Sky, having been told by Dave Brailsford to "stop dithering", were more prominent at the end of the flattest stage of the Tour than they had been in any of the preceding days but in an ironic twist Mark Cavendish failed to benefit, losing a Champs Elysées sprint for the first time in his career. On the fabled Avenue in Paris he has been unbeatable for three years; outside the Parc des Champs Elysées in Saint-Quentin – it jars like a street called Mayfair in Barnsley might – he finished only fifth to André Greipel.
Bradley Wiggins and his directeur sportif Sean Yates both said after the stage that they had decided to get a grip on their race after being on the receiving end of events since the race left Liège on Sunday. There have been several punctures and six of their nine riders had been involved in crashes up to Thursday, culminating in the pile-up on Wednesday which left Cavendish and Bernhard Eisel cut and bruised and suffering whiplash similar to that from a car crash.
"Up until this point we never really got it together for various reasons," said Yates. "We had bad luck the first day, incidents on the second day when Cav won and so on and so forth. Today the plan was to really get it together and give everyone the best chance. We're approaching the crucial point in the race, where the differences are going to be made, and we don't want to leave anything to chance. We've been lucky enough not having injury or bad luck which could possibly cause Bradley to lose time stupidly."
Wiggins explained: "Just as a unit we wanted to be a bit more present. It wasn't necessarily about placing Cav [for the sprint] today but also myself. I've been a bit caught up in all the mess the last few days and thinking of last year's crash ... It was just a conscious effort. We've got the legs, we've got one of the best teams here so if we could just use that a bit more."
The upshot was that on the wide main road coming into the finish, Sky's eight remaining riders – Kanstantsin Siutsou having been forced out with a broken shin from Tuesday's crash – lined out on the left side of the road: Chris Froome first, then Christian Knees, followed by Richie Porte, Michael Rogers, Wiggins, Eisel and Cavendish, with Edvald Boasson-Hagen riding shotgun behind the Manxman.
It was the first "train" Sky have set in motion on the Tour, for all the aura of invincibilty many have accorded them since their win in the Dauphiné Libéré, and, as if to prove a point, Cadel Evans set his red-clad BMC riders in motion on the right, and, like a Virgin Express between two trains à grand vitesse, the minnows from Lampre got rolling in the middle of the road for their fading fast man Alessandro Petacchi, who is a shadow of his prolific former self. Sky's purpose was to keep Wiggins out of trouble as much as it was to help Cavendish set up his sprint and after they throttled back a little coming into town, the inevitable crash happened, with last year's stage winner Tyler Farrar looking for space and failing to find it.
He was convinced the crash had been caused by a member of the Argos Oil team, and approached their bus after the finish to remonstrate with them. This was Farrar's fourth crash in six days – he will soon have so much new skin he will resemble a penknife, six new blades but still the same underneath – and brought down the points leader Peter Sagan. That thinned the ranks of the fast men a little before a tough finish, rising steadily in the final kilometre, and the day's four-man escape still had just enough margin to hope that they might stay in front to the line.
The final moments resembled a handicap race, with the last two of the escapees, Pablo Urtasun of Spain and the Belgian Jan Ghyselinck, a few metres apart with the peloton bearing down on them like a multicoloured river in spate. Cavendish had lost ground in the final corners and came from about 12th back to finish fifth, but he was never going to get on terms with his former HTC team-mates Greipel and Matt Goss, who took the first two places. There was consolation, however, in that all the trio gained points on Sagan, so there are now 36 points spanning the quartet at the top of the green jersey standings.
The Greipel-Cavendish rivalry could be about to move centre stage. Two stage wins into this Tour, the six-foot German is becoming a little tetchy when the media focus on where Cavendish finishes – or whether the Manxman is actually there – when he wins. "I don't know why everyone believes I can't beat him. I did it before, last year, I have the best team around me this year, so why wouldn't I be able to beat him? On Monday it was a tight finish, yesterday he crashed, today I had a bit of power left."
On Friday the race transfers east to champagne country for the last of the opening flat stages. What with mountains big and small, a rest day and a time trial, it will be at least another week until the fast men again get to do their best – or worst, depending on how one sees it. The outcome in Metz on Friday afternoon should be preordained as a mass finish and it is to be hoped it will be a case of all safe in Alsace.
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