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.

Mark Cavendish: Climb Was ‘Grim, So, So Grim’

Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, asked by Frankie Andreu on Versus whether he took special pleasure in beating Thor Hushovd this morning:

No, not at all. It’s irrelevant. It’s beating the mountains that gives me more gratification. You know that was a hard climb at the finish and it was about getting over that. I put the top of the climb as my finish line, and if I could get there I could get to the real finish. We only had three guys [George Hincapie, Tony Martin, and Maxime Montfort] after it and what a job those three guys did, all three of them emptied the tank the day before Mont Ventoux. That takes guts, that takes determination, that takes will, you know. to put me in the best position to win, and for me that goes down as my nicest victory just how it went with the climb and the way the guys rode. You know, we were on the back foot but we came through.

FA: Talk about emptying the tank, how much did you have to empty the tank to stay on that climb when Menchov was really going?

MC: It was hard. It was really hard, but you know when you’ve got guys staying with you and you give up then it’s not fair on them. I said if the guys stay with me, there’s no way I can give up, I have to go go go until I can’t go any more. It was grim, it was so, so grim at the top, it got really hard, my saddle was going further and further up my ass (laughs) and when I got over, it was a case of there wasn’t time to recover on the descent because we were full-gas chasing, but you know, we did it and it was nice.

Tour de France Stage 14: Idiot non Savant

The delightful aspect of today’s stage: George Hincapie, in his fourteenth Tour, coming within a whisker of taking the yellow jersey. If you weren’t keeping score at home: At the end, the peloton brought back Hincapie’s breakaway just enough to deny him the maillot jaune (or MJ, as I’m seeing it tweeted). A slightly less delightful aspect of the stage: the post-finish recriminations about what various teams should have done, or shouldn’t have, to allow Hincapie, one of the class acts in pro cycling, to keep the prize. Some accuse Astana and the Armstrong/Bruyneel brain trust of setting a pace at mid-stage designed to keep HIncapie within reach. Some accuse Garmin-Slipstream of chasing aggressively late in the stage, providing the peloton with the impetus that allowed Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2R) to keep the yellow jersey.

To which we say: Please. It’s a race. A wise man–or a man at any rate–once said, “No gifts.” If there’s one guy in the entire peloton who understands what that means, it’s Hincapie himself.

And, if there’s one man who doesn’t understand that, it’s Phil Liggett. When Versus joined the stage live, with a little more than 100 kilometers to go, The Bebington Blatherer first noted the surprise of the day: that Hincapie was close to being the race leader on the road. Then he noted with shock and clucking disapproval that Hincapie’s old friend, Lance Armstrong, had ordered Astana to bring back the breakaway. He said this not once, but twice. He ignored the fact the time gap was hardly changing. He ignored the absence of any sign that Astana was putting out an effort. He ignored the time gap as it began to grow, a sure sign that no chase was under way. He ignored the fact that Johan Bruyneel, not Armstrong, would be the one to order any move. And he ignored the fact that just about any apparent move in the peloton 100 kilometers from the finish was not likely to have much significance.

To give Phil his due, though: with a nudge from Paul Sherwen, he did change his tune when the gap grew to seven minutes, then eight. Soon, he started waxing poetic about what life would be like when Hincapie had the yellow jersey. Teammate Mark Cavendish would be appreciative, Phil predicted: “George Hincapie is usually Mark’s roommate in the hotels, and George looks after Mark, it’s like a dad looking after his son. And he’ll be only too happy if he’s looking at a yellow jersey at the end of the bed of his mate, George Hincapie, tonight. It will be a very successful and a very nice feeling.”

Oh, Phil. Goofy. Prolix. Tireless. Not often with it. How can we not love you? How can we not be exasperated?

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.