Mark Cavendish tightened his grip on the green jersey competition with his fourth stage of the 2011 Tour.

Words by Lionel Birnie in Montpellier

Sunday July 17, 2011

Just because something appears straightforward does not make it easy. Even something as predictable as Mark Cavendish’s victory in Montpellier takes skill, judgement and dedication that no other team can match, certainly not on a regular basis.

HTC-Highroad were ambushed by Garmin at Redon and Cavendish was beaten fair and square by Andre Greipel at Carmaux, but they continue to be the dominant force. It is staggering, given their success, that Bob Stapleton doesn’t have sponsors beating a path to his door. Even if, as seems increasingly likely, Cavendish goes elsewhere, you’d think that Highroad’s record of spotting young talent would be enough.

Time after time, HTC ride on the front of the peloton for the best part of 200 kilometres and then drop Cavendish off with 200 metres to go. From there, he rarely lets them down.

Nineteen times in four summers Cavendish has done this. He now stands seventh in the all-time list of Tour stage winners. Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 victories may not be wobbling yet but it’s starting to look attainable.

But what is most impressive is the willingness of HTC’s riders to sacrifice themselves for Cavendish, particularly when both his and the team’s future hang in the balance.

It could be argued that Tony Martin and Peter Velits have undermined their overall ambitions by doing long, exhausting pulls on the front of the bunch every time Cavendish has had a sniff of a sprint.

Yet they continue to do it, and they will do so again on the Champs-Elysees in a week’s time.

The team has evolved since 2008. There are consistent figures, such as Bernhard Eisel and Mark Renshaw but Gerald Ciolek, George Hincapie, Michael Rogers and others have moved on, only to be replaced in the machine by equally reliable components.

And while no one doubts the energy and skill required or the stress levels involved, HTC are exactly that, a machine. Some days it’s like watching a horror movie where a killer robot is on the loose in the city, crushing everything in its path. Eventually, you start to root for the poor souls trying to get away.

As an afternoon’s sporting entertainment, the 15th stage from Limoux to Montpellier was a dead loss. Cavendish’s victory will have delighted British fans but the fact HTC went unchallenged did not make for much of a spectacle.

You know the formula by now. The break goes. There’s an FDJ rider in it. Mickael Delage. Again. The Frenchman has been on the attack four times in this Tour, spending a total of 721 kilometres off the front. Almost a third of Delage’s Tour de France has been ridden like a chaingang, rather than in the relative comfort of the main bunch.

Delage was joined in the escape, which went clear right at the start, by Samuel Dumoulin of Cofidis, Anthony Delaplace of Saur, Niki Terpstra of Quick Step and Mikhail Ignatiev of Katusha. Their lead never grew much beyond four minutes as two HTC riders, Danny Pate and Lars Bak, did the job of ensuring it never got out of hand.

The dynamics of a breakaway can be quite subtle and the assumption is that the riders up the road are putting everything they’ve got into it. That is not the case for most of the escape. Once the bunch has decided how much space to give them, the break settles into a rhythm that the bunch mimics behind.

Nevertheless, it should not be underestimated that, in keeping the gap steady at around four minutes, Pate and Bak did the work of five men.

Cavendish mentioned the lack of help HTC received from other teams. The likes of Garmin or Movistar both have sprinters but they were barely visible at the front. Europcar did a bit of work as they are holding the yellow jersey. But the bulk of the responsibility lay with HTC and although Cavendish stopped short of calling them work-shy, he pointed out that if he were a sprinter on one of the other teams that refused to assist, his ego would feel bruised.

But their dominance means that there’s little to be gained from helping them.

After the intermediate sprint, where Cavendish took the maximum points that were available to him, HTC took a brief breather before getting to the front again to close down the break.

There wasn’t even much suspense involved. With 22 kilometres Ignatiev attacked and Terpstra followed. The three French riders missed out in rather a meek fashion. The host nation revels in Voeckler’s spell in yellow but they still await a stage win. It’s starting to look like they may draw a blank for the first time since 1999.

Delage, Delaplace and Dumoulin were caught with 16 kilometres to go. Ignatiev surrendered with six kilometres left and Terpstra held out quite impressively, until around three to go.

Then Philippe Gilbert attacked, hoping the deceptively testing run-in might favour him. Anthony Roux of FDJ and Marco Marcato of Vacansoleil went with him but barely gave the Belgian champion a turn. It was doomed, not least because of HTC’s ice-cool response.

Instead of reacting swiftly to Gilbert’s move, they kept the pace steady, lifting it only half a notch and taking their time to reel it in. That way, Cavendish and his last lead-out man Mark Renshaw were not put into the red.

It is that kind of measured, metronomic approach that makes HTC so formidable. The sprint was neither emphatic nor close. Cavendish did enough to win ahead of Tyler Farrar but never looked in danger.

The victory and the points earned in the intermediate sprint gave him a 37-point advantage in the green jersey competition, although he dismissed any suggestion that the race is over.

For a start, he has to get through the Alps. Having made the time limit at Plateau de Beille by less than two minutes, he could run it very close again. Stage 18 to Serre-Chevalier goes over the 2,744-metre Col Agnel, then over the brutal Col d’Izoard and finishes at 2,645 metres. It is likely Cavendish will have only Eisel for company for much of that day. And again they will ride with an almost mechanical precision. Always calculating.

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