I’ve been covering WorldTour cycling for 10 years – about as long as a pure sprinter last won the green jersey – and there is one image of Peter Sagan fighting for it that still haunts me.
I can’t tell you what edition of the Tour it was, or what stage, but if I shut my eyes I’m there again, sitting on the back of a race motorbike that briefly slowed alongside the Slovak.
Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) was up the road, labouring on an ascent that Mother Nature had categorically not intended for champion sprinters and puncheurs to traverse alone, if at all.
The motorbike driver I was holding onto yelled out to Sagan eagerly.
“Go Peter!” he said.
It was a searingly hot day, I remember wanting to get off the motorbike during the stage and jump into an airconditioned team car I was so uncomfortable.
Sagan had been looking dead ahead but when he heard my French driver’s repeated cries, he slowly turned his head left toward us.
I still don’t have the words to truthfully articulate the torment and pain that was inscribed on his face. It was like he was possessed. I remember his eyes the most. They were vacant as they stared at us and then turned back onto his path, under a spell, searching for something specific.
I’m not sure if he really even saw us.
In some ways he wasn’t there but he also was, completely fixated on one thing – the intermediate sprint prime off in the distance. All that for a bloody sprint prime, which everyone else had evidently deemed not worth the agony.
That image of the seven-time green jersey champion, in that particular setting is not one typically associated with the maillot vert. It’s popularly and historically considered the sprinters’ jersey and in years gone by the likes of Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd, Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke before them, have personified the classification then determined by high-speed, fierce, flashy and sometimes borderline dangerous bunch sprints.
It was an adrenaline-fueled affair for pure sprinters, never, to my knowledge, a solo, near out of body experience on an intimidating ascent.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) sprinted for some of the intermediate primes early during his Tour debut last year in which he won an unparalleled three stages. However, from the outset of his career second start this year, he was adamant that competing for green was not on his radar and he hasn’t contested the intermediates.
“I really am not focusing on the green jersey. At the moment the way the points work it’s not a competition that suits a pure sprinter,” said Ewan, who won stage three.
“We haven’t seen a pure sprinter win in years now and especially I think with not just Sagan, but [Wout] van Aert, who can climb and sprint, the days that I can’t get to the finish they’ll get there and get maximum points, and then even the days that I can win, they’re always top five maybe or top 10, so they’re always scoring points there as well.
“With the way the points are now, it seems too hard for a pure sprinter to win. Last year I came in the end quite close, but still it’s not something I look back on and wish I went for intermediates or anything like that.
“Maybe the day will come where I’m really close to win it and maybe I’ll go for some intermediates but for now I think it’s just too hard and going for stages is hard enough and I’ll focus on that.”
On the contrary, Ewan’s rival Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) has approached intermediates, in his remit, with apparent strategy and drilled lead-outs.
Bennett celebrated his maiden Tour stage win on Tuesday and thanks to it and points he picked up earlier in the day, finishing third on the single intermediate that featured on stage 10 behind Matteo Trentin (CCC) and Sagan, took green.
It’s the second time Bennett has worn green following a stint in the jersey last week. But not since Cavendish in 2011 has a pure sprinter stood on the final podium in Paris with the maillot vert. Whether Bennett continues the pursuit, or, as was the case with Ewan, romantic enthusiasm for it dies as the race progresses, remains to be seen.
When Sagan’s team took advantage of crosswinds on stage seven, only for van Aert to take line honours, Bennett, in the immediate aftermath and still searching for his first stage win, hesitated when asked about his green jersey aims.
“Today I was told to switch focus and look at trying to win a stage,” he had said.
Sagan has had a stranglehold on the points classification since he first won in 2012, only losing it in 2017 when he was disqualified from the Tour following a stage four crash involving Cavendish. That season Michael Matthews, a puncheur or versatile more so than pure sprinter, won it.
Such is Sagan’s dominance that pundits last week commented it was strange not seeing him in the green jersey.
As for van Aert, he’s won two stages so far, the most of any rider, and has also proved himself as a super domestique on key summits. It’s the latter where he may make the most gains moving forward, able to claim points at intermediates, but that’s also likely dependent on Jumbo-Visma’s overall aims with current race leader Primoz Roglic.
Bennett is one of the most passionate and dedicated professionals in the bunch. He has not been silver-spoon fed. He’s worked hard for everything he’s got and earned that green jersey, but Ewan is right. The points classification is not a wholesale sprinters’ competition anymore, especially as Tour routes become more mountainous. Sprinters get paid to win stages and aren’t typically content with finishing thereabouts with an eye to a long-term prize. Sagan will endure.
Photo: ©ASO A.S.O./Pauline Ballet – via SWpix.com