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Tour Update

Mark Renshaw

[Bert Geerts, Bert Geerts/dcp-bertgeerts@xs4all.nl]

Is this year’s Tour the greatest or what? I know, I say that every year. And really, what’s going to top Greg LeMond’s victory over Laurent Fignon in 1990* 1989? But still, this is pretty special. The mountains always reveal the truth about the candidates to finish in yellow, and this year was no exception. We learned on Tuesday, in the ride from Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, that there are only two: Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. Everyone else? Forget it.

We now look forward to the arrival of the Tour in the Pyrenées Sunday, with mountain days Sunday to Tuesday, a rest day Wednesday, and then the climb up the Col du Tourmalet to complete Thursday’s stage. If Contador and Schleck haven’t settled matters by then, there’s the 52k time trial on Saturday. Given Contador’s time trialing superiority, the general belief is that Schleck better make a big more or two in the Pyrenées if he’s to retain his lead after Saturday.

Today we got to put all that aside and enjoy an extraordinary sprint finish between the usual specialist stars. As we entered the final kilometer, there were Mark Cavendish, Alessandro Petacchi, Tyler Farrar, Thor Hushovd, Robbie McEwen and their brethren, near the front and ready to pounce. Cavendish was led, as usual, by his fearless and brilliant leadout man, Mark Renshaw. Farrar was on teammate Julian Dean’s wheel. Hushovd looked like he might not be a factor. Petacchi’s leadout men were up front just before entering the final kilometer, but I can’t remember where Danilo Hondo or Petacchi’s other Lampre teammates were as the finish neared. Regardless, Renshaw took the lead, ready to launch Cavendish to victory, when Dean came up on him. They were side by side, and suddenly Renshaw was pounding his head rightwards against Dean, over and over again. It was wild. Cavendish, it appeared, decided he couldn’t wait any longer and blew by, but perhaps earlier than he wanted to. With Cavendish gone, Renshaw’s work was complete. But then, as he faded, he also drifted left, directly into the path of the oncoming Tyler Farrar. Farrar moved left too, almost into the barrier, finally getting by Renshaw and chasing after Petacchi, Cavendish being a lost cause by then. And that’s how it finished: Cavendish, Petacchi, Farrar.

Had Renshaw, between head butting Dean and drifting into Farrar’s path, cost Farrar victory? It appeared not, though maybe Farrar could have passed Petacchi for second if unimpeded. Cavendish looked spent as he stopped past the line, confirming that he had to sustain top speed far longer than desired. Renshaw’s banging against Dean, if anything, hurt Cavendish rather than helping him.

Versus was right on top of it in their television coverage, grabbing interviews with all four key participants: Dean, Farrar, Renshaw, then Cavendish. No one seemed overly upset. Dean, in particular, shrugged it off as the normal in-fighting among sprinters. As dramatic as Renshaw’s antics appeared, maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

That’s where matters stood when Versus went off the air. I left home for a meeting, checking only hours later to see what the Tour officials had done with Renshaw. I had a pretty good idea when I couldn’t find him listed in the standings for today’s stage. I headed to the Guardian’s daily article on the Tour, learning that officials had reacted with the harshest penalty imaginable — they kicked Renshaw out of the Tour.

If Mark Cavendish is all heart when he races, then his leadout man Mark Renshaw appears to ride with his head, but not in the conventional sense. Today, while Cavendish’s sprint to a 13th career Tour stage win was the end result, it was the incident that immediately preceded it which caught the eye: Renshaw bashing his head repeatedly against another wing man, Julian Dean, as he tried – successfully – to get the Kiwi to move aside to let Cavendish launch his winning effort.

It is not uncommon for sprinters to whack each other with their heads in the run-in to the finish as they battle for position behind what they feel is the wheel to follow. But headbutts are rarely ever seen in the very final metres of a stage, mainly because walloping another cyclist with the head destabilises the bike.

After the tussle with Dean, Renshaw could also be seen dropping back into the trajectory of the American Tyler Farrar – Dean’s leader in the sprint today and the eventual third‑placed rider on the stage – although it was impossible to tell if it was by accident or design, with Farrar having no option but to shove the Australian out of the way.

Renshaw deserved full marks for keeping control throughout but the judges were not looking for artistic effect. He might have argued that Dean had stuck his elbow out to hold him back, and that the Kiwi was attempting to close out Cavendish, but the race referees judged the manoeuvre to be dangerous and threw the Australian out of the race. As sprint shenanigans went, it was up there with the legendary episode at Marennes in 1997, when the Belgian Tom Steels let fly with a bottle at 40mph.

What effect will this have on Cavendish in the next sprinter stages? I’ll be watching closely.

*What ever was I thinking? I awoke at 2:30 this morning, some ten hours after writing the post, and suddenly realized I had put in the wrong year. LeMond won his third Tour in 1990, a Tour I have always suspected Miguel Indurain might have been able to win (instead of finishing tenth) if he weren’t required to drag his Banesto teammate and designated team leader Pedro Delgado up the mountains in a vain effort to get him on the podium. Delgado, the 1988 winner, finished fourth. In 1989, he finished third, though that could have been a different story too, if he hadn’t shown up late for the Prologue. He lost 2:40 on the first day, ultimately finishing 3:34 behind LeMond and 3:26 behind Fignon — I just looked up the numbers — with no one else anywhere near them.

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