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We’re only six stages into the Tour de France and it already looks like Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will win a record-breaking seventh green jersey. Sagan’s consistency — four top-five finishes since the start in Brussels, including his win on stage 5 — gives him an early 46-point lead in the battle for green. If that trend continues, he will keep pulling further ahead as the race goes on (see the chart below).
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) looks to be the only other rider in serious contention for the points classification. Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep) sits only six points behind Matthews, but the Italian’s lack of climbing ability will likely set him back as the race goes up. He didn’t even contend for the single point on offer on stage 6.
Early on that stage, with a break up the road, Sagan and Matthews went head-to-head for the single remaining point at the intermediate sprint. Matthews started his sprint early and grabbed the prize. Sagan casually shrugged his shoulders as the pair drifted back into the comfort of the peloton, seemingly unperturbed.
Less than 24 hours earlier Sagan had won the reduced bunch sprint into Colmar, extending his lead over Matthews. The 28-year-old Australian, meanwhile, came across the line in a disappointing seventh place after his Sunweb team did the majority of the work in the hilly closing kilometres, reeling in the break and giving Matthews a shot at the sprint.
Matthews, who had been pleasantly ‘surprised’ by his second place finish on stage 3, was clearly frustrated at his stage 5 result.
“We got rid of a lot of the sprinters [on the climbs] and they set me up good,” Matthews said of his team. “Not sure what happened in the final. I just wasn’t in the right place at the right time.
“At the moment I’m getting a bit confused in the sprints for some reason. I don’t know if I should have guys with me or do it myself. Some days I have them with me and some days I don’t, so I’m a little bit confused what’s the best for me at the moment, but I need to get my head in the right place and keep trying. It’s not what I wanted today.”
So if Matthews can’t get ahead of Sagan in the sprints finishes, what does he need to do to take the green jersey from Sagan?
Matthews’ most obvious opportunity will come if Sagan has the misfortune of leaving the race. This happened in 2017 when Sagan was sent home for causing Mark Cavendish to crash on stage 4, leaving Matthews to win green.
Baden Cooke won the Tour’s green jersey back in 2003. He told CyclingTips this week that everything is stacked against Matthews.
“Like [Erik] Zabel use to be, [Sagan’s] not always the fastest guy [in the finishes], but he could climb with the top 20 GC guys,” Cooke said. “How do you beat someone like that?”
Perhaps the answer lies in Matthews’ lead-up to the Tour, which was a little different this year.
“Since Matthews wasn’t preparing himself to race for the green jersey and he was all in for [Tom] Dumoulin, he’s climbing really well,” Cooke said. “If he’s going to win [green], it’s going to be slipping into breakaways in the mountains and getting the intermediates and [minimising] his losses in the sprints with Sagan.
“Matthews has one card to play. If he’s climbing as good as we’ve seen, all it takes is two intermediate sprints and then he’s back on target. Sometimes the breakaway goes all the way. Maybe he’ll even get finish points. It’s not impossible.”
Easier said than done, of course. In Cooke’s eyes, Matthews will need some luck and a particular set of circumstances if he’s going to win green again.
“Sagan is renown for slipping into the breakaway on a hilly stage and getting some points on the intermediates. He can’t go for everything.” Cooke said. “My advice to Matthews would be, ‘if you see Sagan jumping up the road on a hilly day, you just need to shadow him and try to be in in the move that he misses.’ That’s the key. He needs to get into a breakaway that Sagan misses to get full points on the intermediates. He can close the gap fairly quickly after that.”
“Just say Matthews gets in the breakaway one day and takes full intermediate sprints,” Cooke said. “Sagan gets nothing because he missed the break. Then Matthews has a day where he wins, Sagan maybe gets taken out of contention at 2km to go, then Matthews is back in the game. Or there’s always the crosswinds — Sagan doesn’t usually get caught out in the crosswinds, but anything is possible.”
There are only three pure sprint stages left: stages 7, 11, and 21. Sagan could very well win again on those days, while a win on a flat sprint stage is much less likely for Matthews. However, there are some lumpy stages (stages 8, 9, 10, and 16) which could very well suit Matthews with his current climbing form. It might just be that Dumoulin pulling out of the Tour was a blessing in disguise for Matthews.
It’s still mathematically possible for Matthews to win green, by gaining a handful of points over Sagan day by day. And let’s not forget, Matthews has certainly beaten Sagan before, including at the Tour. But judging by the first six stages Matthews won’t have what it’ll take to match or better Sagan in the fast finishes.
On balance, it will be tough for Matthews to win his second green jersey in 2019. But as we’ve seen many times before, anything can happen at the Tour de France.