Tour de France stage 21: Five-star Cavendish leaves rivals green with envy

Stage 21: Créteil to Paris Champs-Élysées, 95km

It’s the final day of the Tour de France. The sun is shining on the Champs-Élysées. And the diminutive figure of Mark Cavendish – the Manx Missile – blasts off the front of the peloton to claim victory on the most prestigious sprint stage of all. The year? Take your pick. In 2009 and 2010 he achieved this feat in the colours of HTC-Columbia (as the HTC-Highroad team used to be called). This year, however, he won his fifth stage – his 20th in four years – in the jersey he has always coveted, the green jersey of the winner of the points classification.

Meanwhile Cadel Evans enjoyed the sunny day he had wished for yesterday as he rolled to the finish in the yellow jersey of the overall winner – the first Tour champion ever from the southern hemisphere. To the title of world champion in 2009 he can now finally add the appellation ‘Tour de France winner’.

Cadel Evans rides into Paris as the 2011 Tour de France winner (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

HTC-Highroad put on a tactical masterclass

With all the other jerseys decided, today’s stage was all about the final victory and the fate of the green jersey. HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish started the day with a slender 15-point lead over Movistar’s José Joaquín Rojas, despite having won four stages to the Spaniard’s none. A fifth win would guarantee him his first green jersey no matter what Rojas did, but equally he could not afford to slip up either.

The stage started with the usual processional run in to Paris to allow plenty of time for the traditional photo opportunities of the jersey holders riding together and of yellow jersey Cadel Evans sipping on a glass of celebratory champagne. As is customary, his BMC team were afforded the honour of leading the peloton on to the Champs-Élysées for the first of eight 6km circuits.

Almost immediately, Sky’s Ben Swift accelerated off the front of the bunch, and he was soon joined by Jérémy Roy (FDJ), Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack), Kristjan Koren (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Cavendish’s teammate Lars Bak. Bak’s presence in the break meant HTC were not obliged to lead the chase, allowing them to sit behind and force other teams to expend energy at the front.

The intermediate sprint came early in the third lap on the uphill stretch near the top of the avenue. After the leading sextet had gone through, HTC came to the front and Cavendish easily beat Rojas to claim seventh, with Mark Renshaw nudging the Spaniard down to ninth. This extended Cavendish’s advantage to 17 points, meaning he now needed only to finish third, and if Rojas finished second then seventh place would be sufficient for the Manxman. Immediately after the sprint, Cavendish had to stop to change bikes, but he quickly regained the peloton.

The break extended its advantage to 43 seconds, but once the sprinters’ teams started to work seriously the gap soon tumbled. The catch was inevitable, and all but Swift and Bak sat up just after the start of the final lap, to be absorbed back into the bunch. Swift was also soon caught, but Bak remained resolutely out in front by seven seconds.

HTC-Highroad then came to the front of the peloton – not to lead the chase of their own man, but to disrupt it. Sure enough Bak’s lead drifted back out to 13 seconds, again forcing other teams to commit themselves to the chase to catch him with 2km remaining. This left the HTC train free to move up and assume control in their own time, which they duly did just before passing under the 1km banner.

The rest was inevitable, and a routine we have seen executed so perfectly so many times before. Four white HTC jerseys with the green of Cavendish tucked in at the back of the line. First the raw power of Bernhard Eisel, HTC’s road captain and Cavendish’s roommate, setting a rapid tempo that opponents struggle just to follow. Then the equally powerful Tony Martin, winner of yesterday’s time trial, took the lead up to 450m out. Matt Goss, this year’s Milan-San Remo winner and one of the fastest sprinters in the world in his own right, led through the final bend at 350m onto the Champs-Élysées to set up Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s most trusted lead-out man, to open up the sprint.

Cavendish held his burst until the final 175 metres because of the headwind, but when he kicked there was no catching him. Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen closed to a bike length, but Cav applied his second kick and extended his advantage before crossing the line to a length-and-a-quarter. André Greipel was third. Rojas, who had been hovering close to Cavendish’s shoulder entering the final half-kilometre, sat up and finished 21st.

Cavendish celebrates his fifth win at this Tour, his 20th overall and - at last - his first green jersey (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Five stage wins this year, 20 in the last four years, and at last the green jersey for the first time. Cavendish becomes the first British winner of the green jersey and only the second British jersey winner ever. (Robert Millar won the polka dot jersey in 1984.) The next target for Cavendish is André Darrigade, the only sprinter with more stage wins (22, over 12 years). That, and a second green jersey next year.

An emotional Cavendish was close to tears after finally realising a lifelong dream:

I finally got it, but it didn’t come easy. I really had to fight for it all the way to the last finish line and I’m very tired, but it was worth all that effort.

I had eight fantastic team-mates around me all the way, they kept working with me, I was close to getting it for the last two years and now it’s finally here.

I’m so happy, it’s incredible. It’s a great way to finish the Tour and a super, super emotional day.

New champion Evans spoke of being inspired by watching Miguel Indurain as a teenager and his pride in representing his nation:

As a young child we aspire to a lot of things in life, and watching the Tour de France in 1991 and seeing Indurain tear everyone to pieces planted a small seed in my head that continued to grow.

It’s been years of hard work and there were a lot of moments in these three weeks where our Tour was lost, but to get here safely with all my skin – just that alone is a quest in itself.

But to be here wearing the yellow jersey — for my team, my country, a group of people around me — it leaves me a little lost for words. This win is for everyone in our country.

The other prize-winners

In addition to the yellow and green jerseys, the other key prizes had already been settled in advance of today’s result.

The polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains went to Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sánchez. The Spaniard was the most consistent performer on the Tour’s four big summit finishes, winning at Luz-Ardiden and coming second on both Plateau de Beille and Alpe d’Huez.

The youth classification for the best rider aged 25 or under was won by Pierre Rolland. The 24-year old Europcar grimpeur, who first came to attention by winning the mountains classification at the Dauphiné three years ago, finally blossomed on the sport’s biggest stage, never leaving the side of Thomas Voeckler in the mountains and riding to a fantastic victory on the fabled 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d’Huez. He finished an impressive 11th overall, 10:43 behind Evans.

Garmin-Cervélo not only claimed their first ever Tour de France victory in the stage two team time trial, but added three further wins courtesy of Thor Hushovd (two) and Tyler Farrar, and placed Tom Danielson ninth overall on his Tour debut. Their consistency earned them the best team prize, calculated from the aggregate time of a team’s first three riders on each stage.

Finally, FDJ’s Jérémy Roy was awarded the overall combativity prize as the rider judged to have been the most attacking over the three weeks of the race. He won the daily equivalent of this award twice, and was memorably denied a solo victory when he was caught and passed by Hushovd 2km from the finish in Lourdes on stage 13. It was fitting that he should also in today’s break.

A race of true champions

The Tour de France has always provided a spectacular tableau for telling great stories but this year perhaps more than any other has been a race of true champions, each of whom has contributed towards the narrative of the most exciting, most unpredictable Tour I can remember watching. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador‘s audacious long-range attacks in the Alps. The devastating speed of Mark Cavendish and his HTC-Highroad train. Crashes galore, including the one which created a new cult hero in Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland. The mighty Thor Hushovd winning not once but twice in the mountains. His compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen‘s breakthrough wins. The attacking verve of Philippe Gilbert, who single-handedly animated the first half of the race. The never-say-die pluck of Thomas Voeckler, who discovered new abilities he never realised he had in defending the maillot jaune for ten thrilling days, in which we all shared in the agony of every pedal-stroke. The magnificent Pierre Rolland, whose reward for shepherding Voeckler through the mountains was a famous victory at Alpe d’Huez. And so many more, right down to Liquigas’s Fabio Sabatini, the 167th and last finisher in the race, and therefore the lanterne rouge.

I’m sure I have missed out several others worthy of mention. I do not do so deliberately. They are all champions in my book.

But the tale of the 2011 Tour de France starts and ends with its new champion Cadel Evans. The winner on the Mûr-de-Bretagne, the way he twice dragged chasing groups up the Galibier marked him out as a man with both the legs and heart of a worthy champion. The two-time runner up who finally made good through bloody-minded determination and no small amount of skill. The ugly duckling who, over the course of three thrilling weeks in July, became a swan.

Chapeau, et vive Le Tour!

Look out for more posts taking a look back at the 2011 Tour de France over the next few days.

Stage 21 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 2:27:02

2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) same time

3. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

4. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

5. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) s/t

General classification:

1. Cadel Evans (BMC) 86:12:22

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:34

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:30

4. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) +3:20

5. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +3:57

6. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +4:55

7. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +6:05

8. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +7:23

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +8:15

10. Jean-Christope Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) +1:11

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 334 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 272

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 236

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 208

5. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 195

Mountains classification:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 108 pts

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 98

3. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 74

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 58

5. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 56

Links: Tour de France official

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Is Thomas Voecker a genuine contender for 2012?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Stage 20: Evans triumphs in moment of truth, Schleck becomes the new ‘eternal second’

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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