Any questions about Mark Cavendish’s race condition evaporated today as he claimed the 25th Tour de France stage win of his career in spectacular style – but meanwhile, after race leader Chris Froome lost over a minute to his rivals, the clouds of doubt surrounding Sky’s overall strength are beginning to mushroom.
Froome’s problem was – as on Sunday in the Pyrenees – more a collective one, as once again his team all but disintegrated around him. But on this occasion, on a flat stage which in theory should have ended in a bunch sprint, strong winds and ultra-aggressive racing by Cavendish’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad and Alberto Contador’s Saxo-Tinkoff team blew the Tour apart. Unlike last Sunday when he managed to stay with the main contenders, this time Froome paid the price.
Riding hard in the crosswinds, the mass attack by Cavendish’s team some 100km from the line caught Marcel Kittel, the German who has twice beaten the Briton in a bunch sprint in this year’s Tour, far from the front and the burly Argos Shimano rider was dropped with around 60 others.
Shedding a rival like Kittel was reason enough for Cavendish’s team to keep driving, but when Alejandro Valverde, lying second overall, then punctured and began to lose time too, Omega Pharma-Quick Step were joined in their high-speed charge by Dutch squad Belkin, keen to eliminate the Spaniard from overall contention. Eventually, Valverde lost over 10 minutes and all chance of a podium finish in Paris.
Froome at that point looked set to benefit from the demise of a dangerous rival. But a sudden acceleration by Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff squad with 30km go saw 14 riders, including the Spaniard and Cavendish, shear off the front. This time, with Froome missing the move, it was up to Sky to chase.
Already two riders short following the loss of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Vasil Kiryienka and with other team-mates injured, Sky’s Constanstin Siutsou, Pete Kennaugh, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas pulled out all the stops to try to keep Froome in contention. But it was an uneven fight, and the gap yawned to 69 seconds by the finish in Saint-Amand-Montrond. Froome ended the day still in the yellow jersey but presumably thanking his lucky stars the stage had not been any longer.
“Losing a minute is a bitter pill to swallow, because we worked very hard to get that advantage,” he said. “I’ve still got a comfortable lead but today was a reminder that the race is still open.” That lead is now two minutes 28 seconds over Belkin’s Bauke Mollema, with Contador a further 17sec down in third.
Froome readily recognised that his team was on the back foot. “Yes, we lost Edvald and he could have been a great help today,” he said.
Contador explained: “Froome had no team and we decided to go all out.It was the kind of gamble a team which is united and fighting for the overall victory has to take.”
Today’s stage through the hills around Lyon could be another difficult one for Froome and Sky, who are eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s return to the high mountains on Mont Ventoux. Froome has already taken one big win at the Tour’s first summit finish last Saturday and a second would re-establish his ebbing authority.
Cavendish, meanwhile, has more than done that with a superbly calculated second stage win of the 2013 Tour. He was the last rider to latch onto the leading move of 14 and said later it had “cost me more energy to do that than to take the sprint itself”.
But the 28-year-old was more than rewarded for his efforts as he easily outpowered Peter Sagan at the finish, putting firmly behind him what has been a tumultuous week of defeats, assault by a spectator and a controversial collision.
“My team-mates rode tactically brilliantly [on Thursday] and I let them down. But today they rode equally well and I put things right,” Cavendish said. “If I could have had all of them on the podium with me, I would have.”
He denied there was any sense of sporting revenge driving him on and said: “That’s irrelevant; I like to win anyway”. He also rejected that there had been a “master plan” by Omega Pharma to try to eliminate rivals such as Kittel by using the strong crosswinds. “Gert [Steegmans] came up to me, I said to him, ‘It’s a bit windy’, and he said, ‘Yes, get ready’. And then we started riding out of our skins.”
Cavendish’s next opportunity for a stage win will be the coming weekend’s grand finale in Paris, where he has been unbeaten since 2009.
Though Froome still remains on track to stand in yellow beside the final stage winner, today the British race favourite’s margin for error narrowed notably.