PETER SAGAN: INVINCIBLE IN GREEN
Procycling asks if the Slovak can be beaten for the green jersey. Probably not, is the answer
Benjamin Franklin, if he had been a cycling fan, might have said that nothing is certain except death, taxes, and Peter Sagan winning the Tour de France’s green jersey.
The Slovakian is currently on a run of five green jerseys at the French race. Not only that, but his winning margins are so big that it’s hard for his rivals to identify how they might beat him. His slimmest margin of victory has been 66 points, 432 to André Greipel’s 366 in the 2015 Tour. In 2016, he was an astonishing 242 points ahead of Marcel Kittel in second place. He’s still one green jersey behind Erik Zabel’s record of six wins between 1996 and 2001, but given that Sagan is 27 and possibly not yet at his peak as a cyclist, it might seem that only bad luck or injury can prevent him equalling Zabel this year, then pulling ahead of the German starting in 2018.
The green jersey is sometimes mis-identified as the sprinters’ classification. Sprinters often do well in it, but it has generally been a competition that rewards consistency, as well as speed. And not only consistency, but the ability to get an edge on rivals by scoring points where they cannot. Sprinters will often be scoring points on the same stages as each other, generally the flat ones which favour bunch finishers. So over the course of the Tour, a dominant sprinter will score more points than his rivals, though if they are more equally matched, they’ll be swapping points all the way to Paris. However, if one is better at climbing than the other, there’s an opportunity to score points when their rival has been dropped. That’s where the difference often lies.
This has been Peter Sagan’s modus operandi in the points classification. He scores consistently, and very highly, on the flat stages of the Tour. He’s only won seven times in his five Tours so far, but he’s generally able to finish in the top three of the bunch sprints, against the very fastest riders in the world. He might not beat Marcel Kittel or Mark Cavendish very often in a head-to-head sprint, but he’s always right behind them. He’s also able to win or place on uphill finishes, and do the same in hilly stages where the sprinters cannot compete. And finally, at the midrace bonus sprints, he scores similar points to his rivals on the flat, more straightforward stages, then he infiltrates breaks in order to score points where they can’t.
The irony is that the current points system was a tweak made in 2011 to favour the bunch sprinters after
In 2016, Sagan scored points, either in a bonus sprint or at the inish, in 15 out of 21 stages
Mark Cavendish won 15 Tour stages in the previous three Tours, yet didn’t win the green jersey. Cavendish duly won green in 2011, but every Tour since 2012, the fastest sprinter in the Tour has not won it. (Nor did he between 2008 and 2010.)
This is what Sagan’s rivals are up against: in 2016, he scored points, either in a bonus sprint or at the finish, in 15 out of 21 stages. The runner-up in the green jersey competition, Marcel Kittel, scored in just eight. The previous year, Sagan scored in 16 out of 19 road stages. His runner-up, André Greipel, scored points in 13. Even though Greipel scored 200 points alone in his four stage wins, Sagan was second on two of those occasions and scored highly in all four, then he scored points where Greipel could not hope to compete – in the bonus sprints and finishes on hilly days. Even on the summit finish stages in the mountains, Sagan gets into the break and scores points in the bonus sprint, even if he can’t hold the climbers to the finish.
How can this be beaten? A sprinter would have to win five or six stages, along with several bonus sprint scores to amass a points cushion necessary to even get close to Sagan’s usual 400 or so points. The 2017 Tour has a maximum of eight sprints, so the chances of one rider winning six is slim. Perhaps another all-rounder, like his Classics rival Greg Van Avermaet, could hope to compete, by staying with Sagan on the hilly stages. But Sagan is a regular top-three finisher in the bunch sprints – Van Avermaet doesn’t even get involved. And the other sprinters who can climb – Bryan Coquard and Michael Matthews for example – just aren’t as consistent and fast, nor do they have the resilience to get into the break day after day as Sagan does.
The biggest rival to Sagan may be a rider like Fernando Gaviria, if he develops in other directions as well as keeping his speed. Gaviria has just won the Giro points jersey, though the rules and points of the Giro are different to those of the Tour. And Gaviria won’t be ready to challenge Sagan until 2018 at the earliest. There’s no such thing as an absolutely safe bet in cycling. But Peter Sagan for the green jersey this year is the closest thing.
Sagan scores a lot of points by getting into breaks on the mountain stages of the Tour