The Champs-Elysées proved a boulevard of broken dreams for Mark Cavendish, who was comprehensively beaten in the final stage of a Tour de France for the first time in his career on a spectacular evening in Paris, when Chris Froome finished comfortably within the bunch to confirm an overall victory that has long been in the bag.
Not for the first time in this race the Omega Pharma-Quick Step sprinter's train derailed in spectacular fashion, its various carriages uncoupling either side of the flamme rouge signifying one kilometre to go and leaving Cavendish to improvise unsuccessfully on the run-in of a stage won by the Argos-Shimano sprinter Marcel Kittel.
It was the giant German's fourth win of this Tour and his compatriot André Greipel separated him from the Manxman on the line. "Kittel was faster," said Cavendish afterwards. "I did 1500 watts and usually when I do 1500 watts I win by a few bike lengths."
The final stage, to all intents and purposes a 133-kilometre ceremonial parade with a fiercely fought finish, took the riders from the Palace at Versailles to the traditional finish at the Champs-Elysées. To celebrate the 100th edition of the race, the organisers introduced a picturesque twist: a golden sunset finish on the famous thoroughfare that sent the peloton around the Place Charles de Gaulle, home of the Arc de Triomphe.
The stage was practically pancake flat and one of its two designated "climbs" was so easy thaty the maillot jaune, Chris Froome, was able to sit up on the saddle of his yellow-framed Pinarello and enjoy a celebratory glass of champagne as he ascended its peak. "I don't think 'happiness' quite describes how I feel," said Froome afterwards. "I think it's going to take quite a while to sink in."
With the Slovak Peter Sagan having secured his second successive green jersey and Colombia's Nairo Quintana guaranteed those in polka dot and white before the beginning of Sunday's stage, those in the peloton eschewed early aggression in favour of a leisurely meander towards the Champs-Elysées.
The imminent arrival at the Arc de Triomphe of this arresting amorphic and whirring mass was heralded by the sound of helicopters, a cacophony of horns from the race outriders and VIP cars, and a wonderful seven-strong air force fly-by that left patriotically coloured plumes hanging in the dusk sky. For the riders it was eyes front for the serious business of the day.
The British veteran David Millar was among the first to attack, jumping off the front of the bunch and going into time-trial mode with the Vacansoleil rider Juan Antonio Flecha to open a gap that peaked at 35 seconds.
Quickly shaking off his Spanish travelling companion, Millar ploughed on and on and on, alone with the peloton in hot pursuit. But this was always going to be a day for sprinters and the Scot's splendid effort duly reached its inevitable conclusion. A subsequent four-man breakaway was reeled in not long before the bell for the final lap.
This has not been the happiest of Tours for Cavendish, for whom victory in Paris would have provided consolation for his failure to win the points jersey he covets so. He has suffered the dual indignities of being doused in urine by a spectator and forced into a field to unburden himself by an ill-timed intestinal heave. He has lost it with reporters and inefficient team-mates. He has endured a machine-gun burst of brutal Alpine stages whose profiles, on paper in his Tour roadbook, must have resembled so many cartoon sharks' teeth.
Here his misfortune continued. Having recovered from a front wheel puncture on the third lap of the Champs-Elysées, he saw his lead-out train let him down again. Sprinting alone in a seemingly futile bid to get past Kittel in the closing metres, Cavendish appeared to lose control of his back wheel on a cobble in what always seemed a losing battle.
By his own lofty standards Cavendish's return of two stage wins from this year's Tour has been paltry and myriad signs of hitherto unseen fallibility, a team that is clearly not good enough to work in his service and suggestions that his star is on the wane will leave him with much to ponder.
His defeat meant Chris Froome got exclusive rights to the post-race limelight as far as British cyclists were concerned. Sir Dave Brailsford, before seeing his team leader sweetly dedicate the first of what could be many Tour de France wins to his late mother, labelled him "an exceptional champion" and assured all present "the future of cycling is in good hands".
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image: © jvanattenhoven