In the run-up to the Tour de France I’m casting an eye over the races within the race beyond the yellow jersey. Last week I examined the battle for the polka dot jersey. Today I’m turning my attention to the green jersey, which is awarded to the winner of the points classification. Which stages will favour pure sprinters such as Mark Cavendish and where will more adept climbers such as Peter Sagan prosper?
How the points classification works
Points are awarded on each stage (excluding team time trials) for the first 15 riders both at the finish and at a designated intermediate sprint point on non-time trial stages. Unlike at the Giro, the points system at the Tour is weighted in favour of the sprinters, with more points available on a flat stage than on a mountain-top finish.
So, for instance, there are just as many points (20) available on any intermediate sprint as at the summit of Alpe d’Huez, but that total is more than doubled on the Champs-Élysées (45).
The rider with the most points at the end of each stage wears the green jersey (maillot vert) the following day as the leader of the points classification, with the top scorer in Paris winning the competition overall.
How the jersey will be won
The green jersey is won with a combination of both speed and consistency, and not always by the fastest pure sprinter. Mark Cavendish has dominated Tour sprints in recent times, winning 23 stages in the last five years, and yet has only won one green jersey, in 2011. In 2008 he abandoned to prepare for the Beijing Olympics, in both 2009 and 2012 he had to give best to a superior all-round rider (Thor Hushovd and Peter Sagan respectively), while in 2010 Alessandro Petacchi won by virtue of a more consistent record.
The importance of consistency cannot be underestimated, with 18 of 21 stages offering between 40 and 65 points. Many of these days will favour pure sprinters such as Cavendish, Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel, but others will see the more able climbers and classics men such as Sagan picking up points while the others are languishing off the pace.
I’ve selected five stages from the Tour’s opening week to illustrate how the advantage shifts between the two camps depending on the nature of the day’s parcours and the siting of the intermediate sprint.
Stage 1: Porto-Vecchio to Bastia, 213km
Intermediate sprint: The top points will be swept up by the day’s breakaway but the green jersey contenders will be anxious to mop up whatever’s left to open their accounts. The approach to the sprint point is flat, so expect the top lead-out trains to use this as a dress rehearsal for the finish. Defending green jersey Sagan will contest the sprint, but expect him to struggle against Messrs Cavendish, Greipel and Kittel.
Finish: A flat finish, so expect a repeat of the intermediate sprint, only at a more frenetic pace and with more risk-taking. With the added incentive of the first yellow jersey for the stage winner, there is as good as zero chance of the breakaway surviving. The odds favour one of the pure sprinters taking both the maillot jaune and the early points lead.
Stage 3: Ajaccio to Calvi, 145.5km
Intermediate sprint: It’s uphill all the way from the start with a cat 4 summit after just 12km, and the day’s intermediate soon after. If the tempo on the climb is fast, the pure sprinters will fall out of contention. However Sagan should have no problem. Don’t be surprised if he goes in the early break to claim all 20 points before dropping back.
Finish: A cat 2 climb less than 14km from the finish should see several sprinters shelled out of the peloton, but Sagan could well get over in the front group. If he does, pencil him in for the stage win, although he will face competition from classics specialists such as Daniele Bennati on a flat finish.
Stage 5: Cagnes-sur-Mer to Marseille, 228.5km
Intermediate sprint: An early cat 3 climb will stretch the peloton out but, with the intermediate sprint over 100km in, the bunch should be back together for the green jersey boys to squabble over the points. It’s slightly uphill for the final 1.5km, though.
Finish: A lumpy second half of the stage means this isn’t a guaranteed bunch sprint and the day’s breakaway will have hopes of escaping capture. Either way it will be a fast finish, downhill then flat all the way from the 2km mark. Sagan should be in the front group over the final climb, but any of the pure sprinters who can drag themselves over the summit will be able to catch their breath on the long descent and will fancy their chances of outdragging the Slovak.
Stage 7: Montpellier to Albi, 205.5km
Intermediate sprint: A typical medium mountain stage, with the sprint point nestled in the middle of the day’s four climbs. Some of the pure sprinters will have been lost long before, but those who can stay vaguely in touch have the opportunity to bridge any gaps over the flat-into-downhill run to the intermediate. It’s definitely an opportunity for Sagan to put points into some of his rivals, though, and Cannondale may elect to force the pace to make life as difficult as possible for those behind.
Finish: In all likelihood, some of the sprinters may not get back to the peloton at all, but the second half of the stage is easier than the first, so we may still see a bunch sprint. The final 30km is downhill, so the pure sprinters who make it over the final climbs will have an eye on victory.
Stage 9: Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, 168.5km
Intermediate sprint: This is most definitely not a sprinters’ stage, as it contains four cat 1 climbs. It’s also the final stage of a long opening week, so there tired legs in the peloton will mean a breakaway is likely to stay away. However, don’t be surprised if Sagan manages to secure a place in that group. He showed last year that he is capable of climbing big mountains at a steady tempo, and he may target the intermediate sprint after 73km in the knowledge that Cavendish, Greipel and Kittel will already be sitting in the gruppetto. After that he’s likely to sit up and save his legs.
Finish: Don’t expect any of the green jersey candidates – not even Sagan – to contest the finish. This is a day for others to grab some glory.
As the above shows, there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ sprint stage. Some days will favour Cavendish and Greipel, others will favour Sagan and some are delicately poised. What is certain is that Sagan possesses a wider range of tactical options than most of his rivals – he can win stages the others can’t and is able to go hunting points on more mountainous days to offset those he may lose on flatter days.
One other factor may also play in his favour. On the toughest mountain stages none of the sprinters will score points at the finish – but some will lose some. Riders finishing outside the time limit on any stage are hit with a penalty equivalent to the number of points received by the stage winner (20 in the case of high mountain stages). As a more proficient climber, Sagan has a better chance of ducking under the time limit than the final gruppetto in which we will find a puffing Manxman and his powerful German rivals. In the final analysis, that may just be enough to swing the pendulum in Sagan’s favour.
Either way, expect the battle for the green jersey to be closely fought – and in all probability go all the way to Paris. Even as a huge Cav fan, though, my money’s on him to win the most stages but on Sagan to clinch a second green jersey.