Tour de France 2020

Tour de France: Could Van Aert end Sagan’s grip on green?

The young Belgian has the legs and versatility to challenge Sagan in the points competition, but team duties could come first.

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For the first time in years, there could be a serious threat to Peter Sagan‘s grip on the green jersey at the Tour de France.

The Slovakian may have taken a record seven points titles at the Tour in the past eight years, but that was before Wout van Aert became the all-conquering monument-winner he is today.

Sagan has ruled the green jersey, not through out-and-out sprint speed alone, but the ability to be up at the pointy-end in all scenarios, from bunch sprints to hilltop kicks and cunning late breakaways. Savvy as ever, the 30-year-old has also been sure to scoop up the intermediate sprint points to guarantee his green jersey chances, often taking the classification by chasmic margins.

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However, let’s face it, Sagan of 2020 just is not the force that he was in his peak days of 2015 to 2017.

The Slovakian star has flown, by his own standards, relatively under the radar since racing restarted in August.

He failed to finish the attritional Strade Bianche, and ended up one slot off the podium at both Milano-Torino and Milano-Sanremo. After that, he was sent to the Dauphiné to suffer through some “character-building” miles in the mountains and top up his form in preparation for the Tour.

While Sagan is on simmer, Van Aert is on a roaring boil and could prove too hot for Sagan to handle.

Enter Wout van Aert

Van Aert is proving he can do it all, from Strade Bianche to reduced bunch sprints.
Van Aert is proving he can do it all, from Strade Bianche to reduced bunch sprints. Photo: James Startt

Van Aert has risen from “star” to “superstar” status through August.

The young Belgian steamrolled through the opening of the restarted season, going solo to win Strade Bianche, out-kicking Julian Alaphilippe to take Milano-Sanremo, and beating a whos-who of sprinters in the opening stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné.

As if that wasn’t enough, the 25-year-old went on to haul his bulky frame over mountain after mountain in the Jumbo-Visma engine room at the Tour de l’Ain and Critérium du Dauphiné. Clearly bored of sitting idle, he also crushed the Belgian national time trial championships last week.

However, Wout has a grandiose team objective to contribute to in France this summer, and solo points-hunting exploits will be secondary.

Just as his main role was to pull Primož Roglič and Co. through the Alps at the Dauphiné, the 25-year-old powerhouse knows that same thing will be his raison d’être at the Tour de France.  For the first time in years, Team Ineos is not the one-and-only contender for the Tour, with Van Aert’s Dutch team revving and ready to go all-in to defeat Egan Bernal and his soon-to-be renamed Ineos Grenadiers squad.

“In the Tour, we need all the strength to reach that goal [of beating Ineos],” Van Aert said after winning the national time trial last week.

While Sagan can freelance his way through France unhindered of domestique duties as the remainder of his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates work in support of GC captain Emanuel Buchmann, Van Aert could be left toiling in the flatlands and lower slopes of the mountains in France. Van Aert is toeing the party line, saying that his team’s ambitions come before his own at the Tour.

“I have had very good results so far. I am therefore very motivated to help my teammates, as I did on the Dauphiné,” he said. “Obviously, if I have the chance, the opportunity, to seek personal success, I will go for it … but no, I will not ride for the green jersey.

“The points ranking is a real job every day, with the obligation to participate in intermediate sprints to take the most possible points. The green jersey, it will not be for this year – but it will be a goal in the future, yes.”

Duties to his team leaders didn’t stop Van Aert from snagging a stage at the Dauphiné, and with this year’s Tour packed with spicy stages that promise the unexpected, the Belgian thinks those opportunistic moments to snatch wins – but perhaps not those pivotal mid-stage sprint points – will be there.

“If there’s a chance for me in a small stage race of five days, there will undoubtedly be chances in the Tour, which lasts for three weeks,” Van Aert told Het Laatste Nieuws after outsprinting fellow green jersey could-be Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) for his Dauphiné win.

Stages, yes. A green jersey? Maybe not.

Better chances than the Belgian?

Bennett has the brawn and the brains to challenge for green. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Impey is one of many heading to the Tour de France as a dedicated stage-hunter who may have the freedom that Van Aert lacks to challenge Sagan, with Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Matteo Trentin (CCC-Team) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-McLaren) also the type of lightweight, versatile sprinters that could be going green come September 20 in Paris.

Michael Matthews (Sunweb) is the one rider to have taken the green jersey during Sagan’s decade of dominance – even if he did only manage that by virtue of the Slovakian’s mid-race disqualification in 2017. However, the versatile Aussie is out of the Tour picture this year, instead going to the Giro d’Italia.

As a genuine fast-finisher who can punch over a short climb, Bennett is perhaps Sagan’s biggest threat after Van Aert. Nevertheless, despite picking up a confidence-boosting win at Tour of Wallonie earlier this month, the Irishman wouldn’t back himself against the indomitable Belgian.

“I put Wout van Aert on first,” Bennett said when asked who would win the Tour’s green jersey.  “Van Aert is so surreal, so strong. I saw him win in the Dauphiné, unbelievable. I will also try to get green, but he is of a different level.”

Van Aert has the wind at his sails, and has shown the world, and his rivals, that he can do it all. Although domestique duty may rule him out of the running for the green as we head toward the Tour, this year has proven that these are times to expect the unexpected.

A derailment of Jumbo-Visma’s yellow jersey bid through crashes or catastrophes could see the team pivoting toward other ambitions. And should that happen, it’s odds-on that it will be green light for the green jersey for Van Aert.