A stinging defeat for Mark Cavendish in the Tour de France yesterday saw the Briton beaten by a wheel-length by one of his most long-standing rivals, the German André Greipel.
Isolated from his team-mates in the final kilometres, Cavendish nonetheless was perfectly slotted in the line of riders in third spot as the bunch roared round the final corner with 400 metres to go.
Then when the HTC-Highroad rider barrelled away towards the line at full pelt, all that seemed left to decide was what kind of victory salute the Manxman would use for what would have been his 18th Tour stage win. But it was not to be, as Greipel's huge figure – weighing 80kg and with thighs that stand up for tree-trunk similarity to Olympic sprinter Sir Chris Hoy's – hurtled past the Briton to claim the German's maiden stage win in his first-ever Tour.
If Cavendish losing a bunch sprint is now far bigger news than him winning one, for him to lose to Greipel – with whom he has a rivalry stretching back to the Manxman's first days as a professional – may have been unusually difficult to swallow.
Formerly team-mates at HTC-Highroad for four years, in Cavendish's first race, the Étoile de Bessèges in France, the two fell out over their respective roles in a bunch sprint. Then, after another spat at the Giro 2008, the team ensured the two never raced together again.
While Greipel racked up a succession of wins in minor races – although he dominated the sprints in the Tour of Spain 2009, with four victories, taking 20 wins in total – and Cavendish did much the same in the bigger ones, their rivalry rumbled on.
"He's not a problem because I'm a better rider," Cavendish said in 2010, although when Greipel requested a spot in the Tour, Cavendish's response was "there's no chance he's coming to a bike race that I'm in. Me on bad form is still better than him."
Greipel then decided, logically enough, to move on to another team this year to get his Tour chance, and the Greipel v Cavendish clash in the biggest race on earth was widely anticipated. In the Tour build-up Cavendish refused to be drawn about Greipel, bluntly telling one TV station that "he's German, he rides for Omega Pharma and he used to be in our team" – and then saying nothing more.
However, their duel initially looked like a non-starter, given Greipel was an also-ran when Cavendish blasted to his first victory at Cap Fréhel, taking sixth – after Cavendish said that Greipel had "bashed into me" with 2km to go. Then after Châteauroux, when the Manxman took his second, a desperate late burst by Greipel was dismissed as irrelevant by the Briton because "he'd been accelerating for a long time so I knew he'd die".
Such was Cavendish's superiority, in fact, that it seemed that Greipel's only real claim to fame in the 2011 Tour was to be as the first rider to fall – on the ceremonial march preceding stage one – on an exceptionally crash-ridden race. Until yesterday, that is, when the German suddenly took on the mantle of "the sprinter who beat Cavendish".
"Châteauroux was the first time we really sprinted together head to head," Greipel pointed out yesterday, "and maybe today I had more power. Cavendish has shown that he is one of the fastest sprinters on earth and maybe he is. Of course he has not been friendly with comments to me but I have a lot of respect for him."
Not one to make excuses, Cavendish admitted he had been beaten fair and square. "I didn't hesitate but I didn't commit early enough. I kind of rolled round [Italian sprinter Daniel] Oss and kicked with 170 metres to go and Greipel just came past and beat me. I'm happy for him. I'm disappointed. I feel I made a mistake but Greipel beat me so there's nothing I can say about that."
Yesterday the Tour emerged from the narrow roads of the Massif Centrale as it heads towards the first mountain showdown in the Pyrenees on Thursday, but not before one final crash, 10km into the stage and reportedly involving Sunday's crash victim, Juan Antonio Flecha. Team Sky said Flecha was "sore but all right".
Stage 10 (Aurillac to Carmaux, 158km) All at same time; 3hrs 31mins 21secs (unless stated):
1 Andre Greipel (Ger)Omega Pharma-Lotto, 2 Mark Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad, 3 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Sp) Movistar Team, 4 Thor Hushovd (Nor)Team Garmin-Cervelo, 5 Romain Feillu (Fr) Vacansoleil-DCM, 6 Daniel Oss (It) Liquigas-Cannondale, 7 Sebastien Hinault (Fr)AG2R La Mondiale, 8 Borut Bozic (Sloven) Vacansoleil-DCM, 9 Geraint Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling, 10 Samuel Dumoulin (Fr) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne
Selected Others 19 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale; 77 David Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo; 146 Ben Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 5.59.
Overall 1 Thomas Voeckler (Fr) Team Europcar 42hrs 06mins 32secs, 2 Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Sp) Rabobank Cycling Team at 1.49, 3 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 2.26, 4 Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 2.29, 5 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 2.37, 6 Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad at 2.38, 7 Peter Velits (Slovak) HTC-Highroad at same time, 8 Andreas Kloden (Ger) Team RadioShack at 2.43, 9 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 2.55, 10 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek at 3.08, 13 Nicolas Roche (Rep Ire) AG2R La Mondiale at 3.45,
Selected Others 28 David Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 5mins 32secs, 32 Geraint Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 5.51, 107 Mark Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 45.42, 114 Ben Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 47.43.Reuse content