Stage five analysis: A Briton in Brittany

The Tour came alive as it traversed Brittany to the northern coast of France, with an exciting finale and exceptional sprint win for Mark Cavendish.

Words by Lionel Birnie in Cap Fréhel

Wednesday July 6, 2011

It had been tempting to point out that nothwithstanding the team time trial, the first four days of the Tour had thrown up just five kilometres of chin-jutting, eyeball-bulging and combative racing – a couple of kilometres on both the Mont des Alouettes and Mûr de Bretagne climbs and the run-in to Redon.

That isn’t to say that the peloton has been ambling along, nor that it was necessarily a bad thing, simply that the parcours and the fact that only about half a dozen teams have shown the slightest interest in getting into breaks, had set a pattern for the opening few days. Take Jéremy Roy, someone from Movistar, Vacansoleil and Euskaltel and possibly a Europcar rider for good measure, let them gain four minutes, hold them there all day and then catch them again.

Admittedly, the exciting bits had indeed been very exciting, it’s just that you generally had to wait all day for them.

Wednesday’s fifth stage from Carhaix to Cap Fréhel on the Breton coast did not conform to that template. Instead, the intermediate sprint at Goudelin, with 94 of the 164 kilometres still to go, sparked the start of an utterly absorbing contest.

The Tour went through Yffiniac today, the home town of Bernard Hinault, one of the most pugnacious characters in the race’s history, and Mark Cavendish can be every bit as aggressive as the Badger when he feels he’s been backed into a corner. Victory was one in the eye for the critics both real (and mostly) imagined.

The early signs for the stage had not been too encouraging. It looked like we’d have more of the same when Jose Ivan Gutierrez, Sébastien Turgot (you’ve guessed it, Movistar and Europcar riders) got away with two others. Tristan Valentin of Cofidis and Anthony Delaplace of Saur-Sojasun at least gave us a couple of different jerseys to look at but the formula looked as if it was being adhered to. Only Roy was missing, although it turned out he was biding his time. More of him later.

Even when the gap went out to six minutes, the peloton looked in control even if the rolling Breton roads and the tricky winds from the channel meant they would not want to let them go too far ahead. And so, collectively, the Tour de France settled in for the afternoon.

The change to the points competition has undoubtedly altered the complexion of the race for the green jersey. It is still too early to see how the new rules are going to influence the tactics but already it feels a little too contrived, rather like putting two holes on the green and only telling the golfer after he’s sunk his putt which one he should have been aiming at.

Hindsight will dictate whether the midday scrap for points turns out to be critical or not, but one thing is for certain, the sprints are adding edge to the race.

As the bunch sped towards Goudelin, the leaders had their advantage carved away in great chunks. The sprint for fifth place was again controversial. Jose Joaquin Rojas, the Spaniard currently in the green jersey, and Tom Boonen were relegated for moving from right to left and giving Mark Cavendish little room to get past. Cavendish waved his arm and coasted over the line in 13th place, upgraded to 11th when the other two were penalised.

Shortly after the sprint there was a heavy crash on the left-hand side of the peloton. Janez Brajkovic of Radioshack went down very hard and was later forced to pull out of the race. Robert Gesink also went down, although his annual Tour de France crash did not appear to be overly serious. Not long after that, Nicki Sorensen of Saxo Bank was clipped by one of the motorcycles as it tried to pass him.

And then, after 102 kilometres, Boonen went down, gashing his thigh and shoulder badly. He rode in with his Quick Step team-mate Addy Engels, finishing inside the time limit but 13 minutes down.

Shortly after the sprint and between the Brajkovic and Boonen crashes, the leaders were almost caught. The gap came down to just 29 seconds but then the peloton let it go out again, to 1-30.

It was unusual. With an undulating finale ahead, the bunch did not want to provoke chaos by catching them too soon but the engine had fallen out of the leading quartet and there was no way to conspire to keep them out there. With 45 kilometres to go, they were in sight and it was over.

The prospect of the bunch riding at a high pace, all together, to Cap Fréhel had hearts sinking but with 33 kilometres remaining, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar, of course) and Jéremy Roy went for it. They attacked on a hill, as the bunch was fanned from edge to edge, forcing them to go on the grass on the left-hand side of the road.

Roy and Voeckler worked particularly well together and were giving it everything, perhaps too much, to gain a minute’s advantage.

The joy was in knowing that it was almost certainly doomed to failure but that both riders were utterly committed.

With ten kilometres left, they had just 27 seconds, but still they refused to accept defeat.

When Roy was caught, with three to go, Voeckler sprung the obvious counter-attack which provided him with no more than a brief stay of execution. With 1,700 metres left, he was swamped.

You didn’t have to be one of Mark Cavendish’s phantom critics (you know, the ones that are insisting he’s past it, out of form, not serious enough or whatever it is) to think that the finish at Cap Fréhel did not suit him.

There were some steep sections in the last few kilometres which would make it very difficult for any team to control.

But you write him off at your peril (even if there’s little evidence of anyone actually doing so).

Tony Martin led Matt Goss, who appeared to be HTC’s man for the day, before the Norwegian Sky rider Edvald Boasson Hagen jumped.

The finish was deceptive and just about everyone went far, far too early. Hushovd, in yellow, looked for a moment like he might hold on but he too had miscalculated.

Philippe Gilbert, Mr Incredible on the Mont des Alouettes, Mr Fallible at Mûr de Bretagne, was Mr Hesitant here. He came past the rapidly-fading Hushovd (who finished 10th) but didn’t have enough to hold off the missile to his right.

Cavendish, who many presumed dropped, suddenly came off Geraint Thomas’s wheel (practice for next year, perchance) and blasted over the line.

As Cycle Sport pointed out in the Tour de France guide, it always takes him a few days to get into his stride at a grand tour. Only at Brignoles in the 2009 Tour has Cavendish ever won a sprint at the first attempt in a Grand Tour. Usually it takes him at least one day to get into top gear.

It was his 16th Tour de France stage victory and, like his win at Aubenas two years ago, it came when we least expected it. Cavendish fought every every centimetre to the line, and he was still scrapping when it came to an extraordinary press conference afterwards.

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