Most years, the first week of the Tour de France does little to affect the race for the yellow jersey (in the long run), and instead features the Tour's second most famous competition, the Points Classification, symbolized by the Green Jersey (maillot vert). While this year isn't exactly typical, yesterday was for the sprinters and several other stages this week will be as well. So the green jersey goes to the fastest sprinter then, right?
The green jersey goes to the guy with the most points, and winning stages is the best way to score points in bunches. Here's a brief rundown of the scoring system:
- For a normal stage, the winner gets 35 points, then 30 for second place, 26 for third, 24-22-20-18-17 and so forth, dwindling down to a single point for finisher #25.
- For time trial stages, the top ten score points: 15 to the winner, then 12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1.
- For the "high mountain" stages, the top 15 score: 20-17-15-13-12-10...1.
- In-stage sprints are scored for the top three, 6-4-2 points. In the first week there are three sprint points in each stage; after that there are two.
Being the fastest sprinter not only means you can get the single biggest cache of points, but it's also something you can repeat several times in a Tour. The record for stage wins in a Tour is 8; last year Mark Cavendish of Team HTC-Columbia won an outstanding 6 stages. And lost the green jersey.
The 2009 Maillot Vert winner was Thor Hushovd of Cervelo Test Team, an older rider who can sprint and often finished in the top five of the fast stages. [The photo is typical, Hushovd is being outsprinted by Cavendish (left) and Tyler Farrar (right), but he's in green.] But Hushovd can also climb, and he won his only stage victory in Barcelona where a late climb separated out most of the pure sprinters. He also scored in-stage sprint points, went on a long solo breakaway in a stage near the Alps, and managed not to miss out on any single mass sprint. Cavendish missed one sprint and was disqualified from another... and lost the jersey overall by a mere 10 points (280-270).
So what makes a points jersey winner is the ability to score points consistently. Some years the top stage sprinter takes home the prize, but scoring points consistently means riding smart, not getting caught out, hanging onto the field when the road goes up (except in the high mountains), and picking off the little in-stage sprint points when a breakaway hasn't already taken them. A little more history:
Sometimes the flashiest sprinter does win: Robbie McEwen won three times despite no climbing ability. Djamouledine Abdujaparov won three times in the 1990s on the strength of his sprints (though if you search his name or the "Tashkent Terror" you'll probably get a youtube video of his famous finish-line helicopter-style crash).
Erik Zabel holds the record for most green jersey wins, with six. When he started, he was the fastest sprinter, but by no means was that his only skill. As Zabel slowed down, he relied more on cagey point attacks to stay close to a seventh victory that never quite arrived. Zabel is now Mark Cavendish's personal coach.
In 2005 Hushovd won the green jersey without winning a single stage. This is the only time in recent memory that dubious feat has been accomplished.
Some have speculated that this year's course features too many small-to-medium climbs to allow a pure sprinter to win. Perhaps even one of the yellow jersey contenders will take the prize instead. Cadel Evans, for example, just won the points classification at the 2010 Giro d'Italia. There's no law that says they can't. I still suspect the prize will go to one of the guys who can also sprint, but this year's competition is wide open. For a full preview of the riders involved, see the Podium Cafe Maillot Vert Preview and Power Poll.
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