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Goal 1 of 2 complete: Cavendish no failure in Brignoles; Cancellara keeps maillot jaune, but the heat is on in Provence
Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) wins stage two of the 2009 Tour de France.
Ever since he took the race every sprinter longs to win at the precocious age of 24, the fastest, strongest and smartest sprinter in the world has virtually done no wrong.
Before March 21, many doubted his ability to claim the longest major Classic so young, this year 298 kilometres long, but on that day, Mark Cavendish put his cycling cynics in their place with a magnificent victory in the centenary edition of Milano-Sanremo, and picked up 20,000 Euros for his effort.
His fantastic form returned at the Giro d'Italia (though he wasn't quite at his peak), where he found himself up against a rejuvenated Alessandro Petacchi, and when the Italian beat him twice in the opening week, it was exactly what he needed to repay his wrongs with the three convincing stage victories that followed.
For the many rivals who envy him, it would have been a season complete, but the day of his last Giro stage win in Florence, he returned to his Italian home in Quarrata to prepare for the season's grand objective: the 96th Tour de France.
With expectations almost without peer, even though he did say before the race that going for green would be optimistic - "I want to win stages and get to Paris: those are my two goals", he demanded of himself - if he didn't win a stage at Le Tour, he claimed he would've failed.
Sunday in Brignoles, he discovered success, and the maillot vert to boot.
"When the team goes so perfect, there can be only one result," said Cavendish. "We took control of the race, and finished off in spectacular fashion. It's beautiful to wear the green jersey; it's a big goal for any sprinter. It's emotional for me, it's emotional to be able to wear it."
In what was a messy final thousand metres that rather comically left three Columbia-HTC riders - George Hincapie, Mark Renshaw and Cavendish - pitted against Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Slipstream, the squad owned by entrepreneur Bob Stapleton showed how they thrive at the height of chaos, Hincapie dropping off 800 metres from the line, Renshaw at 250, then 'Cav' methodically finishing it off.
"The last k' was anything but difficult," Cavendish said. "Before that, it was a bit physical but it's always going to be - it's the Tour de France. Everyone wants to win, but we had eight guys keeping me out of trouble at the front.
"My goal now, my pride, my personal goal, is to reach Paris. But if there's a bunch sprint, I'm going to contest it with 100 percent commitment. And maybe that puts me in contention for the green jersey."
Farrar and AG2R's Roman Feillu were left to pick up the scraps, second and third, respectively, with Cervelo TestTeam's Thor Hushovd fourth and BBox Bouygues Telecom's Japanese sprinter, Yukiya Arashiro, a surprise fifth.
Despite the chaotic finale, the sweat-stained maillot jaune of Fabian Cancellara finished safely in the first bunch, albeit a kilo or two lighter due to the baking heat, and will most likely retain the Golden Fleece till at least Tuesday's fourth stage team time trial. "[It was] a fast start, as soon as the first climb, but the team did a great job today. They were focused on [retaining] the yellow jersey," said Cancellara, who, from either heat or wont, answered just three questions in Sunday's press conference.
"The heat hurt me a lot, as it did all the riders in the peloton. I focused on drinking as much water as possible, and then with 30, 40 k's to go, I began to throw water on my head. With my extra kilos compared to the others, it makes things a lot tougher [for me]. I'm hanging for a massage and some rest," he said.
Asked if there was ever a chance of crashing in the frenzied finale, Cancellara said he was never at risk.
So - is Cavendish going for green or not?
"I don't think it's wise to go for the green jersey at this stage, but at the moment I've got it so I want to keep it," he said.
"Okay, I haven't won it yet but I'm wearing it. Hopefully, I can win the [final] stage on the Champs-Élysées and wear the green jersey but that's a dream - a dream that doesn't come true for many people. I'm not going to set it as a target, but for sure, it would be a dream."
It took all of 500 metres before the Tour de Monaco became the Tour de France, which will remain so till Thursday's seventh stage, when another cross-country excursion was planned from Gerona to Barcelona in Spain.
Fourteen kilometres in on what turned out to a wood-fire pizza-hot Sunday, Jussi Veikkanen (Française des Jeux) instigated the echapée du jour, who was soon joined by Stef Clement (Rabobank), Cyril Dessel (AG2R La Mondiale), a stage winner to Jausiers at last year's Tour, and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis). Of the quartet, Clement was the best-placed man GC, 1:28 off Cancellara's scintillating time trial performance of yesterday, where the Dutchman finished in the top 50 riders.
A further 50 clicks into the 187-kilometre leg to the medieval village of Brignoles, the break's advantage grew to the three-minute mark, the peloton behind them duly controlled by white and black colours of Saxo Bank, the team of race leader and time trialer extraordinaire, Cancellara. Double that distance later, the peloton was prepared to allow the quartet a little more freedom, and as the tar on the roads began to melt - a sure sign that France was entering the height of summer - our front-some foursome established their maximum lead of 5:23.
Not long after, however, and with 70-km left to race, their toil insidiously began to turn to trouble.
And so, as the race progressed and their advantage regressed, the team of Columbia-HTC gradually assumed pace-making duties from Saxo Bank at the head of affairs, who had done 80 percent of the load, according to those clever GPS measuring devices. Fifteen kilometres from Brignoles, what was once a healthy five-and-a-half minute buffer could now be measured in seconds. And when the capture was made just outside the 10-km banner, Katusha's ever-aggressive Mikhail Ignatiev chose to counter in an unlikely bid for victory.
To his credit, the Russian rode solo to the three-kilometre marker, but from there, it was all Milram and Columbia-HTC to the kilometre kite. But in those final thousand metres, confusion reigned supreme as a group at the peloton's head, flying at 50-plus kilometres an hour with their heads down, did not watch where they were going, leaving just four riders at the front.
One was Cavendish.
At the press conference with Cavendish, the sprinter from the Isle of Man claimed Skil-Shimano's Kenny Van Hummel behaved without care in the finale, and vowed to have words with him. However, that public record may need to be erased or at least amended, because according to Skil-Shimano, Cavendish got it wrong.
"He [Van Hummel] actually hit me with a couple of k's to go - it was visible on TV. I think that's a little bit...I'm really angry about that, I'll have to speak to him about that," Cavendish said.
"He's sprinting at the Tour de France here, he's privileged to be here, and you know, to be taking your hands off the handlebars and hitting a contender for the sprint in the final, I think is really, really disrespectful. So I'd like to publically state that."
But the way Skil-Shimano's press officer tells it, it was AG2R's Lloyd Mondory who first pushed Piet Rooijakkers, and with Van Hummel by his side, the latter Dutchman lost control and nearly ended up in Cavendish's lap, almost causing a derailing of the Columbia-HTC train.
Hopefully 'Cav' sees this before having words with Van Hummel tomorrow!