If any confirmation were needed that Britain's Mark Cavendish is back with a capital B in his customary position as the fastest sprinter in the world, he provided it yesterday in Gueugnon with his second straight stage victory in the Tour de France.
As if to prove that Thursday's win was no fluke, yesterday in the final kilometres Cavendish's HTC-Columbia squad repeated the same strategy that had earned them their first victory – with exactly the same result. Glued to the back wheel of his lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, Cavendish and his Australian team-mate jumped from one team' s line of riders – known as a train – to another.
Then, with 200 metres to go, Renshaw peeled away from the Briton, who delivered his usual blizzard of pedal strokes to go clear by more than a bike's length, grinning from ear to ear well before he reached the finish line. Cavendish said afterwards that his 12th Tour stage victory came at the end of the hardest stage of the race so far – at 227km, the longest of 2010, and with 2,500 metres of climbing.
There was also the heat to factor in, which, for the second day running, soared into the mid-thirties as the peloton ground its way south-east through the baking heat. Spectators wilted underneath parasols and herds of cows clustered in the nearest river available. It was a sign of how tough the racing conditions were that the peloton all but crumbled on a small fourth category climb close to the finish town.
But HTC-Columbia and the other sprinters' teams managed to keep the race under control, despite the twisting run-in that briefly saw the overall contenders panic and cluster to the front in case the bunch split apart.
With four kilometres to go, Cavendish and another Australian team-mate, Michael Rogers, ensured the pace was kept high with an extra acceleration, but – as on Thursday – there was no sudden massing of Cavendish's black and yellow-clad team-mates at the head of affairs.
Rather, in a strategy highly reminiscent of when Cavendish started winning stages in the Tour in 2008 – as well as his days as Madison World Champion on the track, where riders' bike-handling skills are vital to keep them in position – the Briton relied on Renshaw to guide him through to a winning position.
After his troubled first half of the season, Cavendish had gone to great efforts to present a far less arrogant attitude to the press and other riders after his first stage win. And if there were no tears of joy, as there had been on Thursday, yesterday's press conference was again notable for the lack of the usual Cavendish fireworks.
He refused, for example, to acknowledge that he had gained a psychological edge on the rest of the sprinters by taking back-to-back victories. "I'm happy to win today against some great riders," he said. "And it may be me who wins, but I'm just the last rider in a eight-man unit, the one who crosses the line. Without my team, I wouldn't be talking to you guys here now."
Cavendish would not even be drawn into discussing his chances of taking the green jersey, which have considerably improved in the last 48 hours. After taking one miserable point in the first three stages, he has 85, placing him 33 points behind the leader and double former winner, Thor Hushovd.
"We've got a hard week in the Alps ahead of us, and it's not even easy between the Alps and the Pyrenees, and hopefully the team can do well. We're seven days down, 14 to go, and I'll try my best to win again," he said.
Bland as these statements may sound, they are at least realistic. Cavendish's chances will certainly be limited in the next five days, as the race heads into the Jura today for its first summit finish of the race, followed by three stages in the Alps. Today's stage is not overly tough, but it is peppered with minor climbs and culminates in a 14-km ascent of the Côté de Lamoura, never used before in the Tour, to the Station des Rousses.
It is more than unlikely that any of the big names will use the climb, so early in the Tour, to show their hand. With question marks still remaining about the strength of Alberto Contador's team in the mountains, the Spaniard in particular will use the stage to watch his rivals for signs of potential weakness.
As for the footsoldiers in the peloton, the arrival of the race in the mountains could not be less welcome. Reflecting the rising tension, two little-known riders – one Portuguese and one Spanish – were reported to have traded blows after the finish yesterday. After an exceptionally difficult first week of racing, yet another sign perhaps that tempers, as well as temperatures, are running high.
Race for the Green Jersey
1 T Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo 118 pts
2 A Petacchi (Italy) Lampre 114
3 R McEwen (Australia) Katusha 105
4 J J Rojas (Spain) Caisse d'Epargne 92
5 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Columbia 85
6 E Hagen (Norway) Team Sky 82Reuse content