Stage two analysis: Train? What train?

Mark Cavendish proved once again that he can plot his own path to victory.

Words: Richard Moore in Tournai

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Monday July 2, 2012

There were two questions about Mark Cavendish coming into this Tour. One was whether he could win without a sprint train. The other was whether, with the contenders lining up to try and nab his crown, he is still the fastest finisher in the world.

On the evidence of the first bunch sprint, in Tournai at the end of stage two, the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.

Aha, you could counter, but Cavendish did not win here as convincingly as in previous years. He squeezed past Andre Greipel in the closing metres and his winning margin was less than a bike length, when it has been several in the past.

But how often in the past has he arrived at the finish in a large, comfortable High Road armchair, only hitting the eject button with 200m to go? That is an exaggeration, but the difference between ducking and diving, jumping from wheel to wheel, disappearing into gaps that other riders don’t want you to disappear into, and spending the final kilometres on the back of a fast-moving train made up of your own teammates, could be the reduction in the winning margin.

Or, as Rod Ellingworth, his coach, put it: “If he had been properly on Greipel’s wheel, he would’ve stormed it. But because he had to work so hard just to be there, and then do the sprint…”

But perhaps it says it all that Ellingworth found himself justifying the winning margin.

As so often with Cavendish, his own analysis of the final kilometre was as vivid as it was revealing. He described seeing, in the mass of bodies scrapping for position, Oscar Freire begin to move up as they passed under the red kite. “He usually surges at that point,” he said of the experienced Spaniard.

Cavendish jumped aboard the Freire carriage, escaping one of the madder aspects of the Tour, the presence near the business end of overall contenders (Denis Menchov and Pierre Rolland were road furniture for Cavendish to negotiate, he noted disparagingly). When Freire had taken him to safety, he spied a faster moving carriage, piloted by Matt Goss’s teammate, Darryl Impey.

Cavendish squeezed between the Orica-GreenEdge riders. “I jumped on Impey,” said Cavendish, “so I had Gossy behind me. Then I saw Hendy [Greg Henderson] surge on the left, and I went. [Peter] Sagan was there, and that cut him off.”

Only then did Cavendish manoeuvre himself on to Greipel’s wheel. In other words, he had already made several efforts, made several important decisions, and suffered the attendant stress and anxiety (if Cavendish actually experiences any of that), before he launched his effort. And even then, “I left it too late. I jumped off Greipel with 200 to go. I should’ve gone earlier.”

So, subconsciously, he was at it, too – justifying his ‘failure’.

It is the kind of failure that Greipel, Goss and the other pretenders will continue to dream of.

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