Mark Cavendish's tough 2010 season continued apace yesterday as, despite winning his third stage of this year's Tour de France, he was forced to contend with a team-mate's expulsion for headbutting a rival in the final bunch sprint.
The HTC-Columbia rider was cruising towards a comfortable victory – his 13th stage win in the Tour in total – when team-mate Mark Renshaw took a decidedly over-enthusiastic approach to clearing the Manxman's path. As Kiwi sprinter Julian Dean hit the front with Renshaw – just ahead of Cavendish – the HTC-Columbia lead-out man suddenly opted to use his head, not once, which might have been forgivable, but three times, to shift the New Zealander out of the way.
Cavendish then roared past the tussling duo to claim a magnificent victory by several bike-lengths, but all too aware that the controversy over Renshaw's action would hot up as soon as he got off the bike. Sure enough, within minutes the Australian had been expelled from the race as criticism of his actions flowed thick and fast from other sprinters and officials.
Cavendish justified Renshaw's actions by saying that in fact the highspeed headbutt had meant that other riders had not been in danger of falling as a result. "The officials took a decision, and we don't necessarily agree, but we will see what happens," he said. "But when bikes are all so close they can tangle and that puts everybody in danger. Julian's elbow was hooked over Mark's and Mark used his head to get away. He gave everybody a bit of space."
However, race commissaires were adamant that Renshaw had behaved incorrectly and he was thrown out for what was later officially described "a particularly serious" offence.
Rightly or wrongly, Cavendish has been left bereft of his key wingman for the sprints, the team-mate who has guided him through the final metres of each and every Tour win since last year, just as his bid for the green jersey was looking stronger. It is a massive loss and comes when Cavendish has managed to reduce the difference on points leader Alessandro Petacchi to 29, the lowest since the Tour left Rotterdam, giving him a more than reasonable hope of victory in Paris.
HTC-Columbia were already one man down following Adam Hansen's abandonment because of a broken collarbone, with Renshaw's untimely exit the latest blow in a year that has repeatedly turned sour for Cavendish. An early-season battle with an infected molar wrecked his Classics campaign, then he was withdrawn by his team from the Tour of Romandy for flicking a V sign as a gesture towards his critics after winning a stage. Last month he had one of the worst crashes of his career in the Tour of Switzerland. Off the bike, he split up with his girlfriend in April.
As if that was not enough, Cavendish's early Tour stages were a litany of accidents and lost opportunities. It is only in the last week that he had managed to get back on track.
With Renshaw lost, Cavendish's latest recovery in form – 13 stages in the Tour puts him ahead of such greats as Mario Cipollini and Erik Zabel – is yet again thrown into doubt. However, today's stage across the Massif Central culminates with a first-category summit finish in Mende and rather than the sprinters, the overall favourites will be set to do battle.
As if Cavendish's misfortune was not enough, Britain also lost one of its eight participants in this year's race yesterday,as veteran Charly Wegelius left following a series of crashes and an upset stomach.Reuse content