Cavendish hangs in to underline his class
The smile was back and so was the unstoppable history maker. After suffering from bronchitis, wretched luck and still feeling out of sorts, it was time to remind everyone that even a sub-par Mark Cavendish has no equal as the world's finest sprinter.
After putting in a scintillating final 150 metres to scoot away to victory alongside the racetrack here, cycling's very own Frankel revealed that it had been much more trying than it had looked as he added a 24th Tour de France stage triumph.
Indeed, it was only after four categorised climbs and plenty of grimacing as he ploughed across the Provencal hills for 142 miles from Cagnes-sur-Mer on this fifth stage that a struggling, bearded Cavendish, surrounded by his trusty Omega Pharma-Quick Step sprint train, needed the inspiration of a sight some 10 miles from home which rekindled warm memories.
"We'd put a lot of planning into making sure we knew the last uncategorised climb (Col de la Gineste) and when I finally reached it, I thought, 'I know this climb'. It was my first professional race, the Grand Prix (d'Ouverture la Marseillais in 2007). Jeremy Hunt (a sprinter) won it that year, so I knew I could hang on."
It gave Cavendish fresh legs as the peloton dived towards the old port city and the chance, in case they had forgotten, to demonstrate his pre-eminence against other quick draws, Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan.
In the intermediate sprint at Lorgues, Greipel 'the Gorilla' and Sagan both outmuscled Cavendish. The Manxman seemed vulnerable and as he battled through the town of Brignoles, scene of one of his stage victories four years ago, few would have given him much hope of delivering again 55 miles further west.
Yet once he had been delivered around the last of the stage's 55 roundabouts – a bizarre new record for the Tour – in third place while being watched over by a vast copy of Michelangelo's David, there was a predictability about how he crushed all-comers in the last 500 metres.
Predictable but still magnificent.
As usual, he offered gushing praise for the train which had delivered him, a heroic, battered and bruised crew. Between them, the team who had missed out by just one second on allowing Cavendish to win his 24th Tour stage in the team time trial 24 hours earlier, ensured there would be no question this time as the squat powerhouse in white, red and blue shot past his lead-out man, Gert Steegmans, to win by two lengths from Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Now that Cavendish has woken, is it too greedy to expect more glory over a pancake flat stage from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier today? The Mistral is forecast to blow hard but Le Tour just wants to behold Cav sprinting like the wind.
Ireland's Dan Martin, meanwhile, finished 104th and lies 17th overall.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
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