Sunday, 25 July 2010

Cavendish takes historic second consecutive win on the Champs-Élysées

24 days ago, 198 riders from 22 teams were presented to the public on the eve of the epic three week race that is known as the Tour de France. 23 days of racing and 170 riders later the race came on to the famous Champs-Élysées that has hosted the finale since 1975. British hope and Team HTC-Columbia leader, Mark Cavendish had spent the first of the three weeks haunted by the woes of a late-to-form season that saw him crash out and get beaten to finishes that should surely have been textbook sprints for the young Manxman. He recovered to take four stage victories during the Tour and came to the start in Longjumeau wanting to make it five and a second consecutive win on the hallowed ground that is the finish line in Paris. For a moment, it looked like the late breakaway would crush his dream. But the young man from the Isle of Man proved why he is called the "Manx Missile" powering away from everybody else to take the stage victory he had dreamt about since Rotterdam.

On a day when the champagne was flowing and congratulations over pouring, it seemed like the cameras would all be on Alberto Contador as he play-duelled with Andy Schleck, his second place rival for much of the Tour, whom he had beaten by a close margin of 39 seconds; the same deficit Schleck had suffered to lose in stage 15 where he suffered gear problems snuffing out his attack on the Spaniard. As it was the cameras were all on Lance Armstrong as he courted controversy once more, his team coming to the start in non-regulation jerseys. Hoping to ride in special Livestrong Team 28 jerseys to highlight the 28 million suffers of cancer world wide, the team were dishearted to find the UCI not so welcoming to the idea.

On a stage that is by all accounts a celebratory lap where riders swap jerseys and bikes while the winning rider and his team sip the amber nectar provided by the race organisers, the UCI felt it was a step to far to bend the rules with the jerseys. Despite the fact that the same stunt was carried out by US Postal in the Centenary Tour and Mario Cippolini was well known for wearing non-regulation skin suits with the punishment for doing so being a fine, the UCI threatened to disqualify the whole team if they did not change back into their regulation jerseys. Armstrong was the last to comply having argued with commissaires about their statement over race radio, stopping to pin his numbers on his jersey with help from the Quick Step team car. Having held up the race for 15 minutes, it could be argued that the UCI gave Livestrong far more publicicity than the stunt may have garnered had they not brought so much attention to the actions of the team.

After three weeks of everything the race organisers could possibly think to throw at the riders, from cobbles to monstrous mountains, the chaos, blood, sweat, tears, crashing and cracking, head-butting and fractured elbows, wrists, collar-bones and ribs, it all came down to one final fight for the line. If the Alpe d'Hertz is mecca for the grimpeurs then the Champs-Élysées is surely the equivalent for the pure sprinters. Having suffered the perilous Pyrenees, the survivors knew this would be their last bid for glory and what glory it would be to win on the famous Parisian avenue.

The line in sight, Hushovd and Petacchi knew this would be their only chance. Hushovd was facing leaving the Tour with a single victory; Petacchi the possibilty of a 6th place or worse finish losing him the Maillot Vert to Cavendish. As they powered towards the finish, as if from nowhere, the Manx missile fired to the line, finishing several bike lengths ahead of his closest rival Petacchi who held out for second place. The second place finishing was enough to secure his lead over the Manxman in the points competition, securing his jersey.

But for the 25 year old stage winner, the victory, his second in two years and his 15th Tour victory in his career to date, was enough. Winning "the biggest bike race in the world" on the most hallowed stage of the epic race was a dream come true and a fitting end to a Tour that saw him criticised, challenged and pushed to the max. Questions had been asked about his abilities following the loss of lead-out man Mark Renshaw. The "best in the business" his critics had questioned his abilty to win without the guaranteed position Renshaw would put him in, having brought him so well to the finish last year he was able to secure 2nd place for himself. Now, those critics have been answered. Lead-out man or no leadout man, Cavendish is a hard man to beat once he hits his stride.

It wouldn't be right to finish without a word on Alberto Contador. Aged just 27, he stepped up onto the top spot of the podium for the third time in his career, taking a third Tour victory in as many appearances. Winning each Grand Tour he has ridden in, he worked hard to overcome rivalry within his own team last year and from Saxo-Bank this year. Finishing just 39 seconds ahead of 2nd place finisher Andy Schleck in a Tour that he suffered at times during, he was over come with emotion yesterday. Winning this Tour has meant more to him than any other because of how hard he struggled at times. He already knows that the 2011 edition will be Schleck vs Contador round two. After the Vuelta, the 2011 edition route announced, the presure will be on for him to make it four out of four. But with Schleck thinking the same thing, the intensity is sure to rumble through next season from day one.

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