The 31-year-old Slovak has rebounded by winning the maglia ciclamino in the Giro d’Italia, the equivalent of the Tour’s Škoda Green Jersey, and looks to be near his best form again. But this year’s race for the Tour de France green jersey is also marked by the riders who are not in the race. Last year’s winner, Sam Bennett of Deceuninck–Quick-Step, dropped out of the Tour at the last minute because of a knee injury he suffered in training. He was replaced by the veteran sprinter Mark Cavendish who signalled his fitness and combativity by winning Wednesday’s Stage 4 sprint, his first Tour de France stage win in five years and the 31st of his career.
Backed by an excellent Deceuninck – Quick-Step team, @MarkCavendish delivered again a vintage sprint and wrote another page of history at #TDF2021 – where he captured his 32nd stage win.https://t.co/w6hwsvfdHk
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) July 2, 2021
Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan who publicly targeted the maillot vert as well as winning a stage in each of the three Grand Tours is also gone, having crashed out of the race within sight of the finish line of Stage 3. He made what most observers say was a reckless move and slipped on the wet pavement, breaking his collarbone.
In falling, he also took down Sagan but the Slovak was fortunate and came away with little more than a scare. Based on his record, he must now be considered the overwhelming favourite again – unless the 36-year-old Cavendish is back to the form that helped him win the Škoda Green Jersey ten years ago, one year before Sagan won his first. The ease with which he won the sprint on Tuesday and his efforts in the intermediate sprint on that stage suggests he and his team are targeting the green jersey.
This year’s Tour would seem to suit him, with more sprint finishes and fewer mountains than usual. But is he fit enough, at 36, to make it over all the mountains and reach Paris? Time will tell. In any case, he appears to be, at this early stage of the race, the fastest man in the peloton and he has the Škoda Green Jersey on his back after also winning Stage 6 with a powerful drive to the line, easily outsprinting Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Fenix and Arkea-Samsic’s Nacer Bouhanni. Sagan finished well back in 5th.
Cavendish is now two wins short of a mythical record, the 34 Tour stage wins of the great Eddy Merckx. The native of the Isle of Man has refused to talk to media about that record or to mention Merckx’s name. After Thursday’s stage win, he told reporters, “If I’m good enough to win 50 more Tour stages, I will. If I’m not good enough to win another stage, then I won’t.”
The question Sagan and other points classification contenders will be asking themselves is, “Is he good enough to win the green jersey?” From the evidence we have so far, he just might be. Cavendish currently leads the points classification table with 148 points. Philipsen is second, at 102 with Bouhanni just 3 points behind him. Sagan is in 7th place, at 72 points. He and his team don’t appear to have begun their campaign for the green jersey yet for he was on his own in the final kilometre of Stage 5, with no lead-out riders visible.
But these are still very early days in the Tour and Sagan and Bora-Hansgrohe must have a plan more serious than simply waiting for Cavendish to abandon the race.