Tour de France: Cavendish treble helps lift gloom

His right hand was raised high with three fingers pointing skywards as he crossed the finish line yesterday, Mark Cavendish's victory salute confirming that he had just become the first Briton to win three stages in a major Tour. The 23-year-old sprinter powered across the line at Narbonne with three-quarters of a bike length advantage over his closest rival, Sebastian Chavanel of France – less than his previous victories at Châteauroux and Toulouse.

"You can tell that I'm getting really tired, that's why I didn't have such a big gap, but I'm still really pleased to be the first Briton to get three stages," he said. "It's nice, too, that I've won under very different conditions." There was baking heat for his first win, a torrential downpour for the second and gale-force winds yesterday.

Despite his success the Manxman was not as optimistic as usual about his chances of making it to Paris. "I want to keep going for as long as possible but I'll take it day by day," he said. "I can't say if I'll be in Paris for the Champs-Elysées sprint, but I'll try as best I can."

His win was overshadowed by Riccardo Ricco, who became the third rider to test positive for the red blood cell booster EPO in this year's race. Unlike the previous two, Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado, the Italian was one of the highest-profile figures on this year's Tour. He was the winner of two mountain stages and leader of the "king of the mountains" and the "best young rider" competitions.

A late addition for Saunier Duval-Scott, Ricco had raised suspicions when he began predicting the Tour stages he would win and he had been targeted for testing because of his abnormally high hematocrit levels – the volume of red blood cells. The roof finally fell in just half an hour before yesterday's start in Lavalanet.

Ninth overall before his abrupt departure, a visibly shocked Ricco was driven away in a team car surrounded by police outriders. The cheers which had greeted him in the Pyrenees and Massif Centrale were replaced by boos. "It's a total catastrophe," said Piotr Algeri, Ricco's manager in the Saunier Duval team. "I can't understand why he did these things after everything that's happened before. I quit. I've had enough." His team were quick to follow suit, pulling out en masse from the race and suspending all activities.

Ricco's exit represents a huge step backwards for the Tour in its attempts to recover from last year's débâcle. "It makes you think that nothing has changed," said Britain's David Millar. "In general when you see incredible performances it's because they're not true." He could have been referring to Ricco's in the mountains.

The race leader Cadel Evans was in defiant mood, arguing that one reason for cycling's perpetual drugs crisis is the high number of tests it does in comparison to other sports. "Cycling is being crucified for doing the right thing," he argued.

Cavendish, whose Columbia team have a rigorous, independently run anti-doping programme, was upbeat. "I've been in the sport for a year and a half and want to be in it for many years to come," he said. "So for me to see the sport being cleaned up day by day is a perfect thing."

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk

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