BERGERAC, France (CT) – When Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) was controversially expelled from the 2017 Tour de France, it seemed as if the battle for the points classification had been thrown wide open. Sagan had won green for each of the past five years, and was the unbackable favourite to do so again, but his expulsion on stage 4 meant other riders now had a realistic chance.
But six stages later, the battle for green appears to be a one-horse race once more.
On Tuesday’s stage 10, Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors) galloped to his fourth stage win of the Tour so far, putting several bike lengths between himself and his rivals. It was another commanding performance from the big German, and one that further extended his lead in the fight for green.
Prior to stage 10, Kittel had sat 52 points clear of his nearest rival, Michael Matthews (Sunweb). After taking fourth in the stage 10 intermediate sprint, and winning the stage, Kittel’s lead is now 102 points. Despite his strong lead, the charismatic fastman is far from convinced he’s got the green jersey sewn up.
Speaking in his winner’s press conference after stage 10, 29-year-old Kittel pointed to the example of Frenchman Arnaud Demare (FDJ) who won the now-infamous fourth stage but then missed the time cut and was eliminated on stage 9 after falling ill.
“Basically I look at the green jersey classification as by far not decided because one missed chance, getting sick —Arnaud Demare is maybe the best example — can destroy everything that happened before,” Kittel said. “I think it’s very important to see it day by day and to focus on … getting points at the intermediates and at the end of the sprint stages.
“Even on stage 20 something can go wrong, or on stage 21, and I personally prefer to act like I don’t have the green jersey on my shoulders at the moment because we saw also two days ago for the GC guys the race can be very quickly over.”
Kittel identified Michael Matthews, Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) as his biggest rivals in the race for green. They sit second, third and fourth in that classification respectively, but none was able to challenge Kittel on today’s stage — Kristoff was fourth, Greipel was 12th and Matthews was 13th.
Matthews yelled out in frustration when he crossed the line and later had his head bowed for several minutes at the team bus, prompting Nikias Arndt to come over and console his Australian teammate. Speaking to the press a short time later, Matthews described himself as “devastated” and expressed his disappointment in the Sunweb lead-out train.
“Normally we’ve been going quite well. Today was really one of the days where we needed to nail it, and we didn’t,” Matthews said. “I don’t know if there was a miscommunication with the lead-out train today, but we weren’t where we said we wanted to be in the [pre-race team] meeting and it left me a long sprint to try and even get into the top 15 to even [get] into the points.”
The result comes as a blow to Matthews and his Sunweb team, who had been working towards dual ambitions of winning a stage and fighting for the points classification. While a stage win has eluded the 26-year-old Australian thus far, he’s posted some strong results — four top 10s in 10 stages, including second on stage 3, and third on stage 7.
He’s also raced hard to contest the intermediate sprints — a clear signal of his intent to fight for green — most significantly on stage 9. On that day Matthews fought his way into the day’s big breakaway, dragged himself over two big mountains, and then won the intermediate sprint. It’s a strategy that Sagan has used to great effect in recent years and one Kittel admits he’s wary of when it comes to Matthews.
“He survived two hors categorie climbs and won the sprint afterwards — there is nothing I can do against it,” Kittel said with a chuckle. “I think it’s not a surprise that he, for example, is that strong and can do it but for me I have to do my work now in the flat stages and get the points here and hope that it’s enough.”
Kittel isn’t yet out of opportunities to extend his lead. Stage 11 and 21 will almost certainly end in a bunch kick, and stage 16 and stage 19 could be decided that way as well. Matthews, meanwhile, will be one of the riders to beat on stage 14, a stage which has a short uphill finish (570m at 9.6%) that should suit the Australian. He was second on a similar finish to stage 3, behind the now-departed Peter Sagan.
But after today’s disappointing result, Matthews admits it’s time to consider whether his tilt at the points classification is over.
“I think that’s something we’ll have to discuss tonight, whether we keep going for it or give it a miss and stop going for the intermediates and just focus on stages,” he said. “I think if you want to go for that jersey you need to be up there every single day. Until now I’ve been pretty consistent but with this finish, it’s a bit disappointing.”
Kittel, meanwhile, is enjoying the sort of confidence that only comes after winning four stages of the Tour de France. It’s the third time Kittel has achieved that feat (after 2013 and 2014), but this year is different.
“I think I can say I’m the strongest Marcel at the moment,” he said. “I’ve never felt better.
“I think I’m in a very good condition and that’s something that is for me also a big achievement, something that … it gives me confidence to know that I did everything in a good way, that the planning worked out, that I came fresh into the race and that’s also the difference to the year before, maybe.”
In his press conference after winning stage 2, Kittel was asked whether he thought he could win the green jersey at this year’s Tour de France. He answered, somewhat prophetically, “The only way you can win the jersey, I think, is by Peter Sagan getting sick or having to leave the race because of another reason.”
With Sagan gone, and Kittel clearly the strongest of the sprinters, it’s hard to see the German losing the green jersey from here. Then again, if there’s one thing we’ve been reminded of at this year’s Tour de France, it’s that the unpredictable can and will happen, particularly when it comes to the big names.