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Green Jersey Preview: Can Sagan be Stopped?

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Every year since 2012, the green jersey competition has run to the same script. Peter Sagan takes intermediate sprints, grabs points on tough stages, and goes home clad in green. Can that change this year?

Bryn Lennon, Getty Images

The green jersey classification as we know it today was introduced in 1959, and since then, it has had three people really dominate it, each with more than three wins. They are, of course Seán Kelly, Erik Zabel, and recently, Peter Sagan. Kelly spread his wins throughout the 1980s, Zabel was the first to get four in a row, and then expanded his total to six, and Sagan is heading for five next month. But how can he be stopped. Let's examine the competition!

Are you all sitting comfortably? Because here are the rules. Each stage is categorised by difficulty, and each category, or coefficient as the Tour calls them, is awarded a certain number of points to hand out to the top fifteen at the end of the day. As a rule of thumb, flat stages are category one, hilly stages are category two and three, mountain stages are category four and five, and time-trials are category six and seven. Here are the coefficients:

TDF Coefficients

And here are how many points can be garnered by winning each one:

Category 1: 50 30 20 18 16 14 12 10 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
Category 2&3 30 25 22 19 17 15 13 11 9 7 6 5 4 3 2
Category 4&5 20 17 15 13 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Category 6&7 20 17 15 13 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Intermediate Sprints 20 17 15 13 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Now, there are some notable exceptions. Stage 2, finishing on the steep climb of the Côte de la Glacerie, is awarded equally as many points as pan-flat sprinters stages, and I expect that the joy of winning thirty points for the green jersey might just be lost on the man who conquers Mont Ventoux. But if you really expected any sense here, you probably weren't paying attention.

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that Sagan's appetite for green jersey victories hasn't been sated by four wins, and he's going to go for it again with all his energy. And really, there's no reason to assume otherwise. Year after year, Sagan has shown ingenuity and tenacity in getting in breaks, over mountains and to the front of sprints, even with a lack of team help. This year, given that Hansen's been dropped, defying Contador, he might even have a team mate or two, so the sky's the limit. Even if a stage win is beyond him, as it has in the last two years, can anyone really keep him out of green?

If you go through the stages, days 1, 3, 4, 6, 11, 14, 16, 21 all look likely to end in a sprint, giving 50 points to their eventual winner. That's eight stages, which is substantially more than in recent years. Think last year, where there were only five sprint finishes, and 2014, where there were just six. The stage winner points do allow us to think about one surefire way to stop Sagan - a totally dominant sprinter, who wins all eight, comes out of that with four hundred points, and adds a few intermediate sprints to score a nigh-on unassailable 520. However, with the field of sprinters we have, that doesn't seem likely. Even with a 50% delivery rate, which is less than the top sprinters will be aiming for, there are 200 points there, and with a big effort, the points classification could be won by a "proper" sprinter.

Also, we must note the absence of a brand of stage that has made itself known over world cycling in the last couple of years. Yes, I'm talking about the "Sagan stage". Of the twenty-one Tour stages, there are those eight flat ones, which are not hilly enough for Sagan, there are eight more mountain stages, which are far too challenging, there are two individual time-trials, which Sagan is proficient, but not masterful in, there are two hilly stages with a hill-top finish, which Sagan could maybe think about having a go on, but would not be a favourite for, and there is a classic breakaway stage, which starts with a first category climb, and is flat to the line. Not bread and butter for the Slovakian either. There is little or no opportunity to place highly in stages his competitors will not figure in. In my opinion, that will happen a maximum of two times, with a very strong possibility of it not happening at all. To realise how damaging this could be to his hopes of green, consider that Sagan finished in the top five of six stages in which André Greipel, second in the points classification, did not finish in the top fifteen. It happened twice over Kristoff in 2014, when the rules suited Sagan more than they do now, and three times over Cavendish and Greipel in the years of his two other green jersey victories.

One thing that I don't think will happen is that Sagan will be beaten at his own game. That's hanging on over the mountains, getting into breaks, and pretending that intermediate sprints after two category one climbs are anything but non-events. Michael Matthews is the rider that would be most likely to follow this approach, and I wish him good luck with it. Sagan is probably a better sprinter - he hasn't been beaten by Matthews in a year - and I don't think their's anything to choose between their climbing skills. Add in that Sagan's a master of his craft, and Matthews has never challenged for a GT points classification. So, I judge that Michael Matthews cannot stop Sagan.

Alexander Kristoff would also be a rider to go for a variation of that tactic, and he would probably fail as badly as Matthews. He's a powerful sprinter, but isn't able to reliably pick up stage wins against the toughest competition, and can't hold a candle to Sagan when it comes to getting over mountains. So...Alexander Kristoff cannot stop Sagan.

Bryan Coquard has been also winning races in the style of Matthews, but he hasn't got the top end speed to challenge for the green jersey. He's never won a big race, he's never really challenged much against top opposition, so Bryan Coquard cannot stop Sagan.

Now we get to the pure sprinters, starting with the only one of them to come home from Paris clad in green - Mark Cavendish, who hasn't shown much of his old form this season, at his new Dimension Data outfit. He's gone up against Kittel exactly three times, losing on each occasion, including at Scheldeprijs. He's had outings in Croatia, Slovakia, and California, never at his former top speed, winning two stages out of the three races, and not exactly against the toughest of competition. Also, the Manxman is Rio-bound, so may not make it all the way to Paris. Never the best on the climbs, he's never really seemed to target green since winning in 2011, and therefore Mark Cavendish cannot stop Sagan.

Nacer Bouhanni is the real French hope for a few sprint wins, but when it comes to getting into fights and injuring his hand, or being relegated for bashing other sprinters into barriers, or getting into a headbutt-fight with the Katusha sprint train, he's not what anyone would call reliable. Has he the speed to win one stage? Maybe. But to consistently pile on the points for green. Yeah, no. Nacer Bouhanni cannot stop Sagan.

Is there ever a more underestimated sprinter than André Greipel? Year after year, he turns up to Grand Tours, wins a stage or two, and goes home to be underestimated against once again. However, in his last two GTs, he's taken a whopping seven stages, with three Giro victories, and those four in last year's Tour. After the Giro, his form was less than stellar, but I couldn't blame him for not targeting the ZLM Toer and the Tour of Luxembourg. At the weekend, he took his third national title in four years, and if you watch the video of it, it's an impressive sprint, to beat Kittel in his own backyard, even if the Etixx man doesn't seem to have a problem-free sprint.

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I don't doubt that Greipel is capable of winning a stage or two, but last year's four will have been his peak. Andre Greipel cannot stop Sagan.

So all that leaves us with is one competitor, and that's Marcel Kittel. When Kittel has been on form, he's just been a class apart. Look at this, on stage 3 of the Giro.

Those are some top quality sprinters he's leaving in the dust. Greipel, Viviani, Nizzolo, that's quite a trio to open that sort of a gap on. If there's anyone who will win a majority fo the sprints, for 250 or more points, it's Kittel. His train isn't the best it's ever been, with a man or two to support the team's climbing leaders, but he'll have enough to win stages, and perhaps, the green jersey. In my opion, Marcel Kittel is the only man who can stop Sagan.