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Petacchi doubles up as Cavendish conundrum continues to confound

Stage 4: Cambrai > Reims (153.5 km)

On a stage tailor-made for the sprinters, Alessandro Petacchi won his second stage of this year’s Tour de France on a day when Mark Cavendish made it clear that he has already given up hope of winning the green jersey this year.

At 153.5km, today was the second-shortest road stage of this year’s race (only the final, ceremonial stage to Paris is shorter). Add to that a pancake-flat profile and three previous stages in which the majority of the sprinters had been denied their shot at a bunch finish, and this was always going to be a day when the breakaway du jour was never going to be more than an exercise in futility.

Nonetheless, Dmitri Champion of AG2R sparked a break early on and was quickly joined by Francis De Greef (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Nicolas Vogondy (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), Iban Mayoz (Footon-Servetto) and Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi). They never stood a chance. Their advantage was never allowed to extend beyond 3:13, an indication of the determination of the sprinters’ teams not to allow what was – after the crashes of stages one and two and yesterday’s cobble-stoned hell – their first real opportunity to execute a bunch sprint.

A relatively quiet day for the majority of the peloton (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

With the teams of the main yellow jersey contenders content to enjoy a quiet day in the pack, it was left to HTC-Columbia to do most of the work to reel the break back in, which was finally accomplished with three kilometres left. Having done the bulk of the work, the Columbia train found itself having to drive for home from further out than was ideal. Nonetheless, with about 250 metres to go, Mark Cavendish was in prime position, only to be caught out by Petacchi, who launched his sprint earlier, catching everyone by surprise and staying clear all the way to the finish line.

Stage 4 winner Alessandro Petacchi

Cavendish crossed the line in 12th. He sat up once he realised he could not catch Petacchi, suggesting he has already abandoned any hope of catching Thor Hushovd for the green jersey and is now seeking stage wins only, rather than maximising his points on each stage.

Petacchi was magnanimous when asked about Cavendish’s apparent lack of form after his win:

Cavendish is a great sprinter, don’t forget he won six stages last year. Sprints like this happen – it does not mean that I am faster than him or he is faster than me. He waited until the final 200 metres to do his sprint, but I caught him off guard by going before.

With Hushovd only finishing ninth, Petacchi has moved to within ten points of the Norwegian at the top of the green jersey standings. However, his threat will probably be short-lived, as the 36-year old has only finished the Tour once in his career, and that was back in 2001.

Cavendish’s frustration was obvious afterwards, as he threw down his bike, stormed into his team bus and shortly after dispatched his helmet through the open door.

The reasons for Cavendish’s apparent lethargy are unclear and certainly more complex than simply poor form. Certainly, his lead-out train misses the power of George Hincapie (now with BMC) and Kim Kirchen (Katusha, but currently recuperating after developing heart complications). And with Adam Hansen having already crashed out, the current squad is one man short. Today, they were further hampered by having to work so much on the front of the pack and then a slight incline to the finish, which slowed the lead-out enough to give Petacchi the opportunity to launch the early sprint which caught Cavendish off guard. And it could also be that Cav was feeling a bit heavy-legged having expended a lot of effort finishing hugh up the order on yesterday’s cobbled stage.

However, the Cavendish who carried all before him in 2008 and 2009 would still probably have overcome all of this to win today.

His team had differing views on today’s finish. Sprint consultant Erik Zabel, a six-time winner of the green jersey, suggested the biggest problem was a lack of form:

The team did a perfect job today. The only thing we missed today was Cav’s sprint legs from last year.

Key lead-out man Mark Renshaw, however, remained confident in his team leader:

It did not really work out too well today, I was at the front a little early. We are missing Adam Hansen and Michael Rogers in the lead out. It has not gone to plan yet, but I am sure Mark will win a stage. He has the legs and a good team behind him, with myself, Bernard Eisel and Tony Martin – we have a great team.

So where does this leave Cavendish? He is a rider who thrives on confidence, and his is at its lowest ebb since he turned professional in 2007. The green jersey – his stated objective this year – is all but beyond him already. All that leaves is the prospect of stage wins. He will have another golden chance to do so tomorrow, but if he does not take one of a handful of opportunities either side of the Alps, I think it is likely he will abandon before the monster climbs of the Pyrenees and perhaps look to salvage his season by entering the Vuelta in September.

Five days in, Mark Cavendish’s Tour is already at a crisis point. He will no doubt attack the problem head in the only way he knows how: by riding his bike as fast as he possibly can. But will it be fast enough?

Stage 4 result:

1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 3:34:55

2. Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions) same time

3. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) s/t

4. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) s/t

5. Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Transitions) s/t

General classification (yellow jersey):

1. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) 18:28:55

2. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +0:23

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:39

4. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +0:46

5. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) +1:01

6. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +1:09

7. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) +1:19

8. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +1:31

9. Alberto Contador (Astana) +1:40

10. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +1:42

Selected others:

13. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +1:49

14. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +1:49

18. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +2:30

24. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +2:53

47. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo) +3:20

Points classification (green jersey):

1. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 80 pts

2. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 70

3. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 62

4. Geraint Thomas (Sky) 56

5. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 49

Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):

1. Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) 13 pts

2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 8

3. Rin Taaramae (Cofidis) 8

4. Maxime Monfort (HTC-Columbia) 5

5. Matthew Lloyd (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 4

Stage 5 preview:

Start & finish: Épernay > Montargis

Distance & type: 187.5 km, plain

Prediction: Another day perfectly set up for a sprint finish. Expect it to be fought out by the usual suspects.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

9 Responses to Petacchi doubles up as Cavendish conundrum continues to confound

  1. It would be a sad end to Cav’s ambitions if he bows out before the Pyrenees. It’s been an exciting Tour so far, but it would be better still if it included Cav’s electric sprints and the expected battle between Cavendish and Hushovd for the green jersey.

    Petacchi has been a surprise, though.

    • Tim says:

      I agree. WIth Boonen and Haussler absent and Farrar still struggling after his crash injuries, the green jersey is turning into a battle of Thor vs the Old Fellas (Petacchi, McEwen) at the moment.

      Much though I want to see him in Paris, I do think that if Cav has not won a stage by the beginning of the Pyrenees, he will climb off. It just isn’t worth that much punishment when the only chance of a win he has after that is Paris, where the odds will be stacked against him if he hasn’t shown any form before then.

  2. frank says:

    does anyone remember Ali’s famous rope a dope trick?????

    never rule Cav out!

    • Tim says:

      For sure. There’s no question Cav (and his team) are not quite as strong as they were in 2008 and 2009, but he’s still right up there at the sharp end. With another day to take the strain of the cobbles out of his legs, he will stand a great chance of a win both today and tomorrow. But I do think the green jersey is gone unless Hushovd suffers a crash, disqualification or physical problem – he is too consistent and too good in the medium mountains for Cav to overhaul him on points now.

  3. Alice says:

    Petacchi has been very impressive but I’d hate to see Cavendish quit the race. I also hate to see Armstrong in 19th place overall, but anything can happen though, which is what makes the Tour so exciting to watch.

    • Tim says:

      Hi Alice, thanks for popping over.

      It’s early days yet. Not much will change until they hit the Alps, but Lance will undoubtedly move up the order in the mountains. The onus will be on him to attack to recover some of the time lost on stage 3, so expect him to feature heavily. It should be exciting stuff.

      I’m a huge Cav fan, so I would hate to see him drop out, but if he can’t find his form quickly it is probably the best thing for him in the long run – there’s no point putting hard miles on the clock just for the sake of finishing the race. After all, there’s so much of the season still left, not least the Worlds and the Vuelta.

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