Stage 11 analysis: The perfect storm

Mark Cavendish answered his biggest critic – himself – by winning his third stage of the 2011 Tour into Lavaur.

Words by Edward Pickering in Lavaur

Wednesday July 13, 2011

The storm that broke over Lavaur in the final 15 minutes of the Tour’s 11th stage must have given yesterday’s winner André Greipel hope that lightning would strike twice.

Mark Cavendish generously described the German’s sprint yesterday as “technically perfect,” but as the rain fell in stair rods on the finishing straight this afternoon, it was Cavendish who emerged from the haze of spray and standing water on the road to win the stage. Greipel, along with the other sprinters, was left to fight out second place, well behind. It was Cavendish’s 18th stage win in four Tours, with two chances still to come this year.

HTC-Highroad, absent in the final kilometre yesterday, were in no mood to allow Cavendish to lose two in a row. They pegged the early escape at four minutes, and pulled them back to 90 seconds with 30 kilometres to go. Like death, taxes and the weather on this Tour, their capture was inevitable.

Cavendish also took the lead in the points competition. The last time he’d worn the green jersey was through a deluge in the Vosges in 2009, and in similar conditions, he took the jersey back, just two days after it was assumed he’d have to wait yet another year for his chance. He took 45 points at the finish, and a further nine at the intermediate sprint, turning a 29-point defict on Philippe Gilbert into a 16-point lead over Jose Joaquin Rojas.

After his defeat in Redon in stage three and his win two days later at Cap Fréhel, Cavendish warned his critics not to write him off, although it wasn’t clear who exactly he was referring to. He said after today’s stage that he found it “distressing” when he couldn’t finish off his team’s work by winning. Cavendish’s biggest critic is Cavendish himself, and the small mistakes made in Carmaux were put right in Lavaur.

This continues to be a Tour of two mindsets, and a battle between the haves and the have-nots. Every day, riders from a small selection of teams throw their riders into futile breaks. And every day, riders from a completely different selection of teams continue to chase them down. The only two successful breaks have been in the two Massif Central stages – every other day, HTC-Highroad or Omega Pharma Lotto have neutralised the breaks. Meanwhile, the teams of the GC contenders are hiding.

It’s remarkable that six teams have not yet sent a rider up the road in a break, in almost two weeks of racing. Garmin, BMC, Saxo Bank, Leopard, RadioShack and Liquigas are the guilty parties, monuments to the forces of conservatism in cycling. All are teams hoping to put riders in the top five. Meanwhile, FDJ have averaged an escapee a day, with nothing more to show for the effort than a bit of television time and a healthy lead for Mickaël Delage in L’Equipe’s ‘baroudeur’s’ classification.

Today’s break was formed early from six riders: Delage, Lars Boom of Rabobank, Tristan Valentin of Cofidis, Jimmy Engoulvent of Saur-Sojasun, Ruben Perez of Euskaltel and Andrey Grivko of Astana. The passing of the kilometres was marked by the steady rising of their lead, before it steadied, then dropped again in the final hour.

They were shut down with predictable ease. A 1-30 lead at 30 kilometres to go became 1-15 at 20 kilometres, and from there, HTC, aided by Omega, Sky and Garmin put the boot in. Down long, tree-lined avenues, with the riders illuminated in the glow of the race vehicles’ headlights, the group’s advantage dissolved in the rain.

The escapees resisted briefly with 10 kilometres to go, but by now they were visible from the bunch and even a last-ditch attack by Boom with three kilometres to go did nothing except underline the futility of the enterprise.

It momentarily looked like HTC might cede control when Garmin’s David Millar, hoping for a reprise of stage three’s successful ambush on their rivals, took over at the front. But this time HTC were prepared, and Renshaw took Cavendish past his rivals with 400 metres to go. From that moment, the result was beyond doubt.

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