Cavendish crushed as rivals close ranks

Hot favourite to win Britain's first gold medal of Games hits out at conspiracy to deny him victory as Vinokurov is first across the line

No gold at the end of this rainbow, only bruised egos and disbelief. Faces that had earlier shone with hope and expectation returned smeared in dirt and grime, the dream team splintered by the essential meritocracy of sport. Mark Cavendish was a beaten shell of the Manx Missile he has shown himself to be when, mocked by a racer's reflex, he instinctively kicked in sight of the line. He was a puffing and panting 29th. Alexandr Vinokurov had gone through 40 seconds earlier, bolting to gold in the explosive manner expected of our hero.

Bradley Wiggins, the king of the Champs Elysees six days earlier, had by then sat up in the saddle, the rider's signal that the game was up. He could not have given more. The British effort spent attempting to steer Cavendish into a position from which he could flick the switch profitably proved too great without assistance from rival teams, who had their own agendas to pursue. And so a crushing sense of anti-climax had settled on The Mall long before Vinokurov and Rigoberto Uran sprinted into view at the head of the leading group.

Opposite the finish, Cavendish's glamour model partner, Peta Todd, bounced baby Delilah on her lap while exhaling heavily through downturned lips. Their Olympic photo opportunity drained away 45 minutes earlier when the industry devoted to driving the peloton up and down Box Hill nine times finally told on the British quintet. Cavendish was ungenerous in his appraisal after the race, blaming defeat on the refusal of others to take up the challenge and even a jealousy of the newly-acquired British hegemony in this sport.

"It seems like most teams are happy not to win as long as we don't win. It is the story of our lives in cycling. It shows what a strong nation we are. We've got to take the positives from that and take it as a compliment," Cavendish said. "It's bitterly disappointing. There's 70 guys in our group at the finish, I don't understand why there's only three guys riding. It doesn't make sense. No-one wants to help us. The Australians sit there. They always just ride negatively. They're happy to see us lose. I'd like to say that's how it goes, but it's disappointing."

There was huge pride in a team that gave him all they had. Wiggins, David Millar, Ian Stannard and Chris Foome functioned as a kind of cycling placenta, feeding Cavendish towards a goal that ultimately proved too great. "We did everything," he said. "We can't make excuses. We did everything we said we were going to do and more. To see the guys with the calibre they've got ride like that for me is incredible. They're absolutely spent. They just rode 250k. They've gone 60k an hour for the last hour. It's incredible, I'm so proud of them."

There was praise, too, for the estimated million that lined the route. "All our ears are ringing. You just hear noise. It was tremendous the whole way round. It's something I'll remember forever. I haven't got a medal but I can be completely proud of my team and completely proud of my country for their support."

Pumped by the euphoria of Danny Boyle's acclaimed opening ceremony and a sense of entitlement fostered on the roads of France, Britain's cyclists had only to turn up to win, in the eyes of those lining the streets of the capital. But five hours and 45 minutes later the Olympics delivered a powerful lesson: no-one has a divine right to win in sport.

The British one-two in the Tour de France, and the established supremacy of world road-race champion Cavendish in a sprint, had allowed a hubristic ring of confidence to envelop the five-man squad. Spread across the front row at the start, one wondered what the cycling superpowers of Italy and Spain made of the team to their right, the sport's nouveaux riche, Great Britain.

Wiggins, champion of the Tour, broke out across the line momentarily to accept the embrace of his mother. He was followed by Prince Charles, who paid his respects to the mother of all racers. Cavendish lent moodily on his handlebars, perfecting the look of the Hollywood anti-hero; wordless, awkward even, but utterly mesmerising. Stretched out in front of them one of the world's great ceremonial thoroughfares, The Mall, heaved with expectant Britons and bunting.

It all seemed so straightforward as Wiggins and Cavendish sent a tide of Lycra rolling towards Buckingham Palace.

The template was set 20km in when the breakaway group raced away, building a lead of six minutes before the peloton responded halfway around the brutal Box Hill loop. The work was all in British legs. They closed to within a minute, but with the last turn of Box Hill done, it was clear that golden finale promised at the start of the race was no longer in the gift of Cavendish. The first British gold of the Games would have to wait.