It doesn't get much closer than this. At the end of the third stage in the 2016 Tour de France there was little to no gap in the bunch-sprint finish between Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal). Greipel was the first to throw his fist in the air when crossing the line in Angers. A moment later Cavendish also clinched his fist. A sprinter usually senses when he's won it. Greipel turned out to have sensed it wrong.
"I can ride home and put my head in the sand but I won't do that. We're here to win stages. If you lose by one centimetre then there's no need to hide. I don't think I've done a good sprint. I made a small mistake. Tomorrow we will try again," Greipel said while standing next to the team bus in Angers.
The dominance from Cavendish, who won his second stage this week, didn't come as a surprise to Greipel. "Do you know how many stages Cavendish has won in the Tour? It's 28. Then you know you always have to take him into account."
In stark contrast with the laid-back approach to the first three quarters of the stage, things turned around in the final part of the race. According to official Tour de France data from Dimension Data, Lotto-Soudal led the peloton for nearly 42 per cent in the final 50 kilometres. In the final kilometres they struggled to keep their train on the rails. There were several corners and multiple traffic islands which clearly troubled teams to organize their sprint.
"The last kilometre was very nervous. It was hard to stay grouped. In the end Jürgen Roelandts managed to get me in a good position," Greipel said. He exited the final corner at 300 metres from the finish, well positioned and went full gas on the slightly uphill stretch to the line.
"I made a mistake in the end. In a reflex I switched to my biggest gear. Sadly enough the finish was just a little too far. The difference was very, very small. It's too bad that it didn't work out," Greipel said.
Team manager Marc Sergeant was unable to see the sprint finish in the team car. If Greipel was beaten then Cavendish must've been better, he felt. "I hear that he [Greipel] thought he'd won. Usually that feeling is right. Right now Cavendish is really good. His build-up towards Rio is paying off for him. He's really fast again," Sergeant said.
The Lotto-Soudal team expected that on this long slightly uphill finishing road there would be a much bigger chance for powerhouse Greipel over fast-pedalling Cavendish. "This was a power sprint and we hoped that this would be the turning point for André to win. It proves that Cavendish – who managed to stay in front with his yellow jersey for a very long time yesterday – is really strong. If he manages to come over Greipel then he's better. I don't expect it to have been a wrong assessment from André. He knew the finish well."
There's usually no logics in cycling results but if Greipel can continue the trend he's been on then he's up for a party tomorrow.
He finished third in the first bunch sprint on stage 1, now he's a close number 2 in the second bunch sprint and tomorrow a third bunch sprint is expected in the stage from Saumur to Limoges.
"Tomorrow we will try again, just like today," Greipel said.