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100% x PELOTON: Sagan’s Seventh

Words and Images by James Startt

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On Sunday, as Egan Bernal raced up and down the Champs Élysées as the first Colombian rider in history to win the Tour de France, Peter Sagan was writing a chapter all his own, becoming the first rider in Tour de France history to carry the green points jersey into Paris for a record-breaking seventh time.

The green jersey, of course, is awarded to the race’s most consistent sprinter and, after the yellow jersey, it’s regarded as the most prestigious distinctive prize in the race. There are other leader jerseys, the polka dot for top climber and white for the best young rider, but the green jersey is the oldest and historically most-respected of these.

“When you look at the list of winners of the green jersey, they are always great champions,” Serge Laget, long-time cycling historian for the French sports daily L’Équipe, once explained. “When you look at the winners of the polka-dot jersey there are many great riders, but also some more modest riders that have won it. The green jersey is always won by great champions.”

Until this year, Sagan shared the record with German sprinter Erik Zabel, who was the first rider to win the points classification six times. But on Sunday, Sagan became the sole seven-time winner.

“Obviously, the green jersey is very important in the Tour de France,” Sagan said before the start of the penultimate stage in Albertville. “For me, the yellow jersey is only something I can wear for a couple of days. As a result I focus on the green jersey. That is something I can win. And that is why I am here.”

First contested in 1953 to celebrate the Tour’s 50th anniversary, the corporate color of the jersey’s first sponsor, La Belle Jardinière, a Paris custom-clothing store, was green; and it’s proved to be a color that stands out in the peloton. And while its sponsors have changed over the years, the color has remained the same. Based on points awarded at intermediate sprints and at the finish, rather than overall time like the yellow jersey, the green jersey is at times likened to the Formula 1 championship.

While the green jersey is almost always worn by a sprinter, versatility is key if a rider hopes to carry the jersey into Paris, like Sagan has done for seven out of the last eight years. And like many of the green jersey greats, Sagan captured the points prize using a variety of tactics. Irish great Sean Kelly won the green jersey four times. But he only won five stages in the Tour. Zabel did better, winning 12 stages in his quest to earn six green jerseys, an impressive number, but less than half of the 30 stages won by Mark Cavendish, generally considered the greatest pure sprinter in the history of the Tour.

But to solidify their hold on green, Kelly and Zabel also managed to grab points in the intermediate points sprints, often on hillier stages where the other pure sprinters have long been dropped. And Sagan has proven a master of such tactics, often getting into a break over early climbs to grab the intermediate points before fading back to the pack. On stage 12, the first stage in the Pyrénées, won by Simon Yates, Sagan won the intermediate sprint 130.5-kilometers into the stage, picking up an additional 20 points on rivals like Michael Matthews and Caleb Ewan—who won three stages in his debut Tour. But while Sagan only won a single stage—his 12th—he rarely finished out of the top five on the flatter stages. Such versatility proved to be a lethal combination when it came to the points competition.

“The green jersey was always in the back of my mind,” said Matthews, the only rider to win it during Sagan’s reign, two years ago. “But to beat Peter you really have to be 100 percent, and I am not this year.”

Sagan took over the green jersey on stage 3, and held a commanding lead throughout the race. But he refused to speak about the record until crossing the finish line in Paris. But on Sunday, a modest 10th place on stage 21 was enough for him to clinch the record from Zabel. “History for the green jersey,” he said. “I am very happy and very glad to achieve something like this. For me, winning green is like yellow for the GC riders. And now if someone wants to go for the record, they are going to think twice!”