If Team Columbia-HTC felt slightly aggrieved that they were left to do the bulk of the chasing on the road to Brignoles, they had better get used to it.
With a sprinter as dominant as Mark Cavendish in their ranks, few of their rivals are willing to waste energy helping to set up another win.
But Brian Holm, the Columbia directeur sportif, said that if the others continue to sit back and watch his team toil, they will see their chances of winning go from slim to non-existent. He told CW: “There’s five or six stages for the sprinters, but not if we have to do all the work ourselves. If no one shares some of the work, we’ll let a group go one day.”
It was a hot day, and the roads were lumpy, making it a lot harder for the four-man break of Stéphane Augé, Stef Clement, Cyril Dessel and Jussi Veikkanen, to stay away. Their lead stayed at around five minutes as Saxo Bank did the bulk of the work to contain it for the race leader Fabian Cancellara.
Columbia came to the front in the final third of the stage, but no one came with them. Cérvelo did contribute a little, but at one stage French television flashed up a caption saying that Columbia had done 80 per cent of the work on the front of the bunch in the previous 10-kilometre spell.
On his Twitter feed Garmin-Slipstream’s Jonathan Vaughters mulled over the possibility of instructing his riders to help. Presumably he decided against it, because Garmin, though well placed, stayed well back.
But if the plan was to hang Columbia out to dry in the hot sun, it didn’t work. They’re too strong for that.
And if the plan was to let Columbia lead it out and then sprint to victory, that wasn’t likely to work either. Cavendish is simply too fast.
Once the lead quartet was caught, with 10 kilometres to go, Katusha’s Mikhail Ignatiev had already launched a counter-attack. He too was reeled in at around the time Milram began to arm-wrestle Columbia for control at the front of the bunch.
It was a fight they were doomed to lose, as they burned up their men noticeably quicker than Columbia, but without making much headway. They drew level, but failed to beat Columbia into submission.
Garmin were still loitering but no one else was at all organised. Quick Step’s Tom Boonen is still suffering with an upset stomach. Cérvelo decided not to get stuck in, so it was the boys from Skil-Shimano who got in amongst it in the closing stages. Their rider Kenny Van Hummel actually banged bars with Cavendish, something Cavendish made a point of mentioning in the post-race press conference.
Columbia’s Erik Zabel, who drove the run-in ahead of the race and passed his observations back to the team car, identified the big roundabout in the final couple of kilometres as the major obstacle.
“I told them to take the left side, because that was the shortest line, and also the quickest,” he said.
Then came the sweeping left-hander, which caught many by surprise. There was a crash and several riders over-shot the corner, flying straight on instead. Not that it derailed Columbia or Cavendish. They were already round and closing in on the line.
There was never a moment when Cavendish looked threatened. Tyler Farrar, glued to his wheel, barely made a mark. By the line the gap was opening.
Tuesday’s stage to La Grande Motte could well see more of the same, and when a break goes away, every team will look at Columbia, shrug, and make it clear whose responsibility it is to work.
The win was the 42nd of Cavendish’s career, putting him above Chris Boardman in Cycling Weekly‘s list of all-time British pro winners. It also gave Cavendish the green jersey for the first time. He may have played down talk of making the points competition his priority, but he’s already in the lead and keen to win more stages. And as today’s stage shows, when Cavendish gets in front, his goal is to pull away.
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Cycling Weekly’s rider profiles