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Breathless Cavendish leaves the field gasping in his wake again

Stage 18: Salies-de-Béarn > Bordeaux (198 km)

Team HTC-Columbia will no doubt enjoy a well-earned glass of wine tonight in Bordeaux, as Mark Cavendish delivered his 14th career Tour de France stage win, the fourth of this year’s race, despite having struggled through the Pyrenees with bronchitis. He becomes only the third rider ever after René Le Grèves and Eddy Merckx to win four or more stages in each of three consecutive Tours.

Mark Cavendish wins stage 18, his fourth of the 2010 Tour (image courtesy of Team HTC-Columbia/TDWSport.com)

Day-long breakaways rarely succeed in modern stage races. Groups are generally not allowed to escape until the peloton is happy with their composition, assessing their number and participants first and then reeling in any attempted break they deem unsuitable or too dangerous. Simple physics counts against them too, as the members of a small group have to share the workload more, and have to expend additional energy because they enjoy less shelter from the wind. And with modern communications, with every rider wired up to their team cars, who in turn receive updated information over the official race radio system, the pacing and timing of the ‘catch’ can be timed with military precision. Certainly, unless it is tactically convenient to allow a break to stay away, the odds of a day-long escape arriving at the finish without being swallowed up by the seething mass of the peloton are vanishingly thin.

There can be few experiences in cycling as disheartening as the moment the cars that follow a breakaway peel away, indicating to the riders that the main bunch has closed to within 30 seconds. It is effectively a death knell. Once the hunter has the prey within sight, the catch is inevitable.

But there is always a chance. Every now and then something disrupts the pack’s pursuit. There could be an accident, a lack of organisation as teams squabble at the front, or maybe even an under-estimation of the impact of terrain or narrow, twisty roads. It can happen, and it is that tantalising possibility – however minuscule – which provides the incentive for a long, hard day in the saddle.

And, of course, there are commercial drivers behind riders featuring in a breakaway. From a team perspective, it is an opportunity to give sponsors valuable airtime. And from an individual standpoint, there is always the glory that comes with being a Tour de France stage winner – and the improved chances for a renewed or better contract. For the majority of the riders in the Tour – who are neither sprinters nor climbers and have no expertise in the time trials – a breakaway is the only way they will ever win a stage.

Today, the four riders cast in the role of cannon fodder were Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank), Daniel Oss (Liquigas-Doimo), Benoît Vaugrenard (FDJ) and former King of the Mountains leader Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step). They were the anointed group who were allowed to slip away after 11 km, but never permitted an advantage of more than 3:35 – the equivalent of being kept on a tight leash – by a Columbia-led peloton clearly intent on a bunch sprint.

Oss briefly threatened to disrupt the plan, leaping away from the rest of the tiring group with 14 km to go, but the sprinters’ teams were never seriously discomforted and duly completed the catch just inside four kilometres from the finish.

Inside the final kilometre, Cavendish was left alone without a teammate to fill the role of pilot fish normally achieved so effectively by Mark Renshaw, but the Manx Missile demonstrated that, in the absence of the best lead-out man in the world, he can manage perfectly well fending for himself. With an immaculate sense of positioning and timing, he hopped from the back of the Sky train set up for Edvald Boasson Hagen to grab Thor Hushovd‘s wheel. And then as Alessandro Petacchi launched his trademark long-range sprint into the headwind with 275 metres to go, Cavendish simply switched wheels, turned on full gas, and flew to the front as if he was the sole beneficiary of a localised tailwind. With 50 metres to go, and leading by around five lengths, he even had the luxury of being able to look over his shoulder and stop pedalling.

This was no ordinary victory. It was a rout.

The bulk of the peloton crossed the line together, so there is effectively no change in the GC, and the final placings will depend on tomorrow’s 52 km individual time trial, with Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck separated by just eight seconds, and a meagre 21 seconds between Samuel Sánchez in third and Denis Menchov in fourth.

After the stage, Cavendish confirmed how ill he had been over the past four days:

I wasn’t sure if I was going to even start the stage. I’ve been sick the last four days with bronchitis – actually, there are a hell of a lot of guys in the peloton with the same thing so I’m not only one. But I finally had the fever yesterday and I was dead last night and never thought I could start today. We decided, “Oh, okay I’ll go. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t…”

And he described his view of the finish in such a matter-of-fact fashion as to make it sound as if he had been out on a leisurely Sunday afternoon ride, and not the hurly-burly of a hotly contested 70 kph sprint:

I was able to jump from train to train. The guys did an incredible job again, riding to keep the gap down. Bernie Eisel did a great job in the lead-out and Sky were up there too.

It was up to me to kind of freestyle for the last kilometre. I was jumping from wheel to wheel; I was back to my old style of sprinting and it worked out, so it’s okay.

When Petacchi accelerated with 275 metres to go, he surprised me. But I got past him okay and I was pretty happy about that. It was easier than I expected.

Julian Dean came in a distant second, with Petacchi third. With Hushovd fading in the headwind to finish down in 14th, Petacchi takes the green jersey and a ten-point lead over the Norwegian, with Cavendish a further six points behind. Any of the three can still win the points competition, but realistically Cavendish needs to win and then hope both his rivals have a bad day. For now, he will concentrate on getting himself back to full health again; if he is, there will be no stopping him claiming a second successive last-day win on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday.

Stage 18 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 4:37:09

2. Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions) same time

3. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) s/t

4. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) s/t

5. Oscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

General classification (yellow jersey):

1. Alberto Contador (Astana) 88:09:48

2. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:08

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +3:32

4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +3:53

5. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +5:27

6. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +6:41

7. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +7:03

8. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +9:18

9. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +10:12

10. Chris Horner (RadioShack) +10:37

Selected others:

23. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +37:58

24. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +41:34

170. Bert Grabsch (HTC-Columbia) +4:26:56

Points classification (green jersey):

1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 213 pts

2. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 203

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 197

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 167

5. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 162

Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):

1. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 143 pts

2. Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) 128

3. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 116

4. Alberto Contador (Astana) 112

5. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) 99

Stage 19 preview:

Start & finish: Bordeaux > Pauillac

Distance & type: 52 km, individual time trial

Prediction: After three long weeks and with the Pyrenees still weighing heavily on many legs, the result of the ITT – particularly such a long one – is difficult to predict. Fabian Cancellara, so often dominant in early time trials, often struggles in later ones. The stage win may well go to a time trial specialist who has saved his legs in the Pyrenees, so look to riders such as prologue runner-up Tony Martin, Lance Armstrong or the Sky pair of Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas.

As far as the battle for the yellow jersey is concerned, expect Andy Schleck to go out fast to try to put pressure on Alberto Contador, but then to fade towards the end. Contador is certainly capable of winning the stage outright, but his top priority will be to pace himself to ensure he doesn’t blow up at the end, so expect him to start conservatively and speed up as the course progresses. It will be easy to get overexcited if Schleck remains close to the yellow jersey at the first time-check, but expect any such optimism to be a false dawn. Contador is too experienced and too good at time trials to panic, and with the advantage of going last he will know exactly what times he needs to achieve around the course to preserve his race lead.

The other key point of interest will be whether Samuel Sánchez can retain third place over Denis Menchov. The Spaniard holds a slender 21-second advantage, but the Russian possesses superior time-trialling ability.

By the time Contador crosses the finish line in Pauillac, we will finally know who the winner of the 2010 Tour de France is.

For more reviews and informed comments about the Tour de France, please read any (or all!) of the following excellent blogs:

Marc’s sports blog

Todd Kinsey’s TDF blog

SportPH

Cyclingproject365

Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road

The social cyclist

Gonecycling

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

4 Responses to Breathless Cavendish leaves the field gasping in his wake again

  1. gonecycling says:

    Another excellent report on another outstanding stage. I really enjoyed the last 5k yesterday, watching the peleton hunt down poor Daniel Oss, then seeing Cav blow everyone away in the sprint. An exhibition ride. There are going to be some sore legs today after that 70km/h pursuit.
    What are we going to do when it’s all over?!

    • Tim says:

      I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking about catching up on some sleep. Hard work, this TDF lark … 🙂

  2. Pingback: Race of half-truth sees Contador crowned champion-elect « The armchair sports fan

  3. Pingback: Tour de France 2010 review: Stage-by-stage « The armchair sports fan

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