Mark Cavendish's bid for the Tour de France's green jersey suffered a major and probably fatal setback on stage four when he finished a disappointing 12th in the race's first all-out bunch sprint.
The HTC-Columbia fastman was perfectly positioned behind Australian team-mate Mark Renshaw to claim the 11th Tour stage of his career as the peloton roared into Reims.
But when Italy's veteran sprinter Alessandro Petacchi darted away to the left of the bunch with 250 metres to go, instead of the expected last-minute acceleration by Renshaw, Cavendish's lead-out man suddenly ran out of gas.
Cavendish appeared caught by surprise but although he then briefly stomped on the pedals, in a 70kph sprint even a moment's hesitation can prove fatal, and the 25-year-old – seemingly lacking the strength to respond with a trademark acceleration – was swamped by other riders.
That was the last straw for the Manxman, who eased back, looked down at his bike chain twice as if demanding an explanation for such a stinging defeat, and freewheeled across the line. Game over.
His face rigid with fury, the British sprinter flung his bike down when he reached the team bus before storming on board. "I'm really disappointed with what happened," he said later. "I was feeling good all day and the team did a brilliant job but I couldn't finish it off. My congratulations to Petacchi and I'll be ready to go out there tomorrow and give it 100 per cent."
Renshaw's sudden energy drop was more than understandable given he had spent the previous kilometre keeping Cavendish in pole position.
It was an unusual strategy but Cavendish's squad had no choice but to burn Renshaw out. HTC-Columbia are severely limited on back-up for Cavendish, with two fewer riders than last year for the lead-out train that previously gave the Manxman an armchair ride in the closing kilometres.
Another gaping hole in Cavendish's lead-out train is American George Hincapie, who quit the team for American squad BMC. Cavendish said this spring that the team would need to sign two riders to do Hincapie's work – and he was sorely missed yesterday.
"The team's changed a lot," Renshaw commented later, "we've lost Adam [Hansen] to a crash and Mick [Rogers] is seeing what he can do for the overall so he isn't there like last year."
"At the same time, other sprinters' teams are stronger. But I'm sure Mark will be back to winning again this week."
Cavendish's latest defeat will cause a fresh round of questions about his physical condition after a season plagued with crashes and other incidents.
The Manxman is adamant that such doubts are unfounded, and his excellent top-30 ride in the toughest stage of the race so far, on Tuesday, indicates the form is there. However, the opportunities to prove in the Tour that he remains the fastest sprinter in the world are shrinking rapidly. As for the green jersey, yesterday's defeat placed Cavendish a whopping 79 points behind overall leader Thor Hushovd, making winning it all but out of the question.
Sprinters apart, the bulk of the Tour peloton had an uneventful stage, largely thankful that after three days of continuous crashes, yesterday was an – almost – accident-free zone.
The only rider to fall was Spanish climber Amets Txurruka at the start of the stage, ironically enough after dropping back to check out a knee injury from a pile-up the previous day.
Returning to the bunch at high speed in his team car's slipstream, the Spaniard hit a rut hidden by the vehicle ahead and went flying.
After nursing a suspected broken collarbone throughout, Txurruka is not expected to start today's flat 187km run from Eparnay to Montargis – where Cavendish will have the first of two final opportunities to bounce back before the Tour reaches the mountains.
1. T Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo 80 pts; 2. A Petacchi (It) Lampre 70; 3. R McEwen (Aus) Katusha 62; 4. G Thomas (GB) Team Sky 56; 5. J J Rojas (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne 49.
Selected: 36. M Cavendish (GB) Team HTC 15.Reuse content