When Mark Cavendish was asked on Thursday about the prospect of winning the first stage of the Tour de France and wearing the yellow jersey for the first time in his career he scowled and denied that it was a goal that overshadowed others. If he won a single stage, any stage, he would be happy, he said.
But at Utah Beach yesterday afternoon, after 188 nervy kilometres along the Normandy coastline from Mont-Saint-Michel, Cavendish was back to his very best, unleashing the sprint that carried him to 26 stage wins between 2008 and 2015. With this one he now has 27, one behind Bernard Hinault – only Eddy Merckx, with 34, has won more.
Yet it has been, by Cavendish’s high standards, a barren couple of years. He took one stage in 2015, crashed out on the opening day in 2014, and in 2013 won “only” two. Not since 2012, when he won three, has he shown the kind of speed and acceleration that yesterday afternoon took him past Peter Sagan and allowed him to hold off Marcel Kittel in the closing metres of the first stage of this 103rd Tour.
Kittel’s scalp is a significant one. While Cavendish’s powers have seemed to wane, Kittel has got stronger and faster and has at times appeared unbeatable. In 2013 the German won four stages, displacing Cavendish as the world’s fastest man. Since then Kittel has been Cavendish’s bogeyman: he even replaced Cavendish at the Etixx-Quickstep team over the winter as Cavendish departed for the smaller Team Dimension Data. Until yesterday, indeed, Cavendish had never beaten Kittel in a head-to-head sprint when both have been going for the victory.
But it is the yellow jersey that will surely mean more than this first defeat of Kittel. Along with an Olympic medal – which he is targeting in Rio – it was the one thing missing from his glittering resumé. The significance of it might not sink in until today when he puts on the yellow jersey and rolls out of Saint-Lô for stage two.
Even in the afterglow of his triumph he was still capable of spikiness, however. Asked by an Australian television reporter whether it was nice to have the respect of the other riders in the peloton, Cavendish looked confused and replied: “To be fair, there’s a lot of guys who f***ing hate me in the peloton.”
He was more serious when he took part in a memorial service immediately after being presented with his yellow jersey, at the scene of the westernmost of the five D-Day landing beaches.
“I’m incredibly proud to win today at Utah Beach,” said Cavendish. “I’m honoured to be involved with the armed forces in the UK [he’s a patron for Help for Heroes] and to finish here at Utah Beach is an incredible moment to remember those who died. We had a little ceremony here and I want to dedicate this victory to the brave men and women who serve in the armed forces.
“Every Tour de France stage is special, and this is the first time I’ve had the honour of wearing this iconic jersey, the yellow jersey, and I’m incredibly proud to do it for this team, and for the Qhubeka charity.”
As ever, Cavendish was at his best when using his power of recall to describe the finish and the sprint. “We thought it was going to be a full-on tailwind,” he said, “but actually it changed in the last bit, we were bouncing off the houses. The wind moved in front of us. It threw me a little bit. Edvald [Boasson Hagen, his team-mate] went hard then, but I thought I don’t want to go long, so I dropped off. But I knew, it’s the Tour de France, you don’t hesitate. I dropped from [another team-mate] Mark [Renshaw]’s wheel, there was [Andre Greipel’s team] Lotto. Then Sagan kicked first, at the point where I thought I’d go, so I went in his slipstream, I saw Kittel coming on the left, and I was fortunate that Sagan left a gap on the right. Kittel reached his maximum speed and I knew I had something still and carried on to the line. It felt great.”
It was a victory for old friends, with some of Cavendish’s colleagues at Dimension Data old team-mates from his glory days at HTC-High Road: Boasson Hagen, Renshaw and Bernhard Eisel.
With the threat of strong crosswinds when the peloton left Mont-Saint-Michel at the start of the stage it was a day when the overall favourites, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, were happy to stay upright. Less lucky was another of the favourites, Alberto Contador, the double winner who fell heavily coming out of a roundabout with 77km to go. Initially it looked like he clipped the central reservation but a spectator’s video footage showed that his front wheel slipped: a freak accident that could seriously impair his bid for a third Tour win.
Team Sky’s Luke Rowe was behind Contador and also came down but while he was unhurt and quickly back in the peloton, Contador’s jersey was in tatters, his shoulder was bloody and he looked to be in a lot of pain.
His Tinkoff team-mates waited to pace him back to the peloton, which also slowed to allow him to rejoin. But the Spaniard later dropped back to the medical car for attention. Eventually he resumed his place near the front but he was clearly in pain. Contador said at the finish that there were no broken bones, adding: “But it’s the worst possible start to the Tour.”