The race referees exonerated Mark Cavendish from any wrongdoing in a controversial sprint finish won by Marcel Kittel in which the German's team-mate Tom Veelers ended up on the deck but the Manxman still ended up in the midst of a storm.
Veelers was all wrathful indignation after a clash of shoulders with Cavendish brought him down at high speed and in the aftermath of the episode the Omega Pharma-Quickstep leader did himself few favours by grabbing the tape recorder of a journalist who asked if the incident was his fault.
Cavendish's explanation for the clash on the final curving run to the line was that he was trying to make his way on to Andre Greipel's wheel as the German launched the sprint; he added later via Twitter: "I believe I didn't move line. I'm actually coming past Veelers & we touch elbows when he moves". According to the race director, Jean-François Pescheux, the commissaires – having had a long hard look at the video footage – decided Veelers was at fault as he had been dropping back through the faster moving sprinters, hence their view that no action should be taken.
Veelers blamed Cavendish, however. "I remember that I did the lead out for Marcel Kittel, I steered off, let [myself] go back [and] suddenly I get ridden off my bike by Mark Cavendish." Asked by French TV if he felt Cavendish had pushed him, he replied: "Yes, I think it's clear to see from the video that he's riding me on the ground." Kittel's take on the episode was more diplomatic: it was "very unlucky they bumped into each other. I don't imagine it was done on purpose."
Whoever was at fault, this stage was a breakthrough for Kittel, as unlike his stage one victory in Corsica, when Cavendish had been held up by a crash, here the 25-year-old overcame both the Manxman and Greipel, overhauling the latter in the final metres to become the first rider to win two stages in this Tour.
Kittel and Greipel and their domestiques have found Cavendish's measure, for the moment at least. By the sparkling waters of the Channel, in front of Vauban's walled port city, he was beaten into third place by the German duo, making his score for this Tour one victory in three opportunities. Cavendish's straight-line speed remains unmatched but critically both his main opponents have got their respective trains organised as well as Cavendish's Omega Pharma squad, and better on occasion.
This in turn makes it impossible for him to get the final straight run at the line which he needs, as Cavendish's style is largely reliant on gaining an initial advantage with his jump rather than coming from behind as Kittel did here when he overhauled Greipel in the final metres. He has been disrupted on occasion in the past – for example at Redon in the 2011 Tour with Tyler Farrar – but Greipel's Lotto and Kittel's Argos are more consistent than Farrar's Garmin were. A repeat of Cavendish's 2011 victory in the green points jersey is looking less likely by the day as he is still over 100 points behind Peter Sagan.
"We ran out of riders," said Cavendish, who lost the wheel of his final lead-out man, Gert Steegmans just when he needed it most. "I came from too far back. When I came out it was too late there were two strong riders in front of me. We could have done things a little bit differently. I've been told the commissaires would have relegated me if I'd won, but make it a straight sprint. The road veers left."
The presence of three well-marshalled teams battling for supremacy made the final kilometres a more than usually hectic affair, with neither Cavendish's, Greipel's or Kittel's whiteclad trains ever having complete control. Nerves were frayed further by a change of wind direction 20 km out. After the riders had spent most of the stage battling into a headwind, the breeze was on their backs for the final blast along the coast from the village of Cancale; it is in just this situation that the field can split, so the battle to get to the front for the little pull up from the seafront was almost as desperate as the final fight for the finish line.
The form of Team Sky remains an open question. At this key point in the race Chris Froome had only one domestique for company. While Ian Stannard did a herculean job to keep the race leader in front, the Briton was again isolated compared to, for example, Alberto Contador, who had three riders at his side.
The other Sky riders, Froome said, were "saving their legs for what's coming in the next few days." Even so, they look below strength.
Froome should give himself and his fragile-looking team a more substantial cushion during day's time trial from Avranches to the Mont-Saint-Michel. It is a relatively short test at 33km, and although the stage win may well go to the former world champion Tony Martin, who is said to have recovered from his high speed crash on stage one, none of Froome's closest rivals overall has his pedigree. "It's fast and flat so hopefully it's a good one for me," said Froome. "It's a very good opportunity to gain time."
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