Tour de France: Cavendish soon brought back to earth by Freire

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A small but strategically placed climb on yesterday's route of the Tour de France foiled the Briton Mark Cavendish's chances of taking his fifth bunch-sprint stage win.

Just 2.4 kilometres long, the Col de l'Orme is a tiny pimple of a climb when compared with the monster Alpine ascents that the Tour, led by the Australian Cadel Evans, will start to tackle today.

But yesterday's ultra-high average race speeds of over 46kph, a 180km grind through Provence's rolling terrain and temperatures soaring high into the mid-thirties all left Cavendish vulnerable. The Col de l'Orme, uncomfortably close to the finish in Digne-les-Bains, did the rest.

Dropped at the foot of the ascent, the Briton finally rolled across the line more than three minutes behind the stage winner, Oscar Freire of Spain.

Visibly tired and with the Olympic Games Madison track event as a mid-term goal, how far the Manxman will go in the Tour this year is an unknown. Both he and his team say they are takingthe race day by day.

Whether Cavendish leaves as soon as today or stays all the way through to Paris, it is no exaggeration to say that his four stage wins in this year's Tour have fast-tracked him into the realm of the sport's greatest sprinters. No Briton has ever before taken more than two stages of any three-week bike race in the same year, let alone the Tour.

Cavendish's four suc-cesses are already half as many as Britain's most prolific Tour stage winner, the Welsh sprinting legend Barry Hoban. At 23, there is clearly a lot more to come.

Earlier this week Cavendish explained his success by saying: "Sprinters are supposed to say that they're the best. But with me, it's a fact.

"I already proved I'm the fastest of the pack this year and the end of last year."

"I was so confident ofmy form coming into this Tour and I was so confident of my team coming intothis Tour. It was a recipefor success."

Clearly able to talk the talk as well as walk the walk, Cavendish denies that he is interested in making sweeping statements as a way of gaining extra publicity. "Each to their own. I don't have a big mouth because I want to be known, I just naturally have one."

"If my rivals don't want to talk as much as I do, that's fine by me. At the end of the day, we're all doing the same job. It just so happens I have a big mouth."

"If it had been a flat stage today Cavendish would probably have been first again," Freire, three times a world champion and a talented fast man himself, recognised. And the man currently leading the Tour's sprint standings added: "I've never seen anybody win a sprint stage as brilliantly as Mark did on Friday."

The only shadow to be cast on the race – and indirectly on Cavendish's victories – is one that is far from the Manxman's making.

The expulsion of the high-profile Italian climber Riccardo Ricco after he failed a doping test and the withdrawal of his Saunier Duval squad on Thursday left the Tour reeling from its umpteenth drugs crisis.

The Tour organisers have argued that the sport is in the process of cleaning itself up.

But the announcement by one team, Barloworld – whose Spanish rider Moises Dueñas tested positive for the banned substance EPO on Wednesday – that they will be quitting cycling immediately after the Tour is a real warning sign for the sport.

If it wants to have a future, it will have to pull itself out of the spiral of doping scandals – and fast.