Mark Cavendish held his hands up after Andre Greipel won stage five of the Tour de France in Amiens, admitting: “He was faster.”
On four occasions in Tours, Cavendish’s first win has come on stage five: in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013, when he also recorded his most recent prior win.
But yesterday he was unable to do it again on the 189.5-kilometre route from Arras, as Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) won, with Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) second and Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) third.
“Today I was just beaten,” said Cavendish, who in 2012 was named the best sprinter in Tour history by French sports newspaper L’Equipe.
“It was a bit chaotic. Greipel and Sagan just came past me in the end. I actually did a good sprint, but I was just beaten by two other guys. They just went faster.”
Expectation was high that Cavendish would claim his 26th Tour stage success in his mother’s home town of Harrogate last year – and with it the race leader’s yellow jersey – but he crashed out.
He was favourite for the sprint to Zeeland last Sunday, but floundered in the finishing straight, blaming team-mate Mark Renshaw for a premature sprint after Greipel won.
Cavendish said: “The other day it was a mistake we made. We make one mistake in every 500 races we do. Today, he (Greipel) beat me.”
His Etixx-QuickStep team, without Matteo Trentin in the lead-out, were swamped by rival teams and Cavendish opted to bide his time.
The Manxman launched his sprint, but Greipel powered by him into a headwind to leave the 30-year-old Briton still three behind Bernard Hinault’s tally of stage wins.
The Frenchman has 28, second only to Eddy Merckx’s record tally of 34.
When Cavendish won 20 stages in four Tours – four stages in 2008, six in 2009, five in 2010 and 2011 – it appeared only a matter of time before he would overhaul Merckx.
He won three stages in 2012 – including a fourth successive triumph on the Champs Elysees in Paris – as part of Bradley Wiggins’ Tour-winning Team Sky squad and two in 2013, but now questions will be asked about his enduring powers. Cavendish is in the final year of his lucrative contract with Etixx-QuickStep and may need to show his race craft and reinvent himself somewhat after being outpaced in the mad dash for the line.
Etixx-QuickStep sporting director Brian Holm said: “It’s always more fun if you’ve won three stages by now, but the pressure? He can deal with it. I hope so. That’s his job. That’s what he’s paid for.”
Cavendish paid tribute to Greipel, who was once derided by the Manxman when they were team-mates. “He’s a phenomenal sprinter, he’s in the green jersey and that’s the second stage he won this year,” Cavendish said.
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) retained the race leader’s yellow jersey, with Team Sky’s Chris Froome 12 seconds behind overall as the top of the general classification remained unchanged after a nervous day across the battlefields of northern France.
“It was not really a day of celebration,” said Martin on his first day in the maillot jaune. “I would wish Cav could beat Andre today, but if Cav can’t win, I’m so happy that a German rider’s in front.”
Greipel reflected on being a reserve sprinter, behind Cavendish, during their time at HTC-Columbia five years ago.
“I was always in the shadow of Mark,” said Greipel after his eighth stage win. “I got the B race programme.”
Greipel moved to Lotto-Soudal, where he is now leader, vying with – and beating – Cavendish.
Greipel maintains Cavendish has the same ability, adding: “Maybe I had just the right position, the right moment, to time my sprint.”
Today’s 191.5km sixth stage from Abbeville to Le Havre finishes with a challenging ascent to the line, so Cavendish’s wait for a first Tour stage win in two years is set to go on.
“It’s real difficult for the pure sprinters tomorrow,” he said.