Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
The destiny of the Tour de France’s green jersey now that Marce Kittel’s absence from the race has been confirmed is an interesting, yet slightly misleading topic.
In its very phrasing the question presumes that the German sprinter was going to win the maillot vert in the first place – which he most patently was not.
Even a very much in-form Kittel with four stage wins to his name failed to win the points classification last year – and 12 months on the sprinter is but a shadow of the man who secured back-to-back wins on the Champs-Elysees.
As far as anni horribiles go, this year has been pretty torrid for Kittel. Without a win since the People’s Classic on the streets of Adelaide ahead of the Tour Down Under in January, the 26-year-old Giant-Alpecin rider has suffered setback after setback during his bid to shake off a debilitating mystery virus.
Kittel’s first comeback – at the beginning of May in the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire – took place on the very roads he so dominated in the Grand Depart of last year’s Grande Boucle. And yet he clambered into his team car halfway through the opening stage after struggling to keep in touch over the rolling terrain of the north of England.
His most recent performance at the Ster ZLM Toer left a lot to be desired, his best result being 13th place in the prologue in Zeeland – the setting for the Tour’s first likely bunch sprint on Sunday July 5. The name of the town which hosted the prologue was Goes – and yet the only place Kittel is going is home.
In an admirable display of candour, Kittel himself described his form as, “terrible, you might say non-existent,” stressing that he was driven on by “false ambition”.
It’s “without doubt the most difficult time of my career,” he said in a statement on his website while announcing his non-selection for the Tour. “I am very disappointed, because I have done everything possible the last few weeks to get back in shape again.”
Everything clearly wasn’t enough. While Kittel failed to even feature in any of the recent bunch sprints in the ZLM Toer, his compatriot Andre Greipel cantered to two stage wins and the overall classification.
German veteran Greipel has been a stage winner on the Tour for the past four years – not that German fans have been able to watch his winning ways (nor Kittel’s eight wins in the past two years) on national TV.
Fed up with the frequency of doping scandals, German national broadcaster ARD stopped showing the Tour in 2011 – a year before Greipel notched a memorable hat-trick in the world’s biggest cycling race.
It took the stellar performances of Kittel – one of the new generation of German cycling stars – for ARD to overturn their decision and send their cameras back to France. The clear irony being that the figure who helped sway their stance won’t actually be there.
But it’s not all bad for ARD. At 32 years of age, Greipel is still a sprinting force to be reckoned with – and his Lotto-Soudal train is arguably the best in the business. Greipel perhaps lacks the consistency to be a major threat in the green jersey competition, but ‘The Gorilla’ should be a safe bet to make it five successive Tours with a stage win.
A far more interesting prospect for German fans is Kittel’s teammate at Giant-Alpecin, John Degenkolb. This spring Degenkolb added monumental wins in Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix to a palmares that already included scalps at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.
There’s a Tour-shaped hole in Degenkolb’s trophy cabinet – but now he will be Giant’s number one man, as opposed to Kittel’s pilot, the 26-year-old could well come into his own. An expert at punchy uphill sprints, Degenkolb is a rider in the same mould as Peter Sagan – the Slovakian who has sauntered to three successive green jerseys since making his Tour debut in 2012.
New rules in the green jersey competition have been branded “anti-Sagan” after the former Cannondale rider managed to win the points classification without once topping the podium last July. The new sprinter-friendly system offers more points to winners of flat stages than on hillier stages – a move that could, in theory, shank the Slovakian speedster.
Six flat stages (including stage two to Zeeland and the final stage in Paris) now offer 50 points to the winner, while seven medium mountain stages offer half that amount. Meanwhile, the high mountains and solitary individual time trial give only a maximum of 20 points to the winner.
The major change is the difference between points for the top three of those six flat stages, with the breakdown of 50-30-20 (compared to 45-35-30 last year) clearly favouring stage winners (the Kittels) over the consistent high finishers (the Sagans).
But how does it pan out in practice? Interestingly, were this system in place last year, Sagan would still have picked up an unassailable 377 points (as opposed to his tally of 431) and won the green jersey quite comfortably ahead of Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff (265/282). Indeed, despite his four wins, Kittel would still have only notched 238 points – that’s merely 16 more than his actual haul.
Mark Cavendish is another who will view Kittel’s absence as an open invitation to get back to winning ways on the Tour.
Agonisingly crashing out of last year’s race in his mother’s home town of Harrogate in the opening stage, Cavendish has shown good form for Etixx-QuickStep this season – although his critics are quick to note that none of his 12 wins have come in World Tour races.
Intriguingly, Cavendish has never beaten Kittel in a head-to-head sprint, the German notably ending Cav’s four-year reign on the Champs-Elysees in 2013. That Cavendish won’t have to beat the faster Kittel this July to add to his 25 Tour stage wins will put the 30-year-old Manxman in a strong position to secure his first green jersey since 2011.
While the likes of Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Bryan Coquard (Europcar) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) may notch maiden wins on the Tour this year (Bouhanni being the most likely), none of the French trio will be a factor in the fight for the green jersey.
Sagan seems to be coming into some form finally for Tinkoff-Saxo but may well struggle in a team whose sole focus is not green, but a yellow jersey for Alberto Contador. He and Degenkolb will have to grapple with the impressive Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) on the uphill finishes on the Mur de Huy (Stage 2) and the Mur-de-Bretagne (Stage 8).
Such is Matthews’ confidence and ability, it would take a brave man to bet against the 24-year-old joining the Triple Crown club by adding a Tour win to his previous victories in the Giro and Vuelta. But the green jersey? I doubt it.
The rider who poses the biggest threat to Messrs Cavendish, Degenkolb, Greipel and Sagan is man-of-the-moment Kristoff. The 27-year-old from Norway is mature beyond his years. His brace of wins during his second Tour last summer shows he has what it takes on the main stage – while his 18 victories this season underline his status as the man to beat.
Like Sagan, Kristoff may well have to ride without the support of a dedicated train at Katusha, but a sprinter of his class can latch onto the back wheel of his rivals and use his sheer speed to ride clear.
Kristoff is the most likely rider to step into Kittel’s sprinting shoes this July. I firmly expect him to soar to victory on the cobbled streets of Paris while wearing the green jersey.