The Galibier Pass, France: (Bicycling.com): For years, British cyclist Mark Cavendish has dreamed of winning the prestigious green jersey offered to the most complete sprinter in the Tour de France. And this year, Cavendish is closer than ever.
He's in the lead with just three days remaining. But strangely, his biggest obstacle is not another rider. It's the mountains.
Cavendish is no climber; he's a sprinter, and said to be the best in the world at that. But to win the green jersey, any pretenders to the prize must go up hills well enough to consistently finish within the time cut-off each stage. For Cav, the mountains of the Tour are daunting.
Day in and day out, the speedster from the Isle of Man is one of the first riders dropped when the roads start to go up. And when that happens, essentially a new race begins—that of finishing within the allotted time.
The time cut changes with each stage and is based on a complex set of rules that takes into account the length of the stage as well as the difficulty. The rider must then finish within a percentage of the time of the day’s winner.
Now, once Cav is dropped, Bernard Eisel, one of his most dependable teammates, drops back to pace him.
“Bernie knows Cav," says Allan Peiper, one of the HTC team directors. “He knows what he can ride. He knows what he can handle. Regardless of how fast the group rides, he rides at a pace that Mark can handle. If that is inside the time cut or outside, he rides what Cav can handle.”
This year, some of the stiffest challenges have come in two Alpine stages. Today’s Stage 18 finished on the summit of the famed Galibier, and was the highest finish in Tour history. Stage 19 is a short but intense stage that again includes the Galibier as well as Alpe d’Huez—in little more than 100 kilometers.
“I’m nervous,” Cavendish said from within his team bus before the start of Stage 18 in Pinerolo, Italy. “I’m gonna have to really suffer, but everyone else will have to suffer too. Yet some of them will just be going a lot faster than me.”
On a good day, once Cav gets dropped, Eisel manages to integrate him into the grupetto, a large pack of stragglers who finish together. But on a bad day, they must pace themselves alone.
Cavendish has recently even come under fire for hanging onto team cars to save energy and get an easy ride. But that allegation was quickly rejected by Philippe Marien, president of race officials in this year’s Tour.
“Those people making those comments should bring me the proof,” he told Bicycling.com. “When he is dropped, he has a motorbike with an official following him. It is not possible.”
In typical fashion, Cavendish dropped off early once the pack hit the Agnel Pass today, the first of three above-category climbs on Stage 18.
But today, Cavendish cruised home with an 88-rider grupetto, 35:40 behind Andy Schleck, the day’s winner. The only problem was, the entire group officially finished outside of the cut.
According to one rule, when more than 20 riders finish in a group outside of the cut-off, they can be reinstated. Such was the case today.
But the special ruling does not come without a hitch: Riders reinstated still lose 20 points from the sprint classification.
The ruling proved to be a significant handicap for Cavendish. It allowed his closest competitor, Spain’s Jose Joaquin Rojas, to move within 15 points of Cavendish in the battle for the green jersey.
And Friday’s intense stage up Alpe d’Huez could prove to be even more difficult, since the time cut will be smaller on this short stage.
“Tomorrow’s stage will be even harder,” Eisel promises. “Everybody will be riding as fast and hard as they can from kilometer zero.”
But if Cavendish survives, he's nearly assured the green jersey in Paris. The final sprint is on the Champs Elysees, a stage Cav has won twice.
Source: Bicycling Magazine