Mark Cavendish took his second consecutive stage win on what many thought would be a largely innocuous day in the saddle for the peloton.
Taking his sixth Tour de France stage win in two years, Cavendish once again displayed that he is by far and away the world’s greatest sprinter, quite possibly the finest the sport has ever seen.
Whilst it was Cavendish who took the stage and reinforced his lead in the green jersey competition, it was the tactical intrigue that will dominate the headlines.
With 30 kilometres remaining on the predominantly flat stage, and the remnants of the break swept up, Columbia stamped its authority over the race, driving away from the rest of the field en masse and dragging several overall contenders with them in the process, including Lance Armstrong and Linus Gerdemann as well as the yellow jersey, Fabian Cancellara.
Armstrong’s team-mates, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, all potential team-leaders in their own right, were left in the impossible situation of seeing Armstrong escape up the road and being powerless to chase.
With many of the teams represented within the break, allegiances were confused in the peloton with most of the work having to be done by Silence-Lotto and Garmin.
Holding a lead of between 20 and 30 seconds, it was unclear whether it would all come back together. Columbia did the majority of the work in the break and even Yaroslav Popovych (Astana) did a turn on the front as Armstrong sat comfortably, flanked by Haimar Zubeldia.
But it stayed away thanks to long turns from Mark Renshaw and George Hincapie. In the sprint to the line, Thor Hushovd came off Cavendish’s wheel, drew alongside the Manxman, but Cavendish kicked again and was a comfortable winner for his second consecutive win.
“What a way to stick it to the other teams,” said Cavendish after his second straight win.
“It was a perfect finish. The team split the race in the crosswinds and today we really showed our domination in the first week of a Grand Tour.
“The finish was closer than yesterday. Thor Hushovd is one of the best sprinters on the planet, but Renshaw kept his cool. I had to keep [my effort] late due to the headwind finish”.
Trouble ahead for Astana?
On just the third day of the race, it seems that the already tenuous team unity at Astana has been shredded.
Contador took the upper hand in the opening time trial, but Armstrong today showed his propensity for tactical skulduggery and has moved 19 seconds clear of the Spaniard. With a 39km team time trial on the agenda tomorrow, the team will have to adopt some sort of accord, at least of sorts if Armstrong and Contador are not to lose precious time overall.
With just three stages down and 19 to go, it’s a long, long way to Paris.
Stage three: Marseille-La Grande Motte, 196.5km
1. Mark Cavendish (GB) Columbia-HTC
2. Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervélo
3. Cyril Lemoine (Fra) Skil-Shimano
4. Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) Cofidis
5. Jerome Pineau (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom
6. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Saxo Bank
7. Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Milram
8. Fumiyuku Beppu (Jap) Skil-Shimano
9. Maxime Bouet (Fra) Agritubel
10. Linus Gerdemann (Ger) Milram all same time.
32. Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto at 41sec
35. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 41sec
49. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 41sec
111. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 41sec
176. Charly Wegelius (GB) Silence-Lotto at 4-25
Overall classification after stage three
1. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Saxo Bank in 9-50-58
2. Tony Martin (Ger) Columbia-HTC at 33 secs
3. Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana at 40 secs
4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 59 secs
5. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 1-00
6. Andreas Kloden (Ger) Astana at 1-03
7. Linus Gerdemann (Ger) Milram at 1-03
8. Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto at 1-04
9. Maxime Monfort (Bel) Columbia-HTC at 1-10
10. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana at 1-11
Mark Cavendish (GB) Columbia-HTC
King of the Mountains
Jussi Veikkanen (Fin) Française des Jeux
Young riders’ classification
Tony Martin (Ger) Columbia-HTC
Phone home: Cavendish celebrates his win for new sponsor, telecommunications company HTC
Tour de France 2009 News Index
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Analysis: Why Columbia must expect to do the bulk of the chasing
Wiggins challenging for top 20 overall
The Feed Zone: Sunday, July 5
Cancellara: Tour time trial win proves I’m back
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Tour de France 2009 on TV: Eurosport and ITV4 schedules
Big names missing from 2009 Tour de France
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Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish
Cycling Weekly’s rider profiles