The task is imposing, beating one of the best riders in the history of the sport in the competition he has made his own. Peter Sagan has won the sprinter's green jersey in seven out of the eight Tours de France he has started, in the other he was kicked out of the race in controversial circumstances after an incident with Mark Cavendish in a sprint finish when comfortably in the lead of the sprint classification.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) has said he's not aiming for the green jersey, such is the dominance of Sagan in recent years. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) ruled out a tile at green as well, citing his role as a super-domestique for his team.
Everyone should be respectful of Sagan's record, but not scared. He has dominated in the past because of the format of the Tour de France sprint competition, the parcours and the positioning of the intermediate sprint points, as well as because he's a freak of nature. He'll set a relatively high benchmark at this year's Tour, but for the first time in years, it looks like it might be beatable.
Sagan has built his legendary run on impressive versatility and consistency. Because of that, and the fact that we've seen it eight times before, his final point tally is relatively predictable.
Flat sprints, uphill sprints, medium mountains stages, cobbled stages, crosswinds... the Slovakian does it all, that's the versatility. He gets over mountains to access the points at intermediate sprints in a manner that other sprinters can't manage. Some years, that adds up to between 150-200 extra points that only he really has access to.
This year I'm estimating the most he can count on is approximately 110 points in this manner, even with some generous assumptions in favour of Sagan.
There are just two stages (9 and 13) with intermediate sprints hidden behind mountains that most sprinters won't be able to get over. There are also just two days, Stages 12 and 14 where almost all the sprinters will be eliminated and the likes of Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) will go in as favourites.
I'm making the assumption that Sagan gets in both breakaways on 9 and 13 and wins full points, while his rivals get none, that's plus 40 points. The other stages aren't easy wins for Sagan, but it's hard to deny his consitency, so let's say he takes a win on the flatter stage and a third on the other one for another 70 points for 110 'extra special Sagan points'.
The other big thing in the green Hulk's favour is his relentless consistency that is a product of his avoiding crashes, brilliant positioning and tactical nous. He's the best in the world at this, and it's hard to quantify the effect of this, but it enables him to take higher finishes in flat sprints, not completely miss out on points due to crashes and give himself chances that others don't get due to the peculiar bent of his genius.
What is quantifiable is Sagan's past performance in flat finishes. In all his Tours de France, these are his results on where the pure sprinters made the finish.
1st - 3 times
2nd - 15 times
3rd - 11 times
4th or 5th - 11 times
6th to 10th - 8 times
Worse than 10th - 3 times
That's an average of 22.8 points per stage, if you convert the positions into the current points scale, but it's worth noting that last year's performance was an 18.1 points average. If you run the higher, historical average through the calculator for the eight stages this year that works out to approximately 182 points at this year's race, added together with the 'extra special Sagan points' and you have 292 points.
If you take less flattering assumptions, and last year's flat sprint average, you end up with just 202 points. Note this total doesn't include points at the flatter intermediate sprints, more on that later.
So, taking Sagan on we have a relatively reduced field of sprinters. Caleb Ewan and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) are the consensus pick of the bunch, though an argument can be made that Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT Pro Cycling) is on the form of his life at the moment and may also contend.
Competition is a bit thin on the ground, Nizzolo probably will take a win out of the eight likely sprints, and you can probably assign one or two between the likes of Sagan, van Aert, Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), but in my opinion is that it's highly likely that either Ewan or Bennett will take three or more wins during this Tour de France. They'll probably place highly on other sprint stages as well when they're not winning.
Based on the assessment of the best sprinter ending with three stage wins, I've come up with a 34.75 point average for whoever emerges as the better between Ewan and Bennett, which over the 8 stages, adds up to 278. They don't get the 'extra special Sagan points', but they are likely to get a bonus on the flatter intermediates. For reference, Ewan averaged 34.3 points per flat sprint last year against a tougher field.
Flat intermediate sprints are harder to quantifiy than other elements of the sprint competition, because a lot of the data has been corrupted by the give-up factor, where Sagan has cast his spell on the peloton in the past. I'm assigning two points per stage average for the best sprinter over Sagan, that seems about fair.
The points spread is quite thin at these points and they are only really contested by riders in the race for green, and the actual quantity of points is determined by the number of riders in the early break. I'm going to say on average Sagan takes 8 points per flat intermediate, with the best sprinter averaging 10. There are 18 of them, so 180 points for Ewan or Bennett, 144 for Sagan.
That brings Ewan or Bennett, the best sprinter in a realistic scenario to 458 points, above best scenario Peter Sagan on 436 points.
This of course, is a bike race, so you should expect plenty of chaos to throw off those numbers, and from that perspective, you can perhaps convince yourself that Sagan is still odds on to win. Say a crash happens in the finale and holds up the top sprinters, Sagan loses only 20-ish expected points from his total while Ewan or Bennett miss out on 35-ish.
Crosswinds spring up mid-stage, who's missing the move? Not Sagan. Eliminated by the time cut, it's not going to happen to Sagan, whereas Ewan hasn't finished four out of five grand tours he's participated in.
On the negative side for Sagan - and what I've left to the end - is the Wout van Aert wildcard. He'd be a serious contender for green if he wasn't required as a key domestique in the battle for yellow, but what he certainly will be is a thorn in Sagan's side. Those intermediate stages used to be known as Sagan stages are now van Aert stages after his Strade Bianche and Milan Sanremo wins, and he'll likely take a good swag of the 'extra special Sagan points' away from the Slovenian star.
While this has been an exercise in playing out the race on paper with armchair race analysis, I hope I've demonstrated that there's every reason why the format of this year's Tour favours the green jersey landing elsewhere than on the shoulders of the charismatic Sagan. As an Aussie, I can only hope that Ewan was only foxing with his claims of not being interested in the green jersey and will at least contest the intermediates, unlike last year!
The Tour de France begins on August 29, with every stage broadcast on SBS HD and the ŠKODA Tour Tracker.