While discussion over the battle for the maillot jaune at this year's Tour de France has reached fever pitch, there's still a green jersey up for grabs. Cyclingnews spoke with three-time maillot vert winner Robbie McEwen to get an expert's view on who will be the man for green in 2009.
McEwen knows more than the average professional about winning the green jersey at the Tour. The likeable Australian has a triumvirate of green triumphs to his name, having won the maillot vert in 2002, 2004 and 2006. He adopts the same meticulous approach to winning the points classification as he does with his preparation in the weeks leading up to those three weeks in July.
He knows which stages he needs to take points on, how much energy to expend and where the classification can be won and lost; essentially, there's no better man to assess the candidates to succeed where he has in the past. Furthermore, after the retirement of Erik Zabel and before the return of Lance Armstrong, McEwen possessed the highest tally of Tour de France stage wins of any current rider.
With his last win coming in the first stage to Canterbury during the 2007 Tour, Katusha's experienced sprinter is still searching for victory number 13, although he'll have to wait another year before he can have a crack at what's proving to be an 'unlucky' and elusive stage win. An accident during the second stage of the Tour of Belgium meant he'll be sitting out this year's edition of la grande boucle.
In the meantime a new world order has emerged amongst the sprinting elite. The rise of British phenomenon Mark Cavendish has ignited a fervour and inflamed the interest of those who love to watch the fast men battle it out for stage supremacy. Comparisons between Cavendish and McEwen have regularly been made and McEwen believes the 23-year-old can take his mantle - for this year, at least - and wear the green jersey in Paris on July 26.
"I still think Cav is the number one man for green this year just because there are 10 flat stages and he's got the best team," says McEwen. "He's likely to build up a lot of points on those stages and it'll be too hard to overhaul him on just one hilly stage.
"Cav's going uphill well , too. You don't even have to go uphill that well - you have to get to the finish in the mountains within the time [limit] and for the rest on the flat stages you've just got to score points. That can be enough."
We asked McEwen what he thinks about the big names likely to be at the pointy end of the race by the finish of the sprinters' stages at this year's Tour. While he says it will be a tough battle, he's clear on who his favourite is.
1. Mark Cavendish - Columbia-HTC
"He was very good in the Giro and he's done pretty much the program I've done the last five or six years; two weeks in the Giro, take a short rest, train a bit, go to Switzerland, keep training through and go to the Tour. At the Giro he was good but not at his very best, and I think he'll be at his best at the Tour.
At the moment he's the fastest sprinter, which is plain to see; also, he has a huge advantage in the train that's around him.
He's got dedicated guys for the sprint but also guys in that team who aren't sprinters but are so well disciplined and professional in the way they do that job... they're not sprinters but they're making a train. You don't have to be [a sprinter] - you just have to have the discipline, organisation and motivation. That's a huge advantage for him.
2. Oscar Freire - Rabobank
He's going really well. He was riding really, really well in Romandie and in Switzerland he was good and I expect him to be there every day in the Tour.
He's a guy who just suddenly pops out one day and wins a stage. Of course, like last year, he can win green because he can climb over anything they put in front of him and can take points on stages that other riders can't.
3. Thor Hushovd - Cervelo TestTeam
He's not looking bad - I haven't seen them [Hushovd and Cavendish] in a head to head sprint, although there's a lot more to it than that. It's about how you get over the hills, how fresh you are day-to-day.
On paper, Thor has a very strong team, with Haussler, Lancaster and Roulston... on paper they've got a very good train and when they get it together like they did in California and Qatar, then they're a force to be reckoned with. It'll be good to see that train go head-to-head with the one from Columbia.
4. Allan Davis - Quick Step
He himself is still unsure whether he's going to ride. That's what he said the last time I heard from him.
He's riding very well - his form at Ster Elecktoer was very good. He rode a very good Giro and or of course he's got all of that in his legs. They may select him for the Tour... I guess it really depends on what happens with Boonen. If he isn't allowed to start then I guess they'll put everything on Alby for the sprints and if Boonen is allowed to start they may take him anyway.
If Boonen does ride then Alby's going to be working for him and if he doesn't then Alby will get his chances. They may even have a decent train of their own, with [Steven] De Jongh, [Matteo] Tossatto and [Sebastian] Rosseler... but if it's about pure speed, then Alby's going to have to do it on a bit of a harder stage finish - his specialty is those finishes which are a little more difficult for your stock standard sprinter. Then he has to contend with someone like Freire.
5. Daniele Bennati - Liquigas-Doimo
He's in the squad but he won't have much support and he's hardly raced this season after recovering from a knee injury. He seems to be pretty fragile - he often has a few months here and there with knee problems. His knee is his Achilles heel, so to speak!
Liquigas is there with some good GC riders - Nibali, Kreuziger, Pellizotti... it's not a sprint team and Bennati's going to find it very hard. He's going to have to position himself well and hope for the best. When you're out there doing it almost on your own it blows your odds right out, especially against well organised teams like Cervelo and Columbia.