No doubt about it, this is a strange Tour for Mark Cavendish. On Monday, the Briton won, despite riding without any of the support he was used to when he rode for the HTC team. On Wednesday, despite having two Sky riders shadowing him, he had a bad crash. Yesterday, despite having unprecedented backing from the entire Sky squad in the closing kilometres of a Tour stage, the world champion suffered an almost equally rare – but clear – defeat in a bunch sprint.
Cavendish finished fifth, for once unable to produce his trademark sharp and sudden acceleration as the German sprinter André Greipel took his second win in 24 hours.
Various factors conspired against Cavendish yesterday, most probably the biggest being the effects of the pile-up on Wednesday that left him covered with cuts and bruises. As Sky's sports director, Sean Yates, pointed out, it would have been preferable if yesterday had not been a bunch sprint, to give Cavendish more time to recover from his injuries. As it was, he was almost obliged to go for it.
On top of that, Cavendish had proved in the intermediate sprint during a 196.5km grind across the flatlands of northern France that he was in relatively good shape, beating Matt Goss, a former team-mate and fellow sprinter, to rack up some more points in the green-jersey competition.
Partly as a result of his better-than-expected condition, and partly to protect Sky's overall contender, Bradley Wiggins, in the dangerous final kilometres, for the first time in the 2012 Tour Cavendish found himself behind a full Sky "train" of seven riders, spearheading one side of the bunch at the head of the pack and keeping him and Wiggins protected.
Sky's line of riders did not cut as emphatic a swathe as the HTC squad used to, but the "train" had undoubted benefits for Cavendish, most notably that he and Wiggins avoided another major pile-up.
"It was a funny thing seeing Cavendish's team on one side of the road and BMC [for defending champion Cadel Evans] on the right," said the Tour leader, Fabian Cancellara, "but it's better to spend a little bit of extra energy and stay safe."
Others were not so fortunate. A skewed manoeuvre by the American Tyler Farrar saw the sprinter go somersaulting into the tarmac with three kilometres to go, and in the domino effect that is so typical of Tour crashes the green-jersey leader, Peter Sagan, ended up splayed on the pavement.
Cavendish was in the perfect position going into the finale. But as the peloton scattered to sweep past a late break, Cavendish seemed unable to move forward to his ideal "blast-off" position. Secondly, a final slight uphill climb, never his favourite type of sprint, sapped his strength yet further.
Greipel's confidence, on the other hand, was already sky-high after Wednesday's win – which was achieved minus Cavendish, thanks to that crash. On this occasion, and with Cavendish present, "The Gorilla" timed his final acceleration perfectly, gradually increasing his power to a top speed that Cavendish could not answer.
A final reason for Cavendish's defeat could lie in his programmed weight loss, which he has undertaken in order to cope with the hilly midsection of the Olympic road-race course – a vital ingredient in his planned success on the opening Saturday of the Games. Fewer kilos means Cavendish will get over the climbs outside London easier, but also that he has less muscle mass, and hence less power, in the final sprints on the Tour. We will find out whether the gamble pays off on 28 July.
While Cavendish may yet take his 22nd stage win today, which would put him equal in terms of victories with the all-time Tour sprinting great André Darrigade, another record was broken yesterday as Cancellara spent his 27th day in the race lead of the Tour.
The Swiss Olympic time-trial champion is now the rider who has spent most days leading the Tour without winning it.
"I was not born to win a Tour, but I was born to hold the lead in this race for a long time and that gives me a great deal of pride," Cancellara said. "This is the jersey you can't buy."