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TdF'06: The Battle for the Maillot Vert

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[editor's note, by chris]Re-posted, in light of this being TdF'06 Preview Week, and the fact that the racing posts are being drowned in a sea of drug stories...

Just as last year's Tour served as a somewhat bland appetizer to this year's battle for yellow, so too did it merely whet our appetites for this year's battle for the maillot vert, the green jersey, awarded to the winner of the points competition. Out of the race was the specter of uber-legends Alessandro Petacchi and Erik Zabel, and pre-race semi-favorite Tom Boonen withdrew after knee issues derailed a hot start. Then defending champ Robbie McEwen got relegated on stage 3 for nuzzling his countryman O'Grady like a spring lamb, a decision that put him well in arrears and left the battle to O'Grady and eventual winner Thor Hushovd.

It was hard not to feel like the fun was over before it started. McEwen was barely in contention after the first Tuesday; Boonen couldn't climb after he banged his knee and departed; and Hushovd, however likeable, took the jersey without once doing what Green Jerseys do: winning a stage. Worse, McEwen won three stages, and his final margin of defeat (16 points) was less than the 24 or so he lost in stage 3's relegation.

So this year's contest has an easy act to follow... but it hardly matters because even without Petacchi around, we've got the best points competition in years.

First, Wikipedia has a separate page explaining the jersey and listing past winners. Excellent resource as always. Also, here's the complete rider list, according to the Tour, though I don't think it's fully final. Let's run through the contenders:

  • Tom Boonen... the clear favorite this time, even Zabel said so last week. That's what happens when you win 16 races in three months.
  • Robbie McEwen... two-time winner, and but for race juries he'd be going for three straight. Not to excuse him, Robbie makes his own bed. I'm just saying...
  • Thor Hushovd... the holder. He's a candidate to win, but not by simply repeating what he did last year. Won't cut it this time.
  • Erik Zabel... the other former winner. As in six time winner. OK, he's slowing down, but it should be noted that the Cycling Gods were not amused when T-Mobile summarily excluded him from their Tour squad last year, promptly running Jan Ullrich's face through a windscreen to register their displeasure. Erik's a great guy by all accounts, and he might have mystical powers.
  • Oscar Freire... having a very good season, and in form after his nice stage win last week. He's never made too much noise at the Tour, but he's got all the tools: fast finishes, tons of experience, and the all-round skills to actually make it to Paris.
  • Stuart O'Grady... always a bridesmaid here, and he's past his prime, and he's working for yellow. But he can't resist a sprint, especially if he can F-- McEwen in the process.
  • Honorable mentions... Allan Davis (4th last year), Daniele Nardello, Daniele Bennati, Bernhard Eisel, Magnus Backstedt, Luca Paolini.

One thing stands out about the list of past winners: there aren't many young bucks or obscure names. Sure, you can accomplish anything at age 22 if you're good and smart enough. But thinking even of the GC contention... even the best riders don't take the race over on their first try. Lance withdrew, what, three times? He won the only Tours he ever finished, but even for the greatest Tour rider ever, it took some time to get used to the immense difficulty of riding the Tour de France. The speed, the grades, the length... everything about the Tour is different than what riders experience elsewhere. They all say this, to a man.

This is especially true in the points comp, and that's why IMHO the wild card in this year's points competition is experience. Sure, Boonen is the fastest closer, but that in no way guarantees a maillot vert. Winning Green isn't merely about closing speed; it's about consistently scoring points over three weeks, in finishes and in intermediate sprints along the flat stages. McEwen isn't the sprinter Boonen is right now, but he's close, and he learned long ago (after a few futile years) how to plan a three-week strategy that would win him Green. Last year, even before Boonen's withdrawal, McEwen was already lousing up Boonen's strategy.

Boonen remains my pick, but only because I think he's learned. He has finished one Tour that I'm aware of, and took some hard lessons along the way the last two years. Absent this experience I'd pick McEwen, but I think the lightbulb has gone on for Tom, and he's now fully equipped to win. McEwen narrowly over Freire for second.

What say ye?