Zabel talks maillot vert contenders

Erik Zabel knows a thing or two about what is required to win Tour de France sprints. He won 12 stages in the Tour de France and won the green point jersey six times. Now working as an advisor with HTC-Columbia and confidant of Mark Cavendish, he also knows the inner workings of what is the again the team to beat in the sprints.

Having sprinted against the likes of Robbie McEwen, Oscar Freire, Alessandro Petacchi and Thor Hushovd, he knows what he is talking about when discussing who'll do what and where in the sprints of this year's Tour. And their chances of success in taking home maillot vert.

Cyclingnews spoke to the affable German as he made his way to Rotterdam for the start of this year's edition of the Tour de France and asked him to rate the chances of the big players in the battle for the points classification.

Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)

Zabel says: It doesn't matter what has happened to Cav in the last few months - now we are at the Tour and he is so motivated to ride well and do a good Tour.

I think Cav's Tour starts on Sunday morning on the first stage from Rotterdam to Brussels - it's a perfect stage for him. If everything goes well and he can be in the first group to sprint into Brussels then everything will be good because this first stage is so important for sprinters to have confidence in their teammates and become confident themselves. Winning the first stage would be great for us.

We have Bernie Eisel, Tony Martin, Mark Renshaw and Cav [for the sprints] and maybe Adam Hansen. These guys have to build a train over the last kilometres and I expect that a lot of teams and sprinters will have a good look at these HTC-Columbia guys and will follow them.

Two years ago I know that the main goal for Cavendish in the Columbia team was to win some stages and at the end he won four; then he abandoned the Tour. Last year the main goal for Cavendish was to finish in Paris and on the way try to win as many stages as possible. For 2010 the official goal at the beginning of the season for Mark and all riders involved was to win the green jersey.

Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)

It looks like he has a good team around him now and will be supported by other riders in the Garmin team so I think the big challenge this year in the Tour will be Tyler Farrar against Mark Cavendish.

For sure there will be other sprinters like [Alessandro] Petacchi, Freire, McEwen and the [green jersey] title defender Thor Hushovd... it's an interesting game but I expect a personal duel between Farrar and Cavendish.

Oscar Freire (Rabobank)

Zabel says: It's always the same with Oscar Freire - he's definitely the smartest sprinter.

If he's in good shape and he's motivated to take some good results in order to ride for the green jersey then he's a very dangerous guy because he will always find the best wheel, with or without a train or any help from other Rabobank riders. He'll then sit in the best spot, which is why he's the smartest sprinter there.

Robbie McEwen (Team Katusha)

Zabel says: Robbie McEwen is a born sprinter and he's also a man who doesn't need a train so much because he has spent a lot of years without perfect support in the last kilometre and it made him so strong at finding his way [to the front] on his own.

McEwen and Oscar have the same problem, though; because of their age - they're both over 30 - their legs aren't as fresh anymore and they haven't got quite the same speed as in their younger years. That's the negative, but the positive is the experience... for sure Robbie and Oscar have so many years of experience and they are so clever.

Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam)

What I've heard and seen from him in the Tour of Switzerland indicates that he's in shape at the right moment and he performed well there then became Norwegian national champion last Sunday. He's back on the 'winning path'.

I would say that especially the stage on Monday into Spa and then the next day with the cobblestones suits him perfectly; it's absolutely possible that he'll be the man who'll be riding in the green jersey after the third stage so we are focused for sure on Thor's performance and I hope that Mark can be as high in the points score after three stages and then we will see...

I expect a big battle between Thor, Tyler Farrar and Mark Cavendish.

Gerald Ciolek (Team Milram)

Zabel says: He's a man with huge talent and he's strong in uphill sprints and 'medium difficult' stages... In a group of 50 riders he's in with a chance like Thor Hushovd.

It's an important Tour for Ciolek because it's still an open question about [sponsorship of] his team, Team Milram, so it's important for him to perform well because he's still young but he's in his fifth year as a professional and he's still good enough to win a Tour stage - now it's time to show that.

I hope it's not too much pressure for him, but let's say if he can ride 'open-minded' in the Tour then for sure he could be on the stage podium several times and I hope he can perform well and win his first stage.

Joker in the Pack

As for the 'Joker in the Pack', Zabel is excited about the possibility of a new star emerging to shake up the order and begin their journey to sprinting stardom. "I hope that we will see some new names and new sprinters in the battle for stage wins because there are the new high class generation of sprinters against the old ones. Let's see if there's a new name - we'll see after the first week."

An exquisite record

Erik Zabel won the points classification at the Tour de France on six occasions, taking it out every year between 1996 and 2001.

He won 12 stages between 1995 and his retirement in 2008 and it's unlikely that his record of maillot vert victories will be beaten - any time soon, at least.

One man who could rival Zabel's run is Mark Cavendish, the rider he now works with at HTC-Columbia. The Manxman has often expressed his enjoyment at working with the 39-year-old German, who will be in the squad's quarters this July.

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