It's always a bit intriguing when a major competition gets overhauled in some way. When Gent-Wevelgem added some climbs and shifted to Sunday, riders speculated (without conviction) that it might get more selective. When the Tour team time trial employed a system of limiting time gaps, people forecasted that PostalryShack wouldn't make much of a dent in their rivals' hopes. And so on.
But this... this is something else.
When you ask people what the Tour de France Points competition will look like in 2011, even the most astute observers from inside the peloton will be at a loss to say much. I've asked practically everyone I've spoken with and it's always the same: who knows?
What we DO know -- all of it -- on the flip...
The issue is, the Tour has changed how it gives out intermediate and finish line points. Gone are the traditional ways of awarding points:
- On flat stages, points given as follows to the top 25 finishers: 35 points -30-26-24-22-20-19-18-...-1
- On medium mountain stages, top 20 finishers score: 25-22-20-18-16-15-14-...-1
- On high mountain stages, top 15 score: 20-17-15-13-12-10-9-8-...-1
- On ITTs, top ten score 15-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1
- Up to three intermediate sprints worth 6-4-2 each
The new system is as follows:
- On all stages, the top 15 finishers get points
- Flat stage points: 45-35-30-26-22-20-18-16-14-12-10-8-6-4-2
- Medium mountain stage points: 30-25-22-19-17-15-13-11-9-7-6-5-4-3-2
- High mountain and time trial stage points: 20-17-15-13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1
- Intermediate sprints are awarded in a single place on every stage, and uses the same 20-17-15-etc. scale as time trials and high mountains
Pretty much everything is different. Let's look a bit more into the changes. First, the high mountain points haven't changed, so toss that out. Into the dustbin with the ITT points too, since there's only one of those and the green jersey guys will be doing just enough to look interested. The change to 15 places for the flat and intermediate stages doesn't mean much in and of itself; locking 5-10 guys out of the points cache each day just means that fewer non-contenders will be tempted too get involved. The medium mountain points are spread out more, with a top score of 30 instead of 25, etc. This could have an impact only if we see some hybrid climber/sprinters involved. Still, an extra five points isn't much, particularly for a category of stages which are essentially unpredictable and tend not to favor any single rider. The real headlines are the flat stage points and the intermediate sprints.
Flat Stage Points
Going from 35 to 45 points for the winner is eye-catching, and were a single rider to feast on stage wins (Cav?), the extra 50 points or whatever could sew up the overall competition, or at least help a lot. The points are also spread out more, meaning slipping a place no longer means 1-5 points squandered, but 2-10. But this should come out in the wash: how many riders are 5th every day? Sure, the top three can get locked in, but after that the vagaries of bunch sprints usually mean a guy is 4th, then 8th, then 5th, etc. Over three weeks the secondary stage points will giveth and taketh away in roughly equal amounts to most of the top 10 points guys.
But the top three... the only way to figure out what this means is to take last year's results and apply the new points. Results are as follows -- just using stage finishes, and using the flat-stage point scale (in reality there were some intermediate stages from the sample):
- Petacchi 242
- Cavendish 238
- Hushovd 219
- Cavendish 282
- Petacchi 278
- Hushovd 201
Again, this is an experiment pitting the flat stage points against each other. The top line changes are minor, Cav goes from -4 to +4, a statistically insignificant adjustment for the guy with the most stage wins. Hushovd, however, is firmly punished for his comparatively modest stage sprints, going from -23 to -81. Cavendish's five stage wins help a bit, but Petacchi stays close enough with two stage wins and several top threes. Only a guy on an historic stage spree can expect these changes to really alter his outlook. But if you can't get in the top three... beware.
This is where the big changes are happening. Theoretically the old system offered up to 18 points a day in intermediate sprints, so the change to 20 points is nuthin much. In reality, however, the old system gave intermediate points out to the top three guys from the early breakaway, and typically had zero impact on the maillot vert competition, save for the occasional last-ditch effort on the final stage -- but even that was easy enough for the leading team to defend. Say Cavendish tried to catch up to Peta en route to Paris. Lampre could launch attacks from five or six riders as they approached the sprint. Cav could respond to one, but that guy need only slow down. Cav's teammates could mark all of Lampre, but ultimately if Cav can't get to the front for the sprint himself, it's pointless.
And now intermediate sprints are worth up to 20 points. Even if there's a breakaway, unless 15 riders are involved (rare) there will be points left for the peloton to contest. Let's keep delving deeper...
- Does sprinting at km 130 sap your energy for the more lucrative sprint at the finish? Maybe, maybe not... but it's different from the old screw-the-intermediates system. You have to sprint if the points are still there. And you may not like turning out that effort twice.
- All the green jersey guys are in the same boat... so do we get a wider variety of stage winners? Can Farrar beat Cav by sitting out the mid-stage shenanigans?
- Officially there are 10 flat stages in the 2011 Tour, and typically the intermediate sprint is close to the middle of the stage. On stage 7, it's in the last 20k, stage 10 it's at the 38km mark, and stage 15 it's in the last 45km. There is a good chance you'll see the peloton intact for the stage 7 intermediate sprint; those early sprint days it's a possibility the breaks won't really be away; and the rest of the time it'll be up to the teams to decide if they want all 20 points on the table. Most of the time, they probably won't.
- The middle and high mountain stages are where things get interesting. On stage 8 the sprint is early and after modest terrain, but on stages 9 and 16 the sprint follows middle mountain ascents. In the Pyrenees, the sprint is after modest climbs in two stages and after the Col du Portet d'Aspet in stage 14. In the Alps, one sprint is very early, another halfway up the first climb, and a third... at the foot of Alpe d'Huez. After the Galibier. Of the nine stages here, one sprint is unthinkable, a second unlikely, and two more are sure sprinters' sprints. The other five... in those lie opportunity.
I'm going with a pretty short list here. The way the points are structured means although dozens of riders will score points, all but a few will get blown out of the overall maillot vert competition pretty quickly. Let's get down to it...
Mark Cavendish, HTC
History: 2nd in 2010; won the Vuelta points comp last September.
Good news: The new finish points should help him somewhere between a little and a lot, depending if he's on stage-winning form from day 1, as he claims. He also has a fantastic team, not only leadout guys but guys like Goss who can ambush the mid-race sprints and reduce the available points.
Bad news: Inconsistency is the hallmark of the Manx Missile, particularly where hills are involved. I mean, the guy won five stages last year and still couldn't seal the deal. Now the mid-race sprints offer a second way to attack Cavendish. If sprinting twice a day dulls his edge at all, his campaign is in serious jeopardy. He needs those wins more than ever.
Rating: The Favorite. If he can sprint well twice a day, the format could actually help him.
Alessandro Petacchi, Lampre
History: Won in 2010. Owns points jerseys from all three grand tours.
Good news: Per above, Petacchi's high finishes and consistency limited his losses against Cav last year when the latter started ripping off stage sprints. When Cav missed a sprint, Petacchi was there to seal the win. Ale-Jet is a warrior, fully experienced, and sports a decent team with few GC distractions. If anyone can sprint at the top end twice a day, it may well be the big Ligurian.
Bad news: Cav cured his inconsistency in the Vuelta. Petacchi is almost as lost in the hills as Cav, so if the latter doesn't slip up somewhere, Petacchi is Cav-Lite, which won't get it done.
Rating: Second. He needs to pull off some climbing surprises to gain the padding he'll need.
Andrei Greipel, Omega Pharma
History: 2009 Vuelta points winner. Making his first-ever Tour de France start, which is shocking.
Good news: When he's on, Greipel is plenty fast enough. He made it around a murderous 2010 Giro course, even winning a stage in the final week.
Bad news: Does anyone believe the temperamental German will be there every stage, even twice a day at times? Climbing is an issue, and he'll be overshadowed by Gilbert. Still, he has the skillset to threaten Cav and Petacchi.
Rating: Total wild card.
Thor Hushovd, Garmin-Cervelo
History: Won green in 2005, 2009
Good news: Hushovd is well known for his Tour climbing exploits, which have won him two green jerseys and plenty of acclaim as the type of all-rounder the competition is intended to celebrate. The mid-race sprints shouldn't dull his edge at all, since he doesn't have the finishing speed to lose anyway. The fact that as many as six of them will be attainable to him and not Cavendish is pretty big. So too are the bumps in the road on the early stages, including the uphill Mur de Bretagne and the medium mountain stages.
Bad news: Per our little experiment, his slipping stage finishes could kill him under the new points system. The increased points for mid-mountain stages is too small a bump to offset the deficit he'll rack up on the flats.
Rating: Hushovd's campaign, and Garmin's strategy, will be fascinating. Farrar can help by beating Cav at the line, but if he comes second, Farrar will just be bumping Thor down a notch. On stages where Cav can contest the mid-stage points, they'll need a strategy to get Hushovd an edge. Personally, I council aggressiveness, everywhere. What have they to lose?
Philippe Gilbert, Omega Pharma
History: Not his bag, though he was 5th at the Vuelta points comp last year.
Good news: Wanna talk about guys challenging Cav & co when they're on their heels? Gilbert is a guy who can do it, a far more likely stage winner in Brittany, enough of a climber to grab the harder mid-stage points, and even fast enough to hold his own in the final sprints. Gilbert is the modern day Sean Kelly, skill-wise at least. I'm not sure the maillot vert is on his radar, but if he has a ferocious first week and finds himself in position, don't be shocked if Phil-Gil gets involved.
Bad news: Greipel is the team's bunch-sprinter, and when Gilbert does join the fray, he's perhaps a wheel short of Hushovd. Fast... but not quite there to take the big points from a full field.
Rating: Sleeper. My guess is that he stays out of the comp entirely and focuses on holding the yellow jersey in week one. But keep an eye on him.
Francisco Ventoso, Movistar
History: Just a 7th in 2005. He tends not to finish grand tours.
Good news: Ventoso is having his best year as a pro, with five wins and a couple impressive days in the Giro. Of the stage sprinters, Ventoso inherits Oscar Freire's "good sprinter who can climb" mantle, although I'm not sure that holds true in the high mountains. He'll like the first week, and will be overlooked a bit unless and until he starts winning.
Bad news: No history of three-week consistency.
Tom Boonen, Quick Step
History: 2007 green jersey winner. One problem after another since then.
Good news: His Tour of Flanders exploits are worth mentioning. There, he outkicks Hushovd repeatedly on the ascents, which will suit him in some of the hard sprint finishes. And of all the guys on this list, Boonen is the easiest to imagine him launching multiple sprints with no trouble. On the flats, he's closer to Cav on a good day than most of these guys.
Bad news: Can he re-learn to love the bunch gallops? You can't win if you don't sprint, and you can't sprint if you're afraid of crashes.
Rating: I bet he approaches it too tentatively at first, falls behind for Green, and focuses on stage wins instead.
Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sky
History: Sixth last year in his inaugural Tour
Good news: He finally seems to be back on track after numerous minor injuries. Top end speed is right there with Farrar, Ventoso, Greipel... maybe Petacchi and Cav. He's extremely versatile, with a classics pedigree that shows his climbing and multi-attacking skills. His team has Ben Swift to help in any team sprinting action. Basically, his ceiling is Hushovd with greater closing speed.
Bad news: Inexperience. Does he have the confidence to launch the kind of aggressive campaign it will require? Does he have the stamina to make these efforts over three hard weeks? Will his team free him up enough to try?
Rating: Very, very curious case. My guess is that he's a year or two away from pulling this off.
Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Cervelo
History: 5th in 2009, crashed out last year. Second to Cav in the Vuelta points last year.
Good news: He keeps getting a little better, closer to a stage win and more consistent over the three weeks. Great team, if they throw their weight behind his campaign rather than Hushovd's.
Bad news: Hard to tell where he's at emotionally, though I'll assume he's planning to be fully fit. He has almost all the same problems in the climbs as Cav, though his competence in the classics suggests a bit of an advantage, maybe in Brittany.
Rating: very dark horse. Unless he wins something early, chances are he'll be focusing on helping Thor's campaign and looking for a stage win someplace.
Matt Goss, HTC
History: None. Making his Tour debut.
Good news: Cav-to-Sky rumors will undoubtedly boost Goss's stock. The 25-year-old Aussie has all the closing speed and much more versatility to handle the undulations of this Tour. If Cav goes awry, HTC have a terrific Plan-B-in-the-making.
Bad news: Three weeks is a log time. Mark Cavendish is his captain.
Rating: If the torch is to be passed, this is Goss's chance to show he's a worthy recipient.