Cycling: Cavendish's green jersey quest thrown into a spin by rule change

Briton unsure how new scoring system for the sprints will affect his chances of winning coveted prize as Tour starts today

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The Independent Online

With 15 stage wins in the last three Tours de France, it goes without saying Mark Cavendish and his HTC-Highroad team are confident that when the race starts today victory number 16 will be fast looming on the horizon.

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But when it comes to challenging for the green jersey, which has been Cavendish's target for the last two Tours, it's a slightly different story.

Radical changes in the way the points are amassed in the battle for green (see below) will see Cavendish and his team, despite all their experience and sprinting superiority, forced to think on their feet and improvise strategies during the race itself.

The crux of the change is that the so-called "intermediate sprints" – held during the stage – have been cut from three to one, and the points on offer have been more than tripled, from six to 20. In effect, Cavendish and the other fast men will be strongly tempted to sprint twice on each flat stage (once for the finish line and once in the sprint due to the higher amount of points), not just once at the end, particularly given the points offered at the finish of the stage remains stable at 35.

It's a given that the typical pattern of these first week stages, crucial for Cavendish's chances of becoming Britain's first ever winner of the Tour's green jersey, will change as a result. But nobody knows exactly how.

"I've never known a system like this, in any race, it's new ground for everybody and it's going to be difficult," said the former pro Erik Zabel, the all-time record holder of green jerseys in the Tour and an adviser for Cavendish at HTC-Highroad.

"Even if there is a break of three or four riders, say, there will still be points on offer in the bunch [finish at the end]. The sprinters will be under a lot more pressure. There will be no escape for Cavendish." As for whether Cavendish would benefit from the changes in the points system, the man himself said yesterday: "We won't know until we ride.

"You can ask that question after next year's Tour or the one after that. You can predict but you won't know until you do it."

At the same time, yesterday HTC-Highroad seemed determined to keep their options open – particularly given the exceptionally hilly first week in this year's Tour – to the point where they could combine Cavendish's bid for green with a challenge for the same target by his sprinter team-mate, Australian Matt Goss.

While Cavendish remains their unquestioned main man for "standard" bunch sprints, the 25- year-old Tasmanian has proved he is tough to beat on stages with shallow, long final climbs, exactly today's uphill draggy finish on the Mont des Alouettes.

"He's a different sprinter to me," Cavendish said. "Stages I won't necessarily get to the finish, Goss will get to the finish. It adds to the strength of our team."

Asked if he would be willing to work for Goss if the Australian got green, or even act as his lead-out man – guiding him into position before Goss went for the final sprint – Cavendish answered with a simple "Yes, of course I would.

"That's a given in our team. It does not matter who wins in our team, we just want to win."

"It's not like Cavendish is our only option," added Zabel. "It's all about communication and being honest. Even in the last kilometre there's always the chance that Cavendish could say 'hey, Gossy, I don't feel so good, go for it'."

Cavendish has not always been so welcoming of other sprinters in his Tour squad: former team-mate, German André Greipel, and Cavendish were always rostered at different races and last season Greipel left HTC-Highroad after failing to be selected three years in a row for the Tour.

"He's German, he rides for Omega Pharma-Lotto and he was in my team last year," was Cavendish's terse comment to rate Greipel's chances against him. Greipel or no Greipel, the presence of Goss, the far tougher first week and a completely different set of criteria for getting points and the green jersey all provide complications to a previously straightforward situation for the Briton.

Up until now, Cavendish has always placed all his chips on one square, going for victory in the bunch sprint finish, because that was where maximum points were on offer and as Cavendish put it, "one way to win the green jersey is to win a lot of stages. I try to do both.

"But it's a harder Tour this year, a lot more uphill finishes and we'll have to adapt to each stage as it comes."

Condition-wise, there is no doubt that Cavendish is in much better shape than at the start of last year's Tour – a deliberate choice given the Tour's increased difficulty.

"You [have to] come here better prepared. If it's flatter you come with a bit of extra weight for the sprints. If it's harder you come leaner.

"That might take a bit off your top end speed, but it means you're going to get to the finish."

However, Cavendish's adviser Zabel says the changes in the points system means it will be certain, too, that Cavendish will now have to go for the intermediate sprints as well.

"He lost the green jersey by 13 points to [Thor] Hushovd two years ago, and 11 points to [Alessandro] Petacchi last year, so we've had a discussion about why he should do that," Zabel said.

"That's new but for all teams it's a completely new situation. In the first three stages there will be a lot of sprinters' squads looking at each other.

"That's why there's so much discussion. You [the journalists] and us, the teams, we have no clear idea where we have to put our energy and focus."

That is something that will only become clear in what promises to be a highly unpredictable first week of the Tour.

*Police last night impounded the Belgian team Quick-Step's tour bus and were going over it with a fine-tooth comb.