Mark Cavendish proved yesterday with a stunning victory in Tournai that, even without the cohorts of support riders he had in previous Tours, the British world champion remains a force to be reckoned with in the bunch sprints. Indeed this, his 21st Tour stage win, must count as one of the finest of his career.
For four Tours, from 2008 to 2011, Cavendish could rely on a "train" of riders from his HTC squad to guide him to 200 metres from the line. The Manxman would blast off for victory after victory. "Without them [his former HTC squad] I can still win, but with them I can't lose," Cavendish used to say.
Given that his 2012 team, Sky, are fully focused on Bradley Wiggins' bid to become Britain's first ever Tour winner this season, Cavendish was able to prove yesterday that those words were no boasting, darting away 100 metres from the line to take the 206.5-kilometre (130-mile) stage from Visé alone and unaided by barely half a wheel over Lotto's German rider André Greipel.
This was a far tighter margin than usual for him but it was a win that – with no team support – owed as much to Cavendish's skilful positioning and fine judgement as it did to raw power.
Cavendish's joy at being able to clinch his earliest victory in the Tour since 2009 – usually it takes several days of fine-tuning for him to find his top form – was palpable, and he said he had found that racing alone made him less tense than usual.
"I've never been so relaxed before the start of a Tour stage – normally I have so much pressure, because with dedicated riders for me, that means I should win most of the time," Cavendish said afterwards.
"If you've just got one or two riders as support, in the Tour de France where you're weaving between sprinters and general classification riders, it [having the support riders] is more hassle than it's worth.
"[My Sky team-mates] Bernie Eisel and Edvald Boasson were always there in case something happened, never far away, but five kilometres from the finish I said that I would go for it alone, give it a shot."
Cavendish's 21 stage victories make him the Tour's fifth most prolific winner, just one short of Lance Armstrong and the race's top all-time sprinter, the 1950s star André Darrigade. However, Cavendish feels he is making his own contribution to the history of the sport in other ways.
"I always said I wanted to make history, but there are not many better ways to make history than being part of a Tour team that could produce a British winner," he said.
He said yesterday also gave him the chance to carry the world champion's rainbow jersey to victory in the world's greatest stage race. "Maybe every few minutes when I'm training or racing I look down at the [rainbow] bands of world champion and it makes me feel proud," Cavendish said. "I've got massive respect for every rider who has worn it, and I wanted to honour it here in the Tour."
Overall, Wiggins remains in joint second behind Fabian Cancellara. Today's stage, with five short, punchy climbs in the last 20km on the windblasted English Channel coastline, is far less suited to Cavendish but it could be crucial for Wiggins and the other major Tour contenders. A crash, puncture or failure to be close to the front, if the bunch should split in what promises to be a fraught finale, could end a rider's overall chances.
That will make the run into Boulogne one of the most difficult stages of the first week: not so much for winning the race, but merely for the right to remain in contention.
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