Mark Cavendish's dream of donning the green jersey in Paris came a stage closer to realisation yesterday, when the Briton collected his fourth win of this year's race – but regardless of what he achieves between now and next Sunday on the Champs Elysées, another Tour record now belongs to the Manxman.
No other sprinter has won as many Tour stages – 19 – as the 26-year-old from the Isle of Man in a four-year period. It is an indication of Cavendish's continuing domination of the sprints but also of something equally difficult to achieve in a race as fraught as the Tour: his consistency.
Except for 2007, when he struggled in his debut Tour year, Cavendish has never failed to produce at least four stage wins each season. As the Briton once said, a single victory would have been enough to make his name in the sport.
There was an understandable touch of bravado in his answers in Montpellier yesterday after he won ahead of main rivals Tyler Farrar in second and Alessandro Petacchi in third, with one question – "are you unbeatable Mark?" – receiving a coy "almost" in return.
But, to his credit, Cavendish refused to stand square in the limelight, instead insisting it was cycling's equivalent of the back-up staff that really deserved the praise. "It's me that's on the results sheet, but it's my team that are really behind this," he said. "When [Phillipe] Gilbert attacked in the end, they didn't over-react but brought him back slowly so it wouldn't create chaos.
"Before that, they're the ones that work flat out for 200 kilometres today, no other team supporting them. I don't understand why other teams bring sprinters if they're not willing to work for a sprint."
A quick glance at the results sheet, which shows no other sprinter barring Cavendish taking more than one stage this year, might explain that.
It is still too early to say whether Cavendish will become Britain's first green jersey in Paris for sure and with the Alps between him and the French capital, Cavendish was the first to preach caution.
"It's far from guaranteed, it's not in the bag", he said. "In 2009 Thor [Hushovd] managed to pull back a lot of points on me in the mountains and I was disqualified from one stage and in 2010 I came back from nowhere to finish 10 points or so behind Petacchi. I'll just keep plugging away."
Cavendish's difficult days in the Pyrenees, particularly on Saturday, where he finished sixth-last, is perhaps worrying the Briton but he insisted it was the "smell of winning on days like today" that kept him going in the mountains.
Now, too, there is the whiff of Paris in the air, and after tripling his green-jersey lead from 13 points to 37 yesterday, for all his lack of certainty, Cavendish is closer to success than at any other point during the last two years.
There are flies in the ointment, too. After a day of gusting coastal gales – "although there's more wind in the press room, it wasn't as bad as that", the sprinter joked – the way Cavendish placed even more emphasis than usual on his team's assistance was perhaps an indirect reference to HTC-Highroad's continuing difficulties to find a sponsor for next year.
There will be no problem for Cavendish, who has been repeatedly linked to Sky for 2012, although neither side has confirmed this. But today was the deadline given by his team director, Rolf Aldag, for a new sponsor to be announced and there has been an ominous silence from the team in that quarter.
Today's rest day sees the usual round of press conferences, with current leader Thomas Voeckler and defending champion Alberto Contador – by pure coincidence – holding theirs at the same time. From tomorrow onwards, as the race makes its first tentative move into the Alps, there will be rather more serious clashes between the two.
Stage 14 (Saint-Gaudens - Plateau de Beille.168km):
1 Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 5hr 13min 25sec
2 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 0.21
3 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 0.46
4 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 0.48
5 Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) Sky Procycling
6 Alberto Contador Velasco (Sp) Saxo Bank Sungard
7 Thomas Voeckler (Fr) Team Europcar
8 Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
9 Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale
10 Pierre Rolland (Fr) Team Europcar
(All at the same time.)
Selected Others: 58 Geraint Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 14min 59sec.77 David Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 17.37.111 Ben Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 24.34.164 Mark Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 26.54
Stage 15 (Limoux - Montpellier, 187km):
1 Mark Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad 4hr 20min 23sec
2 Tyler Farrar (US) Team Garmin-Cervelo
3 Alessandro Petacchi (It) Lampre - ISD
4 Daniel Oss (It) Liquigas-Cannondale
5 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Sp) Movistar Team
6 Ben Swift (GB) Sky Procycling
7 Gerald Ciolek (Ger) Quickstep Cycling Team
8 Tony Gallopin (Fr) Cofidis.Le Credit En Ligne
9 Francisco Jose Ventoso Alberdi (Sp) Movistar Team
10 Sebastien Hinault (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale
(All at the same time.)
Selected Others: 114 Geraint Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling 4hr 20min 23sec, 117 David Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 0.28sec
General classification after stage 15:
1 Thomas Voeckler (Fr) Team Europcar 65hr 24min 34sec
2 Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 1min 49sec
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 2.06
4 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 2.15
5 Ivan Basso (It) Liquigas-Cannondale at 3.16
6 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3.44
7 Alberto Contador Velasco (Sp) Saxo Bank Sungard at 4.00
8 Damiano Cunego (It) Lampre - ISD at 4.01
9 Thomas Danielson (US) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 5.46
10 Kevin De Weert (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team at 6.18Reuse content