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They said he couldn’t win on an uphill finish. They said he couldn’t win without his long, roaring leadout train. The said he wouldn’t win today. But he did.
Nobody – and I mean nobody – expected Cavendish to make it over today’s Category 2 climb with the main field to be in position to contest a bunch finish. But there on the Col de l’Escrinet, the Englishman battled up the final slope, towed by loyal teammates, and crested with the field.
“It was so painful, it was so hard.” Cavendish reported moments after the stage, “I was just sitting there suffering and it hurt so much. I talked to the team before the stage and I said, ‘Just wait for me. Just wait for me…’”
After the climb, there was still 18k until the finish – and with two men still off the front, Columbia’s work wasn’t over. George Hincapie (who has a suspected broken collarbone but has refused x-rays because he wants to finish out the Tour) drilled the pace to bring back the two escapees: Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Laurent Lefèvre (Bbox).
The chase to close the gap consumed a precious portion of the Columbia-HTC leadout train, eating up energy that is usually used closer to the finish to launch Cavendish off the front at the very last second. As it was, Hincapie closed the gap to a very stubborn Ballan with just 2k to go, then peeled off to the left – head down, completely blown.
Most of the rest of Cav’s delivery train were missing in action, spent after the long chase, so it was the young climber, Tony Martin who took on the final leadout duties typically assigned to Mark Renshaw. Martin pounded down on the pedals for as long as he could hold on and then pulled off to the side as Cavendish came around him to start the long grind to the finish.
In a typical leadout scenario, Renshaw will launch Cavendish inside the 200m to go mark, essentially leaving the English sprinter to “finish it off”. Today, without Renshaw, he was left with nearly 300 meters to go it alone on a slightly uphill finish. That may not seem like much difference but, in a sprinter’s world, it’s an eternity.
“There’s no way that Mark Cavendish can sprint for that long!” the commentators screamed into their microphones, “Someone is definitely going to come around him today!”
But no one did. Cavendish launched a massive effort, fending off the hard-charing Norwegian, Thor Hushovd, to hold on for the victory. “It was too far for me to go, but I just had to,” he explained afterward. “After the disappointment of this last week – that made up for it. It took every guy to drag me up to the front. They did everything for me today and to pay them back with a win feels amazing. I am so, so, so, so happy today.”
With the win, Cavendish moves into the history books, with the most Tour de France career stage wins (9) by an Englishman. Eddy Merckx holds the record for the most stage wins overall with a mind-boggling 34 victories earned between 1969 and 1975. Only time will tell if Cav’ will be able to match that impressive number.
The victory also inched him five points closer Hushovd in the Points Classification competition (Hushovd 260, Cavendish 235). The God of Thunder will still have to finish out of the sprint points in Paris on Sunday in order for Cavendish to reclaim the lead – an unlikely scenario, but if today taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.
Looking ahead to Stage Twenty
167 kilometers takes the race from Montélimar up to the epic mountaintop finish on Mont Ventoux. It will take a small miracle to knock Contador off the top of the podium on this day, but as Andy Schleck said after Verbier – he and his brother will try until they die.
Lance Armstrong will also have some beef on Bald Mountain. The last time he was there was in 2000 when he gifted Marco Pantani with the stage win – something that he has regretted ever since. If he’s got anything at all left hidden in those legs of him, expect it to come out on the steep slopes of the the Giant of Provence.
The legend of Mont Ventoux
Of the legendary mountains in the Tour de France, Mont Ventoux is among the most storied. Often called “the Giant of Provence” or “The Bald Mountain” the Tour has passed over its slopes 13 times since 1951. The French “venteux” means windy, and at an elevation of 6273 feet, the summit lives up to the name with winds blowing at 55 mph or more for 240 days a year.
As the summit approaches, the surrounding landscape becomes rocky and barren – moonlike. The sun reflects up off the exposed surface to amplify the heat of the day. It’s desolate and unforgiving.
On on July 13, 1967 British cyclist Tom Simpson died just half a mile from the summit. Simpson perished from a combination of factors: dehydration, amphetamines, and alcohol among them (there is still some speculation as to the exact cause of his death) but his passing had a lasting effect on the Tour. There is a memorial to him near the summit that has become a kind of shrine to cycling fans across the globe.
Tomorrow the riders of the 2009 Tour de France will ride past the marble slab engraved with Simpson’s silhouette on their way to a bid for glory. It will be a sobering reminder of what it takes to win on this brutal mountain.
Stage 19 Results: Top Five Individuals
1. CAVENDISH Mark TEAM COLUMBIA - HTC 3h 50' 35"
2. HUSHOVD Thor CERVELO TEST TEAM + 00' 00"
3. CIOLEK Gerald TEAM MILRAM + 00' 00"
4. VAN AVERMAET Greg SILENCE - LOTTO + 00' 00"
5. FREIRE Oscar RABOBANK + 00' 00"
Top Ten Individual Standings (GC) after Stage 19
1. CONTADOR Alberto ASTANA 77h 06' 18"
2. SCHLECK Andy TEAM SAXO BANK + 04' 11"
3. ARMSTRONG Lance ASTANA + 05' 21"
4. WIGGINS Bradley GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 05' 36"
5. KLÖDEN Andréas ASTANA + 05' 38"
6. SCHLECK Frank TEAM SAXO BANK + 05' 59"
7. NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS + 07' 15"
8. VANDE VELDE Christian GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 10' 08"
9. LE MEVEL Christophe FRANCAISE DES JEUX + 12' 37"
10. ASTARLOZA Mikel 61 EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 12' 38"
Columbia-HTC Individual Standings after Stage 19
20. HINCAPIE George 128. CAVENDISH Mark
26. MONFORT Maxime 132. GRABSCH Bert
44. MARTIN Tony 147. RENSHAW Mark
50. KIRCHEN Kim 149. EISEL Bernhard
107. ROGERS Michael