As we know, this is the Tour de France that forgot about bunch sprints and individual time trials. We've looked over the course, we've thought about what that means for the GC. Now let's look at how it affects the points competition. And the answer, of course, is a lot.
The story of the last week (as far as the Maillot Vert goes) is the exclusion of Marcel Kittel by his team, Giant-Alpecin. Kittel has been off form, and hasn't look like the rider who has racked up eight Tour stage wins in a mere two seasons. There was some gnashing of teeth, some sadness expressed by the rider himself, but in the end it all makes perfect sense. Sure, a Tour is a Tour. But this one has as little to offer the Kittels and Cavendishes of the cycling world as any in recent memory.
By my count, the obvious sprint stages are #2, 5, 7, and 21. Stage 13 is a maybe. For a rider like Kittel, those were the only days he could count on scoring big, if things broke right. If his team could stop a breakaway from poaching points on one or two of those stages. And that's it.
Kittel is out, but several more riders are in, feeling around for their chances. Cavendish will be the primary beneficiary of Kittel's absence, or maybe Nacer Bouhanni, though he's banged up, or André Greipel. Bryan Coquard will go points chasing. Edvald Boasson Hagen could be a guy to watch. Michael Mathews will like a few of the early stages, as may John Degenkolb. Arnaud Demare seems like he should be more intriguing than he is. Greg Van Avermaet probably won't go down without a fight.
Of these riders, only Degenkolb can point to his strong season and a recent points competition win -- the 2014 Vuelta -- as evidence that he could be in this thing. Only he can convince me this isn't merely a two rider competition. And for now, I'll just put him in a footnote until proven otherwise.
No, this is going to be Sagan versus Kristoff.
Here is an official breakdown of how the points work.
For class 1 stages -- easiest:
- 15 places, : 50-30-20-18- 16-14-12-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2
- Includes stages 2, 5, 6, 7, 15, and 21
For class 2 and 3 stages -- medium-mountain or otherwise tricky stages:
- 15 places, 30-25-22- 19-17-15-13-11-9-7-6-5-4-3-2
- Includes stages 3, 4, 8, 13, 14, and 16 (class 2) and stage 10 (class 3)
For class 4 and 5 stages -- high mountains:
- 15 places, 20-17-15- 13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1
- Includes stages 11, 12, 17 and 18 (class 4) and stages 19 and 20 (class 5).
For time trials:
- 15 places, 20-17-15-13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5- 4-3-2-1
- Stage 1 only; TTT does not include points as far as I can tell.
For all stages except time trials: Intermediate sprints
15 places, 20-17-15-13-11-10-9-8- 7-6-5-4-3-2-1
As you can see, sprint stage wins are the best way to get ahead, followed by medium mountain stages, then intermediate sprint points. [I'm excluding high mountains and time trials. The Tour's generous scoring of intermediate points should rule out any of the true climbers remaining competitive for points.] The few number of pure sprints means no pure sprinter can expect more than 200 points from stage finishes, which would require sweeping all four -- something that Kittel may have done but the remaining guys will more likely divide amongst themselves. For someone to emerge from that group they'd have to be perfect, and I don't see that happening. If there's an argument for someone other than Kristoff and Sagan, with Degenkolb an outside shot, I don't see it.
Sagan has handily won the competition three years running, with his closet call being a 98-point win over Cavendish in 2013. Last year he crushed Kristoff by 149 points. His specialty is consistency, thanks to his excellent climbing prowess more than his top-end sprint speed, though he's no slouch in that department.
Kristoff, as the incumbent runner-up, has a lot to prove toward taking him seriously as a green jersey candidate. But he's on the form of his life, ranked #1 in the world, and has some Tour experience in his pocket now. Last year was his second go-round, and two stage wins gave him the confidence to aim higher this year. Given how dominant he has been all year long, and his ability to get over some (if not all) of the hills Sagan profits by, I'd say now is his chance. Let's look thru all the stages and see how the battle shapes up. In a cryptic, cursory way... for now.
Stage 1: n/a I don't see either one cracking the top 15 of a time trial. Not in this field.
Stage 2: Flat to the intermediate and all the way to the line. Kristoff may not take out Cav or Greipel, but he's likely to get past Sagan. Advantage Kristoff.
Stage 3: Mur de Huy finish means curtains for both guys. Intermediate is among some small hills. Push.
Stage 4: Cobbles! The race may break up a lot by the finish, but I wouldn't put it past either of these guys to be hanging around. Push.
Stage 5: Rolling across northern France. The favorites should have lots of company. Advantage Kristoff.
Stage 6: Coastal stage finishing after a 1km climb at about 7%. Don't hate Kristoff's chances but I like Mathews and Sagan's much better. Advantage Sagan.
Stage 7: Flat enough. Advantage Kristoff.
Stage 8: The Mur de Bretagne is like the finish at Le Havre (stage 6) only longer. Advantage Sagan.
Stage 9: n/a TTT
Stage 10: MTF, but the intermediate is gettable by all. Advantage, Kristoff.
Stage 11: Another MTF, but with an early intermediate. Advantage Kristoff.
Stage 12: MTF; intermediate is in the first hour. Advantage: Push.
Stage 13: Sprint finish but a couple nasty climbs.
Stage 14: Intermediate should be gettable for Kristoff, but the rest of the stage is pure Pete. Advantage Sagan.
Stage 15: Two short climbs before bombing downhill to the sprint, then one longer climbs in the hunt for Green. Advantage Sagan.
Stage 16: Intermediate is up a false flat, but otherwise this is another wide open chance for Sagan. Advantage Sagan.
Stage 17: Pra-Loup stage, with the intermediate coming after a Cat-2 ascent. Advantage Sagan.
Stage 18: Another MTF, with the intermediate coming after five rated climbs, albeit short ones. My guess is a breakaway wipes out the points. Push.
Stage 19: Intermediate comes after cat-1 Col du Chaussy. Push.
Stage 20: Alpe d'Huez stage features intermediate in Bourg d'Oisins, after climbing the Croix de Fer. Push.
Stage 21: Paris return. Advantage Kristoff.
By this rough calculation, which gives each rider some sort of upper hand in six stages, we can see that differentiating them ahead of time is not easy. Kristoff's climbing needs to be better than it has been for him to be the true favorite. And by the same token, if Kristoff runs out of steam, Sagan wins easily.
See? We told you it was a climbers' course.
What say ye? Does anyone seeing Sagan dethroned? My pick is... no.