Every year the maillot vert discussion starts with a list of the hottest sprinters, and every year we have to make a collective effort to remember that the points race doesn't necessarily reward the best sprinter. Last year Oscar Freire won but a single stage, and blew Thor Hushovd out of the water in the overall comp by 50 points... because Freire was consistently in the finish, and because Mark Cavendish promised British Cycling he'd save something for Beijing. The flat stages weren't all that flat, so Freire picked a good year to be healthy in July. Two years ago Tom Boonen won a robust competition over Robbie Hunter and Erik Zabel with two stage wins, in a comp marked by stage-finish mishaps and the withdrawals of challengers like McEwen and a debuting Cav. And so on.
The point is, you don't win the maillot vert by winning stages so much as by being consistently in the top handful. It's simple math: 35 + 35 + 0 is less than 30 + 26 + 24. Missing a finale is deadly when everyone in the top ten is getting at least 16 points. Ask Robbie McEwen, who was disqualified for nuzzling Stuart O'Grady like a spring lamb in a single stage of the 2005 Tour, and never caught up to Thor Hushovd again, interrupting green jersey victories in 2004 and 2006. Ask Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd, each of whom has won their share of Tour stages but only secured a green jersey in years when they successfully traded stage wins (Boonen 2, Hushovd 0) for consistency.
Everyone knows this, but in some years the Tour drives the point home by littering the course with dangerous little climbs near the finish, or tricky run-ins to the line. Last year's Brittany stages were quite bumpy: stage 1 and 2 eliminated many of the pure sprinters except Freire, and stage 3 left a break up the road. On stage 14 Cavendish and other srinters were dropped outright on a hard climb as the pack approached the Alps... and Freire won the stage from a small group. That was a hard maillot vert competition; this year... not so much. A look at how the sprint stages shape up, a quick power poll, and a few words from Tourbecco... on the flip!
Each year the Tour rates each stage in one of four categories: plain, medium mountains, high mountains and time trial. The "plain" stages are the potential sprints, and usually constitute about half of the race... but plain stages are like snowflakes, and the category is something of a hopper for any stage where the Tour can't call it a mountain event. I would break it out into three sub-categories: selective plain stage, potentially selective plain stage, and non-selective bunch finish. Here's how I rate the 2009 parcours, eliminating the mountain and time trial stages:
Non-selective bunch finishes:
- Stage 2: Monaco-Brignoles
- Stage 3: Marseille-La Grand Motte
- Stage 5: La Cap d'Agde-Perpignon
- Stage 10: Limoges-Issoudun
- Stage 11: Vatan-St-Fargeau
- Stage 14: Colmar-Besancon
- Stage 21: Montereau-Paris
Potentially selective plain stages:
- Stage 6: Girona-Barcelona (4km climb 20km from the finish)
- Stage 12: Tonnerre-Vittel: short 11% climb near the end
Selective plain stage:
- Stage 19: Bourgoin-Jallieu-Aubenas: 14km climb @4% 10k before the line
Medium mountain stage of interest:
- Stage 13: Vittel-Colmar: Cat 1 and 2 cat-2s... maybe Freire can hang? Only 7% max
Overall, this is one of the least selective set of plain stages in recent years. I think we know who this favors...
1. Mark Cavendish, Columbia
Strengths: Fastest human on two wheels. Growing pains seem to be behind him. Capable of getting in a groove for a three week race and staying there, for a while at least. No particular set of conditions bothers him.
Weaknesses: He has never finished a Tour de France, and only has one complete Giro in his legs. So until we have data, you can't rule out the possibility of him getting tired and missing a finale or two at the end. Poor climber by all-round standards, though I wouldn't assume he gets dropped every time the road goes up.
Outlook: The course is made for him. I can't look at every run-in to the line, but the profiles are all of his type. Presumably ASO will immediately start looking for ways to sabotage him in future Tours, so he'd better take advantage of their generosity while it lasts.
Tourbecco says: "Young, fast, native English speaker, kind of a wise-ass... haven't we seen this film already?"
2. Thor Hushovd, Cervelo Test Team
Strengths: Very consistent, very experienced, and has a real support staff at his disposal too, with Lancaster to lead out and Haussler to threaten to steal the stages himself. Wait, is that a good thing? Probably; this isn't Astana we're talking about. Anyway, Thor always seems to be there, which is the name of the game. No lower than fourth in the last five years.
Weaknesses: Also no great climber, though he can handle the shorter ones. He lacks the top-end speed to finish off a sprint against Cavendish and hasn't outkicked Freire very often either in the last couple years.
Tourbecco says: "If he's the God of Thunder, should we call Cavendish the God of Lightning?"
3. Oscar Freire, Rabobank
Strengths: Pretty damn fast; does everything well; seems to not have any injuries, real or comical-sounding (while no less real). Winning last year did a great deal to certify the treble world champion as a points comp rider, not just a bunch finisher. Frankly, this was overdue, given the fact that Freire is probably the best climber among the bunch finishers.
Weaknesses: He can't beat Cav head to head. Freire has zero victories lifetime in races where Cavendish made the finale.
Outlook: I put Hushovd ahead of him for one reason: last year the course gave Freire had a huge advantage and Hushovd finished second. In years when the course favored Hushovd, Freire was nowhere around. In other words, last year was good, but until we see what happens next month it may also have been a fluke. The only "Freire" stage, by my counting, is stage 13, where Oscarito may hang on to the climbers for the finish. Everywhere else, including the ones I marked as selective, are just barely selective and may not unhitch the other fastmen.
Tourbecco says: "Can we make one more year of boil jokes? Please?"
4. Daniele Bennati, Liquigas
Strengths: A certifiably elite bunch sprinter, when healthy. Bennati is one of the only guys to beat Cavendish on the line in the last 14 months, with two Giro wins last year even after Cav got rolling. If somehow he comes to the Tour in shape, he could easily finish top two in the points comp.
Weaknesses: Climbing... not an issue. Health... a huge issue. Frankly, with so little racing in his legs it's hard to know what to expect, and wise to assume the worst. He was way back in the pack at the Tour de Suisse.
Outlook: A complete mystery. I suspect that we will hear from him more toward the end, maybe even see him repeat his Champs-Elysees win from two years ago. But his Tour de Suisse results suggest he will be racing himself into form, also not unlike 2007, for a while. Given the front-loaded maillot vert comp, he has to be a factor right away or it's over.
Tourbecco says: "With so many illnesses and injuries you'd think he was the world champion or something."
5. Tyler Farrar, Garmin
Strengths: Fast, fast, fast. I won't keep harping on the fact that he outkicked Cav one day in March, since the latter went on to re-establish his dominance in the Giro. Still, Farrar looked awfully fast then too before crashing out.
Weaknesses: Inexperience, and coming off injury. He will need to hit the ground running as well to have even a prayer of top three. This is his inaugural Tour -- a sure recipe for misery -- and only his second three-week race, the first being the one he just crashed out of.
Outlook: While inexperience is a big negative in these competitions, Farrar has the benefit of a relatively easy course on which to learn. Good for him, because last year's crueler course wouldn't have been much of a building block opportunity.
Tourbecco says: "An American sprinter? Hopefully he'll be a little quieter than the last one."
6. Gerald Ciolek, Milram
Strengths: Classics-style durability with a very fast finish. Young but not as green as most 22-year-olds. Wouldn't necessarily get dropped on the climbs, if there were any.
Weaknesses: Doesn't win much outside Germany. Also, what the hell are Milram doing with him this year? He has one very minor win to his name. Seems a little light.
Outlook: Like Farrar, he needs building blocks... though not from total unfamiliarity so much as learning how to move up a bit more. Last year he worked for Cavendish in the High Road system, and did great stuff. The material is all there. But given his age it's probably not fair to expect him to shove guys like Hushovd and Freire aside.
Tourbecco says: "Did he leave Columbia for Milram because he loves Germany or hates winning?"
7. Greg Van Avermaet, Silence-Lotto
Strengths: All-round skills. In a general sense, the points competition is ideal for northern sprinters who deal in adversity and varied terrain. See "Zabel, Erik." Experience: last time he entered a grand tour (2008 Vuelta) he won the points.
Weaknesses: What's he up to lately? He ran fourth last week at Halle Ingooigem, so maybe he's rounding into form, but Van Avermaet hasn't had many impressive results this year. Part of the Lotto malaise?
Outlook: I wouldn't sleep on him, even though he's sure to garner almost no attention. It's hard to know exactly how these guys are feeling unless they twitter in English, but there is no reason Van Avermaet can't hang in there every day and steadily rack up points. If he's on, I could see third place.
Tourbecco says: "All for one and one for Cadel! Can he download some Flemish comedy routine podcasts for the post-race bus rides?"
8. Leonardo Duque, Cofidis
Strengths: Not a top-end guy so much as a plugger. Rides for a French team.
Weaknesses: No results to speak of in 2009. Rides for a French team.
Outlook: Given who he races for it's tempting to dismiss all of his activity outside July. I am fairly certain Cofidis got him for the primary purpose of bagging points at the Tour. Or stages. Anyway, his focus isn't the Tour du Limousin. Fourth in the points last year was a bit of an illusion, given his mere handful of high finishes, so chances are he will slide down a bit this year with the less selective course and the increased competition that results.
Tourbecco says: "I'm not sure he's 'the fine Colombian' that song was talking about w/r/t making tonight a wonderful dream."
9. Heinrich Haussler, Cervelo Test Team
Strengths: Virtually assured of finishing second in something, to go along with two monuments and five other results. He and Hushovd could be a nightmare duo to contain. Experienced for a 24-year-old: two Tours and three Vueltas on his resume. Excellent all-around ability.
Weaknesses: Hm, apart from not being his team's designated sprinter? I'm not sure he's a classic bunch gallop guy, and his trademark last-km jump won't be as effective in the super-keyed-up atmosphere of the Tour as it might be in Belgium in March.
Outlook: This could get very interesting. So far he hasn't been a classic leadout for Hushovd, but rather a major distraction to anyone who wants to just lock on big Thor's wheel. I can't recall any team trying to win points by sending two guys after the win in a one-two punching strategy. There have been instances where two guys both make the gallop, and even that has the benefit of displacing slower rivals by one more placing. Hushovd is the main guy, ostensibly, but a super-fit Haussler could really make things fun to watch, as if they weren't already.
Tourbecco says: "Only a complete idiot would have left him off their VDS team for a single point."
10. Tom Boonen, Quick Step
Strengths: Finishing ability, experience, general all-around ability.
Weaknesses: Climbing. Inability to outduel Cavendish. Might not start the Tour.
Outlook: Someday we will get that dream maillot vert comp where Cavendish isn't blowing everyone out of the water, and has a full slate of Freire, Benna, Boonen, Farrar, McEwen and Hushovd to contend with. Well, or maybe not. Anyway, I am still hoping Boonen gets the start and we can see most of the guys on that list.
Tourbecco says: "Even if he starts, will ASO relegate him every stage where he is seen talking to Duque?"