After years where Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has dominated the Tour de France points competition, Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is currently in pole position to oust Sagan from green – but according to Sean Kelly, the duel won't be anywhere near decided before the Champs-Elysées.
As Ireland's last winner of the points jersey, not to mention hailing from the same hometown as Bennett, the former racer from Carrick-on-Suir is logically taking a very keen interest in how the competition is playing out in 2020.
Two weeks into the Tour de France, and with eight stages to go, Bennett has a hefty 66-point advantage on Sagan. But Kelly, a four-time green jersey winner and current commentator on the Tour for Eurosport, feels Sagan could yet give Bennett a run for his money.
It is not just the different characteristics and experience of the riders, although as Bennett himself has pointed out, "If Sagan has won the green jersey seven times, there's a reason why."
The mountains to come, the way this year's stages are structured and the two riders' teams could all also be important elements, Kelly feels.
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"Right now, and in the days to come, there's not a risk of a major change," Kelly tells Cyclingnews ahead of stage 13 on Friday morning.
"But we do know that Sagan is going to keep trying on those stages, and we saw yesterday [Thursday], he got a small number of points [four -ed] so I think it will go all the way to Paris."
For the fans, at least, that's not a bad thing.
"What a fight that would be when, for so many years, Sagan's dominated the sprints," Kelly observes. "That makes it exciting – another battle within the race.
"Sam has the advantage of the intermediate sprints, and of the teams here, only Deceuninck-QuickStep have a really specialist line-up when it comes to sprints like that.
"Sagan hasn't got the sprint [speed] he maybe had three or four years ago, either. But he does have a team who can put on the pressure in the hilly stages, and I think they'll be trying to repeat that.
"In the big mountain stages, I think Sagan is more solid to pull through there, too, so hopefully Sam isn't going to have too many problems. You could see a day in the mountains, though, when the sprinters will struggle to get through, and that could take away quite a bit of their energy for the final sprint in Paris," Kelly says.
This would not be the first time that there has been such a lengthy battle for green, but almost two decades have gone past since the points classification was decided in Paris, on no fewer than three successive occasions, from 2001 to 2003.
Probably the closest was in 2002 when Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel duked it out all the way to the Champs-Elysées. McEwen and Zabel stayed level for six days until two days before the finish, when McEwen snatched a single point at Bourg-en-Bresse, where this year's stage 19, coincidentally, is set to start. Zabel was blocked in at the final sprint, while McEwen claimed green, won the stage and became the first Australian to take one of the Tour's major awards.
Curiously enough, the year before, another Australian, Paris-Roubaix winner Stuart O'Grady, had tried – and failed – to do the same, losing on the last day to Zabel by eight points. Then in 2003, McEwen lost out to fellow Australian Baden Cooke on the last day, with Cooke winning by two points.
'The mental focus can be draining'
Harking back to his own history, Kelly says, "I experienced it as well, having to fight every day. With the green jersey, you have to be up there on most days, except maybe those with big mountains, as you know the sprinters won't take any points, and you can relax a bit mentally, but physically still have to make that effort.
"Other than that, at the beginning of every stage, 50, 60 or 70 kilometres down the road, you have to be looking out for the other green jersey guys to make sure they don't sneak into the breaks.
"It's something new for Sam, to be up there every day, and there are going to be a lot of days where he has to watch the other rivals, and that mental focus can be draining; it can have an effect."
Again this puts the ball back in Sagan's court, as he is vastly more experienced in that kind of scenario than Bennett.
"As it's new territory, I'll be hoping Sam can get through. He's done his three-week events before though, so that's a help," Kelly says.
In 2018, Bennett claimed second in the points competition behind Elia Viviani at the Giro d'Italia, making the 2020 Tour points battle something less of a walk in the dark.
The route, though, is yet another factor, with the Tour de France placing the intermediate sprints much earlier in the stages than at the Giro or other editions of the Grande Boucle. According to Kelly, that definitely changes the physiognomy of the stages: "The guys in the points competition are going to be wanting to get in those early moves as well. And that's making it more aggressive early on.
"It probably plays against Sam, as he'd prefer the sprint at the very end so as not to have to fight in the early part of the day and use up energy there," Kelly points out.
Still, before the Tour de France this year, few people would have predicted that Sagan could even have a rival this year, given the only time he's not won the jersey since 2012 was in 2017, when he was expelled. This year, if it goes down to the wire, as Kelly says, it will make for a long-overdue change.
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