Cycling: Cavendish the fastest man on two wheels
MARK CAVENDISH may or may not one day claim the green jersey, but nobody doubts that when the force is with him he is the fastest sprinter the Tour de France has seen in modern times. Possibly ever.
Not too many people in Paris were prepared to contradict that last assertion yesterday.
Cavendish's win on the Champs Elysees was his 15th Tour de France stage since the beginning of July 2008, an orgy of winning that leaves opponents grinding their teeth in despair.
He is Merckx-like in his need and hunger for victory, leaving mere crumbs for those who dine at the top table with him. An explosive dart down the blind side with 275 metres to go delivered yesterday's triumph, although the consistent Alessandro Petacchi came home in second to pip Cavendish for the maillot vert by 11 points.
The jersey will surely be his some day. Cavendish is still only 25 and the 2010 Tour de France, by his own exacting standards, was a flawed campaign in which he admitted to being "the weak link" in his team during the opening four or five days, when he untypically squandered sprint stages in Brussels and Reims. If he had shown anything like his normal form since then he would have won the green jersey by a country mile.
With Alberto Contador's third title confirmed after the time trial in Pauillac on Saturday night, after he held off a brave effort by Andy Schleck, all eyes were on the sprinters yesterday as they raced onto the Champs Elysee for their traditional end of Tour burn-up over eight laps.
Coming out of the final, nasty, bend as the front-runners exited Place de la Concorde Petachi had chosen the conservative line down the left, Thor Hushovd and Julian Dean blasted down the middle and just for a moment we wondered if a hectic Tour had finally caught up with Cavendish. Where was he?
And then suddenly there was a blur of colour -- the white, black and yellow of HTC Columbia -- down the right-hand side and before you could assimilate it Cavendish was soft pedalling and raising his right palm to the sky to indicate five stage wins this year, although he looked more like a traffic policeman trying to stop the traffic.
For the second time in succession Cavendish had been "freestyling", to use his own phrase, at the end, having been denied the services of lead-out man Mark Renshaw, who was thrown off the Tour at the end of the second week for headbutting. Bernard Eisel and Tony Martin worked prodigiously to keep him in touch, but at the sharp end of the race -- 600m out -- it was down to his raw talent and racing instincts.
After the finish, not for the first time on this Tour, there were tears: "The Tour de France is a roller-coaster of emotion, possibly the biggest sports event in the world and the people are with you for all the three weeks," he said.
"That's what makes it emotional. I'm disappointed not to win green, that is one of my two aims this year. I was the weak link early on, my team rode brilliantly throughout, but we fought back, I did my best and we won five stages in the end. I'm happy."
Last year the Tour was Cavendish's last significant race of 2009, but in October this year he will be attempting to become only the second British rider to win the World Championships, after Tom Simpson in 2005. The course between Melbourne and Geelong is tough, but he has won Tour stages on tougher.
By way of preparation, after resting for a week and spurning any number of lucrative criterium appearances, he will prepare to race in the Vuelta for the first time, to gain the stamina for the 260km World Championship courses.
While Cavendish still has the majority of his racing career ahead of him, Lance Armstrong bowed out yesterday after his 13th and last Tour in slightly contentious fashion. His Radioshack team tried to wear unapproved race jerseys for the day, emblazoned with the number 28, which, he explained afterwards was to offer support for the estimated 28 million people worldwide "dealing" with cancer.
This did not meet with the UCI's approval and Armstrong and his team has to change back into their regular kit on the gentle promenade approach to Paris and were also fined 6,300 Swiss Francs for their contravention of race regulations, although the UCI did immediately redirect the fine back to the cancer charity. Honour was vaguely satisfied on both sides.
"The commissioners didn't agree with our new kit, but in the end it was probably a blessing," said Armstrong. "Stopping and changing the jerseys probably got even more attention although it was stressful at the time."
Armstrong, 39 in September, finished his final Tour in 23rd position, one place and six seconds ahead of Bradley Wiggins.
The duo were third and fourth respectively last year, a disappointment for them both. It wasn't the way the American planned on departing the Tour, but at least his Radioshack squad won the team classification and he got to stand on the podium one final time. (© Daily Telegraph, London)