Cometh the sprint, cometh the Cav. I know this sounds cheeky, but what can I say after the Manxman sprinted to his 19th career victory, making it his fourth successive tour where he has won four or more stages. It almost looks all too easy, though Cav has his HTC Express to thank for that.
That steamroller consisting of Berhard Eisel, Tony Martin and Mark Renshaw hardly ever fails to deliver. Working like a well oiled machine at the head of the peloton, they provide the perfect platform for their sprinter to take off from, whenever the stage calls for it.
The fact is not lost out on Cavendish as he said yesterday, ”I crossed the finish line first, and I’ve done that 19 times now, but that’s because there’s only one person who can cross the finish line first. I did 200 metres today in a 200‑kilometre stage. Two of my team‑mates rode for 190 of those kilometres and the rest took over and delivered me to the line. So although it’s my name on the list, it’s for the team.”
Such is his domination that excellent competitors like Farrar, Petacchi and Greipel have to satisfy themselves with the lower podium places, or if luck may have it, a stage win where the Brit may have faltered for some reason. But on Saturday’s stage 14 Cavendish came within a minute of the cut-off for finishing the stage and escaped disqualification just in the nick of time.
Behind him though nothing else changed on Le Tour. Thomas Voeckler continues to stay in yellow, leading from Frank Schleck and Cadel Evans and none of the other jerseys changed shoulders either. The stage itself did not permit for any such shifts as there was a sole category-four climb, not the kind then where any leaders could attack or lose time.
It was a sort of mini rest day for the riders who ambled across the 192.5kms keeping safe from damaging crosswinds and general fatigue. The relative comfort of yesterday is also clear from the fact that it was the first stage since day 3 when there were no withdrawals/disqualifications in the Tour. The peloton finished the day same 170 men strong that had started it (FDJ rider William Bonnet had missed the cut-off time on Saturday).
For the record within 3km of the start a breakaway of five had formed consisting of Niki Terpstra (Quick Step), Mickael Delage (FDJ), Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), Mikhail Ignatyev (Katusha) and Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun). Niki Terpstra from Quick Step was the most resilient of all, holding on to a solo lead till the last 2km. But the victory he hoped for was never happening on a stage like this where the sprint teams will sweep past any breakaway in a swoosh.
Still the Dutchman’s efforts were not completely in vain, as he won the award for most aggressive rider of the day, pocketing a cool € 2,000. It might sound scant reward for four hours of rigorous work, but the red bib he gets to wear on the next stage is a respect in itself (and then are the related benefits for the team and their sponsors) .
In the lack of any major action/controversies, the French media have been speculating the possibilities of Voeckler to continue his show of defiance and carry the maillot jaune till Paris. One can understand their eagerness as not since the legendary Bernard Hinault won his fifth title in 1985, have the French had the opportunity to boast of a home winner of the Tour.
But Voeckler is being cautious of his chances. He replied to these views with a smile yesterday, “I have a scoop for you, I’m not able to win the Tour de France.” And when reminded of his heroics in the Pyrenees, he laughed, “Yes but there are higher mountains yet to come…”
Tomorrow begins the final and most crucial week. As we head into the Alps facing famous climbs such as the Galibier (twice) and Alpe d’Huez, much can happen. Even without these tall hurdles, there is the nerves of the Individual Time Trial, the chances of further crashes and lastly – but hopefully not – panic induced ‘chaingate’ episode like last year.
Stage 16 is a mild teaser of what is to come in the week. Its short at 163.5km and has a single category-four climb in the last 50km, but crucially it keeps climbing all the way from the start. Not a leg breaker, but with the tension of the last week, it will once again offer opportunity for a breakaway to succeed. The top men will not compete on these slopes, their talent calls for the mythical Cols, but a strong rider, probably from a team which has yet to prove its mettle might go for the win.
Even though there is no reshuffle on the cards, the stage should still be engrossing as the second rest day always plays tricks with a few riders. Personally I have an inkling (and am also praying) that finally one of the French riders will claim this stage. Many have tried – Roy, Casar and Voeckler himself – but failed. If Roy can go ahead and finish it this time, it will be justice done in a way, awarding an extremely spirited rider and the country that gives us this marvellous spectacle. So till tomorrow then…
Jersey holders: General Classification: Maillot Jaune – Thomas Voeckler Thomas Voeckler – 65h 24’ 34” Maillot Vert – Mark Cavendish Frank Schleck – 65h 26’ 23” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Jelle Vanendert Cadel Evans – 65h 26’ 40” Maillot Blanc – Rigoberto Uran