Leadout man or no leadout man, Mark Cavendish proved he is the fastest man in the peloton after jumping from the wheel of Andre Greipel and outsprinting the German to open his account at the 2012 Tour de France.
Cavendish enjoyed the full support of his former team, HTC-Highroad, at recent Tours, recording 20 stage wins in the process, but has been forced to fend for himself at this year’s race, with Team Sky focussing on Bradley Wiggins’ bid to become the first Briton to win the race.
But Cavendish produced a fine display of stealth sprinting to rubberstamp his reputation as the man to beat, edging out Greipel in a head-to-head drag race in Tournai, with Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) third.
Cavendish has now won 21 stages of the Tour de France, moving into sixth outright on the all-time winners list, one victory behind Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade.
“I was alone in the last kilometre,” said Cavendish. “I told Edvald [Boasson Hagen] with five kilometres to go just do your own thing. We haven’t worked enough together when it’s so hectic like that. If it had just been the sprinters then it would have been okay but there were climbers and GC riders at the finish. I’d rather just go alone.
“Bernie Eisel kept me up there coming into the final. I knew it was going to be difficult, dangerous and hectic here and I came in without any pressure. I could just be plucky about it. Normally I’ve had a team in the past who can control it.
“I knew [Oscar] Freire always goes up in the last kilometre so I stayed [with him] and it was just perfect – with the headwind I knew you could come from behind.”
After Saturday’s prologue and Sunday’s category four finish, stage two presented the peloton’s fast men with the opportunity to come to the fore.
FDJ’s Anthony Roux, Europcar’s Christophe Kern and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff’s Michael Morkov formed the day’s break early in the 207.5km stage from Vise to Tournai, the last of three days in Belgium, and soon built up a comfortable advantage.
The trio claimed the maximum points on offer at the intermediate sprint, with Cavendish behind former HTC-Highroad team-mates Goss and Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) as the peloton contested the sprint.
Kearn and Morkov, who took the one King of the Mountains point available from the day’s sole category four climb, were swept up by the peloton with 26km remaining but Roux ploughed a lone path before eventually being reigned in with 15km to the line.
Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) was among the favourites for stage victory but was spat out of the back of the peloton with 12km to go, complaining of a stomach bug, as a nervy finale ensued, with the bunch required to navigate two roundabouts and a narrow section of road.
No one sprint train was able to dominate the closing kilometres until Lotto-Belisol moved to the front, looking to setup Greipel, who took his maiden Tour victory in 2011, while Cavendish could scarcely be seen on the run-in.
Cavendish admitted in the build-up to the Tour that he has lost some of his top-end speed by losing weight in order to be competitive in the Olympic road race, but the Manxman remains the fastest man in a straight-line sprint and used Greipel as an unwitting leadout man before claiming his first Tour stage win in the world champion’s jersey and first outside of France.
Cavendish, who won the green jersey in 2011, is now second in the points classification with 63 points to stage one winner Peter Sagan’s (Liquigas-Cannondale) 78. Wiggins rolled across the line in the peloton and continues to trail Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Nissan-Trek) by seven seconds in the general classification.
1) Mark Cavendish (GBR) – Team Sky – 4:56.59 hours
2) Andrè Greipel (GER) – Lotto-Belisol – same time
3) Matt Goss (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE
4) Tom Veelers (NED) – Argos-Shimano
5) Alessandro Petacchi (ITA) – Lampre-ISD
6) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Liquigas-Cannondale
7) Yauheni Hutarovich (BLR) – FDJ-Big Mat
8) JJ Haedo (ARG) – SaxoBank-Tinkoff
9) Mark Renshaw (AUS) – Rabobank
10) Tyler Farrar (USA) – Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda
1) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – RadioShack-Nissan-Trek – 10:02.31 hours
2) Bradley Wiggins (GBR) – Team Sky +07”
3) Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) – Omega Pharma-QuickStep
4) Tejay van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing Team +10”
5) Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) – Team Sky +11”
6) Denis Menchov (RUS) – Katusha +13”
7) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing
8) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing +17”
9) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Liquigas-Cannondale +18”
10) Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) – Garmin-Sharp