By John Wilcockson
One prize. Two men. Three sprints. That should be the story of the finalstage of the 2002 Tour de France.The prize is the green jersey for winning the prestigious points competition.The men are six-time defending sprint champion Erik Zabel and his Australianchallenger Robbie McEwen. And the sprints that will settle things are twointermediate ones and the final showdown on the Champs-Elysées.In recent years, the last stage has had a familiar pattern: an openinghour when the riders let their hair down, and the winners of the yellow,green and polka-dot jerseys ride alongside each other for photo ops. That’sfollowed by a quickening of the pace as the race nears Paris. And it culminateswith 10 laps of the 6.45km (4-mile) Champs-Elysées circuit racedlike a criterium at 50 kph.That scenario should again be followed, although like last year, whenAussie Stuart O’Grady was still wearing the green jersey starting the finalstage, those photos of the jersey leaders posing for the cameras may bea little premature. In 2001, Zabel came from two points behind O’Gradyto win by eight.This year, Zabel is only one point behind McEwen going into the 144kmstage 20 from Melun to Paris. The difference though is that McEwen hasbeaten Zabel in all the point sprints they have contested in the secondhalf of the Tour, whereas in 2001 O’Grady was never faster than the Germanin a one-on-one sprint.The two intermediate sprints Sunday score six, four and two points forthe first three across the line. Assuming there’s not an early breakaway,the first round in the battle will take place at Champs-sur-Marne, justas the stage enters the Paris suburbs along the valley of the Marne.McEwen lost two of his Lotto teammates to crashes in the first week,while Zabel still has all of his eight Telekom colleagues in the race.That could be an advantage for the German, but McEwen can still rely onhis best leadout man, the Belgian Hans De Clercq. A win for McEwen at Champs-sur-Marnewould put him three points ahead.The second sprint takes place when the peloton arrives on the Champs-Elyséesfor the first time. It won’t be a sprint on the finish line, but afterclimbing to the top of the avenue, just before the Arc de Triomphe. Bythis point in the race, it’s quite likely that a small breakaway groupwill be clear and take all the points, which would leave McEwen with histhree-point lead.That leads to the final sprint of the final stage. Remarkably, in thesix years that Zabel has won the green jersey, he has never won in Paris.He has come second four times, including 1999 — when the stage winner wasa less-experienced, not-as-powerful McEwen. A betting man would put hismoney on McEwen; but if the result of the stage is Zabel first, McEwensecond (or Zabel second, McEwen third), the German will take home an incredibleseventh consecutive title.When asked for his assessment the other night, yellow jersey Lance Armstrongsaid: “Anyone who has been watching the race can see that McEwen is fasterthan Zabel nine times out of 10.” Maybe Sunday will be No. 10.DETAILSOF STAGE 20: Melun to Paris, 144km.
INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS: Champs-sur-Marne (54km) and Champs-Elysées(Arc de Triomphe) (81km).
WEATHER FORECAST: This promises to be the hottest dayof the Tour, with near calm conditions, clear skies and temperatures inthe low-90s.