Two days ago, in my first report on this year’s Tour, I wrote that today was likely to be the first day for the sprinters to show their stuff. It was a flat stage, in Belgium once again, as they rode 207 km from Visé to Tournai.
Would my hero, Mark Cavendish, rise to the occasion? Or, as he has suggested, was he a little off form this year because he is looking to peak for the Olympics in London? Keep in mind as well that Cavendish is riding for a new team this year, without the support of his great leadout partner Mark Renshaw.
And the change in team showed. The peloton reeled in a breakaway group with over 10km left, came into Tournai, and the racing became furious. German sprinter André Greipel was in good position, with teammates leading the way. Cavendish was visible in his world champion jersey, not far off the lead but without team support. As other riders fell away in the final kilometer, Greipel moved up, with Cavendish on his wheel. Greipel made his move. Cavendish stayed close. But the gap was closing slowly. Very slowly. With maybe 100 meters to go, Cavendish was still a half wheel behind. There couldn’t have been much more than 15 meters to go when he finally drew even, grinding out a victory by less than half a meter.
Not the sprint we’ve seen so many times before, where he is led out by a teammate, then rockets ahead, with open space to the next rider. But he’s fearless, and tough, and knows how to harness his energy. An extraordinary win, good for his 21st career stage victory at the Tour. Which puts him one behind Frenchman André Darrigade, the only sprinter with more. And one behind Lance Armstrong. (André Leducq has 25, Bernard Hinault 28, Eddy Merckx 34. Speaking of Merckx, it was great to see him on the podium yesterday, greeting the leaders in the various classifications. The King of Belgium today, the King of Cycling yesterday.)
Questions had been asked of Mark Cavendish before this week but as so often he had an emphatic answer: in this case the 21st Tour de France stage win of his career in the grand manner. Forced to function without the “train” of dedicated domestiques who helped him win most of the first 20 stages of his career, the Manxman won solo: he glued himself to the wheel of the German André Greipel in the final kilometre then clawed his way past his former team-mate to take the win by less than half a wheel.
If Cavendish has indeed sacrificed a little finishing speed in his quest to become Olympic road race champion in London, as he says he has, he clearly remains more than rapid enough. This was a chaotic sprint, which got going only with 3km remaining after a lengthy east-west run through Wallonia which took longer than scheduled into a moderate south-westerly breeze. Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol team made the running, with the former Sky sprinter Greg Henderson setting the pace until the final metres. Finally Cavendish emerged for the head-to-head with Greipel, the German on the left, the Manxman on the right, with the next man, Matt Goss, several lengths behind. It was not as seamless as in the past, when Mark Renshaw set the pace for Cavendish, but in its way it was just as spectacular.