Heading into today’s stage, Mark Cavendish had seven Tour de France stage victories to his name. Four in last year’s Tour and three in 2009. The common denominator? Every victory came on a pancake-flat finish.
They said he wouldn’t win if he had to sprint uphill. They were wrong.
What they forgot is that Mark Cavendish is riding with the best lead-out train in the pro peloton. Today, that team navigated a hair-raising final 10 kilometers to put the blazing Englishman within firing distance of a finish line that sat at the end of a slightly uphill run-in. By the time his sprint captain, Mark Renshaw, peeled off in the final meters of the race, Cavendish was in prime position to turn on the afterburners and smoke his charging rivals.
Garmin-Slipstream’s Tyler Farrar came close – pulling up alongside the Englishman for a brief moment – but was unable to seal the deal. Rival Thor Hushovd faded to fifth, which will force him to hand the green jersey of the Points Classification leader back to Cavendish for tomorrow’s stage. Cavendish now leads Hushovd in the heated battle for green by 7 points.
In addition to riding himself back into green, Cav’ also managed to ride his way into the history books. The win marked his eighth career Tour de France stage victory, which matches Barry Hoben’s previously held record for the most stage wins in the Tour de France by a British rider (Hoben won eight between 1967 to 1975). No doubt Cavendish will be keen to break the record outright in this year’s Tour – if not in another flat stage tomorrow, then on the storied Champs D’Élysées in the final stage heading into Paris.
How it unfolded
The day’s breakaway formed about 26 kilometers into the race with Johan Vansummeren (Silence-Lotto) and Marcin Sapa (Lampre) opening up a gap just before the first intermediate sprint banner. The two men stayed away for the better part of 160 kilometers, opening up a gap as big as four and a half minutes.
It was no surprise that the peloton, pulled by a combination of sprinter’s teams, gave chase and reeled in the duo with 5 kilometers to go. Today was a day for a terrific bunch sprint – and everybody knew it.
As the breakaway was caught, all the major teams began to organize. Columbia-HTC strung out in an impressive echelon, driving the pace into the finish. But Tyler Farrar’s Garmin-Slipstream Team had their own ideas and barreled up the narrow roadway on the side to get into the fray. On a slight downhill section, the speed hit nearly 75 km/hour (46.6 mph).
Gerald Ciolek’s team, Milram, were also on the hunt for a stage victory and came flying up to the front of the peloton with 2k to go. As the long line of blue jerseys strung out on the front of the race, Team Columbia-HTC jumped into the draft to buy a few precious extra seconds of slipstream. Tony Martin (currently leading the Best Young Rider’s competition) sat on the front of the Columbia-HTC train, to lead them into the final kilometer.
Behind him, road captain George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw sat waiting.
Team Milram had gone too early – and Columbia-HTC knew it. As the boys in blue began to blow, Martin peeled off and Hincapie came to the front of the line to drop the hammer. Renshaw was sitting just behind, with Cavendish on his wheel, waiting to unleash the final blistering assault before the line.
As Renshaw navigated Cavendish through the final turns, rival sprinter Thor Hushovd was sitting directly on the Englishman’s wheel while Tyler Farrar’s Garmin-Slipstream team was getting ready to deliver him on the inside line.
Cavendish exploded off of Renshaw’s wheel and Hushovd surged, but could not hold the pace. Farrar made a last minute push, momentarily pulling up alongside Cavendish, but it was not enough to get him the top spot and Cav’ crossed the line with half a bike length to spare – and a look of elation that indicated this may have been his best victory yet.
After the stage, Columbia-HTC’s Mick Rogers referred to the pace in the final 15k as “warp speed”. George Hincapie agreed, calling the final 10k “pretty insane”.
Cavendish once again delivered hugs and gratitude to every teammate after the race reminding us that he may be the one who stands on top of the podium at the end of the day, but he could not get there without the world-class support of an incredibly talented team.
“The results of the sprints speak for themselves. For me, [Mark Renshaw] is the best lead-out man in the world,” Cavendish recently told VeloNews. “With a pilot like George (Hincapie) in front of him and the team setting up the sprints, it’s absolutely perfect.”
Team Columbia-HTC is 4 for 5 in sprint finishes in this year’s Tour and today’s victory marks the 58th win of the season - the highest tally of any professional cycling squad in 2009.
Looking ahead to Stage Twelve
Tomorrow brings us 211.5 somewhat flat kilometers – and a chance for Columbia-HTC to chase win number five before the race heads back into the mountains. They’ll have their work cut out for them as there are definitely a few “bumps” along the way that could potentially throw a wrench into the works.
Specifically, a third category climb 40k before the finish will mean that in order to have a go in a bunch sprint, Mark Cavendish will have to find some climbing legs to pull his body up the incline. If he loses touch with the main field there, it will be hard to reconnect in order to be a factor in the sprint.
Look for Rabobank to possibly attack on this climb – their sprinter, Oscar Freire, goes uphill fairly well when he’s fit and after being thwarted four times by Columbia-HTC already, you can bet these boys (and all the rest of the sprinters for that matter) will be pulling out the stops to try to curtail Cavendish’s domination.
Stage 11 Results: Top Five Individuals
1. CAVENDISH Mark TEAM COLUMBIA - HTC 4h 17' 55"
2. FARRAR Tyler GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 00' 00"
3. HUTAROVICH Yauheni FRANCAISE DES JEUX + 00' 00"
4. FREIRE Oscar RABOBANK 4h 17' 55" + 00' 00"
5. HUSHOVD Thor CERVELO TEST TEAM + 00' 00"
Top Ten Individual Standings (GC) after Stage 11
1. NOCENTINI Rinaldo AG2R-LA MONDIALE 43h 28' 59"
2. CONTADOR Alberto ASTANA + 00' 06"
3. ARMSTRONG Lance ASTANA + 00' 08"
4. LEIPHEIMER Levi ASTANA + 00' 39"
5. WIGGINS Bradley GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 00' 46"
6. KLÖDEN Andréas ASTANA + 00' 54"
7. MARTIN Tony TEAM COLUMBIA - HTC + 01' 00"
8. VANDE VELDE Christian GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 01' 24"
9. SCHLECK Andy TEAM SAXO BANK + 01' 49"
10. NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS + 01' 54"
Columbia-HTC Individual Standings after Stage 11
7. MARTIN Tony 134. CAVENDISH Mark
12. MAXIME Monfort 135. GRABSCH Bert
19. KIRCHEN Kim 155. RENSHAW Mark
28. HINCAPIE George 156. EISEL Bernhard
116. ROGERS Michael