Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) has been in the sprint game at the Tour de France long enough to know that, regardless of the result, he is always the story of the day after a bunch finish, but that doesn’t stop him from railing against the idea every now and then.
After being beaten into third place by his former teammate André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) in Amiens on stage 5, for instance, Cavendish would doubtless have preferred to remain cloistered aboard his team bus, instead of addressing to the hefty portion of the Tour’s media corps who had set up camp outside.
“You'd do well to speak to Greipel, he’s the guy who won today,” Cavendish said at one point, his low voice barely picked up by the microphones that drew tightly around him. “I think instead of the news being that I'm beaten again, maybe it should be that Greipel has won. He's a phenomenal sprinter, he's in the green jersey and that's the second stage he won this year.”
Four times in his Tour career to date – in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013 – Cavendish has broken the ice and scored his first win on stage 5, and his Etixx-QuickStep team worked diligently to ensure that he would have another chance to do so on Wednesday, a nervous day, marked by rain and wind.
The anticipated sprint duly arrived, but the victory did not. Cavendish opened his effort with 250 metres and came past Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), but was out-stripped in turn by both Greipel and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), and had to settle for third place.
“It was a bit chaotic. I went around Sagan, then I kicked,” he said. “I saw Démare kick and on his right, Kristoff. I went by Démare and then drag stripped Kristoff, but then Greipel and Sagan just came past me in the end. I didn't feel great in the sprint, but nobody felt good today. I was going ok, they just went fastest.”
Before Cavendish emerged from the bus, Etixx-QuickStep directeur sportif Brian Holm had told the gathered reporters that the team had erred in having Cavendish commit himself so wholeheartedly during the previous day’s cobbled stage to Cambrai, which saw his teammate Tony Martin claim victory and move into the maillot jaune.
“It's hard to say, but we got the yellow jersey. I think the Tour de France is 21 days long and everything you do every day has an effect on the day after and the weeks after, but at the end of the day, that's what it's about, we had the yellow jersey and we were up there yesterday and today,” Cavendish said, adding that holding the race lead and riding on behalf of a sprinter were essentially complementary endeavours for his Etixx-QuickStep team.
When Cavendish and his old Highroad train were at their pomp, it seemed that he could more or less only be beaten by himself. Every defeat in those years seemed explicable by some error or element of misfortune in the run-in. In Amiens on Wednesday, however, Cavendish acknowledged that Greipel had simply beaten him for speed and strength in the final 150 metres.
“Today, he beat me. The other day [stage 2 –ed.] it was a mistake we made, we make one mistake in every 500 races we do,” Cavendish said. “Today I was just beaten.”
Cavendish would later point out that Matteo Trentin, suffering from a shoulder injury, had been a loss to his Etixx-QuickStep train on the run-in, but he quietly repeated that he was offering no excuses.
“I actually did a good sprint, but I was just beaten by two other guys,” he said.
The last time Cavendish went more than five stages into the Tour without opening his account was during his debut in 2007, when he abandoned the race at the end of the first week without notching up a victory. In this most mountainous of Tours, opportunities for the sprinters seem at a premium, and even at this early juncture, Cavendish will be hard-pressed to find the terrain to chalk up the five wins his manager Patrick Lefevere set as a target before the race began.
“Not especially,” Cavendish said defiantly when asked if an early stage win would have been important for his confidence. “We have 21 days in the Tour de France. We’ve only got seven or eight sprints this year, a couple less, but there's still a few more stages left.”
And in each one, win or lose, like it or not, Cavendish will be the headline news.