In three stages finishes of the Tour de France this year, both the sprint and general classification teams have jostled for position leading to riders such as Peter Sagan to call for a change in rules. On the majority of designated sprint stages, riders who crash or are caught up in a crash inside the final three kilometres are given the same time as the stage winner, which gives the GC riders a 'virtual' finish line. However the sprint teams still battle for stage victory while the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador try to avoid splits in the peloton and time losses.
Mark Cavendish has won both field sprints of the 2016 Tour to date, and in doing so the Dimension Data rider has also tied Bernard Hinault's haul of 28 wins. He gave his frank assessment of the current state of play after the photo finish in Angers was ruled in his favour.
"To be fair, it's not really the last three kilometre rule. It's the mentality of the riders," Cavendish said.
"I think the mentality has changed a little. Not all the GC guys, but in past they'd ride at the back, then it evolved and splits happened and so they didn't want to be caught behind splits. Now there are some riders who want to be actively ahead of a split, hoping they will be up there and get a few seconds. It's not anything to do with the course, it's more of a rider thing."
Of the main GC contenders, Froome, for example, has placed 25th and 22nd in the two field sprints, while Movistar's Nairo Quintana has been 30th and 23rd. Neither Team Sky, Movistar nor Astana, who have Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali for the GC, have brought sprinters to the Tour, but in order to secure the safety of their GC riders, they place many numbers at the front in the finale, when space is already at a premium.
"I saw the comments that Peter made yesterday and he's got a point," Cavendish said in reference to Sagan's call for the UCI to neutralise the final three kilometres of the sprint stages.
"But the problem is that the stakes are so high. There's more money going around now, people want to do so well. Peter earns a lot and other riders know that. So the consequences of winning and losing are high."
Cavendish added that more often than not, it's the riders missing out who make the most noise.
"The difference is between winners and losers. The guys who win understand it and congratulate each other. It's the ones who never win. Perhaps its not fair to bracket them all, but the ones who don't win perhaps feel bitterness, they resent things and take frustrations out in that way," he said.
When push came to shove in Angers, it was the sprint trains of Dimension Data, Lotto Soudal, Etixx-Quick Step and Direct Energie at the front of the peloton. While the GC teams were fighting for wheels to keep their men safe, Dimension Data and Cavendish were solely focused on the sprint win with the 'Manx Missile' praising his teammates for their work
"Eisel kept us out of harms way, then Edvald Boasson Hagen and Janse Van Resburg took over without committing too early, they swapped turns and kept us in a good position, feeding off other trains."
The first finish in Angers since 2004 proved tougher than the road book had suggested, with Cavendish explaining that the television shoots flattened the finish.
"The TV doesn't show how steep the finish was. it was a real hill. In the finale it was important to get a run," Cavendish said. "If you went too early, somebody would come from behind. If you stalled, you didn't have the speed. It was more efficient to carry speed up the hill, than to try to create it. I knew Griepel would hit out on the climb and he did. I thought I'd get round him but he's got balls and is a gutsy rider. He went again and I didn't get him in the sprint, I got him with a lunge to the line, I was pretty fortunate with that.
"I've won and lost by less than that before, you never know till it's confirmed. I waited but I was pretty confident. I put my fist up but there was a long discussion. I've got to say that Roger [Hammond] got the tactics spot on. What's even better was that the guys executed it really well."
Cavendish and Dimension Data will look to continue the dream start to the Tour on stage 4, the longest of the race in 2016, which is also expected to conclude with a bunch sprint finish and a battle with the GC teams for position.
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