"Quick-Step got another stage win, and I'm left here holding a baby." Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) was hardly disappointed to see his two-and-a-half-month-old son, Casper, beyond the finish line of stage 4 of the Tour de France, but he'd rather have delayed it an hour for a trip to the podium, and even the daily stage winner's press conference.
The Manxman endured another disappointing day as he finished outside the top 20 in the chaotic bunch sprint in Sarzeau after his Dimension Data teammates had taken control of the peloton in the closing kilometres. He was boxed in and lost position in a frantic sprint, and eventually sat up and coasted home after appearing to raise his arm in remonstration at Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo).
The result was Cavendish's best from the three sprints so far at this Tour de France, and while that's mainly because he's yet to have a clear run, ground is running out for him to close in on his stated aim of beating Eddy Merckx's record of 34 Tour de France victories, Cavendish being on 30.
His son in his arms, Cavendish spoke outside the Dimension Data bus in Sarzeau to explain where it went wrong.
"The team were brilliant for the last kilometres," he said. "It was exactly what we wanted, and we executed the plan we had. We knew we had to take it on even though it was a headwind, so I thought we'd do that then another team would come in. In a block headwind, once you're not in a wheel, your watts went double, you know.
"The thing is that [Soren] Kragh Andersen came in and pushed me out of [Mark] Renshaw's wheel, and it was better to go on his wheel than be in the wind. So I thought, 'OK, he'll go', then he started to go round Renshaw, then Renshaw started to lead out, and I thought the left would be closed, so he came over the right and the gap opened on the left.
"Quick-Step went on the left, and I'm blocked by my own lead-out man. That's going to look shit on paper, but you know what I mean. It was my own fault, I shouldn't have really been there. It's luck of the draw, but like I said, it was going to be hard to beat [Quick-Step]. They've got another stage win, and I'm left holding a baby."
'Never kick a dog when it's down'
Dimension Data manager Doug Ryder received an instant return on investment when he signed Cavendish for 2016 and watched him help himself to four stages of that year's Tour de France.
Last year, Cavendish crashed out on stage 3 in a collision with Peter Sagan, and despite the disappointing start to this year's Tour, Ryder warned against writing off the 33-year-old.
"He's a champion and you don't write off a champion," Ryder said. "He's earned that status and he's living it. You never kick a dog when its down, or it will bite you. I think Mark's got it mentally and hopefully as he gets through this race, he can get better and better.
"He's leaner than he has been for a while and looks good. He's just lacking a little bit at the moment. But we believe in him and hope that feels that energy coming through."
Ryder was able to reflect on a team performance that was a considerable improvement on the first two stages. It was a nervy finale, as the four-man breakaway threatened to stay away with a minute's advantage at the 10km-to-go banner, but Dimension Data took on the pace setting and then led through the final two kilometres, only to lose control when Quick-Step's Max Richeze propelled Gaviria up the left-hand side of the road.
"That was an amazing performance by the team," Ryder said. "It was a better stage for us, it was a four-kilometre straight run-in. But we really prepared for it and knew exactly where we needed to be at that roundabout with four kilometres to go. We lead it through there, which was really, really good. We were hoping for a little bit more of a side wind coming into those last four kilometres, but it was a dead headwind, so that was tough for us. But our guys went long and deep and that bodes well for the coming stages."
Tuesday's hillier stage should rule the sprinters out of contention, and the stage 6 finish on the Mur de Bretagne certainly will, but Cavendish and company will have two more opportunities on Friday and Saturday before the terrain becomes decidedly more mountainous in the second half of the race.
"We'll see what happens tomorrow. It will be hard," Cavendish said. "We'll get through and see which sprinters are left with tired legs. I always said when we came here, we'd be up against it, but we keep trying."
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