While Mark Cavendish confirmed all the predictions yesterday and snapped up his second straight Tour stage win with his usual unmatchable final burst of speed, what was more surprising was the size of the bunch that crossed the line behind him – just 25-strong and containing Lance Armstrong, but not his team-mate and overall favourite Alberto Contador.
The leading group sheered off the front of the bunch with 30 kilometres to go on the pancake flat stage to La Grande-Motte. Among them was the entire Columbia-HTC squad, as well as Armstrong and the race leader Fabian Cancellara.
Sensing that victory could be even easier than usual for Cavendish, and that they could simultaneously ambush the other overall contenders, the Manxman's squad piled on the pressure at the front of the bunch.
Come the finish, the leaders had built up a lead of 41 seconds on the chasing pack, and Cavendish's only real obstacle to the sixth Tour stage win of his career was a strong headwind in the final kilometre. "[Team-mate] Mark [Renshaw] had to leave it 'til really late because of the wind to go for it and bring me up to speed for the sprint," Cavendish said. "But he kept his cool and it worked out brilliantly."
Cavendish even had time as he crossed the line to make the gesture of using a mobile phone, in honour of the team's new sponsor, the Taiwanese electronics company HTC.
"They've got a new phone out, and I said if I won then I'd do that for them," Cavendish said with a smile. Presumably he will find a large number of free models in his postbox when he gets back to the Isle of Man. The Briton's hold on the green jersey has been considerably reinforced by the 43rd victory of his career, but at the same time he refused to play up his chances of taking it all the way to Paris. "There are eight sprint stages and we've targeted all of them, but my big objective is still to get to Paris," he said.
Eight stage wins is a tall order even for as prolific a winner as Cavendish, but he seems certain – barring disaster – to now reach his 2008 total of four. He could even take three before the mountains, given another bunch sprint is expected tomorrow and it would be unwise to predict anything other than another victory.
While Cavendish went through his usual ritual of hugging his team-mates, he also got a congratulatory embrace from none other than Lance Armstrong. It was perhaps easy to understand why given that Armstrong's participation in the Columbia- HTC-inspired move had given the American a huge boost to his chances of returning to the yellow jersey – perhaps as soon as today's time trial.
The American is now third overall, just 40 seconds behind Cancellara, but crucially he is now ahead of the key favourite for yellow in Paris – his team-mate Contador – in the general classification. The question of whether he is now the team leader, in front of Contador, is now a very real issue.
However, Armstrong's emergence from the shadows was subject to some controversy, given that he appeared to take the decision that his team-mates should collaborate with the Columbia-HTC mass attack. Ten kilometres from the line, just as the front group's lead was about to dip below 30sec, the American turned and made a circling gesture with his finger – which is traditionally accepted as the leader's way of saying to the team workers that they have to get to the front.
Later, however, Astana support rider Haimar Zubeldia insisted that it was Johan Bruyneel, the team manager who gave the order from the team car that Astana should collaborate.
"Johan told us to get to the front and that's what we did," Zubeldia said. The controversy will probably never be resolved but if it was Armstrong giving the orders, then it seems clear that Contador's predicament – stranded in the group of chasers – was not his top priority.
"I had Popovych and Zubeldia with me and no other favourites on the front," was Armstrong's laconic Twitter comment. "I gained valuable time, but it was most likely minor in the scheme of three weeks. Onward."
"For me, Contador remains the leader," Zubeldia commented at the end of the stage, but if Armstrong continues to participate in ambushes like Monday's a much more familiar face may soon be heading the team.
Tour de France: Stage 3 results
*Results and standings after the 196.5-km third stage (Marseilles-La Grande-Motte) 1 M Cavendish (GB) Columbia-HTC 5hr 1 min 24sec; (all same time) 2 T Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo; 3 C Lemoine (Fr) Skil-Shimano; 4 S Dumoulin (Fr) Cofidis; 5 J Pineau (Fr) Quick-Step; 6 F Cancellara (Swit) Saxo Bank; 7 F Wegmann (Ger) Milram; 8 F Beppu (Japan) Skil-Shimano; 9 M Bouet (Fr) Agritubel; 10 L Gerdemann (Ger) Milram. Selected: 19 L Armstrong (US) Astana.
1 Cancellara 9hr 50min 58sec; 2 T Martin (Ger) Columbia +33sec; 3 Armstrong +40sec; 4 A Contador (Sp) Astana +59sec; 5 B Wiggins (GB) Garmin +1:00; 6 A Klöden (Ger) Astana +1:03sec; 7 Gerdemann +1:03sec; 8 C Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto +1:04sec; 9 M Monfort (Bel) Columbia +1:10sec; 10 L Leipheimer (US) Astana +1:11sec. Selected: 18 D Millar (GB) Garmin +1:29sec.
1 Cavendish 70pt
2 Hushovd 54pt
3 Dumoulin 36pt
1 Astana 29hr 34min 4sec
2 Columbia-HTC +1min 46sec
3 Saxo Bank +1:53secReuse content