For the first time in over 30 years, Britain can celebrate a Tour de France victory in a bunch sprint as Manx fastman Mark Cavendish took an utterly convincing victory at Chateauroux yesterday. It is also the first British stage success since David Millar's triumph six years ago.
In an unusually hilly first week's racing, opportunities for the 23-year-old Columbia pro have been thin on the ground and he seized yesterday's with both hands. Almost 300 metres from the line, Cavendish charged out of a tangle of fastmen squarely in the centre of the road. It was a long effort, but he is rated the fastest in the world in the final metres of a flat pure sprint finish like yesterday's and at Chateauroux he more than lived up to that reputation.
"It was close but I knew I could do it," Cavendish said of his first Tour de France stage win. "When I hit the front I knew that nobody else could come by."
Fast thinking is a crucial part of success in the cut and thrust of bunch sprints, and when rival Thor Hushovd's team-mates began to accelerate 600 metres from the finish, Cavendish knew it was a question of now or never. "I couldn't risk leaving it any later. When Thor got going at that far out, I had to make my move. Fortunately I've got the form to go all the way to the line."
Although speedsters Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel – who have a mere 15 Tour stage wins between them – were quick to chase after the young Briton, neither of them came anywhere close.
By the finish, Cavendish's long acceleration left him a good bike length clear of his two prestigious rivals. He even had time to raise one arm in triumph as he crossed the line – and as the first Briton to win a Tour sprint stage since Barry Hoban in 1975, rode straight into the history books.
Never one to forget to thank his team-mates, Cavendish rightly praised them for doing an immense amount of hard work in the finale to keep the race under control. All eight Columbia riders, including Kim Kirchen – placed second overall and with strong aspirations for Tour victory – were clearly visible at the business end of the bunch in the final kilometres, ensuring their protected rider got every opportunity for success.
"You couldn't get a bunch of more selfless team-mates," said Cavendish. "They worked 100 percent for me and today I had to top the podium."
Already victorious in 17 races in just 18 months as a pro, including two stages of the Tour of Italy this May, Cavendish's first real opportunity for a win came two days ago at Nantes.
But miscalculation by the sprinter's team left the Briton empty handed after a fruitless chase of a four-man breakaway fizzled out 30 kilometres from the finish.
Yesterday's long-range attack by three French riders was far more ruthlessly controlled. Never more than eight minutes ahead – compared with the maximum 15 minute lead the break obtained on Monday – the sprinters were determined to ensure that after five days, a bunch sprint was the only option. French national champion Nicholas Vogondy was caught less than a kilometre to go, which was cutting it fine. But Vogondy crumpled in the face of Cavendish's team's full-on acceleration and the sprinter was left in the perfect position for victory.
The flat, featurelss terrain that surrounds Chateauroux, combined with the first day of real sunshine the Tour has seen this year, all helped Cavendish cause.
It is hardly coincidental that legendary fastman Mario Cipollini was the last rider to win a Tour stage at Chateauroux back in 1998. It could hardly be more symbolic, either, of Cavendish's meteoric rise that he should win on the same finish 10 years later.
Today's stage may see another British triumph as 31-year-old Millar, currently third overall, hopes to outclass his rivals on the uphill finish at Superbesse and move into yellow. "It's a fact that Dave is climbing better than ever before," said Millar's team manager Jonathan Vaughters. "He's going to have a serious shot at taking yellow."
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk
Stage 5 results and standings
(232km from Cholet to Chateauroux): 1 M Cavendish (GB) Columbia 5hr 27min 52sec; 2 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank; 3 E Zabel (Ger) Milram; 4 T Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole; 5 B Cooke (Aus) Barloworld; 6 R Hunter (SA) Barloworld; 7 L Duque (Col) Cofidis; 8 R McEwen (Aus) Silence - Lotto; 9 F Chicchi (It) Liquigas; 10 J Dean (NZ) Garmin - Chipotle; 11 R Foerster (Ger) Gerolsteiner; 12 G Steegmans (Bel) Quick-Step; 13 R Feillu (Fr) Agritubel; 14 SChavanel (Fr) Francaise des Jeux; 15 J Casper (Fr) Agritubel; 16 I Isasi (Sp) Euskaltel; 17 M Backstedt (Swe) Garmin - Chipotle; 18 X Florencio (Sp) Bouygues Telecom; 19 J Pineau (Fr) Bouygues Telecom; 20 S Krauss (Ger) Gerolsteiner all same time. Selected: 50 D Millar (Gbr) Team Garmin-Chipotle p/b H30 5hr 27min 52sec.
Leading overall: 1 S Schumacher (Ger) Gerolsteiner 19hr 32min 33 sec; 2 K Kirchen (Lux) Columbia +12 sec; 3 D Millar (GB) Garmin - Chipotle same time; 4 C Evans (Aus) Silence - Lotto +21sec; 5 F Cancellara (Swit) Team CSC +33; 6 C Vandevelde (US) Garmin - Chipotle ) +37; 7 G Hincapie (US) Columbia ) +41; 8 T Lovkvist (Swe) Columbia +47; 9 V Nibali (It) Liquigas +58; 10 J Ivan Gutierrez (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne +1:01; 11 D Menchov (Rus) Rabobank +1.12; 12 J Voigt (Ger) Team CSC - Saxo Bank +1.13; 13 S Devolder (Bel) Quick Step +1.18; 14 O Pereiro Sio (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne +1.22; 15 M Monfort (Bel) Cofidis - Le Credit par Telephone + 1.24; 16 D Cunego (It) Lampre +1.26; 17 A Valverde Belmonte (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne +1.27; 18 A Schleck (Lux) Team CSC - Saxo Bank +1.29; 19 S Sanchez Gonzalez (Sp) Euskaltel - Euskadi +1.31; 20 S Lang (Ger) Gerolsteiner +1.40. Selected: 97 M Cavendish (GB) Team Columbia +19hr 38min 31sec.Reuse content