The points classification at the Tour de France suffers from more than its share of tinkering. The idea of a points system was conceived for the 1905 Tour (to combat "irregularities" from 1904), when the overall winner was decided by using each stage's ranking and awarding that number of points to the rider. Louis Trousselier of France won ten of the 11 stages, accumulating only 35 points, to win the Tour de France ahead of Hippolyte Aucouturier (61 points) and the rest. By 1913 the points system was junked in favor of the overall-time system that was used in the first two Tours and remains in use today, but for the Tour's 50th anniversary a points system was brought back for a secondary classification, and the concept of most consistent rider was born.
Before 2011, the Tour employed four classifications (for flat, bumpy, high mountain and time trial stages) and from 1989 added intermediate sprints to the classification (they had their own separate jersey beforehand). Starting two years ago the Tour increased the winning totals from 35 to 45 for flat stages, greatly emphasizing the quality of flat-stage sprinting over consistency across the various types of terrain, and created a single intermediate sprint worth up to 20 points, as opposed to several sprints worth up to six points. British fastman Mark Cavendish immediately cashed in against a modest field of sprinters ... and the points classification became the sprinter's classification for the first and perhaps last time, at least for a while.
Because back in 2011, Peter Sagan was still considered a bit young, and his Liquigas (now Cannondale) team had ambitions for the Yellow Jersey, something they didn't see Sagan contributing toward. Sagan went to the Vuelta a Espana to do what all young racers do, building up muscle and mental endurance for the three-week format before being thrown into the harder and more intense Tour de France environment, and won three stages for his troubles. By 2012 Cavendish was on notice, and understandably worried. Wearing the Rainbow Jersey of the world champion, Cavendish's Sky team had its eyes on the big prize, not his green jersey defense, and all the world could tell that Sagan was going to be trouble. Sure, he could sprint almost as well as Cavendish -- who to this day is more or less without peer in the last 50 meters of a stage. But Sagan had also dominated the Tour of California like nobody's business, with five stage wins and an even more remarkable second place in the race to Big Bear Lake ... a climber's stage. You see, Sagan can climb and sprint. Which means he can get to the finish line with the leaders almost every day (save for the days in the Alps and Pyrenees), which means he can finish off maybe 4-5 sprints in the three weeks where Cavendish will be minutes behind.
The math didn't add up for Cav (a poor climber) last year, and it went south in a hurry as Cavendish got dropped on several early sprint stages when the road went up. By the end of stage 12, Sagan had reduced the entire Green Jersey field to a puddle of screaming jelly, and won the competition by 141 points. Such dominance demands, and usually receives, a response, and it got one when Cavendish joined the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team for 2013, a Belgian squad with little interest in the yellow jersey and decades of experience winning sprints and tricky stages. They committed to Cavendish for the Tour, and Cav did his part, working on his climbing to keep things respectable enough on those days which favored only Sagan, as well as the days when maybe, just maybe, he could claw his way back into the field in time to unleash his devastating cannonball-style sprint. [Cav is small and gets down low, winning more out of lack of wind resistance than anything else.]
The results? After seven stages, it's Sagan 224, Andre Greipel 130, Cav 119. Game over. Seriously, it's going to get worse before it gets better.
As usual, the culprit is Sagan's climbing ability. On Friday's rolling stage, Sagan made it over the second-category Col de la Croix de Mounis in southern France's Department de la Tarn, which enabled Sagan to sprint for the 20-point intermediate and the 45-point final prizes in relative peace, with neither Greipel nor Cavendish in tow. He did both, and made another interesting statement along the way. The Croix de Mounis and the other smaller climbs in today's stage were not enough to devastate Cavendish and co, as Cannondale generally held a two-minute advantage over the chasing teams. Greipel's squad, Cav's squad and the Argos-Shimano team of Marcel Kittel all took a shot at closing the two-minute gap. But up ahead, Cannondale were thundering home, maintaining the gap for a grueling 110 kilometers, knowing that if they could eliminate Cav and Greipel from the sprint, it might just settle their No. 1 objective, Sagan's green jersey defense, with barely one week of the Tour in the books. A stitch in time it was. Cannondale can't just take the rest of the Tour off, but their awesome display of power today bought them an almost unsquanderable buffer of comfort over their competition for Le Tour's No. 2 prize.
The game within the game was dramatic. Numbers don't tell the story of the ashen looks on the faces of Group 3, the Cav/Greipel peloton, when they collectively gave up and took their foot off the gas. There were less than 30 kilometers remaining in the stage, but Cavendish managed to finish not two minutes in arrears but over 14 minutes back. When the chasing group gave up, it was a low moment beyond what you normally get to witness in professional sports. I haven't seen any quotes from Cavendish or Greipel from the aftermath, and that's probably not a coincidence. Defeat was written on their faces, they presumably don't care to have to voice it as well.