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Stage 18 analysis: Sky unleash Cavendish

With Bradley Wiggins’ yellow jersey all but safe, Mark Cavendish was set free to take a stunning sprint win in Brive

Words by Richard Moore

Friday July 20, 2012

Mark Cavendish has had to improvise before, but rarely with such quickness of thought or ingenuity as he displayed in Brive-la-Gaillarde at the end of Friday’s eighteenth stage. His other unconventional stage wins at the Tour, at Cap Fréhel in 2011 and Aubenas in 2009, and even his freestyling win in Tournai on stage two of this year’s race, were straightforward by comparison.

The only win that perhaps comes close is Milan-San Remo in 2009, when Heinrich Haussler jumped early, and Cavendish had a fraction of a second to react. But it turned out that was all he needed: he pounced, leaping out of the bunch like a scalded cat, then hunted down Haussler like a rather bigger cat.

There was nothing straightforward about the finish to this 18th stage. Remnants of the day-long break were dangling out front, encouraged by the narrow, twisty roads, spurred on by Alexandre Vinokourov, and given fresh impetus by Nicolas Roche, Andreas Kloden and Luis Leon Sanchez, who jumped across to the leaders in the closing kilometres. But the fact that this trio was able to bridge the gap only confirmed the disorganised nature of the chase behind, to which Lotto-Belisol and Orica-GreenEdge, with men in the break, contributed nothing.

Liquigas did a bit, Sky did a bit, but nobody did very much, which was curious on Sky’s part, as was the presence of Edvald Boasson Hagen in the break. The Norwegian is nominally Cavendish’s lead-out man, though he has been more occupied at this Tour with helping Bradley Wiggins in the mountains.

With the mountains safely negotiated, and only the time trial to come, could Wiggins’ foot-soldiers not have been re-deployed to the Cavendish cause? It was a stage, after all, that could have and should have ended in a sprint. But almost didn’t.

Eventually, a little like in Cap d’Agde at the end of stage 13, it fell to the yellow jersey to grab the race by the scruff of the neck. Sanchez, whose late escape on stage 13 was nullified by Wiggins in the final kilometre, will be wondering what he has done to upset the winner-elect; and he would have experienced an uncomfortable moment of déjà-vu as he glanced back to see a flash of yellow at the front of the bunch, stringing them out behind him.

On Saturday Wiggins’ late effort was on behalf of Boasson Hagen, but here it was a little payback for Cavendish, who has something in common with Sanchez. Indirectly, his chances have also been scuppered by Wiggins, and he revealed later that he had pleaded on the team bus, in the morning meeting, for some support.

“Sean Yates said this morning, ‘Just take it easy today. If a break goes, good.’ I was like ‘Can I have a sprint, please? Just let me have a sprint.’ Then Brad piped up and said ‘Yes, we’ll work for a sprint,’ and you saw the guys there at the end.”

Still Sanchez and Roche survived out front as Wiggins towed the peloton towards the flamme rouge, with Boasson Hagen on his wheel, and Cavendish behind. It was not enough. When Wiggins swung off, it left Boasson Hagen with a kilometre-long lead-out; an impossible task at any time, but the fact he was there at all was remarkable, given that he had been in the break all day.

It needed some ingenuity from Cavendish. He let a small gap open on the final, sweeping corner to drop down a place and slot into the Lotto lead-out train, behind Marcel Sieberg. But Sieberg let a gap open to Boasson Hagen. And as in Saint-Quentin, at the end of stage five, it seemed to be slipping away from Cavendish. But 600 metres from the line, he jumped; and at 400, once he had reached Boasson Hagen, he jumped again.

It was the scalded cat routine again: he went once more with 200 to go, sprinting hard on the right and motoring past Sanchez, who, as soon as he caught the rainbow jersey in the corner of his eye, simply stopped pedalling and lifted his hand as though to wave goodbye.

There was a touching moment at the finish as Wiggins and Cavendish embraced. Cavendish owed the man in yellow. But the victory owed even more to his improvised tactics, and most of all his sheer speed.

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