Giro analysis: Can a sprinter win the points jersey this year?

The Giro d’Italia is a little bit different to the norm in the way it handles its points competition. In most major stage races this jersey is the domain of the sprinters. Not so the Giro.

Last year, due to the excessively mountainous nature of the parcours, the points competition effectively became a shadow version of the GC. The one-two-three in both classifications were identical (Contador-Scarponi-Nibali), with the top-placed sprinter being Roberto Ferrari [yes, him – Ed] in a distant eighth.

In 2010 the maglia rosso was won by the redoubtable Cadel Evans, who is many things but would never claim to be the new Robbie McEwen. 2009? Overall champion Denis Menchov doubled up as that year’s points winner. You have to go back to Daniele Bennati in 2008 to find the last sprinter to win the red jersey.

Can Cavendish become the first sprinter since 2008 to win the points competition? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This year’s competition, however, does offer the prospect of a sprint winner. Aided by this year’s more balanced route, Sky’s Mark Cavendish – winner of three stages – leads the standings with 110 points with six stages remaining, 26 ahead of Joaquim Rodriguez. The gap would probably have been at least double that had the world champion not been wiped out by crashes at the end of stages three and nine.

He is, however, the only sprinter in contention, with the next-best fast-twitch man being Rodriguez’s Katusha teammate Alexander Kristoff, sixth on 49 points. All the other big-name sprinters – Goss, Farrar, Haedo, Renshaw et al – have long since abandoned. It really is birthday boy Cavendish – he turns 27 today – or nothing.

Points standings after stage 15:

1. Mark Cavendish (Sky) 110 pts

2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 84

3. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) 54

4. Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Bardiani) 53

5. Andrey Amador (Movistar) 52

6. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) 49

7. Martijn Keizer (Vacansoleil-DCM) 48

8. Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) 43

9. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) 40

10. Miguel Angel Rubiano (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela) 36

Can Cavendish defend the maglia rosso all the way to Milan on Sunday? It depends largely on three factors.

A race against time

Arguably the biggest threat to Cavendish’s attempt to complete his set of Grand Tour points jerseys is the clock. The Manxman’s sole aim on the three remaining high mountain stages (17, 19 and 20) is to finish inside the time limit to avoid elimination. Usually shepherded by teammate Bernhard Eisel, it’s not uncommon for Cavendish to drag himself across the finish line in the gruppetto with barely a minute to spare.

However, it is by no means certain he will beat the clock. On more than one occasion in last year’s Tour de France, his group missed the official time cut and were punished with points deductions. With the competition being as close as it is here, though, that is a luxury he cannot afford.

Will anyone dominate in the mountains?

Unlike at the Tour, the Giro awards the same points for a mountain stage as it does on a flat one. This means climbers enjoy equal opportunities to the sprinters when it comes to the points jersey.

Rodriguez is in contention for both pink and red (image courtesy of Katusha)

Up to eight points are available at intermediate sprints, with the first 15 riders across the finish line also earning points: 25, 20 and 16 respectively for the first three, down to one for 15th. For instance, by claiming both the intermediate and the stage victory on Saturday’s stage 14, Andrey Amador bagged 33 points in one fell swoop.

With Rodriguez just 26 points behind, another high finish would wipe out the world champion’s advantage in one go. Or if another climber emerges as the dominant force in the concluding week – Domenico Pozzovivo, perhaps, or defending champion Michele Scarponi – a couple of stage victories could also propel them into contention.

Depending on how the battle for the GC and stage wins develops ahead of him, Cavendish could easily find himself trailing Rodriguez, and possibly others, by the time the race concludes in Milan.

How many points can Cavendish gain on the final flat stage?

Cav’s one opportunity to boost his own points haul comes on stage 18. On this sole remaining flat stage he would ordinarily have high hopes of securing the win bonus, on top of a few more points at the intermediate. However, a number of factors could conspire against him.

This late in the race, teams who have yet to taste glory will be desperate for one last shot via a breakaway. AG2R are prime candidates here, along with the likes of NetApp, who just missed out with Jan Barta‘s second place on Saturday. Competition to get a man in the break will be intense, and there is a good chance of an unusually large group escaping up the road, not only accounting for all the intermediate points but improving their odds of survival to the finish.

Normally Cavendish’s Sky team would be able to rely on help from other sprint-focussed squads such as Orica-GreenEDGE to lend their shoulders to the pursuit. But most of these teams have already seen their main sprinters depart and will have no reason to chase – indeed, they may try to place a man in the break instead – which will put the onus firmly on Sky. If the breakaway numbers more than seven or eight, they may effectively have a numerical advantage over a peloton which may have only one team, Sky, interested in setting the tempo. If that is the case, they may never be caught. In the worst case scenario, Cavendish could win the peloton sprint but still end up pointless.

It also doesn’t help that Sky are now a man short. Jeremy Hunt, one of their key engine-room workers, left the race before yesterday’s stage to attend the birth of his child. Ultimately the fate of the points jersey could come down to the size of this stage’s breakaway – and a short-handed Sky’s ability to control it.

With Rodriguez embroiled in a ding-dong battle for the overall lead, it is entirely possible he will rack up enough points – in the uphill conclusion to Tuesday’s stage 16 and the summit finishes on stages 19 and 20 – to jump beyond Cavendish’s reach. As I look at it now, I have to make J-Rod the marginal favourite for the points jersey. But it really is too close to call.

Link: Official website

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