Coming into the Tour de France, Mark Cavendish’s hopes of maintaining his incredible winning run at the race were being widely written off. He had, it was said, lost weight and finishing speed and wouldn’t have a lead-out train. However, lead-out train or not, Cavendish has often proved himself to be nothing less than extraordinary and he did so again today in Tournai, chalking up his 21st Tour stage win and his first in the rainbow bands of the world champion.
The Briton seemed to be out of contention with 600 metres remaining, with as many as a dozen riders ahead of him. Somehow, just 200 metres later, there were just two, Lotto’s André Greipel and his lead-out man Greg Henderson. But how had he done it?
"I saw [Oscar] Freire coming up and I know Freire always surges in the final kilometre so I jumped on his wheel. Then I saw [Daryl] Impey going on the right to lead out Matt Goss, but Goss was a bit slow to react so I jumped on Impey and took the opportunity to get between them. He couldn’t stop because Gossy was behind me – he had to go and I knew he was going to be perfect to lead me out. If he’d have pulled off I’d have been left on the front a bit too early.
"Then I saw Henderson go on the left with Greipel on his wheel, and I went left. When Hendy surged he made a gap on the riders who were on Greipel’s wheel and I was able to get in there," Cavendish explained after the stage, adding, "I even left it a bit too late. I jumped off Greipel with 200 to go and I should have gone earlier because it was very tight on the line. I had to lunge it."
Cavendish denied that winning without having a lead-out train made this victory particularly special. "A win at the Tour de France is a win at the Tour de France. It’s special enough just to say that. They don’t come easy," he said. "This is the most important race of the year for me, it’s the one my season is normally based around, so I always want to come here, and it gives me an extra drive, an extra determination to win.
"We always knew that it would be hard for me this year. I always said I wanted to make history and that means winning a lot of sprints, but there’s not many better ways to make history than to be part of a British team winning the Tour de France with a British rider. That was always going to be a big aim coming into the Tour this year, but it was always likely to make it more difficult to win stages. But if anything it’s made me more relaxed. I’m super happy to have won but it doesn’t make it any more special."
What did make the victory special, said Cavendish, was winning in the rainbow jersey. "Not just at the Tour but in every race since I won this jersey I’ve wanted to show this jersey and show why I’m worthy to wear it. I have massive respect for this jersey. I have massive respect for every rider who’s ever worn this jersey. I really wanted to honour it this year and that doesn’t just mean at the Tour de France, but at other races, winning wherever I go.
"I won a general classification the other week, which is something I’ve never done, but I was able to do it in this jersey. I’ve won at the Giro d’Italia and now at the Tour de France. Every day when training or racing I look down at these rainbow bands once every few minutes and they give me a great sense of pride. I just want to do the jersey justice."
Asked why he hadn’t called on the services of teammates Bernie Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen in the closing moments of the stage, Cavendish said, "This is the Tour de France. It’s not a race where you can come up with two guys in the last couple of kilometres. You go 5km an hour quicker than any other race here. It’s difficult even for the strongest guy to move up. Edvald has been incredible in other races, bringing me from 10 positions back in the last kilometre, but it’s not possible to do it in the Tour de France because they are going so fast. It may be possible to do that once, but you can’t keep doing it because he’d be done by the end of the week.
"If you’ve got a whole team there to support you then you can stay out of trouble and you’re there at the front for the finish. If you don’t have that, then it’s easier to do it on your own. You’re not having to think for other people, you just think for yourself, you make the quick decisions. If anything, you have to make fewer decisions and fewer calculations. You’re just thinking about your own position, where you are and where the others are. When I’m weaving between guys like Denis Menchov and Pierre Rolland, you know there’s too many people, that there’s too much going on. There’s too much to take in. It’s better just to be alone there."
Cavendish also paid tribute to the part played in his success by girlfriend Peta Todd. "I was a bit in no man’s land coming into the Tour. I knew what we had to do to get the yellow jersey, but I didn’t know what was going to happen in the sprints, which is a weird situation to be in," he said. "But she’s been the one person who’s kept me upbeat and kept me focused. She sent me a message this morning saying what I had to do today. I’m a rider who’s won many stages of the Tour de France, and here I am taking advice from my girlfriend."
Whatever was in that message, it certainly did the trick…