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Mark Cavendish

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A couple of hours ago, in writing about the weekend in sports, I mentioned the start of the Tour de France on Saturday and my plans to watch it over the next three weeks. Let me take a moment to single out the great young Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish. (Okay, so, I don’t want to be too obscure. Manx describes a cat breed, but Cavendish isn’t a cat. He’s from the Isle of Man, and that makes him a Manx as well. His nickname is the Manx Missile.) Cavendish is only 24, but he’s already the fastest sprinter in the world, and no one else is close. In his first Tour, last year, he won four sprint stages. This year he has already won the Tour’s first two sprint stages, yesterday and today. He’s cocky, he’s confident, and he’s great fun to watch.

Years ago, I thought the sprint stages were a waste, just something to pass the days between the time trials and the mountain stages. I didn’t understand. They rarely have an impact on the overall classification in the Tour, but they are strategically fascinating. And — and this is what I especially failed to understand — an individual Tour stage, however small a role it may play in determining the Tour’s overall leaders, remains more important than almost any other bicycle race of the long cycling season. For a sprinter, winning one of the flat stages can make a career.

Sprinters excel at reaching and maintaining top speed for about 300 meters. Today’s stage was almost 200 kilometers long, with some minor climbs early on and then a relatively flat route for the final 50 or so kilometers. Each team’s top sprinter waits for the final few kilometers to get positioned near the front by his team’s leadout riders. He might sit behind two or three of his riders. The first one maintains a high pace for a while, then drops off to let the next one continue leading the sprinter out. Finally, in just the last 750 meters or so, the main leadout rider will bring the sprinter to the front, and in the final 250 or 300 meters, the sprinter takes off. If he goes too early, he will run out of steam and be passed. If he times it just right, and if he has better legs than his competitors, he will surely win. This is what Cavendish has done the past two days. And he’s a wonder to watch. Yesterday the American rookie Tyler Farrar (a Washingtonian, from Wenatchee!) finished second. Today the veteran Norwegian Thor Hushovd was second. Neither had a chance.

Some sprinters grab a stage win or two early, then drop out in the mountains. Those who stick it out may get more stage wins later, and may even win the green jersey, representing consistency in the sprints across all the stages. I’m hoping Cavendish sticks it out. As long as he’s riding, I will be watching every sprint stage closely.

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Categories: Sports
  1. ljkarst
    July 7, 2009 at 8:18 AM

    Yes, Cav’s amazing: The first Briton to wear the pink jersey at the Giro, and now the first Briton to “retain” the green jersey in the TdF (I read that in an article in The Guardian–guess others have worn it for a day but then lost it). And if he can make it over the mountains and make the time cut, it sure looks like he’ll be the first Briton to win the maillot vert. Allez, allez!

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