Tour de Franc: Cavendish triumphs, but Froome gets hit by ambush
Any questions about Mark Cavendish's race condition evaporated as he claimed the 25th Tour de France stage win of his career in spectacular style.
Race leader Chris Froome, however, lost over a minute to his rivals, with the clouds of doubt surrounding Sky's overall strength beginning to mushroom.
Froome's problem was – as on Sunday in the Pyrenees – more a collective one, as once again his team all but disintegrated around him.
But on this occasion, on a flat stage which in theory should have ended in a bunch sprint, strong winds and ultra-aggressive racing by Cavendish's Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad and Alberto Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff team blew the Tour apart.
Unlike last Sunday, when he managed to stay with the main contenders, Froome paid the price.
Riding hard in the crosswinds, the mass attack by Cavendish's team 100km from the line caught Marcel Kittel, the German who has twice beaten the Briton in a bunch sprint in this year's Tour, far from the front and the burly Argos Shimano rider was dropped with around 60 others.
When Alejandro Valverde, lying second overall, then punctured and began to lose time too, Omega Pharma-Quick Step were joined in their high-speed charge by Dutch squad Belkin. Eventually, Valverde lost over 10 minutes and all chance of a podium finish in Paris.
Froome looked set to benefit from the demise of a dangerous rival. But a sudden acceleration by Contador, Nicolas Roche and their Saxo-Tinkoff squad with 30km to go saw 14 riders, including Cavendish, shear off the front. This time, with Froome missing the move, Sky had to chase.
Already two riders short with the loss of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Vasil Kiryienka and with other team-mates injured, Sky's Constanstin Siutsou, Pete Kennaugh, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas pulled out all the stops to try to keep Froome in contention. But the gap yawned to 69 seconds by the finish in Saint-Armand-Montrond.
"Losing a minute is a bitter pill to swallow, as we worked very hard to get that advantage," he said. "I've still got a comfortable lead but today was a reminder that the race is still open."
That lead is now two minutes 28 seconds over Belkin's Bauke Mollema, with Contador a further 17 seconds down in third.
Froome readily recognised that his team was on the back foot. "Yes, we lost Edvald and he could have been a great help today," he said. Contador explained: "Froome had no team and we decided to go all out. It was the kind of gamble a team which is united and fighting for the overall victory has to take."
Today's stage through the hills around Lyon could be another difficult one for Froome and Sky, who are eagerly awaiting tomorrow's return to the high mountains on Mont Ventoux. Froome has taken one big win at the Tour's first summit finish last Saturday and a second would re-establish his authority.
Froome's lead may still sounds significant, but old Ventoux just laughs at that. If it captures you on a bad day, makes you suffer in its spiteful winds or merciless heat for every metre of its seemingly never-ending 20km ascent, a hellish quarter of an hour can disappear just like that.
Cavendish, meanwhile, secured his second stage win of the 2013 Tour. He was the last rider to latch onto the leading move of 14 and said later it had "cost me more energy to do that than to take the sprint itself."
But the 28-year-old was more than rewarded for his efforts as he easily outpowered Peter Sagan at the finish, putting firmly behind him what has been a tumultuous week of defeats, assault by a spectator and a controversial collision. (© Independent News Service)
Tour de France, Stage 14, Live,
TG4, 1.10/ Eurosport, 12.30/ ITV4, 2.0