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Manx Missile Miracle

[Christophe Ena, AP]

I realize few Ron’s View readers care all that much about the Tour. And here I am able to write about nothing else. Well, it will be over in two days. And after today’s stage, how can I not write about it?

So here we have Mark Cavendish, the Manxman himself, greatest cycling sprinter I’ve ever seen, winner of four Tour stages in 2008, six in 2009, five in 2010, and five more in 2011. The reigning world champion, he might have been expected to have just as strong a Tour this year, except that he’s with a new team and without the usual complement of leadout riders. How would he fare?

Despite minimal team support, he won the stage two closing sprint over André Greipel and Matty Goss. I wrote at the time that it wasn’t “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.”

Alas, fearless and tough wasn’t enough without the team to bring him to the front. He suffered bad luck with crashes on some stages, his teammates Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome emerged as far and away the best two riders in the Tour, and soon he was reduced to super doméstique: shuttling water bottles to Wiggins and Froome from the team car, setting the pace on early climbs of stages.

Meanwhile, André Greipel started playing the role of world’s best sprinter, thanks in part to Team Lotto’s well organized leadouts, and thanks too to his own immense talent. He and brilliant first-year rider Peter Sagan were trading stage victories. Cavendish was the forgotten man.

As the Tour left the Pyrenees yesterday, there were two flat stages left, today’s and Sunday’s ride into Paris. Winning the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées brings a special glory, glory Cavendish has earned three years running. Would he return to form in time for a fourth? Would Team Sky support such ambitions? Or would they ride safely, keeping Wiggins and Froome upright and nothing more? We might find out today.

Typical of a flat stage, there was a major breakaway group, the peloton picking up steam on the way into Brive-la-Gaillarde and catching breakaway riders one by one, until with a little more than 3km left, two of the breakaways — Luis-León Sánchez and Nicolas Roche — looked poised to duel for the stage victory, leaving the peloton just short of catching them. The top sprinters had moved forward within the peloton: Cavendish, Greipel, Goss, Sagan, Tyler Farrar. But the pace was fast and the meters were counting down.

Suddenly just outside of 2km to go, the yellow jersey wearer himself, Bradley Wiggins, took control, moving to the front of the peloton with Cavendish in tow and racing ahead. Still up front in the breakaway was teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen. Once caught, he joined the leadout, so we had Wiggins in front of the train, followed by Boasson Hagen and then Cavendish. And they were moving.

But so were Sanchez and Roche, eager for stage victory. With under 1km to go, his work done, Wiggins dropped off and left leadout duties to Boasson Hagen. Once he was spent, it was all up to Cavendish, still not yet up to the two leaders. Usually he goes at max speed for no more than 200 or 250 meters. Today, he went for 600. It was a miracle. First he shut down the gap to Sanchez and Roche, momentarily tucking into their slipstream. Was this it? Was he spent? Nope. Off he went, around them to the right, leaving them in his contrails and opening up a significant gap as he crossed the line victorious.

The other top sprinters were making progress of their own, but too little too late. Second and third went to Goss and Sagan. Then came the deflated Sanchez and Roche. Farrar, after a disastrous first week, is himself rounding into top form and took sixth. Greipel was never a factor, settling for 11th.

The Manxman is back!

In an interview shortly after the race, Cavendish explained that on the team bus before the start, the manager said they would have an easy day, keeping Wiggins and Froome safe. Cavendish implored the team to give him a shot. Wiggins agreed, repaying Cavendish for all he has sacrified on this Tour.

And suddenly the Sunday spin around Paris, back and forth between the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, is setting up to be high drama. Are we in for a Greipel-Cavendish showdown? Will Farrar and Goss be in the mix? No predictions here, but I’ll be watching, and I suggest that you watch too.

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Categories: Cycling
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