It wasn’t so long ago that it was foregone conclusion that Peter Sagan would rock up at the Tour de France and invariably depart three weeks later with green jersey on his shoulders.
2020 put an end to that with Sam Bennett winning a thrilling duel with the Slovakian despite not initially targeting green when the race began.
The 2021 edition might see us deprived of a repeat due to an ongoing injury that could deny Bennett a spot on the start-line, but the battle for green looks like being as close-fought as last year regardless if the Irishman is present or not.
Here are the riders who will have the Tour's points classification in their sights when the Tour gets underway on June 26 in Brest.
Peter Sagan, Bora-Hansgrohe - 5/5
The three-time world champion goes into the Tour on the back of winning the Giro d’Italia’s equivalent jersey, the maglia ciclamino, in just his second appearance in the race.
A below-par 2020 saw many commentators declare the beginning of the end of the Slovakian’s domination, but the winner of 117 races has looked significantly improved this spring.
Since recovering from Covid-19, he has won stages at the Giro, Volta a Catalunya, and Tour de Romandie, and the consistency he showed in the Giro to win the points classification reminded everyone that he is the expert, the man who writes the textbook, in how to win these points classifications.
He may not beat some of his rivals in sprint stages during the Tour, but he’ll accrue points wherever possible, and that’s the recipe that has seen him win seven green jerseys so far.
Arnaud Démare, Groupama-FDJ - 4/5
Paris-Nice was the only WorldTour stage race that Démare has ridden all season, but in smaller races he has picked up six stage wins, and a win in a one-day race, too.
Four stage wins and the maglia ciclamino at last autumn's Giro d'Italia prove beyond doubt that he has got what it takes to win the Tour's points classification, even if he hasn't triumphed against too many of his likely Tour rivals.
Sam Bennett, Deceuninck-Quick-Step - 3/5
The only reason that Bennett has been awarded three stars and not five is because of a niggling knee injury that may cost him the opportunity to ride the Tour.
His performance in 2020 to seal green was memorable given Sagan’s iron-grip hold on the classification and Bennett’s struggles in the mountains.
If he is deemed fit enough, Bennett will surely win stages that will set him up for a crack at green, and if the injury doesn’t return then he will be quite confident in adding to any gains he has with each passing day.
Sonny Colbrelli, Bahrain – Victorious - 3/5
The Italian looks extra motivated this year by points jerseys, triumphing in the classifications at both the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Romandie, the latter time against Sagan.
He also won a stage each in both stage races and won the sprint for second three times in the Dauphiné, a strong indication of his speed.
It will be the fifth time he has ridden the Tour, and although he has yet to pick up a victory in a Grand Tour, his consistency during stages and ability to always contend sprints means he could be Sagan’s closest challenger.
Caleb Ewan, Lotto-Soudal - 3/5
Most observers predict that Ewan will be the standout sprinter in the race, the Australian winning two stages at the Giro d’Italia and most latterly collecting a couple at the Belgium Tour.
If he continues that form then green should be a natural by-product of success, but it remains to be seen if Ewan will commit to the whole 21 stages.
He is aiming to win a stage in each of the Grand Tours this season, and so if he adds to his current Tour tally of five stage wins within the first week, he could be tempted to drop out to recover in time for the Vuelta a España.
Wout van Aert, Jumbo-Visma 3/5
Without even trying to win green, in 2020 Wout van Aert finished in fifth place in the points standings, courtesy of two stage wins in the first week.
Remarkably, he was a crucial aid for his team in the mountains, and there is no question that should the Dutchman be allowed to target green he would be capable of winning.
But even if he wins another stage, it is unlikely that he will commit to trying to win the points jersey. But that doesn’t mean he won’t win it: he’s so talented that it’s feasible he could win the title by accident.
Mads Pedersen, Trek-Segafredo - 2/5
The 2019 world champion has shown on more than a handful of occasions in the past year that he should be considered in any conversation about the sport’s fastest men.
Wins at Gent-Wevelgem and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne may suggest that he is more suited to Flanders-style parcours, but even when the route is pan-flat the Dane is now a regular challenger, recording six podiums this season.
He doesn’t have the reputation as Ewan or Bennett, but he could definitely be a darkhorse for green.
Michael Matthews, Team BikeExchange - 2/5
Form would suggest that Matthews will not be a serious threat to the green jersey, but the Australian knows how to win the classification having done so in 2017.
That year he took advantage of Sagan’s expulsion from the race which may have lessened the achievement in some eyes, but he was a very deserving winner.
Having returned to the Australian WorldTour team this year after a four-year hiatus, Matthews’ best performances were at Paris-Nice where he scored three third-places.
But relying on winning sprints is not his cocktail for success – and he’ll back himself to collect bonus points mid-stage.
Who else might challenge?
Should Bennett’s condition not be deemed Tour-worthy, then it is likely that Mark Cavendish will take his spot for Deceuninck – Quick-Step.
The Briton, however, has already written off his chances of winning green for the second time, saying that he hasn’t got the required fitness to do so, because the Tour was never a goal. Stage wins, then, would be his only target.
The same probably can’t be said for Tim Merlier of Alpecin-Fenix who will be targeting stage success and a possible tilt at the points jersey. The Belgian won a stage at the Giro d’Italia and has taken five other victories during the season, meaning he should be classed as one of the strongest sprinters.
His team-mate Mathieu van der Poel is a curious figure, too. The Dutchman has said he wants to win a stage before re-focusing to preparing for the mountain bike events at the Olympics, but there is no doubt that were he to attempt to top the points standings, he would have the power to do so.
Alexander Kristoff of UAE Team Emirates has four Tour stages win on his palmarès and while he can never be crossed off as a potential winner, the 33-year-old hasn’t impressed in 2021.
Making his return at the Belgium Tour after a short suspension was Nacer Bouhanni, but the Arkéa-Samsic sprinter doesn’t have the form that points to green jersey success. Nevertheless, he won the Giro d’Italia’s maglia ciclamino in 2014.
And, finally, last year’s Tour saw Cees Bol granted access into the club of B-list sprinters and he showed his class again in March by beating Bennett and Matthews in a stage of Paris-Nice. Keep an eye on the Dutchman and Magnus Cort of EF Education-Nippo, too.
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