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Maillot Vert Preview and Power Poll: Battle Royale!

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Since the Tour de France is the cycling world's biggest stage and brings out every potential competitor at the top of his game (where possible), it's always something of a tragedy when a classification becomes a foregone conclusion. We celebrate the great champions anyway, but in a sport that doesn't rely on exclusive loyalties like team sports do, a lot of us would prefer to celebrate a great battle. For example, IMHO antipathy toward Lance Armstrong has always had more to do with the numbing effect of seven straight victories than his personality, or at least to the French that's where it started.

So are we in for a great battle in 2010? I have to acknowledge that four years past the Armstrong v2.0 Era, the Contador Era is quickly seizing control of the general classification (unless Armstrong v2.1 can stop him). The climbing and young rider classifications are great but narrowly contested most years. Which makes the Points Classification, with its range of combatants and fickle, unpredictable nature, the healthiest competition in this year's race -- and healthy it is. To wit:

  • The last four years have seen four different, big-name winners
  • Last year's competition was decided by a mere 10 points (for perspective, winner Thor Hushovd had 280 total)
  • The ex-winners do not include the world's two fastest sprinters
  • This year's course includes an unusually wide variety of stage types

A wee bit of background on the competition, and a big bit of handicapping... on the flip!

First, here's the points grid. Points are scored at the end of every stage, and in most stages at the intermediate sprint points, as follows:

  • For a normal stage, 35 to the winner, then 30-26-24-22-20 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.

We've discussed this a lot, but 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. Often the winner is not the flashiest sprinter. Last year was a prime example, when Thor Hushovd used a long breakaway climb and a few stages when he hung in for the sprint while Mark Cavendish -- winner of six stages! -- missed the cut. Hushovd held off Cavendish in Paris by a mere ten points.

2010 Contenders

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Thor Hushovd/Cervelo Test Team

I apologize frequently for my inability to research every question that pops into my mind, but here's another one anyway: what's the largest number of Tour stage wins by a guy who subsequently finished the Tour and didn't win the green jersey? GC guys excluded? If Mark Cavendish's six sprint wins without a green jersey aren't a record, then I dunno what. The record for Tour stages is 8, by Merckx twice, some old dude, and Freddy Maertens in 1976, who won the maillot vert by a thousand million points. Maybe someone won seven stages and no green, somewhere in the annals of history, but Cav's record last year is a remarkable tribute to the great race Thor Hushovd rode.

Hushovd is in the prime of his career, 31 years old and a stronger all-around rider than ever. His sprinting chops have evolved like a lot of natural classics studs who can sprint -- not well, but he's still faster than the rest a few days a year. In place of the traditional sprinter program are things like his second place in Paris-Roubaix, and his green wardrobe last summer. That new viking flag kit he'll be sporting next time you see him? He won that Sunday with an attack on the steepest climb of the circuit where he dropped two other chasers and corralled the leader on the road.

Hushovd is quite likely at the very top of his game. His team isn't anything special, and losing Heinrich Haussler leaves him without the threat of a winning teammate to help at the end of a stage. He'll have to do it on his own, and with nobody underestimating his ability in any phase of the green jersey game. But his track record speaks.

Ratings: (scoring is 1-5 points, 5 being the best, and relative to the other guys on this list only)
Pure sprint: 3
Climbing: 4
Team: 2
All-Roundiness: 5
Total: 14

Mark Cavendish/HTC

The other side of the coin. I'm not interested in a referendum on Cav's personality; the important things to know are:

  • He's the heir apparent to the green jersey if stage wins are to matter. The Tour hasn't seen a sprinter like him since Cipollini, and unlike Cipo Cavendish can make it will stick around to Paris.
  • His form is a pretty big question mark, but mostly because of his offseason dental problems, which supposedly coincided with a plan for him to build his form on a later schedule anyway, given the existence of a winnable world championship in September. IMHO the crash in Switzerland and other distractions won't really matter. Cav is dedicated, he'll be on form if he's not physically hindered.
  • Climbing is a weakness, though he rode Flanders to improve the situation and anyway they said he'd never make it over Le Manie in order to win Milano-San Remo. Translation: he's not hopeless, and probably getting better. He knows it matters. He's not stupid.
  • His team is unreal. Losing Hincapie hurts but HTC can't be underestimated. They replace lost parts like the liquefied cyborg in Terminator III.

My pick to win. Last year was his trial by fire, and he still lost to Hushovd by a mere 10 points. This time around he should have a better idea of what's coming.

Ratings: (1-5 points)
Pure sprint: 5
Climbing: 2
Team: 5
All-Roundiness: 2
Total: 14

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Tyler Farrar/Garmin Transitions

Last year, in his first run at the Tour de France, Farrar hung in gamely for as many sprints as he could, but ultimately failed to get a breakthrough win or to stay in contact with the green jersey battle. It started coming apart as early as stage 2 from Marseille to La Grande Motte, when Farrar and others (Contador) missed a split in the crosswinds, leaving the American completely out of the points on the day as Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd scooped up the two biggest caches. Next, Farrar lost conact on stage 12 to Vittel, and again the next day, while Hushovd and sometimes Cavendish kept scoring points. In short, the mid-mountain stages of the Vosges killed off his green jersey "ambitions."

In fairness, Farrar himself seemed more interested in a stage than an unlikely stab at the points jersey, and having just barely opened his account in 2009, he might be inclined to revert quickly to stage hunting if he misses any early splits again in 2010. The list of Americans to win Tour stages is pretty short, so if the Wenatchee Wonder can bag one or more sprints, he probably won't spend the offseason fretting the lack of points.

That said, Farrar is a contender. He doesn't quite sprint like Cav and he doesn't get up and down like Hushovd (yet) but it's a mistake to underestimate him in any respect. He's got a top-flite leadout train which Garmin intends to use to seize control from HTC (not that they will, just sayin that's the plan). He has hurdles to overcome, and last year's performance lacked the consistency a contender needs. But guys train, guys improve. He can do this.

Ratings: (1-5 points)
Pure sprint: 4
Climbing: 3
Team: 4
All-Roundiness: 2
Total: 13

Oscar Freire/Rabobank

[Shaking head...] Why doesn't he win more of these things? Oscar the Cat is a classy rider, winner of monuments (MSR), world titles (three), and one maillot vert (2008). He gets up and down almost anything, a truly versatile rider. And yet he hardly ever makes it to Paris. For years luck has been his biggest enemy; something always seems to come up for Freire -- through 2007; the last two rounds Freire made it home OK, though he didn't contest the points title in 2009 after winning from a (let's be honest) depleted field the previous year.

However fit Freire may be, the reality is that he's 33, and suddenly just as he's leaving his peak years the competition for points has gotten infinitely harder. Hushovd, whom Freire abused in the 2008 comp, had the lightbulb go on last year, outdoing Freire at his own game. Cav and Farrar have arrived and are both capable of holding off Oscarito in the sprints. The odd stages (which abound in this Tour) won't eliminate some of the more rounded sprinters for Oscar; he'll probably have Boasson Hagen and Hushovd for company even when the climbs get serious. Not to be counted out, but the track record isn't great. Oh, and as usual Rabobank will be chasing multiple objectives. He's on his own.

Ratings: (1-5 points)
Pure sprint: 3
Climbing: 4
Team: 2
All-Roundiness: 3
Total: 12

Alessandro Petacchi/Lampre

This old warhorse is almost certainly hunting for stages. Assuming he even makes the Lampre squad, you can bet he'll be satisfied with a win or two -- certainly within his abilities -- and won't make much pretense of carrying on to Paris. An old tiger doesn't change his stripes.

Ratings: (1-5 points)
Pure sprint: 4
Climbing: 1
Team: 1 2
All-Roundiness: 2
Total: 8

Daniel Oss

The wildcard. I mention him here not because he has a chance, but because you might want to keep an eye on him for future reference. I have no idea how to score his abilities so let's move along.

Tom Boonen

OK, I know he's out. But I want to take this opportunity to say a word or two about the guy. His Green Jersey chances have been downgraded in recent years, but I don't think that's overly fair. The last time he appeared at the Tour in form was 2007, and he took home the maillot vert. The guy isn't regarded as a big winner at the moment, because he finished second in two monuments and could've nabbed a third in Paris-Roubaix if he weren't too busy screaming at the other chasers. But he was Hushovd before Hushovd was, and he does perhaps everything Thor can do, with the possible exception of longer climbs. He's only 29. The coke thing is a red herring; you don't abuse your body and drop everyone but Cancellara on the Molenberg. He'll be heard from again, and count me among those who are really sad it isn't this year.

Edvald Boasson Hagen

Back to a ratable contender. Boasson Hagen is entering his first Tour ever, so the idea of him winning is a bit nonsensical. Hushovd just abused him in the Norwegian championships, so his form might be lagging after a somewhat overheated winter and an injury-interrupted spring. But someday...

Boasson Hagen brings an element to the points comp that you don't often see: time trialling ability. I don't know if he can score big points in a Tour chrono, but there is no question he can handle this discipline. Add that to the other places he can score -- out on the road; in flat finishes; and in some undulating ones too. It's hard to think of a good comparison. The best I can do is a young Zabel with better time trialling and climbing. Sound like a formula for success? Presumably this year is about experience, he's 23, but I'll be interested if he can crack the top five or so.

Ratings: (1-5 points)
Pure sprint: 3
Climbing: 4
Team: 2
All-Roundiness: 3
Total: 12

Gerald Ciolek

The forgotten man last year, too far from Hushovd and Cav to make a dent in the points comp (but third overall in Paris) and no stage wins to gain the spotlight. On the plus side, he scored 172 points without much more than a third, all at the age of 22, with no team support. Ciolek might find this year's course even more to his liking, since the selective stages will probably hurt guys like Cav and Farrar more than him. Honestly, I have no idea where to slot him, but for a kid that young he's been around and knows what to do.

Ratings: (1-5 points)
Pure sprint: 2
Climbing: 4
Team: 1
All-Roundiness: 3
Total: 10

Honorable mentions: Robbie McEwen, Leonardo Duque. Stage hunters.

Power Poll!

No more analysis, here ya go...

  1. Cavendish
  2. Hushovd
  3. Farrar
  4. Ciolek
  5. Boasson Hagen
  6. Freire
  7. Petacchi
  8. Oss

Photos by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport