A Mark Cavendish victory is a news story but a Mark Cavendish defeat is a news event. Such is the hyper-reality of life at the top of the sprint hierarchy, and so when Cavendish was beaten into third place at the end of stage 10 of the Tour de France – and involved in a finishing straight crash to boot – a vast flotilla of journalists duly dropped anchor outside the Omega Pharma-QuickStep bus in the Breton port town of Saint-Malo.
The initial fear among our ghastly crew was that Cavendish had simply opted to batten down the hatches, but after showering and changing aboard the bus, he emerged to wade into the tide of microphones, cameras and voice recorders outside.
"We lost our guys," Cavendish said of a sprint finale where Lotto-Belisol and Argos-Shimano outnumbered his own QuickStep cohort. "Gert [Steegmans] went early and I tried to follow Gert but if I'd have followed his wheel and gone from there, I would have been too early in the sprint so I settled back onto [Tom] Veeler's wheel. When Greipel kicked, I went."
Cavendish was reluctant to discuss his relative lack of support in the closing kilometres – "We'll talk about it later with the team," he said quietly – and was generous in his praise of stage winner Marcel Kittel, who captured his second sprint victory of this Tour. "I think it's disrespectful to make it out like it's a big loss for us because Kittel's an incredible bike rider and his team rides really well."
It was, of course, Cavendish's clash with Kittel's teammate Veelers that will dominate much of the post-stage discussion. When Veelers swung off after leading out the sprint, Cavendish brushed his shoulder when he came past, knocking the Dutchman to the ground. It was a manoeuvre that prompted the commissaires to carefully review the footage before officially confirming the result of the sprint.
"I touched with him but the road was bearing left," Cavendish said. "I know you're trying to get ‘Oh, Mark Cavendish is a really bad sprinter' again but the road's bearing left so I followed the road.
"There's going to be internet forums and all that going crazy about it but if the road bears left, then I'm going to follow the road and not go into the barriers."
There was no on-the-record recrimination from the Argos-Shimano camp. "I cannot imagine that it was on purpose, sometimes that just happens," Kittel said in his winner's press conference. Asked if Cavendish should have been disqualified, a battle-scarred Veelers diplomatically limited himself to saying, "It's not up to me to decide."
When a reporter asked Cavendish himself if he was responsible for the crash, however, he demonstrated a little less restraint, snatching his tape recorder from his hand in response. Cavendish's remaining words were lost as the impromptu press scrum descended into chaos, and soon after afterwards, he wisely clambered back aboard his team bus.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, Cavendish's directeur sportif and confidant Brian Holm was at the centre of a little oasis of calm. Leaning against the side of a team car, he quietly put the day's events in perspective as he spoke to a small circle of reporters.
"It's not the first time in the Tour it's gone like this. In 2010 it took five stages to win, and he was beaten by Petacchi a few times. That's life," Holm said, and then smiled. "I think we'll get over it – sooner or later."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.