Rumours of Mark Cavendish‘s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Even without a lead-out train, on a hotly contested and technical finish, the Manx Missile took his 21st Tour stage victory in Tournai.
After Anthony Roux (FDJ-BigMat), the break’s last survivor, had been swept up with 14km remaining, an almighty battle for control ensued as one team after another rotated off the front ahead of a technical last 5km. The Lotto-Belisol train led under the flamme rouge, after mercilessly cutting off Orica-GreenEDGE’s bid to sneak up the inside.
Cavendish had started the final kilometre down in about 20th, but cleverly edged himself up onto Andre Greipel’s wheel. The German opened up the sprint with 200m to go, but Cav edged past to take victory by half a wheel. GreenEDGE’s Matt Goss was third, while sixth was enough to give Peter Sagan the green jersey lead. There was no change at the top of the GC.
Earlier Roux had been joined by Christophe Kern (Europcar) and Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank). The latter duly took the single point on offer to consolidate his King of the Mountains lead. The trio were easily hauled in, however, with the only real excitement being the intermediate sprint, where Goss held off Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) and Cavendish in a third-gear dress rehearsal for the finale.
VeloVoices rider of the day
As an unabashed Mark Cavendish fan, he’s an easy call as my rider of the day. This has not been the easiest of seasons for the reigning world champion, as he has bedded into a new team, Sky, which is not automatically built around him. His form has also been less prolific than we have become accustomed to, with just seven wins before today.
He has reportedly lost 4kg (9lb) since the Giro to help prepare for the forthcoming Olympic road race, which has led to much theorising that he has traded off top-end speed for climbing ability. Such fears seemed to be borne out by indifferent performances in the intermediate sprints both yesterday and today.
But here’s the thing. Cav is at his best (a) when he is written off and (b) in the big races. After a quiet early season, he claimed three stages at the Giro. And when the opportunity arose this afternoon, he put the lie to the naysayers who claimed he could not win without a lead-out train. His top-end acceleration may be slightly off his best, but he still remains the man to beat when the road is flat.
He was understandably ecstatic to have won a stage in which he essentially had to fend for himself, saying:
It proves why I have this [rainbow] jersey. It proves why I’m world champion.
Cyclists are hard men. Despite premature reports that he had abandoned with a broken collarbone, OPQS’ Tony Martin started the stage with his left wrist in a cast after breaking a scaphoid. He finished too, albeit over four minutes down, and hopes to be able to compete in the stage nine ITT, after which he will almost certainly withdraw. Most combative rider Roux also raced with an injured left wrist, sustained yesterday.
Argos-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel had been among the favourites for this stage but dropped back with stomach problems to finish 6½ minutes adrift. The team regrouped and helped Tom Veelers claim fourth spot. Impressive stuff from the wild-card outfit.
Today’s route took the peloton through a town called Silly, 43km from the finish. It shouldn’t be funny, but it is.
Finally, the day after a photo-seeking spectator caused a major crash in the peloton, Matt Goss was one of a number of riders to tweet that road furniture wasn’t the only thing getting in the riders’ way today:
Request to spectators: we a moving FAST on the roads and if you stand on the road and we hit you its gonna hurt both of us a LOT! #standback
— Matt Goss (@mattgoss1986) July 2, 2012
A brisk south-westerly headwind made the breakaway’s task a thankless and futile one – not that the sprinters’ teams were ever going to be denied their first opportunity at a bunch finish. As predicted, the closing 14km after Roux had finally been dispensed with was a brutal battle for supremacy as team after team surged to the front, only to be overhauled the moment they allowed the pace to dip by a fraction.
Why the testosterone overload? The first sprint of the Tour is all about establishing a pecking order for ‘right of way’ in the hurly-burly of subsequent stages. And that tension was heightened by the difficult layout of the final 5km: three roundabouts, a right-left combination (the first half of which bottlenecked nastily) and a long left-hander leading on to the final 700-metre straight. Crashes are common on technical finishes like this, especially so early in the Tour. Consequently everyone wants to be in the front. Not everyone can.
For individual riders, it’s all about position. With the Lotto-Belisol train imposing themselves in the final kilometre, Andre Greipel had an armchair ride to the finish behind three teammates. Behind him, however, it was carnage, and it was between the 1km mark and about 400 metres where the cool-headed Cavendish really won the stage. Passing under the flamme rouge in about 20th place and about ten bike lengths back, he astutely jumped onto the wheel of Oscar Freire, then switched wheels at least twice more before finally latching on to Greipel. It was instinctive sprinting of the highest order, reminiscent of the now-retired Robbie McEwen, and it meant that Cavendish didn’t need a train of his own – he simply created his own by following the right rival at the right time. Of his 21 Tour victories, this might just have been his greatest: not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
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