If Mark Cavendish does not become the record-breaking stage winner in the Tour de France this July, the finish of the 2023 Tour’s visit to Bordeaux is likely to haunt him.
Thirteen summers after he last took a Tour stage on the banks of the Garonne, Cavendish still had the speed to win, but a mechanical mishap, his second of the day, crushed his hopes.
“Unfortunately, I had a problem with my gears when I was sprinting,” Cavendish said. “I went from the 11 [sprocket] to the 12 and had to sit down and go back to the 11. It was pretty devastating there, actually. It wasn’t good. I guess it’s not meant to be.”
The 38-year-old had come agonisingly close to a record 35th stage success, only to see victory snatched from his grasp by Jasper Philipsen, winner in Bayonne and Nogaro, who completed a hat-trick of stage wins in this year’s Tour.
As he moved ahead in the closing 50 metres, Cavendish looked to have the stage won, but then his speed stalled. Beyond the finish line, he blamed his gears for slipping, at the very moment when he needed them to run smoothly.
“I was in a quite good position,” he said. “It might’ve looked like I was far back, but I was okay in where I wanted to be. It’s a long straight finish.
“I was on the right wheels and then kicked, a little earlier than I’d have liked, but actually, it was about the same time as I did in 2010.”
In what is his last Tour, it was a bitter disappointment. Even Philipsen seemed a little embarrassed to have spoilt the party.
“He was really strong,” the Belgian said of Cavendish. “I also would have loved to see him win, but for sure he will keep on trying and he’s up there, in good condition.”
But did Cavendish still believe he had the speed to beat Philipsen? “I think so, yeah,” he responded.
“I’m bitterly disappointed there, but we keep on trying,” he said, before praising his Astana Qazaqstan teammates. “There was an improvement in how the boys were, so you can be positive with it.”
Philipsen, as dominant in the sprints as Cavendish was during his heyday, is amassing a significant lead in the points classification and now hopes to take the green jersey to the Champs Élysées on 23 July.
“From now on, I think it’s a goal to try and take this [green jersey] to Paris, but it’s still a long and tough Tour and we’ll see. I am just enjoying the moment.
“It’s a dream for us, a dream Tour,” Philipsen said, “and hopefully we can add another one, but I think from now, I’m looking to Paris also.”
As the peloton left the Pyrenees behind and raced through the flatlands of the Landes and Gironde and on towards the banks of the Garonne, most of the sprinters breathed a sigh of relief after surviving two torrid days of attacking racing in the high mountains.
The early move came from Simon Guglielmi of the Arkéa Samsic team, who spent much of the stage riding solo, before being joined, with just over 70km to go, by compatriots Pierre Latour, of TotalEnergies, and Nans Peters, of AG2R Citroën.
They rewarded Guglielmi’s efforts by dropping him with 40km remaining, as the peloton finally picked up speed in pursuit. But the duo’s attack was inevitably snuffed out at the entrance to Bordeaux.
Earlier, with 50km left to race, Cavendish had been forced to chase back to the peloton after a bike change, with Philipsen’s key teammate, Mathieu van der Poel, alongside him, but both riders managed to rejoin the field.
Winner in Bordeaux in 2010, Cavendish is one of only five riders who competed in that year’s Tour who are racing in this. The others are Daniel Oss and Edvald Boasson Hagen, both of TotalEnergies; Dries Devenyns, racing for Soudal Quick Step; former world road race champion, Rui Costa, of with Intermarché-Circus-Wanty.
With more sprint finishes likely later in this race, all that experience will count in the days to come, but the sprint stages are slipping by and Philipsen is showing no sign of slowing down. As he pointed out, Cavendish looks to have the speed and is getting closer, but the wait continues.
Away from the sprints, the defending Tour champion, Jonas Vingegaard, was doing his best to play down the surprise loss inflicted on him by rival Tadej Pogacar, of UAE Team Emirates, in Thursday’s Pyrenean finish at Cauterets-Cambasque.
Vingegaard, who takes the overall race lead into Saturday’s stage to Limoges, when the peloton turns towards the Massif Central, told the French media that he was “feeling better and better, day by day.”
Asked too about the pressure on he and his Jumbo-Visma teammates of leading the Tour, by just 25 seconds from Pogacar, Vingegaard replied dryly: “I think it’s always better to be 25 seconds ahead, than 25 seconds behind.”