FOR more than four-and-a-half hours, things couldn’t have been going any better. Yorkshire was bathed in glorious sunshine, more than a million spectators were transforming the opening stage of the Tour de France into an open-air carnival, and the longed-for massed sprint was unfolding on Harrogate’s Stray.
Jens Voigt’s solo attack, a gruelling escape that encapsulated the 42-year-old German’s cavalier spirit, had been mercilessly reeled in. All the leading teams had forced their way to the front of the peloton as Ripon faded into the distance and Harrogate appeared on the horizon. And there, on the right-hand side of the road, loomed the black, white and blue colours of the Omega Pharma-QuickStep team ready to dictate for their man.
That man, of course, was Mark Cavendish. Adopted son of Harrogate, thanks to his mother, Adele’s, roots in the town, sprinter extraordinaire and someone who appeared destined to be wearing the leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career once the pre-race presentation ceremonies began in another ten minutes or so.
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An unexpected break from Fabian Cancellara threatened the script, but came too early to be sustained to the finish. Like so many times before, Cavendish hunched himself down in the saddle to strike. The leaders were in view, the finish just 250m away as the field hurtled towards Bettys Tea Rooms. What could possible go wrong from here?
Sport, that’s what. The capricious unravelling of sport. It’s why we become enraptured by an event like the Tour de France, and why outcomes like Saturday’s can never be discounted, even if more than 50,000 people packed into Harrogate were desperately hoping for anything other than the sight of their chosen hero crumpled on the floor.
If sport wasn’t unpredictable, it wouldn’t really mean anything, and few sports are as unpredictable or dynamic as road cycling when a 190-mile stage culminates into a manic 500-metre sprint.
With one of his lead-out men, Tony Martin, forging ahead, Cavendish had a split-second in which to make his move. In hindsight, he was probably already a fraction of a second too late. Four hours and 44 minutes of racing, but a tenth of a second’s worth of hesitation, and the die was cast.
He should probably have eased back, but you don’t get to be one of the best sprinters in the world without an unquenchable thirst for victory, and having sighted what he believed to be a big enough gap to get through, Cavendish leaned into Australian Simon Gerrans.
Would he have attempted such a risky move if the prize – a ‘home’ stage win in front of his parents, who were sitting two seats away from the Prime Minister overlooking the finish line, and the honour of becoming the first British rider to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey on home soil – wasn’t so great?
We will never know, but the effect of his actions was both immediate and irreversible. Cavendish and Gerrans were both thrown to the floor, with the former coming off worse as he sustained ligament damage to his right shoulder that ended his Tour.
He eventually trundled home three minutes after the leading riders, grimacing in pain as he held his right arm across his chest.
To his great credit, he accepted full responsibility for the crash yesterday and issued a personal apology to Gerrans. Given the crushing weight of disappointment, it took a big man to do that, but you sense that even now, Cavendish can still not believe quite how badly things went wrong.
“I knew straight away (it was a bad injury) because normally in crashes, I bounce back straight away,” he said. “This was the first time in my career that I knew something was up, but I wanted to finish and I was able to do that, but I was in pain.
“I had some optimism that the swelling would go down overnight, but it’s not possible from a medical point of view to start.
“I’m absolutely devastated. Firstly, the Tour is in the UK for another two days (yesterday and today) and secondly, we have an incredible team.
“I spoke to Simon at the finish and then I called him at his hotel too. We both went for Peter Sagan’s wheel, but I wanted that gap too bad but it wasn’t there. I hope that Simon is okay. He’s a good guy and I wish him well for the rest of the Tour. I’m sorry.
“I would have loved to have been here for three weeks as we have a really strong team here, but the crash was my fault.”
The demise of the home favourite overshadowed the eventual denouement, and meant Germany’s Marcel Kittel did not get anything like the credit he deserved for a perfectly-executed finish on the opposite side of the road to where the Cavendish-inspired carnage was unfolding.
Having claimed four stage wins on last year’s Tour, including the prized final sprint down the Champs Elysees, Kittel could already claim to be Cavendish’s equal. Now, with his rival out of the equation, he will almost certainly finish this year’s race as the world’s undisputed number one sprinter.
He is three years younger than Cavendish, and increasingly his superior when it comes to a straight battle over the final 200m of a finish. Even if Cavendish had remained upright on Saturday, it is doubtful he would have had the turn of speed to reel Kittel in.
“I got the yellow jersey in last year’s Tour, but I think I can enjoy it more now,” said the German. “We stayed cool in the important moment. It was a hard stage, and a big relief for me to get the win.”
Peter Sagan’s second place suggested he could well win stages in this year’s race, while Chris Froome’s unexpected appearance in the top six proved the leading contenders in the general classification were well aware of the risk of late crashes and preferred to ride at the front of the field rather than the back.
As Froome knew only too well, one marginal misjudgement was all it was going to take to cause havoc. The crying shame, on an otherwise glorious afternoon, was that the mistake came from Cavendish.