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For fans and cyclists of the Tour de France, the green jersey, awarded to the winner of the points competition, is a unique prize. Sure it stands in the shadows of the yellow jersey, but the green jersey is awarded to the race’s most versatile sprinter, the one capable of winning field sprints as well as tough uphill finishes. And it always produces big champions like André Darrigade in the 1950s, Rik Van Looy in the ’60s, Freddy Maertens and Sean Kelly in the ’70s and ’80s, all legends in their time. Two riders have managed to win the distinctive tunic an impressive six times. Germany’s Erik Zabel was the first, breaking Kelly’s record of four, a record tied by Peter Sagan last year. And this year, Sagan is set to continue his run in green and become the first rider to win the points jersey seven times. In a sport where true records are broken with increasing rarity, Sagan’s record is truly unprecedented.
The green jersey rarely rides into Paris on the shoulders of the fastest pure sprinter in any given year. Sure, Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel put on the green jersey in the years when they won four, five or six stages. But they rarely, if ever, wore it all the way into Paris. Instead, consistency is key.
“I won 12 stages, but I was in the top three like 55 times, which made me really good for the green jersey competition,” Zabel remembers. “It became a real focus. For me, once I won the green jersey, I wanted to defend it. Actually when you look back at some of my sprints, I did some stupid ones. Sometimes I would really jump too early because I wanted to make sure I was not blocked in. But at that point I was sprinting for the green jersey as much as the stage win. Once I was in the green jersey I was also sprinting to protect the jersey.”
As for Sagan, he insists that he has no such game plan. “No, I have no particular strategy for winning the green jersey,” he said before the start of stage 15 in Limoux. “Every time I go for a sprint I am just trying to do my best. I’m really trying to win every sprint. Obviously, I am also happy if I get second or third and take some points for the green jersey, but really I want to win.”
This year in particular there has been no dominant sprinter at the Tour. In the stages that have finished in a field sprints no less than six different riders have raised their arms in victory. Sagan of course is one of them; he won stage 5. But, equally impressively, he has finished in the top five on every one of those stages.
After two weeks of racing Sagan has managed to finish in the top five no less than eight times. Sure, he finished with the best on the stages that came down to a pure field sprint. But where he really cemented his grip on green was on the stages less suited to the sprinters, like the stage into Saint-Étienne, won by Belgian breakaway artist Thomas De Gendt, or the hilly stage 5, where he bested what remained of the field on the climbs into Colmar. On that day, Australian Michael Matthews put his Sunweb team to the front on the final climb in an effort to splinter the field and drop the sprinters. But while the tactic largely succeeded, the Sunweb boys failed to drop Sagan, who despite his muscular build, can power over all but the steepest, longest climbs.
“I remember a couple of years ago, Peter won the queen stage in the Tour de Suisse and I think that says it all about him,” Zabel says. “He just takes it to another level!”
As the Tour enters its third and final week, Sagan holds a commanding lead in the green jersey competition. Points are awarded twice daily, first at the stage’s intermediate sprint and then for the final place at the line. Sagan has racked up 284 points, nearly 100 more than his nearest rivals Sonny Colbrelli of Italy and Australia’s Matthews.
Zabel speaks with admiration of Sagan, although he has resigned himself to the fact that the green jersey record soon will no longer be his. “When you have the record it is not nice to lose it,” he says. “But then if you look at it from the other way around, records are made to be broken. And if someone is going to break my record, then the best rider I can imagine would be Peter Sagan. He is just a legend!”