A late crash in yesterday's fourth stage into Rouen saw Mark Cavendish cross the line well behind the main pack, with his chance to draw level with Lance Armstrong's total of 22 stage victories postponed until at least today.
Crashes are so frequent in the first week of the Tour that they can almost be categorised, and yesterday's was depressingly typical: the bunch had roared in at up to 70kmh (40mph) on the broad boulevards approaching the city-centre finish, and as the sprinters jostled and swerved for position a rider apparently skidded on a discarded plastic drink bottle and fell.
In a split-second domino effect, half of the field was caught up in a mass of tangled bodies and bikes, with Cavendish in the thick of it.
His left side blackened with road dirt and his world champion's rainbow jersey ripped, the Manxman slowly rose to his feet looking dazed, before slowly pedalling away and crossing the line with a face like thunder. His team-mate Bernie Eisel, the only other Sky rider affected, took noticeably longer to recover before he, too, all but freewheeled to the finish.
"Bernie is OK, he got a cut eyebrow which will need stitches, otherwise I don't think it's anything serious," the Sky team's sports director, Sean Yates, reported. "It was a major crash, it split the whole peloton up. It wasn't as if the road was narrow there, but they were all riding along in the gutter."
As for Cavendish, Yates said: "He's battered and bruised, as anyone would be if they hit the ground at 70kmh. It's a miracle they get up and ride away."
Not only ride away, but Cavendish later managed to tweet away too: "Ouch... crash at 2.5 kilometres. Taken some scuffs to my left side, but I've bounced pretty well again. Congrats to André Greipel."
Cavendish has had a tough season with crashes. He suffered a heavy fall in the last stage of the Tour of Qatar, then in the Tour of Italy's first stage he hit the deck.
Yates, though, said that while the injuries looked nasty, he expected Cavendish to make a rapid recovery. "He's covered in cuts. All over – on his back, legs, shoulder and hip. So yeah, he's beaten up. [But] get a good night's sleep, and with some massage and a bit of physio we should sort it out."
Following the abandon of Sky's climber Kanstantsin Sivtsov the previous day, Yates said two more of his riders crashing was "not what we wanted at all, not what we needed."
Cavendish's target yesterday was his second stage victory in three days and the 22nd of his Tour career, which would have put him on an equal footing with Armstrong. Although today's stages to Saint-Quentin and tomorrow's from Epernay to Metz offer him two good chances to match the American, yesterday Greipel exploited his absence to bring his Tour stage win total to all of two.
Asked about Cavendish, the German said that "crashes are part of the course. On Monday [at Tournai] I was up there in the sprint. [But] I hope he is OK – and I hope I can have the chance to beat him."
Overall, Sky's Bradley Wiggins remains joint second with Sylvain Chavanel, 7sec behind Fabian Cancellara, with Peter Sagan retaining the green points jersey.
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