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This year’s race for the Tour de France green jersey looked like a thrilling three-man contest that might be decided on the final sprint to the finish in Paris – until the late announcement that last year’s winner, Sam Bennett of Deceuninck-QuickStep, will not be taking part in the Tour due to an injury.

Apparently, Bennett – who had a great spring that included winning the one-day Classic Brugge–De Panne Volta ao Algarve and two stages of the Paris-Nice – injured his right knee by banging it on his bike’s handlebars after his gears slipped and will be having the injury assessed in Belgium.

As a result, the (now) two favourites for the Tour green jersey appear to be seven-time winner Peter Sagan, who has already won the Giro d’Italia points classification this year, and the Australian Caleb Ewan, who is also out to win a stage in every Grand Tour this year.

Another, and far less exciting, consequence of the injury was a statement by Deceuninck-QuickStep team manager Patrick Lefevere. On Monday, speaking to the Belgian media outlet Sporza, Lefevere basically questioned Bennett’s courage.

“When Bennett called that he was injured and that he needed care and rest, we already felt the mood that he was not going to be ready for the Tour,” he said.

“I cannot prove that he does not have knee pain, but I am starting to think more and more that it is more fear of failure than just pain.”

For better or worse, this will be Bennett’s last year with Deceuninck-QuickStep. He is rumoured to be moving on to Sagan’s team, Bora-Hansgrohe, or to Ineos Grenadiers.

Sam Bennett
Bennet at the 2020 Tour. © Profimedia

Sagan had also been criticized by his own team manager, Ralph Denk, who earlier this year told the German Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger daily, “We are very grateful for what Peter has meant to us. The sponsors have received a lot of attention thanks to him, but he will be entering the fall of his career. We also have to consider whether we still want to pay for that, or is it better to invest that money in youth?”

Sagan’s maglia ciclamino victory in this year’s Giro was all the sweeter because he showed Denk and other doubters that he is still a formidable racer. And with Bennett missing the Tour, the Slovak’s odds for a record eighth Tour green jersey have grown shorter.

But Ewan may well be the best pure sprinter in the world today, and this year’s Tour favours sprinters because there are fewer climbs than last year, no new mountains or prolonged periods in the Jura, Massif Central or Vosges mountain regions and eight stages for sprinters. This will allow the best sprinters to collect more points and make it easier for them to survive the climbs.

Ewan has also had an impressive spring campaign. He won two stages in the Giro and was leading in the points classification (which Sagan later won) when he dropped out of the race. He also won the Tour of Belgium points classification and was second in the one-day Milan-San Remo. And, while Sagan is far from over the hill at 31, Ewan is five years younger and fresher.

Caleb Ewan
Ewan as he crosses the finish line to win the fourth stage of the Baloise Belgium Tour cycling race, 152,6 km from and to Hamoir, Saturday 12 June 2021. © Profimedia

However, Sagan simply knows how to win, and is supported by a team that knows how to help him win. He may not be able to beat Ewan in the sprint stages during the Tour, but he’ll pick up points wherever possible, and that’s the recipe that has seen him win his seven green jerseys.

If Sagan and Ewan falter, which seems unlikely, the two dark horses for the green jersey could be Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert and Sonny Colbrelli of Bahrain-Victorious.

The 26-year-old van Aert came in fifth in last year’s Tour green jersey competition without even trying, as he was helping team leader Primož Roglič to a close second-place finish in the general classification. He will probably sacrifice himself for Roglič again, but van Aert may just be good enough to win it anyway. And if the Slovene drops out for some reason, then he would be a formidable contender for the green jersey.

Colbrelli has won the green jersey in both the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné this spring, so he definitely has the chops and the ambition. But he has never won a Grand Tour stage – and is he as fast as Ewan?