MARK Cavendish answered his critics yesterday with victory on stage 13 of the Tour de France to Saint-Amand-Montrond, but Chris Froome saw more than a minute of his lead over Alberto Contador blown away by the crosswinds.
Cavendish awoke to headlines in French sports daily L’Equipe declaring his reign as the pre-eminent sprinter of the day over following Marcel Kittel’s third stage win on Thursday.
But he responded with his second win of this 100th Tour, the 25th of his career putting him joint third all-time with Andre Leducq.
“I have incredible respect for this race, more than you can imagine,” a beaming Cavendish said. “Just thinking about this race can bring tears to my eyes.
“What makes it so special is the amount of mental stress, the physical stress, and the elation that comes with it. Whatever happens, it makes every win absolutely special. I could tell you a special story about every one of those 25 wins.”
What should have been a straightforward flat stage before a bunch sprint finish in Saint-Amand-Montrond was instead an ever-changing drama as crosswinds blew across the roads from Tours, splitting the peloton several times.
Those splits defined the day for all concerned. Where Cavendish latched on to a break by Team Saxo-Tinkoff in the final 30km to ensure he was in position to win, Froome could not follow and saw Contador take 69 seconds out of him.
“I desperately wanted to get on to the Contador move but I was sitting a little too far back,” Froome said. “I was just behind Cav’s wheel when he sprinted across. I think he was the last guy to get across and again it’s another reminder that this race is 100 per cent open and that there is still everything to race for.”
It could have been worse, and certainly was for Alejandro Valverde, who began the day second overall but suffered an ill-timed mechanical problem just as the peloton was parting, and eventually crossed the line almost 10 minutes down – his Tour challenge over.
A new-look general classification shows Froome’s advantage has been cut from three minutes 25 seconds to two minutes 28 seconds, the man in second now the little-fancied Bauke Mollema – who followed Cavendish and Peter Sagan home in third place yesterday. Contador lurks in third, two minutes and 45 seconds back.
The success of Saxo-Tinkoff’s burst was not solely down to the winds and good timing.
Further questions were last night being asked of the strength of Team Sky following the loss of Edvald Boasson Hagen to a broken shoulder, as Richie Porte was dropped, not for the first time, and Peter Kennaugh, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas were unable to control the break – despite more heroics by Thomas on his cracked pelvis.
“Eddy’s a huge part of the team and we could have really done with him on a stage like today,” Froome said. “The same can be said for Vasili Kiryienka, who we lost earlier. They are both really strong engines and the team is definitely weakened without those guys.”
While Froome is left licking some wounds, Cavendish can celebrate a much-needed second stage win of the Tour.
On Thursday, he had blown a perfect lead-out from his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team to allow Marcel Kittel to steam past at the line in Tours, just the latest frustration of a turbulent Tour.
Little had gone right bar that day in Marseille. He had hoped to wear the yellow jersey on the opening day, but was caught in the chaos caused by Orica GreenEdge’s bus crash, then had two crashes of his own. In the second of those he was sprayed with urine by a spectator during Wednesday’s time trial as he was blamed for felling Tom Veelers.
L’Equipe yesterday declared “Cavendish’s reign is over” and he almost seemed resigned to that fate before the start of today’s stage when he said: “Maybe I am just getting old. It’s the cycle of life.”
But yesterday the 28-year-old took his final chance of a victory until the traditional sprint finish in Paris.