Hear someone coming, Mark?
Last year's points jersey competition at the Tour de France was a bit of a washout, and the Tour crowned a new King of the Maillot Vert, soon-to-be-World Champion fastest-man-alive Mark Cavendish. He'd knocked on the door pretty loudly in 2010, despite being strictly a man for the flat stages, losing by 11 points to a temporarily reinvigorated Alessandro Petacchi. Last year Cav made the leap. Beginning of a new era. Right?
Maybe. The points distribution remains the same as last year, when the Tour debuted its revised system bumping up the finish points and radically changing the intermediate points. The skinny:
- All stage finishes award points to the top 15 finishers.
- Flat stages are worth 45 points to the winner, 35 for second, 30 for third, and so on.
- Medium mountain stages are worth 30 for the win, 25 for second, 22 for third, and so on.
- High mountain stages and time trials are worth 20 points, 17, 15, 13 etc.
- Intermediate sprints occur on all stages, always go 15 deep and are always worth 20, 17, 15, etc.
Nice and tidy. In past years intermediate sprints were worth 6, 4 and 2 points. Stage wins were good for 35, but second got 30, half the points gap it is now. In past years Mark Cavendish didn't win. Under the new system, he blew the competition away.
Where's this going? A la flippe!
Cavendish is quite definitively the fastest sprinter of his generation. His victory last year in the points competition wasn't so much the transformation of Cav into a diverse points guy so much as the consolidation and celebration of his primary skill, beating the bunch to the punch. In 2010 Petacchi had two stage wins to his credit before Cavendish even got his act together and made it into a sprint. From there the battle was joined, but Petacchi held on for victory. By contrast, Cav got going after missing out on one stage in 2011, and stayed hot enough to use the new points scale to his advantage.
The other factor in Cavendish's dominance was the lack of a strong challenge. JJ Rojas, I mean no disrespect. But while Rojas was and is a fine versatile stage hunter, in the flat bunch he has no chance of passing Cav, and a quick perusal of their CQ Head-2-Head shows that he's never come past Cav for the win. The score stands 16-0 in terms of wins. Case closed.
Rojas, though, is an example of how you beat Cav: by scoring points he can't get to. The great Erik Zabel, winner of six consecutive maillots vert, was the embodiment of the points competition. Rarely was he the single fastest finisher in the bunch gallop, but he was always very close, sometimes the fastest, and never missed a chance at a reasonably available cache of points, while his rivals were more prone to conking out on a major slope, or any slope at all.
Before we break down the individuals in detail, let's see what sort of riders we have in this year's competition:
Pure sprinters: Borut Bozic, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi, Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish
Versatile fastment: Oscar Freire, Peter Sagan, JJ Rojas Gil, Matt Goss, Leo Duque, Jimmy Casper, Jeremy Roy.
Glaring omission: Arnaud Demare! OK, he conked out in the Giro, and he's very, very young. So it's the smart move, dagnammit.
This is a positively stellar field. Kittel and Sagan are flying. Goss is locked and loaded, with some experience to his name. Greipel has his sights trained on Cav. Farrar is a bit more of a wild card this year after his Classics focus, but he has undoubtedly gotten back into sprint fitness. Former winners in Freire and Petacchi. And best of all, a great mix of pure fastmen and versatile finishers who can climb. Every year we say the Tour field is loaded, and most years attrition winnows it down some, or a lot. For now, this field is really, really loaded.
OK, onto the riders themselves. Here's my pre-race ranking of the top ten, from which Casper and Duque are eliminated with prejudice and, oh, Borut Bozic too, reluctantly, in the name of round numbers. Who's left:
10. Jérémy Roy, AG2R
Resumé: Tenth in the points last year, Roy scored high placings solely on stages won by Thor Hushovd.
Forté: Along with some intermediate points, Roy is entirely from the non-bunch sprinters' group,
Meuh: which in turn leads FDJ to send another sprinter (last year William Bonnet, this year Yahueni Hutarovich) who gets the free reign on the flats.
Stomach full of? Envy. Why bother sending Hutarovich after stage wins and basically assuring Roy has no chance for points? Because Hutarovich is going to win some of these sprints? How many guys have to go down in the last corner for that to happen? I can think of at least two.
Prediction: There are certainly some scenarios where the guys ahead of him start packing for the Olympics before Paris, and Roy winds up in the top five after the dust settles.
9. Tyler Farrar, Garmin
Resumé: 8th in the points at last year's Tour; second to Cavendish in the 2010 Vuelta.
Forté: Has the speed to beat Cavendish, when all is right.
Meuh: Results say that Cav has not only been faster, especially of late (thanks in part to Farrar's all-cobbles strategy this spring). They also say Cav has become more consistent, while Farrar remains a guy who misses out on the points some days. Too many days.
Stomach full of? Olympic ambition. My guess is he goes stage hunting. Nobody at Garmin is talking about Green, as far as I have heard. Not that Farrar would say no to any opportunity, of course... same as last year.
Prediction: If Farrar has good positioning in the first few sprints -- which is possible given the race's starting in his adopted country -- he could get high up early on, which could spur him on for a points run. But if he falls behind on points early, he undoubtedly will be thinking only of stages and Olympic form.
8. Oscar Freire, Katusha
Resumé: Winner of the Maillot Vert in 2008... but then 7th the next year and no notable results since (in part because Rabo left him off the Tour roster last year).
Forté: Certainly a do-it-all rider in the Zabel mold. If Freire could still close like Cavendish can, this competition would already be over. Oscar knows where he has to be, and gets there.
Meuh: The thrill is gone. Oscar doesn't have the speed he once possessed. Diamonds are forever, not sprinters.
Stomach full of? Memories.
Prediction: Freire will go out with his head held high, but not a green jersey.
7. Marcel Kittel, Argos-Shimano
Resumé: No results whatsoever in a points competition. Never finished a grand tour. Nothing to see here, right?
Forté: Speed. I'm going to write ... this ... slowly ... so it sinks in. Kittel and Cavendish have squared off in a sprint five times in their history. The score is 5-0 Kittel, with four wins. Kittel. Five. Cav, zero. No, I am not drunk.
Meuh: Kittel is a classic example of a young dude (24) coming in to sprint, only to have the points rules serve his lunch up to his rivals. He has a lot to learn -- at the Tour, no less -- in a hurry.
Stomach full of? Bravado. At the team's Tour squad unveiling, Kittel mentioned Cavendish more than his sponsor. And verbally planted the bull's-eye on the Manxman. This after beating him twice last week. Are you getting excited yet?
Prediction: Anything from first to 14th. Seriously. Another way to beat Cavendish is to simply devote all your resources to the cause. Sky will mostly be going for Yellow, while Kittel can count on pretty much any teammates still riding in the third week for things like intermediate sprint leadouts.
6. JJ Rojas Gil, Movistar
Resumé:: Second in the points last year, fourth the year before.
Forté: Doesn't mess around. He picks up at least some points everywhere. Last year Tyler Farrar won stage 3, but at the end of that day, the standings had Rojas in green with a third, a fourth and another small cache from one of the intermediate sprints.
Meuh: His second last year wasn't especially close, and felt even more distant in watching. With the new system, you don't have to beat Cavendish in a sprint to take his green jersey, but you have to get pretty close. Rojas was third three times, but mostly was fourth or fifth or seventh, giving away too many points when Cav does score to stay close.
Stomach full of? Hope. He hung in gamely for a while last year. Partly by default though.
Prediction: Maybe top five. This is a stronger field.
5. Alessandro Petacchi
Resumé: Winner in 2010, narrowly holding off Cav. Had a disastrous defense of his title last year, disappearing early and ending up 24th. On points.
Forté: The longer, the straighter -- the better. Big dude, very powerful and still very fast. More rugged than you might think, so basically anything Cav can get to, so can Petacchi.
Meuh: On the flipside, if Cav can't get to it, neither can Petacchi. The old dog missed a few sprints entirely last year.
Stomach full of? Stage wins. What's left for Petacchi to accomplish in his career anyway?
Prediction: Top five. Petacchi says he's been targeting this chance, as it might be his last. The rule changes don't favor him over Cav, but they probably help Petacchi hold off the Spanish Sprinters-Who-Can-Climb-a-Bit.
4. Matt Goss
Resumé: In the two grand tours he's finished, he's come in 45th on points. I didn't know they counted that high?
Forté: Pretty serious sprinter who can get over some hills. Won a stage of the Giro this year to open his grand tour sprint account. Finished the Tour last year, so he's green, but not that green.
Meuh: Like Kittel, is he ready? Orica-GreenEdge are insisting he's focused on stage wins.
Stomach full of? Promise. He knows he can be a player here and apparently has geared his season around the Tour. Good idea.
Prediction: I say he makes the leap this year. Also, the team doesn't really have much to play for otherwise. On a team of stage hunters, Goss should have plenty of resources at his disposal.
3. Andre Greipel
Resumé:: Seventh in the Tour points last year, in his first real crack at the Tour. Won the Vuelta points in 2009.
Forté: Fast enough to beat Cavendish and the rest. Like Farrar, but a little more consistent.
Meuh: Not a climber. And he disappeared a couple times, though he seemed to get better in 2011 as the Tour went on.
Stomach full of? Vengeance. Greipel seems like a classy, not-especially-outspoken guy, but is it possible he's forgotten the slights of his then-teammate Cavendish? No, it is not.
Prediction: He will battle all the way to Paris... but once, just once, he won't be in position and will fall back.
2. Mark Cavendish, Sky
Resumé: Defending champion. World champion. Possible Olympic champion. Also, if you ask, he'll gladly show you a picture of his daughter.
Forté: Blazing speed, unquestionably the fastest guy overall when it comes to finishing off a stage. He's also developed some pretty fair pack smarts, and while he can miss out on a sprint on occasion, it's not often these days.
Meuh: Climbs are not kind to him.
Stomach full of? Pride. When he loses, which isn't all that often, it drives him and focuses him on making no more mistakes. He has done a fair amount of losing lately, oddly winning the Ster ZLM tour while actually getting beat in all three stage sprints. Guess which one he remembers this weekend?
Prediction: Second place. Read on.
1. Peter Sagan, Liquigas
Resumé: Fourth in the Vuelta points comp last year, his grand tour debut. Without looking, I'm gonna guess he won the Tour of California points. Suisse too. He's making his debut in the Tour.
Forté: Seems like he is unstoppable once he gets on a roll. Check that -- he is unstoppable. Right now he's on a roll, having won his last ten finales, dating back to Amstel Gold. Oh, and Amstel Gold, you say? The guy was third in a climber's race? Scroll up this list and pick out another name you would expect to see hanging around that field. Freire maybe. That's it.
Meuh: Youth? Naivete? Maybe Cavendish will send lovely French ladies to his room offering to feed him grapes? That's all I got here.
Stomach full of? Ambition. Thus far he has displayed exactly no hint of satisfaction with what he's accomplished. Once he wins, he wins again. And again. He barely celebrates. It's like he's more machine than man.
Prediction: Winnar. I know, the points are generally an older rider's game, but the Tour has simplified things with the new two-sprints-a-day system. So it's simply a matter of calculating how many points caches there are which Sagan can get to and Cavendish can't. Let's start with Stage 1, which finishes Sunday on a 3% incline following 1.4km at 6%. Can Cavendish get there? Because Sagan can. Then there are puncheur stages like Stage 3 to the coast, where Sagan probably isn't the favorite but can get a placing, while Cavendish is assured zero finish points. Then there are the medium mountain stages where Sagan has a prayer of some finish points. Then there are the high mountain stages, where Sagan might survive long enough to get the intermediate sprint, while Cav is in the Gruppetto.
Then there are the sprints themselves, where Cav probably beats Sagan more often than not, but are we even sure about that anymore? Seriously, the only reason to go with Cavendish over Sagan is history and age. Everything else favors the Liquigas... guy who really needs a good nickname. Slovakian Slayer? Just a suggestion.
Sagan might fall victim to the pace of the Tour. He's never done this, and all the Cali and Suisse wins have only prepared him up to a certain point. If he doesn't catch on in time, things can go awry for him. But if he doesn't win this year, my guess is he'll be in green in 2013. It may well be the start of a new era, but not the Cavendish one. Watching the world get to know this guy should be one of the great stories of the 2012 Tour de France. He's special.