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Tour de France

Fierce battle for Tour de France green jersey sets up between Cavendish, Sagan

Sagan, who won the Tour's points title in 2012, enters this year's race on a hot streak

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Is there anything Peter Sagan (Cannondale) cannot do?

Sagan’s exhibition in Monday’s third stage at the Tour de Suisse, when he made it up and over a challenging first-category climb with the GC favorites, and then finished off the stage by kicking to victory out of a four-man group, only raises his expectations for the Tour de France.

And for the Tour, Sagan will be thinking green.

“I am surprised to have achieved this victory. We thought the final was too hard,” Sagan said Monday. “This race is important to test the form before the Tour de France, where the top goal will be the green jersey.”

Those words set the stage for what should be one of the most intense and gripping battles of this year’s Tour: the green points jersey.

Sagan returns to his second Tour as the defending green jersey champion, but a highly motivated Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), the winner in 2011, will be riding to take back what he considers his crown.

Sagan and Cavendish won’t be the only contenders for green. Others, such as André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), and JJ Rojas (Movistar) will be doing their best, but all eyes will be on the pair.

Cavendish is pure speed; Sagan is pure strength. Cavendish is the unquestioned master of the mass sprint, yet Sagan has the legs and climbing ability to win in nearly all terrain, just as Monday’s victory reconfirmed.

And in a Tour as hilly and technically challenging as this year’s, Cavendish will have to raise his game to beat Sagan.

Both riders will have the luxury of full team support. Neither team has a serious GC card to play. Ivan Basso might make a Tour bid after missing the Giro d’Italia for Cannondale, while Omega Pharma’s Peter Velits, third in the 2010 Vuelta a España, will be riding for the top-10, but neither will see the kind of dedication that Chris Froome will enjoy at Sky.

That means both teams will be racing for stage wins, and for the green jersey.

A new points system, introduced in 2011, creates a more open, more engaging battle.

Points are stacked toward the mass sprints, with more points on offer at the line. Now, there are 45 points to the winner in flat stages, which tilt in favor of Cavendish, compared to 35 for medium mountain stages that favor Sagan. Yet there are also more points at intermediate sprints, 20 for the first across the line, that favors Sagan, who is more apt at getting over early climbs and making a run for intermediate sprints sprinkled along the course.

Sagan has been on a tear this year, winning 11 races to Cavendish’s 13. His spring was nearly perfect, when he won or finished second in every one-day race he started going into the Amstel Gold Race. The lone blot was that he didn’t win a monument, but with Sagan, everything seems to be a matter of time.

Both Sagan and Cavendish reached personal milestones over the past month. Monday’s win was Sagan’s 50th as a pro, while Cavendish notched his 100th victory during the Giro.

Sagan has emerged as Cavendish’s most dangerous and most unpredictable rival.

The ever-versatile Sagan has the climbing legs that Cavendish will never possess, and on a good day he can still win a mass sprint.

Sagan should be able to make it through a challenging Tour route laden with climbs in better form than Cavendish, meaning he will have the legs to kick not only for victory in the closing week, but pick up vital intermediate sprints that can tip the balance in the race for the green jersey.

Cavendish, however, proved he can make it over tough mountain passes as well, riding all the way through the Giro’s brutal final week to arrive in Brescia to win the final stage and sew up the points jersey that eluded him last year.

Cavendish now boasts points jerseys from all three grand tours, but it’s the Tour’s green jersey that most interests the Manxster.

His Giro performance, when he won five sprints he contested, only reconfirms his status as the king of kick.

Somewhat surprisingly, despite racking up 23 stage victories over the past five Tours, Cavendish has only won one green jersey. That only reconfirms the notion that it takes more than winning sprints to win the points jersey.

Riders who can get over climbs and pick up intermediate sprints along the way typically have a better chance at green. That’s how Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) won his second points jersey in 2010, when the then Cervelo rider slipped into breakaways across the Alps to scoop up points that his pure-sprinter rivals could not.

Omega Pharma sport director Brian Holm said Cavendish doesn’t fear Sagan.

“Sagan is going to beat him when there’s a steep uphill finish, but Cavendish is the better pure sprinter,” Holm said. “We know Sagan will be riding for green, but the team will be around Cav. He wants the green jersey pretty bad.”

With both riders boasting confidence beyond measure, it’s hard to define a favorite.

In Sagan’s corner is a mountainous, technical Tour route with several stages favoring his style of racing. Sagan is hard to beat when the road tilts uphill in the final kilometer.

A huge difference for Cavendish, at least compared to last year, is that he will once again have a full team at his disposal. In 2012, Sky was focused on putting Bradley Wiggins into yellow, meaning that Cavendish had to largely freelance his way in the sprints. That opened the door for Sagan to take green.

When Cavendish has the team working for him, he almost always delivers.

Every sprint will count and the green jersey battle should go down to the wire.

And with the way Froome and Sky are racing, the green jersey battle might be more interesting than the one for yellow.