In the end, Mark Cavendish won the Tour de France bunch sprint on the Avenue Allende in Nîmes but the prize was an extra brace of points towards his green jersey rather than a record-equalling 34th stage victory.
A breakaway of 13 riders had already fought out stage honours a quarter of an hour before Cavendish reached Nîmes but the Manxman evinced no disappointment at a sprint opportunity passing him by. High speeds, exposed terrain and heavy roads meant that stage 12 was always likely to lean towards the escapees, and so it proved.
In those frantic opening kilometres outside Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, Cavendish briefly found himself off the front of the peloton but he realised his presence in the breakaway would doom it to failure from the outset. His Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Julian Alaphilippe was present in the 13-man move that eventually forged clear and it was quickly apparent that no team was eager to bring them back.
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“There was that little kicker in the final and the main thing was to have someone in the break,” Cavendish said. “I was there when it was going, but there was none of the other green jersey contenders. If I’m there, it kind of stops that break from going.
“There was only six or seven of us at one point, including Julian and me, and that wouldn’t have gone. I felt it and then a couple of guys jumped across. In the end, it was a bit too many riders to leave Julian on his own, but given the style of rider he is, he always has a chance.”
Alaphilippe ultimately had to settle for ninth as Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe) clipped away for stage victory, but Cavendish had the mild consolation of almost inadvertently adding to his lead atop the points classification at the finish.
The green jersey explained that, on the approach to Nîmes, the fast men in the peloton had reached a loose agreement not to contest a sprint for 14th place, but the détente seemed to expire when Alpecin-Fenix positioned riders on the front in the final kilometre. Cavendish beat Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) to the line, and he extends his buffer over the Australian to 59 points.
“In all honesty, like, all the sprinters… We’d all talked about it and said, ‘Look do we want to go for it or no?’ We kind of made an agreement, then I saw Alpecin come, so I thought, ‘Just jump on…’” said Cavendish, who laughed as he recalled a similar moment of confusion during his contest with Thor Hushovd for the maillot vert a dozen years ago.
“He had a crash so I didn’t go for a sprint. Then one of the banners fell down and he went for a sprint when I didn’t go for it, and he flicked me, you know. And I know this interview is going to get written down and translated, so [to be clear] it’s completely tongue in cheek.”
Cavendish, who is enjoying a remarkable resurgence in this, his first Tour in three years, can afford to laugh. With a hat trick of stage victories already to his name, he could also afford to shrug off any disappointment at the escapees denying the sprinters on Thursday.
“There were heavy roads today and even at the speed we were going, it was just on the whole day, so I was actually happy to have a bit of recovery, to be fair,” said Cavendish.
Friday’s trek from Nîmes to Carcassonne offers notably similar fare as the peloton makes its way towards the Pyrenees. The relatively flat terrain presents an obvious opportunity for Cavendish, but the paucity of sprint teams left in this Tour might make it difficult for Deceuninck-QuickStep to find allies to help them control the escapes.
“We can’t really think about it, to be fair,” said Cavendish. “We just have to look at our job and that’s that. It is what it is. We just have to focus.”
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