Mark Cavendish's hopes of notching up a third stage win out of a possible four in the Tour de France were dashed yesterday after breakaway specialist Thomas Voeckler fended off the bunch for a courageous lone ride to victory.
Part of a six-man day-long move which had barely a minute's lead as they reached the outskirts of the finish in Perpignan, the Frenchman launched a last-ditch attack with 3 kilometres left.
The long flat roads leading into the frontier town made the 30-year-old a perfect moving target for the chasing bunch, and judging by his frequent looks back, Voeckler seemed aware that his gamble was unlikely to pay off.
But after two previous sprint stages where Cavendish's Columbia-HTC squad have flattened even the smallest sign of opposition in the final kilometres, yesterday the American team appeared to miscalculate Voeckler's strength.
One of France's most popular riders since he managed to defend the yellow jersey for over a week – far longer than expected – against Lance Armstrong in 2004, Voeckler still had a 12-second advantage as he seared into the final bend leading to the finish.
That was more than enough for the Frenchman to begin a series of elaborate bows and waves to the cheering crowds in a joint celebration of the host country's first victory in this year's Tour and the Perpignan rugby union side's recent victory in France's Top 14 league.
Cavendish made a desperate charge behind, weaving between exhausted riders from the break to take third place and reinforce his hold on the green jersey.
The Briton now has an advantage of 26 points over second-placed Thor Hushovd but the next few days of racing are far less favourable for Cavendish. Today's stage into Barcelona finishes on a short but challenging climb to the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic, and tomorrow the race hits the Pyrenees, and the fight for the yellow jersey in the mountains will begin in earnest.
"Barcelona's not a finish that suits me at all," Cavendish said, "my next big objective will be winning on stage 10.
"I always count on one day when the break stays away, and that was today. At least I'm still in green."
In the short-term Voeckler's win gave his team director Jean-René Bernaudeau – who yesterday celebrated his 53rd birthday – another reason to uncork the champagne. But for 2010 it could have major consequences for the team, given their main backer, French mobile telephone firm B-Box Bouygues, is pulling out at the end of the year. "We're living in uncertain times and this is a win that could help secure us all a future," Voeckler said.Reuse content