Twice in the past three years victory on the Tour’s opening stage and the yellow jersey had eluded the Manxman. Here, however, Cavendish timed his run to the line to perfection, coming off the wheel of the world champion, Peter Sagan, to leave Marcel Kittel trailing over a bike length behind.
Right up to the line, drawn as close to the vast strand of Utah Beach as could be, just behind the dunes, this was a chaotic sprint, as most are these days; what favoured Cavendish was that this was a long, straight run to the line such as he likes, with the last bend five kilometres out. No team took control, although for the bulk of the final miles there were four teams hogging the front of the peloton: Kittel’s Etixx men and the red-clad Lotto troupe of André Greipel were on either side of the road, with Chris Froome’s Team Sky and Nairo Quintana’s Movistar sandwiched in the middle.
For much of the run-in, Cavendish’s Dimension Data team-mates were absent from the front of the peloton, but as he had pointed out, they are not the most powerful of squads so they will not take on Etixx and Lotto at their own game.
Marshalled by the vastly experienced Bernhard Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen, however, Mark Renshaw and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg appeared with 3.8km to go, moving sleekly up the left of the Etixx train with the Manxman in their slipstream, before the cards were reshuffled.
After a crash in the final kilometre reduced the front of the peloton to tatters – with Geraint Thomas and Boasson Hagen among those involved, to no apparent ill-effect – the critical moment came with 300 metres to go when the last of Greipel’s team-mates swung to the right and Cavendish had the instinct and leg speed to outjump Kittel for the wheel of the world champion, Peter Sagan, who had no option but to lead out.
With a south-westerly breeze pushing the riders to the line, whoever jumped first would have the advantage and once Cavendish began his effort, going to Sagan’s right, Kittel went to the Slovak’s left and drew almost level with Cavendish’s left shoulder, then slid gradually backwards as Greipel made a rush for the line which was too late to give him more than fourth place behind Sagan. With the four sprinters who have dominated the Tour’s finishes in the past few years leading the way, this was what the French call un sprint royal: a battle of kings.
“It’s phenomenal, it really is phenomenal,” said Cavendish. “We really wanted this. To win a stage is aways incredible and to wear the jersey is an honour I have never had before. I’m really emotional.” Afterwards, Cavendish and other riders joined senior personnel from the Tour organisation for a brief ceremony at the memorial to the men who died here during the D-Day landings.
Saturday’svictory took Cavendish to 27 stage wins in the Tour, a record for a sprinter, and it completes the full house of leader’s jerseys and points jerseys in all three major Tours: France, Italy and Spain.
Additionally, Cavendish has won world champion rainbow jerseys on the road – in 2011 – and the track – in 2005, 2008 and this March – meaning that the only major honour he is lacking now is an Olympic medal, his other target for the summer.
Later, he explained that having planned to make his effort further out than usual, he made a late change of plan because the wind seemed to be swirling from all directions.
“Sagan kicked just when I wanted to go, I went in his slipstream and saw Kittel coming on the left. Fortunately, Sagan had left a gap to his right so I took the opportunity. I saw Kittel reach his maximal speed and carried on hoping no one would get the sling-shot past me. We haven’t had a long, straight bunch sprint like this in the Tour for years, and I do like them.”
What preceded the sprint drama was a typical opening stage in the Tour, with an early battle for King of the Mountains points led – cunningly – by two riders from the Bora-Argon 18 squad, Paul Voss and Jan Barta, who attacked almost from the off, with Voss making the running over the two climbs near the start to take the first King of the Mountains jersey. Afterwards, a five-rider group formed with an Australian, Leigh Howard, American Alex Howes and Frenchman Anthony Delaplace, with the latter pair given just enough leeway to stay out in front until Utah was almost in sight.
The south-westerly blew on to the riders from the left for the first three-quarters of the stage and after the feeding station with 90 kilometres to go Team Sky, Nairo Quintana’s Movistar and Kittel’s Etixx team-mates decided to shake up the pack, causing a hectic scramble for position as the speed shot up to around 40mph. Gaps began appearing, with a group of around 20 ejected.
The incident that could have ended Alberto Contador’s Tour – and which may have ramifications in the next three weeks – came as the peloton turned sharp right away from the coast. The Spaniard lost control of his front wheel as he took the corner, was unable to avoid a traffic island and fell heavily on his right shoulder, taking Sky’s Luke Rowe with him among others. Contador was up rapidly, but then had to change his bike and was briefly relegated to the backmarker’s mini-peloton along with five team-mates.
Fortunately, the frontrunners decided not to press on, and slowed as the wind changed, enabling Contador to regain contact. His troubles continued, however, as he had to go through a complex procedure to change a shoe – and insole – on the move, before spending several minutes hanging on to the doctor’s car as the extensive road rash on his shoulder was treated. He completed the stage with a gash on his hip and bandaging on his arm.
Tellingly, when Cavendish said how happy he was to have the yellow jersey, in one interview he added the rider, “for a day at least”. Although he has said he will do his best to defend the lead, ’s finish is not one that suits him: high above the town of Cherbourg, on top of the two-mile ascent of the Côte de la Glacerie, which has a brief pitch at 14%. Given his fine showing against the pure speedsters on Saturday Sagan should be the man to watch.
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