The race for the green jersey at this year's Tour de France had been unilaterally billed as a one-horse race. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) had dominated the points classification for the five previous years, but his disqualification on stage 4 threw things wide open, and it could now go down to the wire on the Champs Elysées.
Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) had seemed to be running away with it in the world champion's absence, but Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) kept plugging away with placings in the bunch sprints and all-out assaults on the intermediates, and now the Australian has roared into contention with two victories in the space of three stages.
Kittel was never going to be a candidate for the uphill dash Matthews won in Rodez, but Sunweb produced a masterstroke on Tuesday by taking the German out of the equation on the early climb before taking maximum points at both the intermediate sprint and the finish line.
Having trailed by 128 points after stage 13, Matthews has cut the deficit to just 29 points. As it stands, Kittel wears green with 373 points, with Matthews on 344, and André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) a distant third on 204.
"I can't say I'm happy about losing all the points today, but there was nothing I could do. I gave my best on the climb at the beginning, and I can't change it – it is what it is," said Kittel in Romans-sur-Isère after Tuesday's stage.
"It wasn't our day today, but I won't lose sleep over the lost points. We have to move on and think about our next chances and not our missed opportunities."
Essentially, as Matthews explained in his winner's press conference on Tuesday, the two riders have "two totally different game plans". While Kittel has been the dominant bunch sprinter, amassing his total thanks to five stage wins, Matthews, who has also impressed in the bunch kicks, has targeted the intermediates, and his climbing ability means he can get into breaks to mop up points on the hilly or mountainous days.
"With my riding style, it's a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because I can figure on a lot of different days but it's also a bad thing because I don't get a rest day," said Matthews.
"He has his game plan and I have mine. I guess we'll see in Paris which works out the best."
There are just four stages left to decide who takes the green jersey home. The next two stages take place in the Alps and will therefore provide slim pickings, but Friday's largely flat stage 19 looks set to end in a bunch sprint, as will the final stage on the cobbles of the Champs Elysées. Both finishes award a maximum of 50 points and will be crucial to the outcome.
With Kittel's form in the bunch sprints so far, he is firmly in the driving seat, and there's even a chance he could do what he did in Düsseldorf and pick up a handful on the penultimate-day time trial, though it is 8.5km longer.
If we say that Kittel wins both bunch sprints, he will gain at least 40 points on Matthews, if not more, taking his lead to 69. Matthews, then, needs to continue his assault on the intermediate sprints, which each yield 20 points.
On stage 17, it comes within 50 kilometres, and soon after a category-2 climb. It's an ideal opportunity to drop Kittel and, really, it's do or die for Sunweb. On stage 18, there's only one smaller hill to negotiate before the intermediate, though it comes after 90 kilometres, so we'll see if Matthews has the resolve to try for the breakaway again.
"There are only a few stages left, so yeah, I need to try and get as many points as I can, everywhere I can basically, because I know that once we get to those flat sprints, Kittel is going to extend his lead again," said Matthews.
"It's going to be a lot of hard work but I think with the support of the team, it makes it a lot easier for me. We'll have to keep fighting all the way to Paris and hopefully we can have a good result."
Kittel himself said that stage 19 is far from a nailed on bunch sprint, with wind a potential factor. There and in Paris, fatigue will be a certain factor at the deep end of a Grand Tour and after two brutal days in the Alps.
"Unfortunately the Tour is three weeks long – not two," Kittel said, while Matthews raved about how he was attacking "like a maniac" on Tuesday and still didn't feel his legs.
"I was right by saying it will be decided on the Champs Élysées," added Kittel.
For now, it's all up in the air, but what's certain is that Sagan's disqualification, for all we marvel at the world champion's breadth and depth of talent, has breathed new life into the fight for green.
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