The 39-year-old retired from the sport last October after racing for more than two decades. He spent eight days in the Škoda Green Jersey at the Tour and had a fearsome kick only truly rivalled in his peak by the likes of Mark Cavendish and compatriot Marcel Kittel. Now, ‘The Gorilla’ has taken a step back from racing, and he has no regrets.
Asked whether he misses the buzz around and before the Tour and whether he will get to celebrate his birthday (which falls during the Tour) properly this year, he answers with honesty and a smile: “I did it enough. After a lot of years, I can finally be at home with my family.”
That buzz seems to build earlier each year and for Greipel, winning stages at Le Tour was always his main ambition for the season, something that was mapped out way in advance.
“We were focused on the sprints, we knew that the points system was a little unfair, so it was impossible for me to get the same points in the mountain stages as Sagan could get because after half of the stage, you could get 25 points (at the intermediate sprint), so he always made up a lot of points there when I was dropped. That was always a bit unfortunate.”
Regardless of the points system, Greipel’s squads would usually be all in for him. And as the Tour de France gets underway, traditionally, a sprinter’s best opportunity for early stage wins is on those flat days. This is the same for points in the Škoda Green Jersey competition.
Each day, the team will have a meeting before the stage to plan exactly what they want to do to give their sprinter the best opportunity. For Greipel and many riders like him, that vital preparation starts long before then, sometimes weeks or months in advance.
He explained: “If we had the possibility and the stages were close by, we always looked up the parkours. It’s always better to see the parkour in reality than through Google Maps. Before the Tour de France, I was already very focused on the sprints, I looked it up on Google Maps and made my notes on a sheet of paper. Then I could look it up on the day.
“At the beginning of my career, Google Maps wasn’t common,” he says with a knowing chuckle. “It wasn’t as good as it is now. You can’t live in the past, you always have to adapt to what is coming and, of course, if you have the possibility to have VeloViewer, for example, or Google Maps, then this is so much of an advantage for everyone in the peloton. If you don’t use these advantages, then you are having disadvantages.
“You have to really trust your sports director. We were always focused on the sprints, so we always had someone who took really good care of the scenarios. It was a team effort, everybody was involved – from the sports director and sprint coach to everybody in the race.”
The stages themselves, especially in the first week as the hierarchy of the race is yet to be formed, can be hectic. Crashes mar those early days of the race, something Greipel knows all too well. On stage six of the 2012 Tour, the German, who had won the two previous stages into Rouen and Saint-Quentin respectively, crashed heavily after 35 kilometres of racing, dislocating his shoulder in the process.
He takes up the story: “I crashed, popped it back in and managed to finish second. I then did rehab for a week to be able to go saddle up again and to sprint.”
Anyone going for green at the Tour will go through hardship like Greipel – maybe not quite as severe, though. The race route is not usually built for those who compete in this classification but through these tough times can come moments of joy. When asked about his proudest moment in the race, it was that 2012 edition that came straight to his mind. He remembers: “I’m proud of all of my wins at the Tour, it is something special. Of course, the Champs-Elysees is really nice but the one that really sticks out to me is a stage I won in the Cap d’Adge. It wasn’t an easy day and I survived the climb (as well as the echelons) but the whole team was part of this victory because we took the race into our hands and made that possible together.
“I also had a lot of support by not quitting the Tour (because of the dislocated shoulder) and the whole team was behind it to help me get through this hard period, so this is quite a proud win, I would say.”
Crashes are not the only thing that can hinder a rider’s chance of green. The biggest obstacle facing them is the mountains – just getting to Paris and avoiding the time cuts day after day can be an achievement in itself for those not built to climb. In essence, these tough days are just as important to any Škoda Green Jersey ambition as the sprint stages.
“For sure, when you see sprinters suffering and you have the chance to get them out of the time, you go just full gas and try to drop them. This is the scenario with the time cuts at the Tour – you have to suffer each day until the finish line. It’s a race within a race.
“I have ridden my bike every day so this is something that we are used to. The head and the mental strength can make the difference. I was really good at cheating myself and telling myself: ‘Ah, it’s not so bad. If I am suffering, then the others are suffering more,’ and all this stuff. The biggest enemy or the biggest competitor is your inner self, you fight yourself every day.”
Speaking about the battle for the Škoda Green Jersey, he concluded: “To wear it is something special. You fight for it every day; for the jersey, for the points and it’s exhausting, especially with the way mother nature has built me.”