Cycling: Cavendish beaten again as lone raid falls short

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The Independent Online

Mark Cavendish's rollercoaster 2010 season continued apace in his debut ride in the Tour of Spain yesterday after the Briton suffered a second surprise defeat in a bunch sprint.

Briefly the leader of la Vuelta last weekend, thanks to a team time-trial success, the Manxman yesterday made a lone bid for glory in the sun-drenched streets of Lorca in south-east Spain, accelerating out of the pack with 400 metres to go.

It was a massive distance for a sprinter to try to maintain a top speed of around 70kph, and had such a long-distance bid succeeded, the 25-year-old's reputation as the fastest sprinter in the world would have been more than consolidated.

But rather than become the second Briton ever to take stages in all three major Tours, Cavendish was outpowered by two other sprinters he would, in normal circumstances, easily have the better of – the winner America's Tyler Farrar and runner-up Koldo Fernandez of Spain.

Cavendish, even on a moderately good day is unbeatable, as shown by his 15 career stage wins in the Tour de France, five this year alone. But losing his lead-out man Matt Goss with 5km to go yesterday, when his Australian team-mate punctured a tyre, left Cavendish unexpectedly isolated, and he paid a high price.

"Goss was my last support rider and I was forced to go for it alone," Cavendish said. "I could sense the other guys coming up behind me, and I just couldn't hold it."

Miscalculation and misfortune combined with the after-effects of a stomach bug, which had the Briton throwing up for a large part of stage two. Before yesterday's start, he was still feeling unwell.

Unexpected as this development might sound, it is wholly in line with Cavendish's up-and-down season, where he has gone from setback to success, and back again. On the downside have been a tooth operation that wrecked his early season; an expulsion from a race for flicking a V-sign as a victory salute in May; and the worst crash of his career in June. On the upside are those five Tour de France stage wins.

Indeed, Cavendish's Tour of Spain could not have got off to a better start after his HTC-Columbia squad won the opening team time-trial stage in Seville. As first rider of his team across the line, Cavendish gained the right to don the leader's jersey in his first ever participation in la Vuelta, an achievement that makes it a virtual certainty at some point he will become Britain's first rider ever to lead cycling's top three stage races.

But the illness has set Cavendish back again, with a surprise defeat on stage two followed by another yesterday. "He was sick and he struggled after the time trial," said the HTC-Columbia sports director, Tristan Hoffman.

"But he recovered and we said this morning we'll see how he'd go. Mark was worried he'd get closed in by the other sprinters so he went really early. I'm not happy he didn't win, but I'm pleased he still has the legs to try."

Hoffman is adamant that Cavendish's base form is solid, pointing out "he was the powerhouse in the opening stage". On top of that, the Manxman has a near legendary ability to bounce back from misfortune – as he proved in July.

British Team Sky, however, are far less certain of their Vuelta chances after a mystery illness forced two of their riders to drop out on stage three, and affected another four out of the nine.

"Today was the first day since Sunday that none of our riders were sick so that's really good," said Sky's sports director Rod Ellingworth, "Before that, there was always somebody puking up."

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