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The race for the green jersey

By John Wilcockson

CHARGE! The points contenders in '08 may include a crop of new faces.

CHARGE! The points contenders in ’08 may include a crop of new faces.

Photo: AFP (file photo)

The positive out-of-competition test for cocaine that put defending points champion Tom Boonen out of the Tour de France, and the absence of the top Italian sprinters Alessandro Petacchi and Daniele Bennati, has opened up this year’s green jersey competition; while the decision by exciting newcomer Mark Cavendish to start the Tour rather than focus entirely on his Olympic track preparations gives new interest to the early sprint stages.

Taking into account these late developments here’s a rundown on all the Tour’s green jersey contenders:

Previous Tour points winners

Baden Cooke (Aus), 30, Barloworld
Points champ: 1 (2003)
Stage wins: 1 (Sedan ’03)
After turning pro with the American team Mercury eight years ago and netting 24 wins in two seasons, this flamboyant Aussie was considered one of the world’s hottest young sprint prospects. He confirmed that in his first three years with French team Française des Jeux, taking 30 more victories, including a stage and the green jersey at the 2003 Tour. After falling out of favor with Française des Jeux, Cooke had two unfruitful seasons at Unibet.com before joining his sprint buddy Robbie Hunter at Barloworld. Cooke had his best stage win in three years at Spain’s Clasica de Alcobendas on May 11.

Thor Hushovd (N), 30, Crédit Agricole
Points champ: 1 (2005)
Stage wins: 5 (Joigny ’07; Strasbourg, Paris ’06; Quimper ’04; Bourg-en-Bresse ’02)
The blond Norwegian is enjoying one of his strongest seasons, with five wins (and five second places) in the first half of this season, including stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Catalonia. Hushovd, who has spent his entire pro career with Crédit Agricole, is not a pure sprinter as he can also win short time trials — such as the 2006 Tour prologue. That solo strength enables him to start sprints early and hang tough till the line.

Robbie McEwen (Aus), 36, Silence-Lotto
Points champ: 3 (2006, 2004, 2002)
Stage wins: 12 (Canterbury ’07; Esch-sur-Alzette, St. Quentin, Vitré ’06; Montargis, Karlsruhe, Montpellier ’05; Namur, Guéret ’04; Reims, Paris ’04; Paris ’02)
After racking up an average of 20 wins a season for the past seven years, this rapid Aussie — sometimes known as the Pocket Rocket — is having his leanest time since turning pro in 1996. Through mid-June, McEwen has scored just three victories, albeit impressive ones. He beat Bennati in a stage of the Tour de Romandie and out-kicked Freire at two Tour of Switzerland stages. Expect the Silence-Lotto sprinter to add to his total of 12 Tour career stage wins.

Erik Zabel (G), 38, Milram
Points champ: 6 (2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996)
Stage wins: 12 (Alençon ’02; Boulogne, Seraing, Évry ’01; Troyes ’00; Plumelec. Bordeaux, Pau ’97; Nogent-sur-Oise, Gap ’96; Charleroi, Bordeaux ’95)
After more than 200 victories in his 16 years as a pro, this compactly built German continues to impress with his professionalism, even though he has lost some of his top-end speed. Zabel is struggling a little this year, with only one win to his credit; but he loves the Tour (this is his 14th time, two Tours less than record holder Joop Zoetemelk), and without having to work for former teammate Alessandro Petacchi (axed from the team after being suspended for a doping infraction), he could score his first Tour stage win since 2002. Maybe it’ll come on the final day in Paris, where he has yet to win.

Previous sprint stage winners

Jimmy Casper (F), 30, Agritubel
Stage wins: 1 (Strasbourg ’06)
Very fast, but also very erratic. That’s Jimmy Casper, who stunned the Tour with his stage win at Strasbourg two years ago. Now with the modest Agritubel team, the colorful Frenchman is capable of surprising again.

Oscar Freire (Sp), 32, Rabobank
Stage wins: 3 (Caen, Dax ’06; Sarrebrücken ’02)
Frequent injuries and illnesses have restricted the three-time world champion’s Tour career wins total to only three, but he is now healthy and this year has scored outstanding wins at Ghent-Wevelgem, and stages of Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Switzerland. Look for Freire to win when a field sprint is at its most chaotic.

Robbie Hunter (SA), 31, Barloworld
Stage wins: 1 (Montpellier ’07)
As the first South African to win stages at the Vuelta a España (1999) and Tour de France (2007), Hunter has his place in cycling history. He’s now the popular captain of the Barloworld squad, though he may work for his Aussie teammate Cooke this year.

Gert Steegmans (B), 27, Quick Step
Stage wins: 1 (Ghent ’07)
Steegmans learned a lot as lead-out man for McEwen in ’06 and Tom Boonen last year; and now that Boonen is out this rapid Belgian will be shooting for stage wins, especially on the Tour’s opening sprint finishes at Plumelec and St. Brieuc.

Potential sprint stage winners

Mark Cavendish (GB), 22, Team Columbia
His two spectacular stage wins at the Giro show he can do the same at the Tour.

Sébastien Chavanel (F), 27, Française des Jeux
This Tour’s hillier “flat” stages will give more chances to this ever-improving Frenchman. Francesco Chicchi (I), 27, Liquigas With five wins this year, this very fast Italian, a late replacement for Bennati, is finally showing the form that won him the world U23 title in 2002.

Gerald Ciolek (G), 21, Team Columbia
Making his Tour debut, this rapid young German, the world U23 champ in 2006, could shine in the uphill sprints and help teammate Cavendish in the flatter ones. Romain Feillu (F), 24, Agritubel This fast Frenchman, who can climb as well as sprint, took a couple of top fives on his Tour debut last year before crashing out.

Robert Förster (G), 30, Gerolsteiner
In the absence of Bennati, Boonen and Petacchi, the fast German has one of the strongest lead-out trains to figure in the flat sprints.

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