With the news that defending green jersey winner Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) will not be lining up in Brittany on Saturday to go for back-to-back wins in the classification, the points jersey battle looks like a tussle between Aussie Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), seven-time champion Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe), local favourite Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) and in-form Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious).
Long gone are the days when it was a head-to-head battle between the top fast men in the race. The arrival of Sagan on the scene transformed the fight for the green jersey from a straight battle in the sprints to one of poaching points where others were unable, building up unassailable leads, and other times simply getting ahead and demoralising his opponents into accepting defeat.
Flat sprints, uphill sprints, medium mountains stages, cobbled stages, crosswinds... the Slovakian does it all, his versatility was the calling card of his seven green jersey wins. 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 200 extra points that only he really has access to.
Last year spelled an end to that dominance, an upset predicted by this author after the analysis of the route revealed that there wasn't anywhere near the opportunity for Sagan to build up the same buffer that he had in the past. This year, things appear a bit tighter from an analytical perspective, such that it's hard to predict a winner.
There are four main aspects of the green jersey battle, bunch sprints, flat intermediate sprints, hard intermediate sprints and other stage finishes.
The most important of these is the flat sprints, they are awarded the highest points, weighted towards the top placings on the stage, with 50 for the winner, 30 for second, 20 for third, stretching all the way down to 2 points for 15th. Hilly stages see 30 points for the winner, mountain stages, time trials and intermediate sprints (one per stage) just 20 points apiece. A dominant sprinter can really establish a big lead by winning a number of stages in the flatlands.
This year, there are ten such categorised stages, but it's a bit surprising with the choices that the race organisers have gone for. Stages 1 and 2 finish atop significant climbs but still attract the same points and look like good opportunities for the splimbers (sprinters/climbers) to secure big points early in the race.
After that, the eight other - more normal - flat sprint finishes come to the fore. A dominant sprinter normally bags a lot of points in these. Caleb Ewan averaged 34.5 points in these stage finishes in 2019, Bennett averaged 33 points in his green jersey-winning effort in 2020. So that 30-35 point range seems like the top likely mark, though if you're a believer in Caleb Ewan's current form, then you might want to revise that number upwards a tick. You can make cases for Demare, Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and potentially Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) being the dominant sprinter at the race, they're other potential riders to figure in this points range.
It's also an area where Peter Sagan excels. While others like Matteo Trentin, Sonny Colbrelli and Julian Alaphilippe have shown in the past that they can equal his point scores on the intermediate sprints and hilly stages, none can match the consistency of the Slovakian star in the flat dashes to the line. 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 - 13 times
4th or 5th - 14 times
6th to 10th - 8 times
Worse than 10th - 4 times
That's an average of 22.1 points per stage, if you convert the positions into the current points scale, but it's worth noting that last year's performance was a 15.8 points average. There were a few notable outliers there, he was infamously relegated on a day where he finished second on the road (omitted from results), then dropped his chain in another finish when he looked like second would have been the worst he would have done.
Flat intermediate sprints are also a large source of points, but very rarely lead to a big points difference. The points difference between each place is either one or two points, so even a rider who finishes four places down on his major rival will only concede a handful of points. These intermediate sprints are affected by breakaways as well, a large break can hoover up most of the available points on offer. Faster sprinters do still have an advantage, but only a minor one, especially when it gets towards the end of the race, it tends to only be the main green jersey contenders sprinting and it's hard to gain more than a couple of points per sprint.
Where intermediate sprints do become important is where they are accessible to one rider but his rivals miss out entirely. This is where Sagan has excelled in the past, jumping into mountain stage breaks and early moves with only the goal of taking the maximum points at the intermediate sprint, taking 20 points while the other sprinters take nothing. In 2021, stages 9, 10, 16 and 18 look like potential spots where Sagan could slip away into the break, or at least be a lot more comfortable sprinting for the points than more traditional sprinters.
The other big source of 'Sagan-only' points in the past has been harder stage finishes, where Sagan can mix it up with the puncheurs while others can only watch on from the grupetto and watch as Sagan's tally grows. The race organisers got wise to this and reduced the points on offer for these hilly stages to just 30 for the winner, but they still offer a good chance for the splimbers to steal a march on their rivals.
This applies to stages 7, 14 and 16. Add in the first two stages which have for some reason got the 'flat' stage points scheme and there are quite a few potential points on the line. Sagan, Colbrelli, Michael Matthews, Julian Alaphilippe, Marc Hirschi, Alejandro Valverde, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel should excel on these days, but the fact that there is so much competition for the win is an indicator that it will probably be quite hard for one rider to build up an insurmountable lead.
So who will win? My point-score guesstimation has it as a very tight battle between Peter Sagan and Caleb Ewan for the green jersey title, but you can easily adjust the below sums for your preferred rider.
Ewan, or your preferred pure sprinter, should average about 35 points in the flat sprints. There are eight of them, that should be 280 points. Sagan will probably average 20 points or so, his average has been steadily slipping over the years, but he's still very consistent. So that's 160 for him.
Flat intermediate sprints are harder to get an exact total on due to breakaways, but I'll say an average of 10 for a top sprinter sounds about right. That's 150 points for Ewan, I'll say 30 less, or two points per stage adrift, for Sagan.
Harder intermediate sprints are down to just four opportunities and a lot will come down to how BORA-hansgrohe play things. They went really hard last year to open up chances for Sagan, but will they be as committed this year with Sagan already having a foot out the door as his contract expires? Stages 9, 10, 16 and 18 will make for interesting viewing in the early sections if Sagan is still in with a sniff for green. I've made a generous assumption that Sagan will swing 60 points on those days over a pure sprint rival like Ewan.
Finally, the other stages. Stages 1 and 2 could potentially decide the race for green. Imagine if Sagan were to win one and take third in another, not outside the realm of possibility. He would be on a points total of roughly 100 points, while the rest of the pure sprinters would be about 70-80 points behind already and their focus might already shift to just going for stage wins. Stages 7, 14 and 16 are the 30 point finishes, some of those days look too hard even for Sagan, but if you're a big Colbrelli, Van Aert or Van der Poel fan then perhaps one or two might be opportunities. I've got Sagan down for 77 points on these finishes.
Add it all up and it reads 430 points for Ewan, and 413 for Sagan, a razor-thin margin where a single mistake or bit of misfortune could decide the direction of the competition.
You can perhaps talk yourself into a Sagan win for this reason, and that he has a preternatural ability to avoid the problems and crashes that bring down others. Also, if there are any crosswind splits or road condition issues, everyone knows that Sagan will be one of the best at dealing with it. He's also won the jersey seven times, he knows how to do it and has the history of being able to back up day after day to fight for it.
Caleb Ewan on the other hand has almost no history of contending for the points jersey in Grand Tours, he was second in 2019 but made no effort in the intermediate sprints, something that he'll have to change if he wants to win green as he said at the start of the year.
With the top two contenders showing vulnerabilities you might want to look elsewhere, so I'll do a very brief rundown on the main other chances to stand on the podium in green in Paris.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) would be my favourite for the jersey if he was going for it, and he wasn't coming off a long period off the bike that has included an appendicitis operation recovery that has resulted in complications. Otherwise, he's a marginally better sprinter than Sagan and a better climber.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) also tops out as a better sprinter and climber than Sagan but has all but said that he'll be pulling out of the Tour de France early to prepare for the Olympics, with a stage win the goal. The team also has other sprint options, probably faster than van der Poel, for the flat days.
Sonny Colbrelli is in the form of his career at present. He's always been a good combination of sprinter and climber, but he was climbing with the top 30 in the Dauphine and his sprinting has been very consistent. A slight concern are his occasional issues with positioning and his weaker leadout.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) has always had the versatility over all terrains ala Sagan, what he doesn't have is his adversary's relentless consistency in the flat sprints. He loses too many points on the flat to be a true contender.
Same goes for Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), though I'd be intrigued in how he proceeds if he can figure in the opening two stages.
Arnaud Demare is the only other rider that I consider a possibility of dominating the flat sprints with a good leadout and some impressive form that includes two wins over Ewan at the Volta a Valenciana. He was winning for fun last year and some of that form has continued into this season, though for some reason he has largely avoided WorldTour races.
For the other pure sprinters, sure there are good ones here outside of Ewan and Demare but I'm not sure that I can see Merlier, Cavendish, Pedersen or Bol consistently getting the upper hand over the course of the whole race, given that it will require a dominant sprinter to topple an all-round points-getter like Sagan.
It should be an intriguing fight, one that will go through peaks and troughs as first one type of rider is favoured, then another. While everything does appear very equal, I'm going to let a bit of parochialism swing the final verdict and say that Caleb Ewan swings his first Grand Tour points classification victory and stands atop the podium in Paris.
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