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Speed Demons: Green Jersey Preview

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This year's course offers fewer stages for the pure sprinters than usual. Expect a hot contest for each of those stages, as they carry not only the prestige of a stage win, but also a big prize in the points classification. The undulating classics type stages and the transitional stages of the Massif Central will likely encourage successful breakaways, leaving fewer chances for the sprinters to amass points. Win today, as you may not have another chance. The nature of this year's course also opens the slim possibility of a GC rider taking the points jersey. A GC rider racing at the front with a fast finish could pick up points in the classics and transitional stages, which when combined with the mountain stages could give them an edge. Think Cunego or Valverde. But that's a long-shot here, as it would place a heavy burden on the GC teams to bring back the breakaways day after day. Far more likely, the breakaways will succeed repeatedly this Tour, with the GC race playing out behind them, while the pure sprint stages decide the Green Jersey race.

This year's sprint field is a mixture of riders nearing the end of their careers like Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen and riders just beginning their Tour adventures like Gerald Ciolek and Romain Feillu. The generations are turning over, opening the way for either an older rider to win one last big prize or one of the kids to stake his claim on the future. This dynamic makes for an unpredictable points race. Let's have a look.

The Old Hands.

Both Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel are old hands at the Green Jersey game. Between them, they have worn the jersey 9 times. That's a whole lotta green. Robbie went winless at the Giro, prompting many to predict the end of his winning ways. McEwen answered back with two stage wins at the Tour de Suisse, ensuring his spot on the Silence-Lotto roster and reviving his chances of winning another green jersey in Paris. In the absence of Boonen, Petacchi, and Bennati, McEwen's freelancing style may give him an advantage in what promise to be some chaotic last kilomters. Robbie also has a proven knack for making it through the mountains when it matters. Five Stars!

Erik Zabel shares McEwen's experience and ability to finish the grand tours, though not the Aussie's speed. At least, not lately. Zabel is hoping for a stage win and perhaps a day in Green. He hasn't mentioned any ambition to win the points. Zabel's advantage in this game is his consistency. He can - and probably will - finish in the top three on every flat stage. But against riders like Cavendish or McEwen who will actually be winning those stages, Zabel's chances look slim. If none of the other sprinters manage to dominate the last kilometer, Zabel's consistency and experience might make the difference. All the same, his mention here is an honorable one, a lifetime achievement award, rather than the result of any real expectation that he can wear Green in Paris. Two Stars!

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Trivia! What recent rider has won the Points classification without winning a stage? Answer: Thor Hushovd. Hushovd's green jersey win came in 2005, a feat he'd certainly like to repeat. In recent interviews, he has declared the Green jersey as his objective for the Tour. Though Hushovd has only worn Green once in Paris, he has rarely ridden the Tour without winning a stage. In 2006, he won a stage and the prologue. At the same time, he has not shown the consistency of his rivals in chasing points. This year's last kilometer looks to be a chaotic one, as few teams boast an organized trano à la Cipollini or Petacchi. That might complicate matters for Thor, who lacks the jump that allows rivals like Freire, McEwen, and Cavendish to thread through traffic and find the line. At the same time, Hushovd is one of the more experienced riders in the race, and has a proven ability to make it to Paris. In this year's field, crowded with young riders, that experience offers Hushovd an advantage. Four Stars!

Oscar Freire has the speed and the talent to win the Points, but rarely has he shown the inclination. Always other objectives beckon, or he makes it some ten days into the Tour only to come up injured. The Tour has not treated Freire kindly, and he has only once finished the race. This year's mix 'n' match finishes, stages which do not follow the Tour tradition of pancake flat sprinters' days, might spark Freire's interest and give him an edge over his rivals. Freire is the best climber of the Green contenders, and his sprint stays sharp even on a hilly course. Will he finish this Tour? That's an open question. Should he find himself leading the points classification early, he might develop a sudden hankering to see Paris. If so, he must be a favorite for Green. Few of the contenders can match his speed and cunning when he's on form. Three stars!

The Chancers.

Stealthy, that Robbie Hunter. Last year, he placed second in the Points classification in Paris. He also won the 11th stage finishing at Montpelier. Can he repeat? If so, Hunter stands as a serious contender for Green. Last year, marked Hunter's first success at the Tour. In five starts, he had not previously won a Tour stage. Was last year a one-off or a sign of things to come? Impossible to say. Complicating matters this year, Hunter has former Green jersey winner Baden Cooke as a team mate. If the two ride together, they could cause their share of trouble in the ultimo kilometer. If not, Hunter may find it hard going to amass the necessary points, since the Green jersey is not a team award. If the two sprinters divide the stages among them, neither will have a chance a green and indeed, may both leave France empty-handed. Hunter earns his rating on precedent. Though not an out-and-out favorite this time around, that second place finish is impossible to ignore. Three Stars!

Where have you been? It seems like forever ago that Baden Cooke won the Green Jersey on the Champs Élysées. It was 2003, for the inquiring minds among you, and Cooke has not won a Tour stage since. He rode the Tour twice more for Français des Jeux, before signing with Unibet. There followed a lengthy period in the cycling wilderness, though Cooke steadily amassed sprint results in all kinds of places. This year, he returns to the Tour with Barloworld, where he shares sprint duties with Robbie Hunter. After such a lengthy absence, it's hard to predict how Cooke will ride in this Tour. Certainly, he has the pedigree, but sharing a jersey with last year's 2nd place in the points, Hunter, may cramp Cooke's style.Two Stars!

I'm not supposed to be here! In the absence of Tom Boonen, Gert Steegmans takes over sprint duties at Quickstep. Widely touted as the equal of Boonen in talent, Steegmans lacks Boonen's confidence and his results show it. Last year, he accidently won a Tour stage while leading Boonen out, and offered us a glimpse of the extraordinary power he has in his legs. The problem for Steegmans lies not in his legs, but in his head. He is famous for his inability to handle pressure, and no race in the world carries quite the pressure of the Tour de France. Chasing points requires a similar mentality to riding for the general: a steady, consistent focus, that is not derailed by the occasional mishap along the way. So far, Steegmans hasn't shown that kind of mindset in his career. Still, he has talent to burn, and he could accidently find himself at the front of the points classification. But against his more focused rivals, Steegmans looks like a long-shot for Green. Two 1/2 Stars!

The Kids.

Team Columbia is bringing a pair of sprinters to France, Gerald Ciolek and Mark Cavendish, on what promises to be a very stacked roster. Two sprinters, one team. This tactic may doom the chances of either Ciolek or Cavendish to chase Green. One can't afford to share wins if points are the goal. Of the two riders, Cavendish is the faster bunch sprinter, but the Tour did not treat him well last year. More recently, Cavendish showed at the Giro that he can finish a grand tour, and even win a few along the way. He also showed that he's willing to play rough in the last kilometer, if necessary. Between McEwen and Cavendish, there could be fireworks, since McEwen is unlikely to pull a Benna and leave the gate open. According to team press statements, both sprinters will have their chances, and the decision will be made on the day about who will sprint. Absent the potential team rivalry, Cavendish would rank highly among the favorites, though he ranks a tad lower on the experience scale. Should Ciolek agree to play lead-out, these two could become a fearsome duo, and Cavendish's chances of wearing Green increase dramatically. Cavendish: Three Stars!

This is Ciolek's first Tour, and he is riding for experience and hopefully a stage win. If he is given the green light to take his chance, he has a good shot, but his inexperience with the Tour makes him a long-shot for the Points. Ciolek: Two Stars!

First-timers Romain Feillu and Francesco Cicchi are unlikely to figure in the Points race. Each would be ecstatic to win a stage at this Tour, as neither has yet won a stage at a grand tour, much less finished a three week race. Both are exciting talents for the future, but don't expect too much this time around. These kids are just too brand-spanking new to be thinking Green. No grade.

The Outsiders.

Förster and Dean sounds like a law firm. These two sprinters have been in the mix for a few seasons now, but have yet to earn favorite status. Neitther has ever won a Tour stage, or mounted a serious challenge for the Green Jersey. A stage win means a successful Tour for both, and with Maggie Backstedt to play lead-out, Dean has a very good chance of succeeding. Though surprises sometimes come to France in July, for Dean or Förster to wear Green would be among the bigger surprises possible. One Star!