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Cavendish and Philipsen Headline Škoda Green Jersey Race

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The most interesting sprinter’s race of this Tour de France may not be the one for the Škoda Green Jersey. Rather, it will probably be Mark Cavendish’s race against time as he attempts again to break the record of 34 Tour stage wins he shares with the legendary Eddy Merckx, in what surely will be his last-ever appearance in the race.

Though one can never be sure. When the 39-year-old Briton failed to secure the record last year, after being nipped by eventual green jersey winner Jasper Philipsen in stage 8 and crashing out during the next stage, he changed his mind about retiring to give it one more try.

His Astana Qazaqstan team have pinned all their Tour hopes on helping Cavendish achieve his goal by assembling a strong lead-out group, which includes his long-time primary lead-out Michael Mørkøv,Dutch sprinter Cees Bol, the rapid Italians  Davide Ballerini and Michele Gazzol and the former U23 World Champion Yevgeniy Fedorov.

Cavendish hasn’t had a very good year so far, winning only two stages – at the Tour Colombia in January and, more recently, at the Tour of Hungary in May. In addition, he was almost invisible at this month’s Tour de Suisse, but that race was heavy on climbing and may have served to prepare him for the daunting climbs of this year’s Tour. The climbing starts on stage 1, with some 3,600m of altitude gained over seven(!) categorized climbs, with the Col du Galibier (23km @ 5.1%) waiting on stage 4.

So look for Cavendish and Astana to target the likely first-week sprints, on stages 3, 5, 6 and 8, to avoid him having to tackle the terrible climbs of the second half of the race.

As for the other sprinter’s race, the one for the Škoda Green Jersey, Alpecin Deceuninck’s Jasper Philipsen must be considered the big favorite, not only because of his dominant win last year, when he won four stages and beat the second-placed Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) by more than 100 points. He should also win again because this season’s other top sprinters are skipping the Tour.

Olav Kooij, who has won 5 sprints, including a stage of the Giro d’Italia before crashing out, will not be at the Tour because his Visma–Lease a Bike is putting all its energy into Jonas Vingegaard’s attempt to win a third consecutive yellow jersey. Tim Merlier, who has 12 wins to his credit this year, including three at the Giro, will not line up in Florence on Saturday because Soudal–QuickStep are going all in on Remco Evenepoel’s GC battle.

Finally, the Giro’s points classification winner, and arguably Philipsen’s toughest potential rival, Jonathan Milan, will not ride in the Tour because Lidl-Trek has brought Pedersen again.

The 28-year-old Dane has been surrounded by a strong team, after Tao Geoghegan Hart had to drop out due to Covid. The team includes Jasper Stuyven, Tim Declercq, Toms Skujins and Carlos Verona, who will be marshalled to help Pedersen go for wins on the hilly stages that he rides so well.

There is an outside chance that the race for the Škoda Green Jersey will be decided in the hills and mountains of this year’s Tour. There are four stages classified as hilly that a sprinter-puncheur like Pedersen could win. And he could even win a bunch sprint if a stage finale breaks his way. He’s not the fastest sprinter, but he is certainly fast enough and very shrewd.

Mads Pedersen
There are four stages classified as hilly that a sprinter-puncheur like Pedersen could win. © Profimedia

And there is the matter of Mathieu van der Poel, Philipsen’s elite primary lead-out rider and by far the quickest of all. The reigning road race world champion is targeting the Paris Olympics and the World Championships this year, so he will almost certainly abandon before the big climbs of the second half of the Tour. Not that Pedersen needs van der Poel.

But he does need to make it over all those mountains and finish in Nice to claim the green jersey. But there’s no reason why he shouldn’t. He will have prepared for those climbs.

My dark-horse Skoda green jersey candidate is the 22-year-old Belgian Arnaud de Lie (Lotto Dstny). After a disappointing and contentious spring, de Lie made amends with a famous victory in Belgium’s National Championship, in which he outsprinted Philipsen and Merlier. One race does not a green jersey make, and this is de Lie’s first-ever Tour, so he could be overwhelmed by the race itself, but he’s extremely competitive and he’s in form. So he has an outside chance.

Other riders who could win a sprint include France’s Arnaud Démare (Arkéa-B&B Hotels), who left Groupama-FDJ after being left off  its Tour de France squad France for the second year in a row. The 32-year-old has won two Tour stages, but none since 2018. So he will be eager to win his new team’s first ever Tour stage victory and at the same time show his former employers that they made a mistake.

Dylan Groenewegen and Michael Matthews both ride for Jayco AlUla and could make a formidable tandem. Groenewegen has five Tour stage wins to his credit, and is in excellent form, having this month won a stage of the Tour of Slovenia and the Dutch National Championship, in which he outsprinted the very fast Kooij. Matthews has won four Tour stages, but at 33 his best sprinting days may be behind him. If he serves as part of Groenewegen’s lead-out train, that could only help the Dutch rider’s chances.

Sam Bennett (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) was once an elite sprinter, winning 10 Grand Tour stages and the 2020 Tour de France green jersey as a member of Deceunicnk–Quick Step. But he fell afoul of the mercurial team boss Patrick Lefevere and was left out of the 2021 squad. Several harsh years followed.

Now, at 33, he is attempting a difficult comeback with a new team that has had a remarkable year, racking up 26 wins so far. Four of those were by Bennett at the second-level 4 Jours de Dunkerque. While he didn’t beat any elite sprinters in that race, his second place to Pedersen in stage 1 of the Critérium du Dauphiné suggests he may be competitive in the Tour.

There should be four bunch sprint finishes in the first week of the Tour. With van der Poel almost certain to quit the race during week 2, look for Philipsen to stamp his authority on the SKODA green jersey early. If he can’t, we can look forward to a highly competitive points competition.