Cavendish hasn’t looked back since he snapped the green jersey from his teammate Julian Alaphilippe on stage 4 and he has just five more stages before he can call it his own.
The Manxman looks like he’s within touching distance of his second maillot vert 10 years after winning his first but waiting in the wings and ready to capitalize on any weakness from the Cavendish is Michael Matthews.
Despite not yet winning a stage, the Australian has been lurking in the background of the points competition right from the start of the race. Throughout the race so far, Matthews has refused to give up on the hope that he could be the one in green on the Paris.
With Cavendish dominating in the bunch sprints, it might seem like a fruitless exercise but if the 2021 Tour de France has shown us anything then it is to expect the unexpected.
At this time, Cavendish’s primary rival is not Matthews, but the brutal Tour de France time cut.
Nine riders have felt the cool blade of the Tour de France axe so far in what some have dubbed the hardest edition in years. There are still two major Pyrenean stages to come for the peloton before the riders can really consider making it to Paris.
Thus far, Deceuninck-Quick-Step has nurtured Cavendish to the line on the tough mountain stages – sometimes with just minutes to spare – but it takes just one bad day to end a rider’s race. Just ask Luke Rowe.
“It’s relentless [in the gruppetto]. I’m lucky I have the guys with me,” Cavendish said on the rest day. “It’s become more scientific, and you can plan how much power you can use, and you can ride within yourself. That doesn’t mean you’re not on it all day. If we can get through the next three days, hopefully, we should be OK.”
If Cavendish does falter, Matthews will be there to step into green as the second-best-placed rider. He can’t rely on that and if he wants to give himself the best possible opportunity of climbing into the lead then he’ll have to take it to Cavendish on the harder days.
Matthews has done just that.
What chance does Matthews stand?
While Cavendish has not taken a single point in the green jersey competition since his win in Carcassonne last Friday, Matthews has got 64 under his belt – despite the best efforts of Sonny Colbrelli, who is in third place in the points classification and also slowly closing in on Cavendish.
With 84 points separating Colbrelli and Cavendish, the Italian has a much more challenging road ahead.
Matthews’ closing of the gap to the top of the standings has been a case of chipping away at the advantage. He has sought any opportunity that presented itself, culminating in a day in the breakaway during Tuesday’s stage 16.
The BikeExchange rider missed out on the full haul of points, which would have seen him reduce the gap to 22 points, but it keeps him in the hunt.
“I think that today was a good chance for a stage win for a rider like me. Our plan was to go in the breakaway, we achieved that, our plan was to get some points at the intermediate, we achieved that, and I just came up a bit short with the stage win,” Matthews said after the finish of stage 16.
“I’m closer, but not close enough. He’s still got two sprint jerseys in this Tour de France and if he wins those then that’s another 100 points, so all this work I’ve been doing for the last few days could be all for nothing but in the end, I’m a fighter and I’ll fight all the way to Paris.”
Jumping into the early breakaways to mop up the intermediate sprint could bring Matthews up to 40 points for his tally, enough to overcome the 37-point deficit he has. However, the challenge will be the final two sprint stages.
While he has contested some of the intermediate sprints on flat days, Cavendish does have the luxury of not needing to worry too much about striking out on the hilly stages as Matthews must do.
Over the years, the Tour de France organizer ASO has fiddled with the format of the points competition to make it more of a pure sprinter’s jersey. Peter Sagan upset that somewhat with his ability to consistently finish in the top places and an all-out bunch sprint and then have a go in the hills.
However, since 2019 the way the points have been dished out makes a sprint win even more precious. During Sagan’s lengthy reign in green, there were just 10 points between first and second on a flat day. Now, there is a 20-point gap between the first and second rider to cross the line in a bunch gallop – with 50 going to the winner and 30 to the runner-up.
That makes Matthews’ life a little more complicated over the coming days as Cavendish has not yet been beaten in any sprint that he has contested. If Cavendish can continue his 100 percent record – and make it through the mountains – then he has got the win in the bag.
“The green [jersey] is something through my whole career that the stages would take precedent and the green would come from that, and it’s the same now,” Cavendish said Monday. “It just came as a bonus. If we continue winning the sprints, we will arrive in Paris with green.”
But, once again, this is the Tour de France, and anything can happen.
It might not work out, but you’ve got to be in it to win it, and Matthews won’t get anything if he doesn’t try.