Tour de France, Stage 21: Mark Cavendish Again

Only one highlight for me today: Mark Cavendish.

He said he wanted to win in Paris, and then he went out and did it. The prelude was pretty familiar. The other sprinters’ teams gave Columbia-HTC the job of pulling back a breakaway, which stayed out until the last lap on the Paris circuit. Then the usual script got something of a twist: Garmin-Slipstream took a run at the front about 4 kilometers from the end and stayed there over the next 3 kilometers. This was a change of tactics after having failed repeatedly to jump past Columbia’s train on the finishing stretches on several of Cavendish’s other wins.

But Columbia was only waiting for its moment, and at 1,000 meters it struck. As the peloton got read to exit the Rue de Rivoli, George Hincapie surged to the left to lead Mark Renshaw and Cavendish past Garmin, whose two remaining riders (Julian Dean and Tyler Farrar) fell in behind. In the last bend–a right into the home straight–the Garmins made a bid to sneak through on the inside. They didn’t get there in time. Renshaw and Cavendish closed the lane and their momentum carried them clear across the road to the left-hand barrier as they entered the Champs-Elysees, 400 meters from the line. In fact, they shed the pursuers and won the race right there, Renshaw surged up the boulevard with Cavendish on his wheel. At about 250 meters, Cavendish rocketed alone to the front and was still pulling away as he hit the line; Renshaw got an easy second. (I timed the final kilometer and by my watch it took 55.7 seconds, giving an average speed of 40 or 41 mph; Cavendish must have topped out around 45).

Usually, I find the sprints to be nerve-wracking. Although the teamwork, daring, opportunism, and power on display in the sprints are impressive, I’ve never warmed up to the sprint stages in the Tour. They seem to have so little to do with the overall outcome of the race. But Cavendish and his team were so phenomenal in this Tour. The team utterly dominated the final kilometers of virtually every sprint stage, and Cavendish is in a league of his own when he smells the finish. Honestly, he looked like an expression of pure joy in his final acceleration toward the line. It was beautiful to watch.

Tour de France Stage 3: George Hincapie on Attack

Cavendish won Stage 3 because his team (Columbia-HTC) worked the hardest for it. Interviewed by Robbie Ventura on Versus just after the finish, Columbia’s George Hincapie, in his 14th year in the Tour peloton, had some pointed words for teams that didn’t join in the hunt:

Ventura: Was that the plan of attack? To drop the hammer as soon as the headwinds hit?

Hincapie: Actually, we were expecting to get a little help from the other teams. Nobody wanted to race. You know, it made us a bit angry. We decided if we saw a moment, you know, we were gonna go, no matter what.

RV: Was that more to lessen the odds for Cavendish for his victory or was it more to set G.C. hopes for the likes of your, ah, G.C. men?

GH: It was more just to make the race happen. Nobody wanted to race. As soon as we started pulling, none of the sprinter teams would help us, and uh you know, we kind of found that a bit insulting, so we decided to go.

RV: What team were you most frustrated with? What team do you think had the responsibility today?

GH: There’s no reason to name names, but, you know, the sprinters teams responsibilities are to chase down breakaways and make the race happen. This is the Tour de France. You want excitement. You want to race as hard as possible for every race, so uh I think our team did it today and it was an awesome team effort.

That’s right: It was awesome. Starting 25 kilometers out, Team Columbia started riding its own team time trial; well, almost–it was impressive to see the Astana and Skil-Shimano and Milram riders rotating through the front of the group to help keep it away from the peloton.

I think what Hincapie is showing off a little bit of tactical anger here Sure, all the sprinters’ teams had an interest in chasing down the breakaway. But after watching what Cavendish does, they were all probably thinking the same thing: This race will come down to the last 3 or 4 kilometers. Let Columbia pay the price to pull the escape back and maybe weaken them a little bit so the lead-out for Cavendish isn’t as dominating as it was, say, yesterday. The brilliance and daring of Columbia’s move was to take up the challenge: Gee, if you’re going to make us work hard, we might as well really work and see if we can get a big payoff. A huge, concerted effort from the peloton would have brought them back. Nobody had it in them to try that.

Be interesting to see whether Columbia’s effort costs them in the team trial tomorrow in Stage 4. I’m guessing that they’re fired up and they turn in a top four or five performance.

Cavendish: On-Bike Fisticuffs

Earlier today, Mark Cavendish twittered this re: the end of yesterday’s stage (he was using Columbia teammate Mark Renshaw’s account):

Yesterday with 3km to go, Piet Rooijakkers (skil shimano) kidney punched me. Is he a:stupid b:crazy c:disrespectful d:all of the above? Cav

OK–what’s all that about? Maybe a little more than Cavendish let on. Here’s what The Guardian says:

Starting in Monaco, the stage was run in heat that touched 40 degrees and raised temperatures in the peloton, too. As the teams started to wind up for a hectic finish, the combustible Cavendish became embroiled with another rider. In his account, given at the post-race press conference, the guilty man was Kenny van Hummel, a Dutch rider with the Skil-Shimano team.

“He took his hands off the bars and hit me,” Cavendish said. “I was pretty annoyed about that. It’s disrespectful.”

According to the Skil-Shimano team the rider was Piet Rooijakkers, another Dutchman who had been barged and could not help touching Cavendish. When Cavendish allegedly reacted by tugging the Skil rider’s shirt, Rooijakkers lashed out.

The Tour: Stage 2

Three things about the Stage 2 finish in Brignoles:

1. I don’t care how many times I see it. The sight of the peloton gathering itself for the final sprint is exhilarating and terrifying. The speed, the aggressiveness, the agility, the nerve, the impossible collective ability to respond to so much happening so fast. I was positive as the riders funneled down into the final couple thousand meters that there would be a disastrous, spectacular crash. Instead, there was a minor one as a rider or two failed to negotiate a sweeping right-hand turn.

2. Everyone around the race, including all 180 riders, anticipated how the day’s stage would wind up: with Team Columbia-HTC trying to control the front and launch Mark Cavendish. Despite that, no one could stop it from happening. Team Garmin-Slipstream did manage to get their man, Tyler Farrar, into position. Cavendish beat him by three or four bike lengths.

3. Cavendish. Raw power. Absolute certainty that he’s the man. The combination of team and star gives the impression of inevitability in the sprint. Of course, it’s just an impression. No one wins every day. Right?