For seven of the past eight years, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan made winning the Tour de France Green Jersey look easy. (In 2016, he was set to make it look easy until he was wrongly disqualified from the race.) To give you a sense of how easy, the closest anyone has finished second to Sagan is 68 points behind, whereas there have been many Tours where the Points competition is decided by the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees.
It’s almost a shame the way he dominates. Because it’s not easy as he makes it look: it’s brutally hard. To win, he’s racing for points every day. In previous years, he’s gotten those points in nearly every kind of stage, save high-mountain finishes. Sometimes, the jersey is called the ‘regularity’ jersey, for the most consistent finisher. Sagan is that.
Sagan has a skill set that is pretty hard to beat when it comes to Points competitions in most stage races. He’s a top-five finisher against the fastest sprinters in the highest-speed flat-road sprints. When the course is tricky in the final kilometers, he’s a top-three finisher or winner. If the course turns uphill in the final kilometers, so long as it’s not too long or steep, he can win. He can get over bigger hills than the guys who beat him in flat sprints. And he can attack, counter-attack, and time-trial better than those faster sprinters, so he can pick up points on intermediate sprints, particularly if the course is hilly. And he can attack from far out and solo to the finish if the opportunity strikes as well.
This year, he’s had his toughest challenge for green since he started his 127 days in the Maillot Vert.
The first difference is that the Tour has actually been tweaking the Points competition to be more competitive. Effectively, because he’s been so dominant, they’ve changed the stakes. Dominance is not good for the fans. Or racing.
The second difference is that Sagan seems to be several watts shy of previous years’ form. He’s not quite as close in the flat finishing sprints. And he’s not dominant at the intermediate sprints.
The third difference is another team finally has both a rider and support who can challenge Sagan. And that team is Decunick-Quick Step (DQS), and the rider is Sam Bennett. Bennett is not only faster than Sagan on flat sprints, but his team is deep enough to both beat Sagan in the intermediate sprint, but place a second rider ahead of him there, and they have the depth to either lead an attack early to mop up intermediate sprint points and attack late to spoil Sagan’s chances in hilly finales when Bennett can’t get over the hills to claim points at the finish.
And while it’s easy to see the Green Jersey race as just between two riders, the truth is, several still have a chance, depending on how each day plays out. Bennett currently has a decent lead on Sagan, 252 points to Sagan’s 186. Third is B&B Hotels Bryan Coquard, at 162, fourth is Caleb Ewan of Lotto-Soudal at 155, and fifth is CCC’s Matteo Trentin at 146.
A victory at the intermediate sprint is 20 points and goes 15 places deep.
“at each intermediate sprint, 20-17-15-13-11-10-9-8- 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 points to the first 15 riders;”
A victory at the finish line depends on the course profile:
“Road stages without any particular difficulties (art.22-coeff. 1 and 2):
50-30-20-18-16-14-12-10-8-7-6-5- 4-3-2 points to the first 15 riders
Road stages with a rolling profile (art.22-coeff. 3):
30-25-22-19-17-15-13-11-9-7-6-5-4-3-2 points to the first 15 riders
Road stages with a very difficult profile (art.22-coeff. 4 and 5):
20-17-15-13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 points to the first 15 riders
Individual time trial (art. 22-coeff. 6):
20-17-15-13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 points to the first 15 riders;”
So, if Bennett completely misses getting any points on one day, another rider could potentially score 70, and the race would change dramatically.
This is why the Points race is so hard. With racing so dynamic, the teams riding for Green Jersey contenders have to start each stage with a plan, and then have backup plans because the first one might not work out.
Take Thursday’s Stage 12. This was the longest stage of the race, at 218km. It’s the kind of stage that Sagan could both win the intermediate sprint and win the day. And it was almost a certainty that Bennett couldn’t make it over the final climbs in the group. If Bora could get Sagan into the early move, he could take 20 points at the first sprint, with Bennett only taking a few, and Sagan could continue on, either winning or going for a top placing at the finish.
Bora did indeed make the racing hard early, but they not only couldn’t get Sagan away, but a group went, thanks to Bennett’s team. DQS’s Kasper Asgreen kept the six-man break going, and then Both Bennett and Bennett’s leadout man, Michael Morkov, sprinted ahead of Sagan at the intermediate.
Then, Bora drove the pace much of the day, keeping the break on a short leash, ostensibly to set up Sagan to win or place high at the finish. They went hard into the second-to-last climb of the day, 170km in. Bennett was long gone. Sagan held, just barely, onto the peloton over the climb, but a re-formed break, this time with twelve riders, including one DQS, got away. And Sagan had no teammates to chase for him. He ended up winning the bunch sprint into Sarran ahead of Trentin’s teammate Greg Van Avermaet. But it was for 13th place, only four points, rather than sixth, which was 15—ironically taken by Sagan’s teammate Max Schachmann. Bennett, by contrast, was the final rider over the line, 160th, in a group of 19 riders over 26 minutes down on the winner.
Sagan made up a few points, but he and his team are looking at the course map for the rest of the Tour plotting where he can make up ground. Bennett might be a question mark in terms of being able to finish such a mountainous Tour, but his team is strong, and can dedicate six riders to making sure he doesn’t miss a time cut, so Sagan can’t sit around assuming Bennett can’t lug his body over the mountains fast enough to survive to Paris.
Friday’s Stage 13 is a mountain top finish, so Sagan’s not winning there. But he could potentially win the intermediate sprint 110km in, as Bennett is unlikely to make it over the three categorized climbs that precede it. But DQS knows it as well, and they could race from the gun and attack the climbs to ensure that a big break goes, denying Sagan points. They might even not mind if a competitor, like Trentin, who can climb reasonably well, gets in that early move and snags some points. Trentin has been taking points when he can, and his teammate tried to deny Sagan points at the finish Thursday.
Saturday, the stage from Clermont-Ferrand to Lyon, the intermediate sprint is 40km in, but immediately after a fourth-category climb. Bora could drive the pace as they did on Stage Seven, to drop Bennett early. But they might conserve early to make the race hard later in the day, so Sagan can win after the lumpy roads and final two hills into Lyon.
Sunday, Lyon to Grand Colombier finishes atop a mountain and the intermediate sprint comes early after flatter roads, so Sagan and his team will likely have to make sure DQS doesn’t ride for an early break to deny Sagan the chance of getting points, thus saving Bennett from having to fight to stay in the race over the three high mountains at the end.
Tuesday, LA Tour-du-Pin to Villard-de-Lans is again another finish not suited to Sagan, so the fight will be whether or not a break goes and if Sagan is there. On paper, DQS has the horsepower to chase down all but the most committed moves, and they’ve been very impressive thusfar, but there’s no telling if they’ll be up to the challenge on the third week.
Wednesday, Stage 17, and the opportunities to make or take a lead are running out. The stage from Grenoble to Meribel is another mountaintop finish, so the question is how well Sagan, Bennett, and possibly Trentin can sprint after all the big hills at the intermediate sprint 45km in. Depends on the course and the conditions and the freshness of the players, but it could be a steamroller for the first hour of the stage to either get points or deny them.
Thursday, Stage 18, the intermediate sprint is only 15km or so out of the start in Meribel, which seems to favor Bennett, but the course is uphill from kilometer zero, so a determined Bora could possibly take him out of any chance at points.
Friday, riding from Bourde-en-Bresse to Champagnole is the kind of stage that could work for Sagan or Bennett, depending on how fast the pace is. The intermediate sprint comes late, and atop a hill, so whomever has the lead might want to let an early break go away, and most of the teams riding for the Yellow Jersey will be happy if that occurs, because the next day is a time trial.
Saturday’s individual time trial finishes with a mountain climb. There are only 20 points on offer for the winner, and neither the course, uphill, nor the stakes, the general classification riders will probably race for the win, would suggest any of the Green Jersey racers would kill themselves to get six points if they finished 10th.
Sunday, the only points on offer are at the finish line. And with 50 points on offer for the winner, it could result in a late charge in the Maillot Vert race taking the victory along with the stage at the very end.
I don’t know how it’s going to end, but unlike previous years, it should be a tough, complicated battle just about every day to the Champs-Elysees. And that makes the Tour more fun.