Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) got through the first mountain test at this year's Tour de France on Tuesday. But the 30-time stage winner almost missed the time cut, coming over the finish line of stage 10 at Le Grand-Bornand with just 33 seconds to spare.
Cavendish, like a number of other sprinters, struggled on the first Alpine test at this year's Tour, and was dropped from the main field.
He made it into the gruppetto alongside fellow fast-men Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) but finished 34:02 down on stage winner Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step).
This was Cavendish's first mountain test at the Tour de France since 2016, after he crashed out in the opening week in 2017, and he was asked if he had forgotten how tough the Tour mountains were.
"Yeah, I really had. It's been a long time, but it's even rarer to have such a hard day as the first mountain stage. Usually you have one with a couple of mountains at the end, but we had them straight away," Cavendish said after a short warm-down.
"Actually, we had those little climbs out of Annecy, and I was in the front group then. Then we had that long one, and I was way over my limits, or I felt it. I had Julien Vermote with me, and we were chasing and chasing and got to the gruppetto, and I finally came around. In the gruppetto, you stay together, so if one person is suffering, then everyone waits. That's how it works. We had a good group of people."
With television cameras focusing on the front of the race, and with Team Sky’s relentless pace-setting, those left behind were locked in a battle to save their race.
The gruppetto at the Tour de France is often a blend of sprinters, domestiques and the walking wounded. Their aim is to make the time cut – calculated as a percentage of the stage winner's time – and to survive to ride another day.
Although the group rides at a steadier pace on the climbs compared to the first groups, it's still full of riders on the limit, while the descents are a nerve-wracking experience as the likes of Cavendish look to gain precious seconds that they can then afford to lose on the climbs.
"You see Vincenzo Nibali and all these good descenders, but you've got no idea what the gruppetto does on the descents – no idea. It was a bit risky, but we were all in it together."
Although the first hurdle in the Alps has been completed, Cavendish is under no illusions as to how difficult the next two days will be. The peloton faces back-to-back summit finishes and the likelihood is that the British sprinter will once again be in the gruppetto and fighting to remain in this year's Tour de France.
"You can't keep anything in reserve," he explained. "You've got climbs even early on, so there's nothing that you can do. You've just got to ride."
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