The Giro really doesn't like sprinters, does it? I mean, I guess they get some nice flat stages to play with and some scenic city centers to strut their stuff in. But as far as real goods - a jersey they can take home and frame on a wall - they are taunted continually by a promise that may not be kept. They drag their bodies over mountain pass after mountain pass, even ones so unkind to them as the Mortirolo and Stelvio, just to make it to the final stage with a chance to bring home the Maglia Rosso. At times, one succeeds, receiving validation for their effort not only to win stages but also to complete the race. But on other years, it is snatched out of their grasp by a wiry climber in the third week of the race, dashing hopes upon the rocky Dolomites. In fact, it has been since 2008 and Daniele Bennati that a sprinter has won the points classification. In the years since, Denis Menchov, Cadel Evans, Michele Scarponi, and Joaquim Rodríguez have won.
In the Tour de France, nary a year goes by where a sprinter does not win the Malliot Verde. There is variation within, of course, ranging from the pure speed men like Allesandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish to the all-rounders with a fast finish like Peter Sagan, but sameness generally prevails. How can the Giro be so different?
The answer is simple - while the Tour weights flat stages more heavily than mountainous or intermediate ones in the sprint competition, the Giro does not. In the Tour, winning a flat stage will net you 45 points while intermediate stages and mountain top finishes yield only 30 and 20 points respectively. The Giro, on the other hand, offers 25 points for the winner of any stage. If a general classification rider or another climber finishes highly on the mountaintop finishes - and in the Giro, there are plenty of those - then they can steal the jersey. Of course, there are the pesky intermediate sprints on every stage to deal with too, and those offer 8 points to the winner and smaller points to the first six riders across.
To some extent, the ability of a climber to win the points classification is shaped by the course. How many uphill finishes are there, and how many sprint stages? How many times will the sprint teams let a break go to the finish because there is a sharp climb near the finish of an otherwise flat stage, as the Giro so loves to do? In 2011, Alessandro Petacchi lost the lead in the classification early, after 12 stages, but the course then was tilted more heavily towards climbers with a mere four stages that could be called flat ones. This year, the course is balanced - 7 stages for the sprinters, 7 uphill finishes, and one climbing TT. But, the real deciding factor occurs in the race as we see how individual riders are doing.
Mountain finishes are a bit more predictable than sprints - the ratio of watts to kilograms changes little over the span of the race and finishing order changes little. Sprints, however, are chaotic, and dangerous. Split second decisions can be the difference between winning and finishing tenth or fifteenth. If a breakaway stays away on a mountaintop finish, a GC rider may finish fifth instead of first, but this is little like the gap between first and tenth. Simply put, a sprinter must be very, very, consistent to have a chance of winning, especially with so many uphill finishes.
A good example is the case of Mark Cavendish in last year's Giro. Though unquestionably among the fastest - if not the fastest - sprinters in the race, malfunctions in his leadout train and simple bad luck kept Cavendish from the pointy end of several stages. He won three stages and was fourth on Stage 11, but was sent careening to the ground in the sprint on Stage 3 and missed any points on tap there. Cavendish gained the lead in the points classification on Stage 11 and would hold onto it until Stage 20, when Joaquim Rodríguez gained a lead of one point - one point! - that he would take to the finish in Milan a day later. The result was heartbreaking for Cavendish and was entirely due to his crash on Stage 3.
With a balanced course it is hard to see past Cavendish as a favorite to enter Brescia on May 26 in the Maglia Rosso, especially with an Omega Pharma - Quickstep team dedicated entirely to going for stage wins with Cavendish backing him. But, should he falter, Matt Goss or John Degenkolb could step up to assume leadership in the classification early on. Will a climber win this year? Given the odds of a breakaway staying away to contest at least one summit finish high, I doubt it. And should a sprinter set his sights on winning the classification (as Cavendish must be doing), he will certainly pick up points in the intermediate sprints. In years past, climbers had the advantage as the number of flat stages dwindled, eroding the advantage intermediate sprints give to the fast men. To be competitive, a climber must win several stages on a course like this, not merely place 4th or 5th day after day. Either way, it should be an entertaining last week as the lightweight riders climb higher and higher up the points classification leader board.