Few predicted Cavendish’s re-emergence as the dominant sprinter. Ever since Marcel Kittel won stage one of the 2013 Tour in Corsica, after Cavendish was held up by a crash in the closing kilometres, the Manxman has looked vulnerable where once he looked invincible.
A year after Corsica, when the 2014 Tour started in England with a stage that was designed for Cavendish and finished in Harrogate, Kittel seemed to cast a spell. Cavendish made an uncharacteristic error, finding himself out of position and crashing on the finishing straight, putting himself out of the race. Until this Tour, indeed, Cavendish had never beaten Kittel in a head-to-head sprint when both were going for the win. Now he has managed it four times.
His confidence is high, clearly, but Cavendish has also looked like his old self in the final 200 metres – getting down low over the handlebars and simply having a greater turn of speed than his rivals.
At the finish of the windswept but flat 14th stage, at the Parc des Oiseaux near Villars-les-Dombes, he did it again. His Dimension Data team-mates helped keep him near the front in the final kilometres but in the end he had to fend for himself and improvise. He knew the wheel to follow – Kittel’s. And he also suspected that Kittel’s ‘train’ – the Etixx-QuickStep team that Cavendish was part of until this year – were doing too much, too soon in the windy conditions.
“Kittel was left too long in the front,” said Cavendish, who stalked the German until the final 150 metres, when he exploded from behind him, passing him and then moving in front. As Cavendish drifted to his right, Kittel moved to his left, and brief contact was made. Kittel had to brake and his hand shot up in protest but no official complaint was made by his team.
“Obviously I didn’t see it,” said Cavendish of the clash and Kittel’s protest. “I was in front of him. The first I knew about it was afterwards. He hit me on the back, but I thought he was saying ‘well done’.”
The altercation might have cost Kittel second place but not the win – once Cavendish had passed him, there was no way he was coming back. It was vintage Cavendish – brilliant positioning and timing coupled with electrifying speed.
The irony is that this was supposed to be a compromised season on the road for Cavendish. He spent much of the winter based in Manchester and training on the track to try to fulfil one of his few remaining ambitions – an Olympic medal. With the road race in Rio on too hilly a course for Cavendish he decided instead to focus on the track. As has been evident at this Tour, it has done him no harm.
“A lot of people ask what’s the difference this year,” Cavendish said. “It is the track, but it’s not leg speed or strength, I’m exactly the same physically. But you refresh your racing nous on the track. You’re patient. You assess things differently. This year I’ve been a lot more patient. Your instinct is to jump when the person in front of you jumps but today I could see that Kittel was too long in front and it was a case of waiting until he lost his peak speed and jumping round him in the final.”
With Rio coming so close after the Tour most imagine that, with a tough final week coming up in the Alps, Cavendish will withdraw before the finish in Paris. But that would mean sacrificing the chance of a fifth stage win on the Champs-Elysées next Sunday.
“There are two more sprint opportunities,” said Cavendish. “There’s Monday, then there’s a rest day and five days left. I may as well try [to get to Paris]. I’m not putting myself over the edge. If I get sick I’ll have to stop.
“But now I feel in good shape, I have good morale, and I’ll carry on as long as I can.”
Chris Froome kept the yellow leader’s jersey on an incident-free day for the overall contenders. Despite a week in which he was hit by a motorbike on Mont Ventoux, following which he abandoned his broken bike and ran towards the finish, he is in a commanding position, leading Bauke Mollema of Holland by one minute and 47 seconds and Adam Yates, the young British rider, by a further 58 seconds.
“People are saying the Tour is over but that’s absolute rubbish,” said Froome. “The stages we have coming up in this final week are tougher than any we’ve had before.”