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92nd Tour de France - July 2-24, 2005

The Maillot Vert Contendahs!

Cyclingnews' chief online editor and canal sprint wannabe Jeff Jones reviews who's likely to be banging shoulders all the way to Paris in the 2005 Tour.

One of the many duels
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The green points jersey, or maillot vert competition was introduced in 1953, and has become the Tour's second most prized jersey after yellow. It's considered the sprinters' jersey, but it doesn't necessarily go to the best sprinter in the Tour, but the most consistent...and one who can survive the mountains. Many of the Tour's sprinters pack their bags as soon as the halfway point is reached and the road goes up above the treeline. There's also the need to fight out every bonus sprint along the road, because every point is important for the green jersey, and on more than one occasion, it has been decided in the finishing sprint on the Champs Elysées.

Past winners of the green jersey include Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Sean Kelly, Djamolodine Abdujaparov, Laurent Jalabert, Robbie McEwen, and Erik Zabel, the latter having won the green tunic a record six times in a row between 1996 and 2001. Zabel has always coloured the green jersey competition, and although he has lost out to Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke in the past few years, he has made them work hard for it. But his T-Mobile team decided that it didn't want to take him to the Tour this year in order to focus completely on Jan Ullrich and the yellow jersey. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the world's former number one sprinter, but in cycling, you are only as good as your last race.

A familiar sight.
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In the absence of Zabel, there are still plenty of contenders for the green jersey in 2005. Chief among these is McEwen, who won the jersey in 2002 and 2004 and was runner-up in 2003. He's a very experienced sprinter who can climb well enough to survive the mountains, and has been super fast this year, even winning a few head-to-head battles with Alessandro Petacchi on his home turf in the Giro d'Italia.

McEwen has a love-hate relationship with the maillot vert, as he told Cyclingnews in a recent interview. "The brutal honesty is that it's the most over-rated points competition in cycling - it's not always won by the best sprinter," he said, before adding, "But having said that, in 2002 and 2004 when I won it, I was the best sprinter of the Tour.

"It's things that, the things that people don't see about that competition are the worst things. Just constant stress - you know there's only one winner of the green jersey - and you could come into Paris being two or four points behind... one guy's standing on the podium with the green shirt on, and the other guy's got nothin'."

This superstar will be even bigger in '05
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On paper, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) will be considered one of the three top sprinters at this year's Tour, alongside previous points jersey champions, McEwen and Baden Cooke. The Belgian has had 11 wins so far this season, including two of the world's most prestigious classics, Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Boonen is a rider who can do a bit of everything, including putting himself on the front line to work for his team when needed. He can climb, and as long as he doesn't crash, he can finish the Tour with enough power to win the final stage, as he showed last year. Boonen will go for stage wins as a priority, but the green is also on his mind.

A chief rival of McEwen over the years for the green has been Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis), the freckle-faced Australian who has worn both yellow and green at the Tour, but never on the final podium. O'Grady is not a pure road sprinter, even though his track racing skills and positioning in the bunch means he can place well in the bunch kicks. But O'Grady is the danger-man in long breakaways, taking the bonus sprints and even surviving to the finish. While he's joked that he's got more chance of winning the mountains jersey rather than the green jersey, and now wants to concentrate on stage wins, his tenacity will keep the rest on their toes. If 'Stuey' racks up too many points and decides to go clear with a break, the others will definitely chase him down.

O'Grady's former teammate at Credit Agricole, Thor Hushovd, has had his eye on the green prize for the last few years too, and the burly Norwegian is starting to mature as a good bunch sprinter. He is also the type who can get in an all-day break and go for points that way, and will be a danger man for the maillot vert. Hushovd also has multiple Tour stage winner Jaan Kirsipuu for a teammate, and although Kirsipuu will almost certainly not be a challenger for green because of his climbing ability, it will be interesting to see how things unfold between the pair in the finishing sprints.

Big Thor's a powerful unit
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2003 points winner Baden Cooke (Francaise des Jeux) hasn't tasted success so far this year, but has come agonisingly close on a few occasions, the most memorable being in the fourth stage of the Giro d'Italia where he was pushed into the barriers as he was trying to come around Paolo Bettini. That accident knocked him around more than he wanted to admit at the time, but Cooke is a fighter and will be aiming to win a stage or two at the Tour. If that comes off, then he might think about the green again.

Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) is a bit of an unknown quantity, although he has shown that he can sprint, as well as being able to climb better than any of the other sprinters, even to the point that he can be a contender for a mountain stage. If he is consistent in the first week and is going for the bunch sprints, then he could put himself into a strong position in the mountains. But if he has the GC or only stage wins in his sights, then the green will not come into play.

With so many top sprinters challenging for the green, the likes of Robert Hunter (Phonak) and Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros) will have to be granted outsider's chances for the maillot vert. It's a competition that demands incredible consistency and speed, normally in that order. Who knows, it might again come down to the finish line on the Champs Elysées?

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