The Tour de France has been rolling across the Mediterranean coast over the last few days, from Monte Carlo on Saturday, to Barcelona tonight. In the meantime, it has actually gone through France, and two men at very different ends of their careers have proved themselves to be what Stuart Pearce would call, “proper men.”
After the short first stage on Saturday, there were a couple of long flat stages set up for sprinters, and Mark Cavendish. The sprinter is an odd beast – he will sit inconspicuously in the peloton for a hundred and twenty miles before appearing in the last 500m and elbowing his way through to streak off the front of the pack. At the moment, there is no-one better at this than Cav.
On both days, his Team High Road squad did a terrific job of protecting him throughout the long stage across the southern coast of France but, on both days, he finished the race in style by muscling away from all his rivals. A good sprinter will lurk in a rival’s slipstream before leaping out at the last minute and flying past. On Sunday, as Cavendish flashed towards the line, his American rival Tyler Farrar lurked ominously on his wheel.
Contrary to Farrar’s expectations as he tried to draft Cavendish, the young British sprinter started moving AWAY from him. As they crossed the line, Cavendish raised his arms to start celebrating and was still moving away.
Following up with another win on Monday, he is wearing the green jersey of the best sprinter – this is his target for the Tour and, unless he falls off an Alp, he will get it. He is by far the fastest man in the world right now.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of the old stager Lance Armstrong to show the world he still has it. After three and a half years of retirement, he has come back this season and, whilst he has been impressive, he has not shown any of the dominant form of old and, at least outwardly, has been committing himself to supporting nominal team leader Alberto Contador.
But by stealing a few seconds on Monday he had manoeuvred himself ahead of Contador and, despite a little discomfort and discord within the team, Tuesday’s Team Time Trial was an opportunity for their Astana team to establish Armstrong in Yellow.
Eventually, he finished the day 0.22 seconds off yellow, but the thrill of the chase was so evocative of his glory days. He drove the rest of his team relentlessly on leaving them occupying half of the top ten spots in the race. Armstrong is now Astana’s top rider and it will be fascinating to see whether or not he goes back to supporting Contador, or keeps riding for his own victory.
Tomorrow there is the first real mountain stage as the riders move from Barcelona to Andorra, with the finish line outside a ski station. The Armstrong of old, sculpted from concrete would have used the stage to stamp his authority on the race. It will be interesting to see if his legs can propel him up like they used to. If they can, then I don’t believe for a second he’ll back off for the sake of his team.
Giro d’Italia – Cavendish is a legend. 23rd May 2009