Sagan: The Green Jersey Who Climbs

Peter Sagan is an enigma among Tour de France riders who’ve worn the green jersey in recent history. Not since Laurent Jalabert won the points competition in 1995 has there been a green jersey contender who doesn’t just rely on scoring points in mass-sprint finishes—even though Sagan has become pretty adept at that exercise, as he showed in Valence on Friday. But like Jalabert three decades ago Sagan is also comfortable in the mountains.

Words: John Wilcockson/Images: James Startt

This past week in the French Alps, Sagan continued scoring points at intermediate sprints while his nearest challengers for the green jersey, Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen, both dropped out of the Tour on Sunday’s stage to L’Alpe d’Huez, along with fellow sprinter André Greipel. None of those riders are capable of what Sagan has achieved in his career, such as winning weeklong stage races, including the Amgen Tour of California, Tour de Pologne and Giro di Sardegna.

The Tour organizers have tweaked the points allocation twice in the past eight years, trying to favor the “pure” sprinters by increasing a flat-stage win from 35 to 50 points, and increasing the intermediate sprint from six to 20 points. But Sagan has been able to adapt to those changes, winning the green jersey five straight times from 2012 to 2016; and last year, when he got (wrongly) thrown out of the race after three stages, he’d already won a stage and was lying third in the points competition, a few points behind Marcel Kittel and Arnaud Démare.

This year, Démare is now in third place in the race for green—but has an insurmountable points gap behind Sagan—while an out-of-sorts Kittel missed the time cut on the second alpine stage on Thursday, along with a far-from-fit Mark Cavendish. Alexander Kristoff, the man Sagan just out-sprinted to keep his rainbow jersey last year, is currently in second place in the points competition; but he too has only a remote, if not impossible, chance of catching Sagan by Paris.

Even so, after beating Kristoff and Démare to win stage 13 on Friday, Sagan said, “I have to be a bit closer to Paris before I can start doing a wheelie.”

Looking back through the list of green jersey champions since the “sprinters” competition was introduced to the Tour in 1953, it used to be almost routine for non-sprinters to take the green jersey. Among those who did win the competition include Sean Kelly and Freddy Maertens (who both won the Vuelta a España), along with Tour de France winners Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Jan Janssen and Ferdi Kübler. Sagan will never win a modern grand tour, but at age 28 Bora-Hansgrohe’s Slovak is already on target to equal the record of six green jerseys held by Germany’s Erik Zabel, who made his streak from 1996 to 2001.

Given his all-around strengths, Sagan can look forward to contesting at least three more stage wins at this Tour: at Carcassonne on Sunday, Pau next Thursday and the following Sunday in Paris—though he has yet to win on the Champs-Élysées. That would be the icing on the cake.