As the intermediate sprint in Pouzac approached on stage 18 of the Tour de France, Mark Cavendish moved onto the wheel of Michael Matthews. The Australian’s BikeExchange team had already tried to distance the Manxman by upping the pace over the category 4 Côte de Loucrup six kilometres before, in a bid to gain as many points as they could over him in the green jersey competition, and it hadn’t worked. So when it came to the sprint itself, Cavendish first sat on Matthews’ wheel before switching to being led-out by the expert Michael Mørkøv as the line came into view. He won the mini-sprint to add another 11 points to his tally, while Matthews finished behind Mørkøv - to add insult to injury - to take eight.
Stage 19 from Mourenx to Libourne is the last chance anyone has of realistically dislodging Cavendish from the lead in the points classification at this year’s Tour. With four stage wins to his name, Cavendish has held green since his first victory on stage 4 and goes into the last potential day for sprinters before Paris in three days’ time, with a lead of 298 over Matthews on 260.
By making it through the last of the Pyrenean stages to Luz Ardidan, Cavendish has overcome the biggest hurdle standing in the way of him making it to Paris and the sprint on the Champs-Élysées. But if he wants to claim the green jersey for the second time he has to get through stage 19, and while on paper it looks to be a day for the sprinters, the race situation at this point might not make it that straightforward.
There’s 50 points available on the line to whoever wins in Libourne, and Cavendish has a lead of 38 over Matthews, the latter who won green in 2018. If Matthews wins tomorrow and Cavendish finishes outside the top 15 riders the jersey would switch hands. Now, Cavendish has comfortably had the upper hand in the sprints throughout the Tour, and has beaten Matthews into fourth, ninth, fifth and 12th in each stage he’s won. He’s also beaten him in every intermediate sprint where he’s actually tried to sprint - for a large portion, Cavendish sat up and saved his energy. All signs suggest that if stage 19 goes the same way, then Cavendish is the overwhelming favourite to add another 50 points to his tally, or at least beat Matthews.
Except, the only team who realistically will put the effort in to force a bunch sprint in Libourne is Cavendish’s Deceuninck-Quick Step. And while they’re the premier sprint force in the peloton, they can’t control the whole race alone. Stage 19 is also the last chance saloon on the road for every team that’s so far sitting empty handed. Teams such as Trek-Segafredo, Israel Start-Up Nation, Lotto Soudal, Cofidis, Arkéa Samsic, Groupama-FDJ, DSM, B&B Hotels, Qhubeka Nexthash, Intermarché Wanty Gobert have little to show from this year’s race in terms of major prizes, likewise Matthew’s BikeExchange squad, and so there will be an endless list of riders keen to prevent a sprint and force a breakaway to succeed.
Lastly, there’s also the 207-kilometre route to consider. While it is predominantly flat with a few lumps at the end that shouldn’t cause too many problems, the only hiccup comes right at the start, after just 12 kilometres, in the form of a single category 4 climb. The Côte de Bareille is 1.9km long and averages just 5.9 per cent gradient but with a descent out of Mourenx to start which ramps straight up into the climb, it could be territory for a group to go clear if there’s enough impetus and Deceuninck can’t mark all the moves.
The intermediate sprint at Saint-Sever comes after 54km and with another 20 points maximum on offer there, the worst, worst case scenario for Cavendish would be that Matthews gets away and takes points there and adds to it in the final sprint.
Matthews has been allowed to get up the road in breakaways on the middle mountain stages of the Tour so far to contest the intermediate sprints, yet with this the penultimate road stage chances are Deceunick will be stuck to his wheel like glue when the stage begins, keeping him on a tight leash. If the start is marked by chaos, however, Deceuninck could get caught on the back foot.
Cavendish doesn't need to win any more stages to win green, but he does need to stop Matthews winning one at his expense.
Sophie Hurcom is Procycling magazine's deputy editor.
Sophie Hurcom is Procycling’s deputy editor. She joined the magazine in 2017, after working at Cycling Weekly where she started on work experience before becoming a sub editor, and then news and features writer. Prior to that, she graduated from City University London with a Masters degree in magazine journalism. Sophie has since reported from races all over the world, including multiple Tours de France, where she was thrown in at the deep end by making her race debut in 2014 on the stage that Chris Froome crashed out on the Roubaix cobbles.
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