For five long years, bunch sprints at the Tour de France have obeyed one fundamental law. He may lose the occasional sprint due to a missed lead-out or a congested finale, but since 2008, the tacit understanding in the sprint jungle has been that Mark Cavendish is simply faster than everyone else.
On stage 12, however, that belief was publicly called into question by Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), who overhauled Cavendish in the final 100 metres to claim his third stage victory of the race in a tight bunch finish.
Cavendish was put out of the running by a crash when Kittel claimed his first win in Corsica, and had too much ground to make up when the sprint began in Saint-Malo two days ago, but in Tours on Thursday, he was simply beaten for speed by the German.
A vast arsenal of television cameras and dictaphones was assembled outside the Omega Pharma-QuickStep bus after the stage, and Cavendish has long since realised that his defeats are more notable than his victories. When he emerged to speak to the press, he was pragmatic in his assessment of the day's stage and admitted that there were no mitigating circumstances in his defeat to Kittel.
"I was just beaten today, yeah, that was it," Cavendish said. "We gave everything we could. The team did everything really perfect. We talked about the last stage but I think they were just spot on today. It was a duel between my team and Argos, but, yeah eventually he was just faster than me, simple as. You can sit and analyse it but if someone's just simply faster, there's nothing you can do."
Sprinting's Big Four of Cavendish, Kittel, André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) have all claimed at least one stage at this Tour, but Kittel has been the star performer to date and Cavendish was fulsome in his praise of the young German.
"I tweeted the other day and said that he was the next big thing, and I spoke with him today," Cavendish said. "I think he's the next big superstar in sprinting and he's certainly shown that in this Tour. He's won three stages now and that's not easy. I can tell you that from experience."
In his post-race press conference Kittel politely downplayed the notion that he had inherited the mantle of king of sprinting, and it would be premature to imagine that Cavendish has even countenanced abdicating that particular title. Friday's stage to Saint-Armand-Montrond should provide Cavendish with an immediate opportunity to make amends for his defeat and he was optimistic that his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team had ironed out the problems that have intermittently afflicted his lead-out train during the race.
"They did incredible today," Cavendish said. "It was just a case of being a little bit too eager in the last days, which is kind of a good thing because it means you've got commitment from everybody but ultimately we always ran out of guys. Today we talked about staying calm and patient and going at the last moment and the guys did that and it made my job a lot easier. I'm just really disappointed I couldn't finish it off."
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