VILLARS-LES-DOMBES, France: MarkCavendish’s revival was complete on Saturday as the Briton won his 30th Tour de France stage in a high-speed sprint finish.
The 31-year-old Briton took the 14th stage from Montelimar to Parc des Oiseaux in a dominant performance for his fourth stage victory at this Tour alone.
And while many have suggested it has been track training ahead of next month’s Olympics that has been behind his return to form, Cavendish points out greater maturity as the main difference.
“I’ve been refreshed by riding on the track again but the key point is that I’m more patient than last year,” he said.
“We’ve seen it today: following my instinct, I would have jumped earlier but when I saw Marcel Kittel taking the lead with only four guys two kilometers before the end, I understood it would kill him ultimately. “I just had to wait for him to lose some speed.”
Step by step, the Manx Missile is creeping up on Belgian legend Eddy Merckx and the all-time record of 34 stage wins.
But for a man who was written off in many quarters after seeing chief German rival Kittel eclipse him, Cavendish proved perhaps once and for all that he is the greatest sprinter of all time.
The long, straight finish at the bird sanctuary at Villars-les-Dombes seemed tailor-made for the big, powerful Kittel, a winner of four stages at both the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Tour.
Yet Cavendish darted out from behind Kittel’s wheel and streaked past him to take a clear win.
He swerved a touch at the end and Kittel sat up shaking his fist in frustration, but in truth he had been well beaten.
The race jury deliberated for a short time, but then decided Cavendish had done nothing wrong.
“His action influenced the result. Whatever I think is fair cannot be the same as the jury,” complained Kittel, 28.
The German took fifth with Norway’s Alexander Kristoff in second and Peter Sagan of Slovakia third.
Kristoff had no complaints about the result.
“Cavendish is really aero and fast, so I knew that he would be difficult to beat today,” he said. “I’m happy to finish second but for sure I was hoping to win. Cavendish is just faster right now.”
Briton Chris Froome maintained the race leader’s yellow jersey after finishing safely in the pack ahead of Sunday’s mountainous stage.
Dutchman Bauke Mollema remains second at 1min 47sec with another Brit, Adam Yates, third at 2:45.
Man to beat
Many people believed Cavendish’s best years were behind him after he won just three Tour stages over the previous three years, having tasted victory 23 times in the five years prior to that.
Kittel and fellow German Andre Greipel had been the dominant sprinters at the Tour from 2012 to last year, Griepel winning four stages last year and three in 2012.
But Cavendish showed once again that even after being written off, he still remains the man to beat.
A four-man breakaway got going 30km into the stage but the riders themselves rode like they knew their efforts would be doomed to failure.
In one sense, it was merely an exercise in trying to put Friday’s mournful atmosphere behind them following the Nice terror attack that killed at least 84 people.
The four had a lead of 4min 30sec at one point but the peloton kept them on a tight leash.
But once the gap dropped to under a minute, the peloton eased up a touch, mindful of not catching the escapees too soon and encouraging a counter-attack out of the bunch.
American Alex Howes was first to drop from the front four, followed by Cesare Benedetti of Italy.
Frenchman Jeremy Roy and Martin Elmiger of Switzerland held on until 3.5km to go, sharing a handshake when the game was up. AFP