Analysis: Green Jersey battle set to go all the way

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a competition on our hands.

While the contenders for the yellow jersey continue to ride around the Tour de France route with their mouths closed, and an expression on their faces which would be more at home in a snooker tournament, Thor Hushovd and Mark Cavendish are fighting a ding-dong battle for the green jersey.

And what makes this competition the most entertaining thing in the 2009 Tour is the fascinating clash of styles between the Brit and the Norwegian.

Cavendish’s forte is winning bunch sprints at the stage finish – he’s won four stages. But he also led the bunch in behind Voeckler and Ignatiev in Perpignan, and then again in Vittel, behind Sorensen and the other six escapees. That makes six bunch sprint wins out of six for Cavendish.

Hushovd, on the other hand, is using his consistency to finish close behind Cavendish in the flat sprints, added to his ability to fight his way over climbs that put the Manxman out of contention, such as when he won the uphill sprint in Barcelona. He’s also vastly more experienced than Cavendish in the protracted tactical battle of the green jersey, as demonstrated when he joined an early break in the second Pyrenean stage.

Cavendish had looked safe in green, 10 points clear of Hushovd as the bunch left Vittel, after doing everything right during the previous stage, when he just nipped ahead of his rival at the first intermediate sprint, and then again in the bunch sprint for eighth at the finish.

But then Hushovd shocked us all by stealing 15 points by finishing with the main group of favourites in Colmar, leaving Cavendish trailing by five points.

Columbia won’t have been bargaining for Hushovd gaining those crucial points, and there’s likely going to have to be a change of strategy, starting today.

Originally, Columbia might have been hoping for a repeat of stage 12, when they let an early break go and take the lion’s share of the points at the finish. But now, Cavendish has ground to make up, and Stage 14 to Besancon is the only real chance before Paris to do so.

Cavendish trails by five points. There are 35 points for a flat stage win, 30 for second place, so a stage win guarantees at least parity. It won’t have escaped his notice that there are two early bonus sprints in the Besancon stage, at 34 and 67 kilometres. Columbia are serious about the green jersey, and they are in for a hard day controlling the bunch.

Looking ahead, Cavendish has trouble looming in some of the mountain stages. Stage 15, to Verbier, crosses three tough third-category climbs, the last of which is immediately followed by a bonus sprint. What if Hushovd pulls off another classy ride in the hills to gain another six points?

The following Alpine stages are safe – even Hushovd won’t make the bonus sprints in stages 16 and 17, especially given that the overall favourites should have woken up by this point.

Stage 19 has an early sprint, on the back of 33 extremely grippy and rolling kilometres. Danger for Cavendish. And there’s one more early sprint on stage 20 to Mont Ventoux, which follows a third category climb. If Hushovd has the energy and tactical awareness, he could really turn the screw during these stages.

And even the sprint on the Champs Elysées is not a foregone conclusion. Cavendish is the obvious favourite, but the Champs Elysées isn’t any other sprint. The road surface is cobbled, and there are three weeks of cumulative fatigue in the legs. And the sprint kicks off at a higher speed than most, which makes Cavendish’s jump proportionally less effective.

The Cavendish plan involves winning in Paris, in the green jersey. In order to make that happen, they have to neutralise Hushovd. And it has to start with another stage win in Besancon.

Where the points are likely to go between now and Paris. Our feeling is that Cavendish can do enough to take the jersey back in Besancon on Saturday, but that Hushovd could steal ahead again by taking intermediate points en route to Verbier. If Cavendish wants to wear green for the final stage, he might have to find points in the early sprint in stage 19.

Stage 14, Colmar-Besancon
Intermediate sprints at 34, 67 and 1615 kilometres. Flat finish. Possible 12 points for Cavendish in the sprints, although Hushovd also likely to take up to 10 points.
CW prediction: Cavendish 47 (total 246), Hushovd 36 (total 241)

Stage 15, Pontarlier-Verbier
Two intermediate sprints. First at 56km, after three cat-three climbs. Second just before finishing climb to Verbier.
CW Prediction: Cavendish 0 (246), Hushovd 6 (247)

Stage 16, Martigny-Bourg St Maurice
Two intermediate sprints, both between the Col du Grand St Bernard and the Col du Petit St Bernard.
CW Prediction: Cavendish 0 (246), Hushovd 0 (247)

Stage 17, Bourg St Maurice-Le Grand Bornand
Two intermediate sprints. One after Col des Saisies, one before Col de Romme.
CW Prediction: Cavendish 0 (246), Hushovd 0 (247)

Stage 18, Annecy TT
Points only available down to 10th place.
CW Prediction: Cavendish 0 (246), Hushovd 0 (247)

Stage 19, Bourgoin Jailleu-Aubenas
Two intermediate sprints. First at 33km, after cat-four climb. Second at 141km, at bottom of Col de l’Escrinet. Unlikely that either Cavendish will contest the finish following the second-category Escrinet.
CW Prediction: Cavendish 6 (252), Hushovd 4 (251)

Stage 20, Montélimar-Mont Ventoux
Two intermediate sprints, one at 48km, following one third category climb, one at 138.5km, just before Ventoux starts.
CW Prediction: Cavendish 0 (246), Hushovd 0 (247)

Stage 21, Montereau Fault Yonne-Paris Champs Elysées
Two intermediate sprints. First at top of Champs Elysées during second lap. Second at the end of the fourth lap. Then likely bunch sprint for finish.
CW Prediction: Cavendish 35 (281), Hushovd 26 (273)