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

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