Sprint kings: Who will take the green jersey at the 2015 Tour de France?
Felix Lowe looks at the leading contenders for the green jersey at the Tour de France, including Britain's own Mark Cavendish.
Changes to the rules means the green jersey will be more fiercely contested than in recent years - but which sprinters can give Peter Sagan a run for his money in the 2015 Tour?
Sagan, now picking up a salary bigger than Oleg Tinkov thinks he's worth at Tinkoff-Saxo, won the green jersey at a canter last year to make it three from three since making his Tour debut in 2011. But could a new sprinter-friendly system with more points awarded to the winner of flat stages than on hillier stages shank the Slovakian speedster?
With the exception of the opening team time trial, the top 15 riders of each stage - and each intermediate sprint - will earn points in the green jersey competition.
No change there, then - but here's the thing: six flat stages (including stage two to Zeeland and the final stage in Paris) earn the winner 50 points; seven further stages in the medium mountains offer the winner a maximum of 25 points; and six mountain stages plus the individual time trial have a maximum 20 points up for grabs. Meanwhile, those daily intermediate sprints offer a maximum of 20 points running down to a solitary point on a sliding scale.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) in action in the Tour of CaliforniaAFP
The big change is the difference between points for the top three of the flat stages, with the breakdown of 50-30-20 (compared to 45-35-30 last year) clearly favouring stage winners (the Kittels) over the consistent high finishers (the Sagans).
It's for this reason that many have dubbed the changes "anti-Sagan" after the 25-year-old won a third successive green jersey last year on the back of regular top-five finishes despite failing to win a stage.
But Sagan fans shouldn't despair: were this system in place last year, the former Cannondale rider would have still picked up 377 points (as opposed to 431) and won the green jersey comfortably ahead of Katusha's Alexander Kristoff (265/282). Indeed, Giant-Shimano's Marcel Kittel - who won four stages - would still have only notched 238 points (just 16 more than his final tally of 222).
Anyway, all this is immaterial if you don't have it in your legs to win a bunch sprint. So who's looking zippy ahead of the Grand Depart in Utrecht on Saturday 4th July?
The pure sprinters
Mark Cavendish (c) of Great Britain and Omega Pharma-QuickStep sprints against Marcel KittelEurosport
It seems right to start with Germany's Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) - even if chronically poor form and lingering illness still threaten to jeopardise his place in his team's squad. For the past two years, Kittel has won Tour stages for fun - romping clear to notch eight grooves in his metaphorical bedposts including two victorious thrusts in Paris to take over Mark Cavendish's crown on the Champs-Elysees.
Now, however, Kittel is merely "proud" to have finished a race. The race in question? The ZLM Tour, where his best result over five days was not in a sprint but in the prologue, where he finished 13th. Unlucky for some? Well, the omens are not good. Kittel's only win this year has been in the People's Classic ahead of the Tour Down Under back in January.
Even if Kittel rolls down the ramp with his Giant-Shimano team-mates in Utrecht you get the impression that he'll be there to support team-mate John Degenkolb more than he will be to stem his flow of midseason mediocrity. Which is great news for Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) who has been somewhat eclipsed by Kittel in recent years. Sure, like his German rival, Cavendish is without a WorldTour win this season - but he has tasted victory in California, Turkey, Dubai and San Luis, as well as the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne semi-classic.
So, the evidence suggests that Cavendish is hitting the right notes - although he did only muster sixth place in a recent stage of the Tour de Suisse won by that man Sagan. With the likes of Italian duo Fabio Sabatini and Matteo Trentin, Germany's Tony Martin and habitual lead-out man Mark Renshaw of Australia likely to be part of Cavendish's train, it seems unfeasible that the 30-year-old Manxman will fail to add to his tally of 25 Tour stage wins this summer.
Etixx-Quick-Step rider Mark Cavendish (Reuters)Eurosport
Unfeasible - but not impossible. For the competition is not as it was when Cavendish dominated the sport back in his HTC days - and nor is crash-prone Cav as fast a finisher. Competition is still likely to come from former team-mate and old foe Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), who has been picking up wins fairly consistently this year - including one at the Giro d'Italia.
The German veteran will once again be able to call on the likes of Adam Hansen, Marcel Sieberg, Greg Henderson, Lars Bak and Jens Debusschere in what makes up cycling's equivalent to the famous Bullet Train in Japan. His experience coupled with the rough-and-tumble of his team-mates should mean Greipel benefits from the travails of his younger countryman Kittel and secures a stage win for the fifth successive year.
But of the pure sprinters, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is clearly the man to beat this July. The 27-year-old picked up a brace of wins in his second Tour last year and enters this race as the in-form sprinter of the season, with 18 wins to his name so far. Like Sagan, he may well have to ride without the support of a dedicated train - but a sprinter of his class can latch onto the back wheel of his rivals and use his sheer speed to ride clear.
From Kristoff we can expect a hat-trick of wins and a strong tilt at the green jersey. The Norwegian is current standard bearer for sprinters and - like the last rider from his country to win the points classification, Thor Hushovd - Kristoff can get over the hills, contest the intermediate sprints and finish consistently high.
The punchy finishers
Paris-Roubaix 2015: Giant-Alpecin with John DegenkolbAFP
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) heads this category although there's enough evidence to suggest that he may not be looking so much over his shoulder at the likes of John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) but straight ahead as they zip on further up the road.
Last year Sagan recorded just six wins - his lowest tally since turning pro in 2010. He has already matched that haul in 2015, including two superb scalps in Switzerland - a timely reminder of his supreme strength in the saddle. Now at Tinkoff-Saxo, Sagan will find himself having to juggle domestique duties for Alberto Contador with his own ambitions of a fourth successive green jersey. But opening week uphill finishes on the Mur de Huy and the Mûr-de-Bretagne could well provide Sagan with the platform to get back to winning ways in France.
There is a school of thought - one preached most noticeably by the rider himself - that Sagan's rivals have worked out how to trump him. He's no longer a surprise package who can triumph from a break but a marked man whose isolation should be exploited - take Tony Gallopin's stage 11 win last year in Oyannax, when Sagan had seemed a shoo-in for the victory.
If his rivals have his number and Sagan has to do it on his own because of a lack of support from his team, then July could well be a very long month for the charismatic showman - one that not only ends his run in green but also pretty much scuppers his future on Tinkov's payroll.
Utrecht, site of the grand depart for the 2015 Tour de FranceAFP
Degenkolb, on the other hand, is very much in the ascendancy - winning the two races Tinkov signed Sagan to win: Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. Although Degenkolb has tasted success on both the Giro and the Vuelta a Espana, the 26-year-old has yet to open up his Tour account after riding very much for team-mate Kittel the past two years.
A brace of wins in Bayern Rundfahrt last month showed Degenkolb still has speed in his legs following his early season monumental triumphs - and given Kittel's troubles, Giant-Shimano may shift their focus from one German to another this July. With those uphill finishes in Belgium and Brittany on the cards in the opening week, it's surely a matter of time before Degenkolb joins the three Tour club.
Like the German, Australian Matthews also seeks to add a Tour scalp to his previous victories in Italy and Spain. Trademark punchy wins in the Giro and, last week, the Tour de Suisse shows us that Matthews has what it takes, so we can expect the 24-year-old joining his more experienced rivals in what should be a thrilling three-way battle from the best uphill sprinters in the pack.
The home-grown talent
Nacer Bouhanni competing in the Criterium du DauphineAFP
Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Bryan Coquard (Europcar) and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) will all be sniffing out a maiden win in their home Tour next month. Bouhanni has the best chance. Denied a place in FDJ's roster last year at the expense of French national champion Démare, Bouhanni promptly jumped ship to Cofidis, for whom he opened his World Tour account with two impressive wins of surging, crescendo'ed brilliance in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné.
Sure, Bouhanni's train at Cofidis looks like something from Thomas the Tank Engine when pitted against the speedy Lotto locomotive at Greipel's disposal. But the 24-year-old possesses a fighting spirit unparalleled in the peloton - coupled with his admirable kick this could well see boxing Bouhanni finally join the big boys' club.
One thing's for certain: former team-mate Démare is unlikely to worry him. Just two minor wins this year is evidence enough that Mark Madiot perhaps backed the wrong horse last year. Europcar's Coquard on the other hand is an intriguing prospect. He may have lost his pilot Kevin Reza to FDJ in the winter, but two wins in the Route de Sud was a small reminder of his ability.
Seven top tens in his debut Tour last year will have whetted his appetite and should put Coquard in with a shout for a taste of the winning cake this July - but you get the impression he's still a bit short of reaching the heights required to dine at the top table.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) in action in the Tour des FjordsImago
Belgian classics specialist Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) will be motivated by stage three to Huy even if, in the grand scheme of things, his role will be one of providing support to Tejay van Garderen. Ireland's Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) is making his Grand Tour debut off the back of two wins in Bayern Rundfahrt but will struggle to compete against the big guns.
A lot has changed since Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) won two stages during the 2011 Tour. Loss of form and confidence, coupled with a gradual suffocation at Sky, knocked the stuffing out of the Norwegian, who now looks to rebuild his career in the Pro Tour's only African team. A stage win in the Tour de Fjords aside, there hasn't been much to write home about for Boasson Hagen, and even with the experienced Tylar Farrar on lead-out duties, the 28-year-old may struggle to return to winning ways.
And finally, Spanish national champion José Rojas (Movistar) has yet to win a Grand Tour stage and will find his options limited - if selected - given his team's dual focus on Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde.
Any more for any more? Have your sprinting say below...
Felix Lowe - @saddleblaze