger Stallion stands by in a tracksuit? Like Milan-San Remo itself it’s a whole lot of build-up for a brief payoff. Keep your damn cake, I’ll have the Fabian Cancellara Prosecco.


Philippe Gilbert, living his best life

Stage 4, 2011 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Bottle of champagne, bleach-blonde hair, Nike-branded Omega-Pharma Lotto zipped hoodie … what could be better than this?

How about a decent birthday cake? A 0/5 on the perceived moistness and expected flavour that even the 5/5 sparklers can’t save. Maybe I’m on my own here, but you can’t have fruit being the main feature of a birthday cake in this fashion. Sure, as a little enhancer, a bit of razzle-dazzle from the baker, but this is overkill. The purest dichotomy between spectacular birthday energy and underwhelming cake.

Iain: The sparklers and the peroxide hair obviously steal the show, but I think there are a few little accents to this scene that take it to the next level. Let’s turn first to the body language of Frederik Willems, shrinking away from the hissing, spluttering shards of hot metal. What’s that on his wrist? Just a Power Band, promising extremely scammy kinesiological benefits through the power of holograms. There’s a lot more to love – the desert-dry cocoa powder, the precisely placed blueberries, the unopened bottle of bubbly, the silhouette of the woman in the window taking a photo of the photographer taking a photo of Phil’s Big Day.

As chaotic as the scene is, it’s elevated to fine art by the book some jokester has given the wizened 29-year-old Gilbert for his birthday. Sitting there next to him on the table just waiting for grubby journalists to zoom in on, 12 years later: a copy of a book called Prostate Blues.


Older, wiser, with a tart

Stage 5, 2018 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Yves Lampaert wishes it was his birthday. He never gets any sort of cake like this. Patrick Lefevere says he needs to prove his salary before he takes his wallet out for any other celebration. Lampaert plows his fields all winter dreaming of a simple Victoria sponge. Even Philippe Gilbert’s 36th birthday – where they haven’t even bothered to take the sad-looking cake out of its plastic packaging, accompanied by a single, lonely candle – invokes a deep longing that Lampaert tries to quiet by just racing harder. But it never works.

Iain: Well, I feel thoroughly depressed for poor Yves Lampaert here, thanks a lot. I was finding some solace in the fact that Gilbert seemed to have a nice baked Basque cheesecake in a glass dish, but zooming in on Lampaert’s wistful stare I realise that you’re right – it’s not glass at all. Patrick Lefevere has gone down to Lidl, plonked down €3 on a shitty tart from yesterday’s specials bin and found a birthday candle somewhere at the back of the bus behind the chamois cream.

Seven years after his last documented cake, life might be looking up for Gilbert in the hair department, but this time no one cares enough to bother with sparklers or books about prostate troubles, so it’s much more of a mixed bag than it might first appear.


How fucking decadent, Tony

Some soulless hotel lobby prior to the 2016 UCI Road Worlds, Doha, Qatar. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: There’s nothing I’d like less than to eat a cake featuring a photo of someone time trialling and the use of a number instead of a letter. Grow up, this was 2016 for crying out loud.

Iain: As a general rule, I too don’t eat things with pictures of taped knee injuries on them, but that’s not the only badness going on here. In fact, with the possible exception of the profiteroles, I hate everything about this cake, and most of all, I hate the green stuff around the edge. What is that? Pistachio? Chives? Finely sliced jalapeños? Did the pastry chefs of Doha roll it around in some fresh grass clippings? What is happening here?

Wet, woeful, unbecoming of a world champion. No thank you.


Jonny: Equally, eating cake in a rainbow jersey has very ‘it’s MY birthday’ energy.

Iain: HATE.

Stavanger Stallion ambushed with cake on air

Stage 5, 2017 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: The size of this cake should have sent the alarm bells ringing that Katusha were in financial difficulties. It does look delicious, though, and we imagine the Stavanger Stallion ate it in one bite. No chew. Just straight down the gullet, teeny tiny birthday hat slightly moving on his head as he takes one big gulp and the cake is gone for ever. Happy Birthday, Alexander Kristoff.

Iain: I’ll correct the record here and say that I doubt Content King Igor Makarov is buying anyone cakes, small or otherwise. This has all the hallmarks of being a cake from TV2 Norge – that’s Tour de Trump winner Dag Otto Lauritzen on the left, and holding the microphone just out of view is TV2’s silver-haired, silver-voiced cycling pundit Sindre Olsen. They’re hyper-focused on their countryman – as TV2’s cycling coverage always, always is – and I’m hyper-focused on their sad little cake (with a little bit of hyper-focus left over for the elastic cutting into the Stallion’s chin).


All the Italians are here to party

Stage 6, 2015 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Everything here is a bit chaotic and I don’t like it. The mix of teams and various fluoros on the podium, the sponge cake seemingly sitting on a bed of icing, the number of knees on display in the photo. Nope. Not for me.

Iain: It’s a big 41st birthday for Matteo Tosatto, and he’s got all of his mates up on stage to say tanti auguri. What’s not to love, Jonny? In fact, Oscar Gatto (Androni Giocattoli) is feeling so festive (and/or aroused) that he’s apparently snuck a big bulgey slice of cake down his knicks for the occasion. Don’t you like friendship? Don’t you like a big squelchy cake crotch, Jonny?


Cav’s 2013 cake is better than 2023

Stage 16, 2013 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Now we’re talking: what an absolute disaster of a cake. The random placing of the exactly 28 candles for Cavendish’s 28th birthday, the inedible paper streamers that have fallen on top and will likely get cut into the cake as the sprinter slices it up, the solitude of the birthday boy in this photo. Is it a smile or a grimace? At least the flaked almonds are a nice touch.

Iain: Two points, and thank you. 1: Thank you for counting the candles so I didn’t have to. 2: Nuts on cakes are a nut industry psy-op; they do not belong there and it is staggering that Big Nut has convinced so many people to go along with its wicked agenda.


Oscar Freire has a bun on a balloon

Stage 1, 2009 Tour of California. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Maybe the least American birthday photo ever. A dreary, overcast day and two abject balloons attached to a cinnamon bun. Oscar Freire, however, looks positively delighted. Three years on he can’t even remember the cake and finger combo. A simpler, happier life.

Iain: I like a cinnamon scroll as much as the next guy – maybe more! – but I’ve got grave concerns about how this one has been handed over. All the icing is going to stick to the cling wrap, along with the cinnamon, and then what is Oscar left with? A flavour-lite scroll and sticky fingers of his own for once, that’s what.

On the plus side, he’s aged quite gracefully into Javier Bardem’s bad guy in Spectre, and I’m sure is ready to deliver a chilling monologue at a moment’s notice.


The wetter the better for CCC

2019 CCC team presentation, Denia, Spain. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Another foreboding ‘cake’ celebration for the now defunct CCC at their team presentation, who seem to have commandeered the entire tiramisu from the hotel buffet and cut out their team name from a piece of paper to place on top. Absolutely hideous vibes; can’t believe Greg Van Avermaet had to live through this.

Iain: A single stray sneeze would send swirls of chocolate dust, Anthrax-like, around the dining room. I imagine the flavour is probably quite good, but I don’t like the look of the mosaic tiles around the edge – and whoever’s garnishing a tiramisu with cape gooseberries and redcurrants, the grittiest of fruits, is absolutely deranged. Si si si? No no no.


Marcel’s mystery box of candles

Stage 5, 2016 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Due to a lack of any information besides enough candles to start a forest fire, we’ll go off Gianluca Brambilla’s smile to assume that everyone here is having a 3/5 time.

Iain: I’ll give it a 5/5 for je ne sais quoi, because I literally don’t know what is happening here.


Girmay has a gorgeous gateau

2023 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Forever scarred by Giro-cork gate, we will likely never see Biniam Girmay on a podium again without protective eyewear. With his sunglasses on, not even a pair of golden sparklers can dent his enjoyment. A chocolate-y masterpiece in accordance with all necessary health and safety measures.

Iain: Biniam Girmay has the standout cake of this article and I’ll fight anyone that tries to tell me otherwise. High marks all round from me. Love this for him.


Eddy Merckx (background) and an enormous cake (foreground)

Eddy Merckx’s big 6-0. Photo: Cor Vos.

Jonny: Now we’re talking – three tiers of cake for Eddy Merckx, a creation big enough for everyone in Belgium to have a slice. Presumably stolen from someone’s wedding because Eddy’s birthday is more important. It’s just a shame that the shade of his jeans and the pattern on the back of the sofa behind him are going to give me nightmares.

Iain: There is absolutely nothing in this cake, room, or decor that I find appealing. I don’t even think the bottom layer of the cake is real. Because of the extravagant proportions of this monstrosity, I tried to get to the bottom of how much it would’ve cost, and based on Wittamer’s current pricelist I suspect it cost a lot, even if the Eddy Birthday Cake is not a menu item. Chalk this one up as a ‘gâteaux personnalisés‘ that I want nothing to do with.

Score: [Editor’s note: You’ll note that our combined scores for this one are surprisingly high for what a bad cake it is. That is because Jonny lost his mind and lobbed some bonkers high scores in there. Such is democracy.]

An inferno in a tin

2012 Tour de France. Photo: Kramon.

Jonny: At this stage in the 2012 Tour de France, André Greipel had won three stages and the best his team could come up with for his birthday was a pan on fire. Jelle Vanendert has helmet marks on his head, Francis De Greef lets slip that he’s a bit of a pyromaniac, and Kramon’s camera is out of focus. Greipel looks like he’s having fun, though, and isn’t that what birthdays are all about? I don’t know what he’s about to do with that bottle of bubbly … I guess we’ll never know.

Iain: Perceived moistness is about to be off the charts if Greipel has his way here and does the funniest possible thing to his birthday cake.


This pause for deliberations, brought to you by Eddy Merckx choosing violence …

“WHAT did you just say …
… about my big crass birthday cake?!!!”

The winner

After careful deliberation, I think this ended about where we thought it would.

In third place, with a score of 17/25, we have Marcel Kittel. Does it matter that we can’t actually see the cake? If anything, its enigmatic nature benefits the big German sprinter. His candles are slender and many, and he looks mildly happy to be there. What more could one ask for?

One could ask for their nation’s TV pundits to ambush them with a small but soggy chocolate cake, for starters. That’s what happened to Alexander Kristoff, who also got to wear a silly little hat, scoring 19/25 – and a second place on the podium – for his troubles.

Champion of this edition of Peloton Cake Wars is Biniam Girmay, with a runaway score of 21.5/25. Of the 17 cakes, it’s the one that we most wanted to dig our grubby fingers into and feed to ourselves and each other, kind of like Oscar Freire but with a knowing dose of irony, before slipping off into a sugar coma until the next birthday cake rolls around.

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