Essentially it is the sprinters' jersey – with the competition not necessarily won by the fastest man in the peloton, but the most consistent finisher over the three weeks.
Points are awarded at the finish of each stage, with more up for grabs on flat stages likely to end with a bunch sprint. There are also – crucially – points available at one intermediate sprint during each stage, whether it's flat, hilly or mountainous. There are even points on the table for the ITTs.
According to the Tour's official handbook, the breakdown of points is as follows:
- For 'flat' stages: 45, 35, 30, 26, 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 points for the first 15 riders
- For 'medium mountain' stages: 30, 25, 22, 19, 17, 15, 13, 11, 9, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 points
- For 'high mountain' stages: 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 points
- For individual time trial stages: 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for the first 15 riders
- For each intermediate sprint: 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 points
While many people have the yellow jersey down as a two-way battle between Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans, the green jersey competition looks to be wide open – with half a dozen riders all with a huge chance of topping the podium in Paris in the maillot vert.
Sponsored by PMU, the state-owned betting company, the green jersey competition requires riders to take huge gambles when riding at break-neck speeds. What's more – having a punt on the ultimate winner is a mug's game this year, such is the numerous potential outcomes. Let's take a look at some of the contenders...
Favourites for the green jersey
There's no debating that on his day Mark Cavendish is the fastest man in the peloton – but that will not make him favourite to defend the green jersey. Now at Team Sky, for the first time in his career Cavendish will ride a Tour de France within a team that holds genuine aspirations for the GC.
While British supporters hope that Cavendish and Wiggins can both go about their green and yellow business alongside one another, there reality is that Cav has seen his lead-out train reduced in numbers. Bernie Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen are a superb duo to have – but the Manxman will miss Welshman Geraint Thomas, who has decided to focus on his preparation for the Olympic.
While green may not be a priority for Cavendish, you can safely assume that should he pick up a few early wins and take the maillot vert, he'll be keen to protect it for as long as possible. The question is whether or not he will stick in the race all the way to Paris – the allure of the Olympics in London may just prove too much, especially after what happened in the Giro.
Contrasting with Team Sky's compromised sprint train, the Lotto Belisol team of former team-mate and old foe Andre Greipel is pretty daunting. With Greg Henderson, Adam Hansen, Marcel Sieberg and Jurgen Roelandts reunited around Greipel for the first time since the German's dominant Tour Down Under showing, you have to bet on the Gorilla adding to his solitary Tour stage win. But it still, perhaps, won't be enough to see him ride into Paris wearing green.
Orica GreenEdge's Matt Goss, another former team-mate of Cavendish, was the only sprinter who could match the world champion for speed in May's Giro d'Italia and the Australian will hope to continue his new team's fine start to their debut season. Riding his second Tour, Goss may struggle when up against the speed of the man he used to lead out or the sheer numbers of Lotto Belisol.
A more likely threat will come from German fast-man Marcel Kittel, who picked up a win in the Vuelta, his debut Grand Tour, last September and has had a convincing campaign so far for the Argos-Shimano team. Taller and more powerful than Greipel, Kittel will not have a similar train as his countryman and so will perhaps rely on shadowing Cavendish until the sprints are led out.
The dark horse among the favourites, however, has to be Slovakian sprint sensation Peter Sagan. Still only 22, the Liquigas all-rounder won five stages in the Tour of California in May and four stages in the Tour de Suisse earlier in June. Strong and consistent over all terrains, Sagan is just the kind of guy who can pick up points on a regular basis both at intermediate sprints and in the finales – much like two-time former green jersey winner Thor Hushovd (sidelined for BMC).
Much has been said about Sagan's expected showdown with Cavendish this July and it will be interesting to see how the youngster fares in bunch sprints alongside the world champion. But one thing is for sure: Sagan will be bent on riding all the way to Paris, and that could well make him favourite for green. He won three stages in his debut Grand Tour in Spain last year – who's to say he can't have a similar effect on the Tour, especially given his current swashbuckling form.
Jose Joaquin Rojas's consistency is borne out by the fact that he pushed Cavendish right to the end in last year's fight for the green jersey – despite not winning a single stage during the three-week race. A constant presence in the top five of most bunch sprints, the Spaniard from Movistar will need to post a win or two if he wants to have a chance of taking the maillot vert this year – especially given the presence of debutants Sagan and Kittel, as well as the resurgence of Greipel.
Two years ago, expectations were high for American Tyler Farrar following victories in both the Vuelta and the Giro. But the Garmin-Sharp sprinter has suffered over the past year or so, despite completing his Grand Tour collection with a win in last year's Tour. Not as fast as any of the peloton's current crop of top sprinters, Farrar will struggle to have a say in matters this summer – especially given his team's new-found focus on the GC following Ryder Hesjedal's winning performance in the Giro.
Belgian Philippe Gilbert wore the yellow jersey after winning the opening stage of last year's race but has struggled to replicate his all-conquering form of last season since joining BMC. With the wins having dried up and BMC's focus on retaining Evans's maillot jaune, Gilbert may find it hard to make a big impression in the race. Without team-mates to help him position himself in the bunch sprints, Gilbert will rely on his trademark burst of pace on the race's uphill fast finishes.
Three-time world champion and 2008 green jersey Oscar Freire lines up for Katusha after his winter switch from Rabobank but it's too much to ask of the Spaniard to amass enough points to make an impression in 2012. Two wins this season shows that the veteran still has what it takes, but Freire will nevertheless find it nigh-on impossible to get a look in on the flat bunch sprints, such is the calibre of those around him.
Veteran Italian Alessandro Petacchi has not won a stage on the Tour since 2010, when he took the green jersey. The Lampre sprinter was a force in his day but now struggles to keep up with his opponents. A stage looks unlikely in itself, making green pretty much unreachable for Ale-Jet.
It would also be a surprise to see Edvald Boasson Hagen accumulate more points than his Team Sky colleague Cavendish – although the Norwegian will certainly aim to finish the race, which could make him an outside bet for the green.
Mark Renshaw has looked out of sorts as Rabobank's main sprinter this season, the Australian clearly finding the step up from Cavendish's lead-out man to Cavendish's opponent a bridge too far.
Bjarne Riis may have high hopes of Argentinian sprinter Juan Jose Haedo picking up some much-needed UCI points for his Saxo Bank team this July but given the fierce competition it's hard to imagine someone with such an inferior kick in relation to those around him making much of an impression.
Belarusian Yauheni Hutarovich may have won a stage on the 2010 Vuelta but the FDJ sprinter is clearly out of his depth in such exalted company and should be rendered a mere spectator. The same can be said of both Astana's Borut Bozic and Vacansoleil-DCM's Kenny van Hummel, who are just not of the same class as the top dogs.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Gerald Ciolek, once seen as Germany's natural successor to Erik Zabel, is now divisions below compatriots Greipel and Kittel in the sprinting league, while Frenchman Tony Gallopin of RadioShack will have to settle for the odd top-10 finish – much like Cofidis pair Leonardo Duque and Samuel Dumoulin.