ROMANS-SUR-ISERE, France (VN) — There are two paths to the green jersey, and Michael Matthews is taking the one less traveled by. It could make all the difference.
Sunweb’s Matthews now has 344 points to Marcel Kittel’s 373. The gap has been slowly closing since the Tour de France’s flat first week. The two are on a collision course centered on Friday’s lumbering drop out of the Alps and on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Each has a different path to victory. Neither is easy. But one is less distinctly easy than the other.
“Kittel, he’s obviously the fastest guy on the flat stages,” Matthews said after his second stage win of the Tour on Tuesday. “I’m probably not going to beat him in those stages, so I need to go get points everywhere else where he normally won’t be.”
Quick-Step’s Kittel won’t up front after a climb, that is obvious. This simple fact has made Matthews’s race so difficult. When all your green jersey points are hidden behind mountains it’s going to be a tough Tour. But the Australian they call “Bling” has little choice.
Sprint points are available at finish lines and at intermediate sprints. The finish points decrease on more mountainous stages, so dead-flat finishes offer maximal gain. Matthews stands against a dominant sprinter, against Kittel’s five stage wins that will likely turn to six or even seven, each worth 50 points. This well-worn path to green, via stage wins or a pile of podiums on points-heavy flat stages, is simply not available to Matthews as it was even to Peter Sagan (Bora Hansgrohe).
That has meant jumping in breaks we’d never expect a sprinter to jump into. But Matthews isn’t a pure sprinter. He’s more like Sagan; capable in a kick but far more versatile than the specialists. Sagan’s departure truly opened the door for Matthews’s green hunt. If the two split intermediate points the entire race, Matthews would not be this close to his German rival.
Michael Matthews path to the green jersey
Let’s play out a couple scenarios. Wednesday and Thursday are big mountain stages but offer opportunities. Friday drops out of the Alps toward Marseille and may be the crux of the whole points competition.
Wednesday has intermediate points available after a category 2 climb. Kittel will almost certainly be dropped. Matthews might not be. Add 20 points for Matthews (if he wins the sprint), up to 364. Neither rider will finish at the front.
Thursday, which finishes atop the Izoard, has 20 points available after a category 3 climb, 77.5km in. Kittel has a small chance of making it over that climb. Matthews has a very good chance. But the break will likely be gone by then. Both riders would need to be in it. Matthews has a better chance of making that move. It’s possible he could lap up another 20 points while Kittel gets zero. In that case, he’s up to 384 and takes green.
Friday is 225km to Salon-de-Provence. It opens with two category 3s and the intermediate sprint line is at the top of an uncategorized climb that slowly rises for 10km. Again, Matthews could take these points. Kittel is almost guaranteed to take none. Matthews is up to 404, Kittel still at 373.
Then there’s the finish on Friday. This is the moment. If Kittel’s team can bring him back to the front, he can likely win in Salon-de-Provence. The finale is fast and flat. The Tour categorizes this stage as a flat stage, so the winner earns a full 50 points. Matthews will be there in the finale, too. He’s been floating around third in big bunch sprints, so let’s say he gets the 20 points for that position. It’s 424 to 423 now, in Matthews’s favor by a single point.
No points on Saturday, it’s the TT. Then on to Paris.
Kittel wins on the Champs. It’s hard to see it going any other way. He gets 50 points and jumps up to 473 points. Even if Matthews is second that day he earns only 30 and finishes with 454.
Kittel takes green.
This is rife with assumptions, of course. The largest of which is that Kittel makes it to the finish of stage 19 Friday. If Sunweb can replicate Tuesday’s 140km team time trial to keep Kittel off the back again, then Matthews potentially comes into Paris with a lead over 50 points. If Matthews wins on Friday and Kittel is off the back, he could have as many as 454 points to Kittel’s 373. That is an unassailable lead.
What are the chances of that happening? Everything would have to go perfectly for Matthews. Kittel would have to fail to acquire points at any intermediates (somewhat likely) and then also fail to gain any points on Friday’s finish (much less likely).
Tuesday’s stage was a classic example of the Matthews playbook. A tricky category 3 climb opened the stage. The fight to get in the breakaway sent a group of sprinters off the back. Kittel was there, but not Matthews. As the main peloton crested the climb, Matthews’s Sunweb team hit the front and hit it hard.
“I had people saying, ‘Just drop Kittel on the first climb and ride a team time trial to the finish,’ and I sort of laughed and said ‘Yeah we could try that,’” said Sunweb director Luke Robers. “Then we did it.”
Matthews picked up intermediate points and then took the finish as well. He now sits just a stage win away from the green jersey, though it’s clearly much more complicated than that.
Could Matthews take it? Even his team cautious. “It’s going to be difficult,” Roberts said, even after Tuesday’s win. “Although we’re looking much closer at the moment. Maybe we could slip into green by Paris, but that sprint in Paris could change everything again. There’s that small possibility there, but it’s going to be a hard fight.”
“It’s two totally different game plans,” Matthews said. “He has his, and I have mine. We’ll see in Paris which works out the best.”