He finally did it. Yesterday, in Montargis, Britain's Mark Cavendish was able to claim his eleventh Tour stage victory; it was his first of this year's race, and arguably the most important win of his career.
His huge yell of triumph as he crossed the line over a bike's length from Germany's Gerald Ciolek, followed by almost non-stop tears of joy on the podium and in post-race interviews, confirmed just how badly he had wanted it.
After three years of a meteoric rise to world domination of the sprints, Cavendish's 2010 season had largely consisted of battling against one obstacle after another – starting with an infected tooth that wrecked his Spring Classics campaign, and culminating in a brutally disappointing failure to win Wednesday's bunch sprint when he was in the perfect position to do so.
In between came slatings from other riders for allegedly irregular sprinting, a withdrawal by his team from a race after flicking 'V' signs at [he said at the time] "journalists who know jack-shit about cycling", the worst crash of his career and a failure to finish even one stage race.
"The pressure has been terrible," Cavendish, 25, claimed later, but yesterday the rider who had appeared unbeatable in 2009 was finally back on top of his Tour de France game.
Just as they had on Wednesday, Cavendish's HTC-Columbia team worked tirelessly to keep a three-man break of the day within controlling distance; team-mates Bernie Eisel and Mark Renshaw then kept the Briton close to the front and out of trouble in the closing kilometres.
Fifth into the final corner with 600 metres to go, Renshaw left it unusually late to swing across and let Cavendish blast away, but the tactic worked perfectly. With less than a dozen pedal strokes, Cavendish was well ahead of the rest of the pack, his right fist punching the air as he crossed the line.
After racking up a staggering 54 wins in three years, Cavendish disclosed that his 55th victory, after such a difficult build-up, had taken on a very different feel: "Yesterday [Wednesday] I couldn't finish my team's work off, and I let them down.
"But today they still believed in me, they rode out of their skins and delivered me to the line, and I can't thank them enough. I'm surrounded by a great group of people, a once-in-a-lifetime team, they picked me up and I'm happy to win for them today."
Cavendish said that his tough season had matured him and made him less inclined to deliver his trademark sweeping generalisations. "You won't hear me saying the same kind of things I've said in the past," he insisted, and as if to prove it, went into a long silence when asked if, given he was considered to be the peloton's bad boy, whether that reputation came about because he was "misunderstood".
After almost a minute of fidding with his microphone, Cavendish responded: "I think, obviously, there's no fuel without fire, but if you put fuel on the fire, other people can waft it to make it bigger. A lot of people want to judge my personality on the 30 seconds they see after a bike race."
Yesterday, after weeks of criticism and self-doubt, Cavendish was back as flavour of the month once more, with the widespread recognition of his status as the sport's top sprinter. "He's still the fastest rider in the world," said points jersey leader, Thor Hushovd, "and today he showed that."
This afternoon, at Gueugnon, the Briton will have a last opportunity to prove Hushovd is right before the race hits the mountains.Reuse content