In Year Three of the Points Really Means Sprinters Competition at the Tour de France, we have perhaps our best revenge grudge match in a while. Yep, Andre Greipel didn't come here to be toyed with by Peter Sagan again.
What? Don't you mean Mark Cavendish? Surely the World's Fastest Man is the main topic in any such conversation, right? Well yes. And maybe not. This will be a tough and unpredictable Points battle, with the usual mix of old faces and newcomers elbowing their way in, set on a course that in no way tips the balance to one particular rider... or tries not to anyway. Let's get started!
First off, the rules:
- Every mass-start stage awards points in two places, the intermediate sprint and the finish.
- For every mass-start stage, the intermediate sprint is worth 20 points for 1st, 17 for 2nd, 15 for 3rd, and descending from there, fifteen places deep.
- For every mass-start stage that's not a major mountain event, the stage victory is worth 45 points, followed by 35 for 2nd, 30 for 3rd, then 26-22-20-18-etc., fifteen places deep.
- For mass-start stages in the lower mountains, the stage victory is worth 30 points, followed by 25-22-19-17-etc., fifteen places deep. For the highest mountains, the stage victory uses the 20-for-the-winner scale identical to the intermediate sprints. [Edited]
- For time trials, there is no intermediate sprint. The stage victory uses the 20-for-the-winner scale that intermediate sprints use. I'm not totally sure what they do for a team time trial.
The first year they employed this scale, we called it the Cavendish Rules, as the Tour seemed to be tipping things in the direction of the Manx Missile, who promptly won the Green Jersey for the first (and so far only) time, by a wide margin, after getting pipped by Alessandro Petacchi the previous year. The big format change was the elimination of multiple intermediate sprints worth small caches of points, and the inflation of both the intermediate point scales and the end-of-stage points on non-mountain days. In other words, they rewarded stage winners and guys who could manage a single halfway-point sprint. Like Cav. Et voila! Of course, all of that was in the years B.P., Before Peter. Since then, nothing has been the same.
Let's run thru the contenders. In not-insignificant order.
1. Peter Sagan, Cannondale
Why he's awesome: Barely needs recounting, but in case you're wondering, last year he beat Mark Cavendish in a sprint and also won the sprint for second in the climb to Big Bear Lake. Not on the same day, though he could have done that too. Also, I think he surfed that 100 foot wave in Portugal. On his race bike.
Why he's super-awesome: If you haven't seen him park his bike on the roof of his car, you've been under quite a nice, cozy rock all week. Sagan isn't just a sprinter who can climb, he's a sprinter who can climb and do BMX tricks that are actually harder than they appear. I mean, he had that thing locked in seconds, which means he rode straight into the slot. Not to go overboard but he's bigger than Jesus. Or, he might be, if not for his busy hands.
What he's done before: Won the green jersey by reducing the competition to a puddle of screaming jelly by the end of stage 12. His final margin of victory was 421 - 280, over Greipel.
What he's about to do: Re-Pete Performance
2. Mrk Cvndsh, Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Why he's awesome: Fastest Man in the World. Former World Champion. Won the final Champs-Elysees stage for all 100 Tours de France.
Why he's super-awesome: Have you seen his latest business/marketing venture? I don't know what's better, his War on Vowels (long overdue, if you ask me) or his tagline: Fst as fck (hello! vowel at 12 o'clock!). Either he's continuing the long-established British tradition of using naughty language to the press or he's lining up with FCUK. Anyway, there's a thin green line thru the website, which is supposed to underline his intentions of winning the green jersey, which is not exactly news. But I'm cool with it.
What he's done before: He won the Green Jersey with relative ease over JJ Rojas Gil in 2011, pitting a pure sprinter against a not-so-pure-in-terms-of-skillset sprinter with some all-round ability. Rojas wasn't up to the pressure of Cavendish's constant bagging of the big game. But last year Sagan most certainly was. Sagan made it to every intermediate sprint available (depending on breakaway status) and more than a few final battles, while Cavendish missed a few points caches early on and quickly went into the tank.
What he's about to do: OK, here's where we can do the real breakdown. To the Back of An Envelope!
Let's say Sagan makes it to 17 of the 18 intermediate sprints. Oftentimes there is a breakaway up the road, taking the top several spots, and Sagan won't always beat Cav or Greipel on the easier days. But he'll average maybe 8-9 points per intermediate sprint. Stages 2, 7, 9, 14, 15,16 and 20 all look like days where Sagan might get to the intermediate sprint and Cavendish might not. That's close to 60 points, roughly, that Cav has to find somewhere else. By winning stages? OK, fine, and if Sagan gets pipped for second too then Cav can make that up in four or five stages. I can see Cav making that up.
But that comes with several big caveats. First, Cavendish has no margin for error. He can't lose to Greipel, he can't miss a makeable finale. No mistakes. Secondly, and of far greater significance, is that in how many of those seven stages does Sagan go on and make it to either the sprint for the win or for some lesser points haul, while Cav is nowhere to be seen? Is the real climbing deficit Cav has to overcome more like 130 points? Because there aren't 130 points out there on the course where he can elude Sagan. Not unless Sagan comes unglued.
On the other side of the ledger, I get that Cav has a team at his full disposal this time. Maybe OPQS can get him to three or four of those intermediate sprints and a few of the finales too. Maybe OPQS, the cleverest team in cycling when it comes to low-elevation stage tactics, can get enough guys up the road to take points off the table before Sagan can get them. Lefevre will have plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He'll need them all, and a perfect performance by Cavendish, to pull this off.
3. Andre Greipel, Lotto-Belisol
Why he's awesome: He sometimes beats Cavendish, head to head, no gimmicks. He's consistent and very, very fast. He's been doing this for a while.
Why he's super-awesome: Hm, not sure I can think of any reason. They call him the Gorilla? By all accounts he's a very likeable person. Also, the German kit on top of Lotto colors should be the worst looking outfit in cycling.
What he's done before: Second last year. Basically, he was the most consistent of the pure bunch guys. The truth is, he usually doesn't beat Cavendish, but he's faster than everyone else on this list, most days.
What he's about to do: Be pretty much the same guy this year. Coming up on his 31st birthday, Greipel has been the same guy every year, if not incrementally a bit better, for half a decade. He outlasted Tyler Farrar's sprinting prime (who was excluded from Garmin's Tour team), he's kept trading punches with Cav, he's won a single grand tour points comp ('09 Vuelta).
4. Matt Goss, Orica-GreenEdge
Why he's awesome: He can get up and down the Poggio, and still put paid to the sprinters.
Why he's super-awesome: Tough one. He's been a bit less awesome each year for a couple years now. What gives? Is he a classics guy in a sprinter's job? Should we intervene?
What he's done before: Third last year in the Points comp, in his second Tour de France.
What he's about to do: Total wild card. This is a good course for a guy with his diverse talents, and third last year suggests he knows what to do. Also, while he's been ill for parts of this season, a healthy Goss beat Cavendish once back in March, and second on a Suisse stage shows that maybe he's coming around. He's easy to overlook. I wouldn't.
Verdict: Fourth. And a stage win.
5. JJ Rojas Gil, Movistar
Why he's awesome: Do-it-all guy, who could be a bigger star under the old system.
Why he's super-awesome: He's the Heat Miser.
What he's done before: Second in the Tour Points comp two years ago, fourth on two other occasions. Crashed out very early last year.
What he's about to do: His usual thing. But the problem is, Sagan does everything Rojas does, and better. So too for Goss, and maybe Degenkolb.
Verdict: Fifth with some luck. No whiff of a stage unless he falls way out of contention and goes on some breaks.
6. John Degenkolb, Argos-Shimano
Why he's awesome: Dominated the Vuelta sprints in 2012 with five stage wins. Gets around the hills OK, IIRC.
Why he's super-awesome: Hm, because he has Marcel Kittel as a teammate? At least that makes Argos semi-awesome.
What he's done before: This is his Tour debut.
What he's about to do: Total wildcard. His five Vuelta stage wins, while dominant and indicative of the consistency you need to win points, was against a pretty weak field. Still, who's done better in the last 12 months? Sagan, but who else?
Verdict: Sixth. Got some learnin to do.
7. Nacer Bouhanni, FDJ
Why he's awesome: Well, he got FDJ's nod as their Tour guy ahead of his 23rd birthday.
Why he's super-awesome: He was rocking the tricolore big time til he busted his face this spring.
What he's done before: Tour debut. You saw the part about how he's 22? He's DNF'd the Giro and Vuelta so far in his young career.
What he's about to do: DNF
Verdict: Without his tricolore, it won't be the same.
8. Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sky
Why he's awesome: He's not. He's completely frustrating. But whatever, he'll get his points.
Why he's super-awesome: Maybe if he'd heard of Eddy Merckx, he'd act like Eddy Merckx.
What he's done before: Completely frustrated several hundred FSA Directeur Sportif fantasy owners. Fifth in points at the Tour last year, sixth the previous two years. I wish I could quit him.
What he's about to do: Completely fall out of contention and free his enslaved FSA DS owners.
Verdict: Hope is not a good thing. Get busy living (i.e. leaving EBH off your team) or get busy dying.
9. Marcel Kittel, Argos-Shimano
Why he's awesome: He wins a lot, in tough races. Ever ridden in Turkey? He has. And won. Also two Scheldeprijs wins. Races, he likes em hard.
Why he's super-awesome: Hm, I guess I'll defer to why Argos are maybe super-awesome. Seriously, points comp aside, and yes having two guys split points is the road to green jersey ruin, Argos could come back with a nifty stage haul and some opened eyes.
What he's done before: DNS'd at the Tour last year and the Vuelta the year before.
What he's about to do: Shock the world. But only for one day.
10. Philippe Gilbert, BMC
Why he's awesome: Reigning world champion, who once won Lombardia and Paris-Tours within a week. Was the World #1 by a mile two years ago.
Why he's super-awesome: Lately? Well, he wears a nice kit. Which is more than you can say for his wedding attire.
What he's done before: Third on points in 2011, while finishing 36th overall. Think about that.
What he's about to do: No clue. But they left Hushovd home, which means BMC don't have a stage sprinter, and won't be wasting resources on an old Norwegian with no hope of green. That leaves Gilbert in the stealth position, on a course where guys who can climb consistently have a chance to make up a lot of ground.
Verdict: If he goes for it, he could easily get top five. But my guess is they put him to work in the mountains and he gets gassed. It's been a terrible year for Gilbert, mostly. Best real hope is a breakaway stage win, and for that he has to be nowhere near green.
[update!] 10.5. Alexander Kristoff, Katusha
Why he's awesome: Well, he won several stages of the Tour of Norway.
Why he's super-awesome: OK, fourth in the Tour of Flanders.
What he's done before: Debutante.
What he's about to do: Complete wild card, the wildest of the bunch. I get why you guys hinted that I needed to include him. He was fantastic during the classics, can get up and down as many hills as Sagan, and has a nifty little sprint on him. He has exactly zero record of achievement in points competitions that would suggest something big is about to happen. Fifth in the Tour de Suisse? Do you even get a cheese wheel for that?
Verdict: I guess I can see him replacing Gilbert on this list. But it's still the maillot vert, you still have to sprint it out.