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Tour de France analysis: Is the new green jersey points system working?

One of the big changes for this year’s Tour de France has been the way the points competition for the green jersey has been organised, with additional emphasis being placed in two areas: the value of winning a stage – the differential between first and second place on a flat stage is now ten points (having previously been just five) and the change to having just one intermediate sprint per day, but with more points being available (20 for the winner, rather than six) to more riders (down to 15th, rather than just to the top three).

The thinking behind these rule changes is twofold. Firstly, it promotes the idea that the green jersey will be won by the fastest sprinter, not the most consistent one. And secondly, it makes the intermediate sprints meaningful. Too often in the past, the break of the day would mop up the available points, leaving nothing for the sprinters in the peloton to fight over. But now, with points being awarded down to 15th, every intermediate sprint has become an event in its own right, a race within a race, which has had the effect of bringing more sprinters to the fore to challenge for a meaningful number of points in a best-of-the-rest race after the breakaway has swept past.

There is no dispute that Mark Cavendish is currently the fastest sprinter at the Tour, having won six stages in 2009 and five in 2010. And yet in both years he has failed to secure the green jersey. Last year Alessandro Petacchi took two early wins and was able to defend his lead all the way to Paris with a string of five other top three finishes. Cavendish crashed on stage one, took until stage five to register his first win, and never managed to overcome Petacchi despite being significantly superior to him thereafter. And the year before that Thor Hushovd won just one stage, but the cumulative effect of his consistent finishing – three other top three and four top ten finishes – selective attacks in the mountains and a Cavendish disqualification again meant the Norwegian was able to hold his significantly faster rival at bay.

That is categorically not the case this year. With the steeper differential between the top few places under the new system, Cavendish would almost certainly have won in both years (assuming he at least held his own in the intermediates sprints). For instance, previously two wins would have earned fewer points (70) than three fourth places (72). Under the new system, the wins would carry greater weight (90 vs 78), favouring outright speed over consistency.

The greater effect that stage wins has on the standings is illustrated in the graph below. After a slow start by Cavendish in which he was unable to contest the uphill finishes on stages one and four, he trailed José Joaquín Rojas by the significant margin of 48 points. However, even though Rojas has more than doubled his total since then, Cavendish has won two of the last three stages and also won the best-of-the-rest intermediate sprint on the last two days. This has reduced the deficit to a much more manageable 17 points in the space of three days. In previous years, he would not have been able to close the gap so fast. On the graph, you can see how rapidly Cavendish’s yellow line has converged on Rojas’s blue one.

Analysis © Tim Liew

The tactics of who competes at which intermediate sprints is also evolving. Riders such as Rojas and Philippe Gilbert know they cannot beat Cavendish on a flat finish, and so they are looking to maximise their points everywhere. Tyler Farrar specifically targeted stage three for a win, for which he saved his legs by not contesting the intermediate sprint, leaving Hushovd to fly the Garmin flag there. On stage five Cavendish, desperate for his first win and knowing that the finish featured some leg-sapping ramps, did not overly exert himself and settled for a minor placing at the intermediate, where Borut Božič was best of the rest. Conversely, Cavendish went all-out to secure maximum points on the intermediate sprint the following day, knowing that he would not be able to contest the win because of a steep climb close to the finish.

Stage

Intermediate sprint winner (excluding breakaways)

Stage winner

1

Farrar

Gilbert

2

Team time trial

3

Galimzyanov

Farrar

4

Farrar

Evans

5

Božič

Cavendish

6

Cavendish

Boasson Hagen

7

Cavendish

Cavendish

Important though the intermediate points can be, there is a fine balancing act to consider. Is it worth throwing everything to finish sixth for 11 points at the intermediate sprint, or are you better off settling for, say, ninth (seven points) if this maximises your chances of finishing with a stage win (45 points) rather than a second place (35, i.e. ten points less)?

All this means that, as well as producing more exciting racing, there is also a much more complex and satisfying strategic element which goes beyond trying to win every stage.

How will the top contenders win the green jersey?

Looking at the current top five in the points competition, we have a varied mix of pure speed and all-round ability, which lends itself to distinctly different approaches to the intermediate and final sprints, dependent on terrain and rider characteristics. Here is a quick look at the top five, and some thoughts on how each might achieve their goal of winning the green jersey.

José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) – 1st, 167 pts

Rojas has been Mister Consistent so far during this race. He has yet to beat his fellow sprinters head-to-head at either intermediate or final sprints, but has finished third (twice), fourth, fifth and ninth and consistently collected points at the intermediates. He has picked up at least 17 points on every stage, and is the only rider so far to have racked up at least 25 points on four separate days. He benefits from being his team’s sole focus in the sprints and will pick up extra point on hilly intermediates/finals which are too tough for Cavendish or Feillu. A few extra points here and there in the mountain stage sprints could make all the difference.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) – 2nd, 156 pts

If Gilbert is to contend for the green jersey, he will need to continue targeting high finishes on the hilly rather than mountainous stages and sneaking every point he can at the intermediate sprints, as he cannot expect to out-sprint the likes of Cavendish, Greipel and Farrar, and is highly unlikely to pick up another stage win. However, he has led the competition for four days so far by virtue of his consistent performances. It’s unlikely, but if the other sprinters take enough points off each other he could certainly be there or thereabouts. The most likely threat to his chances comes from within his own Omega Pharma-Lotto team, as André Greipel is their lead sprinter. But if Gilbert can stay in touch with the classification lead up to Monday’s rest day, the team may have no choice but to put their efforts behind him instead.

Image courtesy of Graham Watson

Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) – 3rd, 150 pts

As ever, Cavendish will primarily look to gain his points in big chunks via stage wins. He knows that his scoring ability will dry up in the mountains, and yet he is the only man to date with two stage victories and two ‘wins’ heading the sprint out of the peloton at the intermediates. He will pick and choose his moments mid-stage, but his prime focus will be the flat finishes. If he can get over the final climb on stage ten, he will have a good chance of completing his hat-trick, after which he will target stages 11, 15 and the final day in Paris. Already we have seen Cavendish alter his tactics after a slow start. His stated strategy pre-Tour was to focus on winning stages and minimising his losses at the intermediates, but after a lackadaisical approach to the mid-stage sprints initially, he is now taking these seriously and has been best-of-the-rest at the last two. He must be considered the odds-on favourite for the jersey, given his current form.

Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) – 4th, 130 pts

Hushovd is the only rider to have finished in the top ten on each of the seven stages so far this Tour – a testament to his consistency and all-round ability – allowing him to steadily accumulate points. With his ability to get over smaller and medium mountains, he is the one most capable of sneaking into a break in the Alps and Pyrenees and earning crucial points there. His flat-out sprint is not what it used to be, so a stage win is probably beyond him now (at least on flat finishes), but if he can pop up and earn extra points here and there he could repeat his 2005 performance, where he won the green jersey despite failing to win a stage. This would probably require Garmin to change their tactics, however, as Farrar is the team’s nominated sprinter on flat finishes, which all the remaining sprint stages are.

Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM) – 5th, 99 pts

Feillu is a long shot for the green jersey. Like Cavendish, he will score his points mostly in big bunches on flat stretches of road. SO far, he has scored 25 or more points three times, but accumulated just nine points elsewhere. Realistically, he will need to win at least one of stages ten and 11 to put himself into serious contention, and then ensure he scores more consistently than he has done so far.

One thing is for certain. If any one sprinter can dominate over the four remaining flat stages, they will almost certainly win the green jersey in Paris, which is exactly how the organisers intended it.

In conclusion the green jersey competition is just as exciting as ever, but the promotion of the intermediate sprint ensures that even the dullest stage holds some interest for the sprinters. Whether the close and unpredictable competition for the jersey is due more to the effect of the new points system or the varied nature of the opening week’s flat stages is unclear, but it is certainly forcing the sprinters to pick and choose where to put in their big efforts. With a greater range of strategic options open to riders, there are now more ways in which a wider variety of riders could legitimately win the points competition, and that is no bad thing. Is the new system working? I would say yes.

Links: Tour de France official website, Steephill.tv

Tour de France recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

24 Responses to Tour de France analysis: Is the new green jersey points system working?

  1. Kitty Fondue says:

    Seriously, Tim, I love that you did a graph. 🙂

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