CAP FREHEL, France (VN) —With 800m to go in Wednesday’s crash-filled fifth stage, Rolf Aldag thought that HTC-Highroad had blown another chance at victory.
The team’s Tony Martin had bounded up a steep hill just past the red kite and Mark Renshaw lost the wheel. Also lost in the swarm was sprint ace Mark Cavendish, who typically wins when the HTC train is firing on all cylinders.
The HTC train looked to be derailed, but Cavendish clawed his way through the frenetic, uphill finale to win his 16th career stage victory in a manner that Aldag hasn’t seen often.
“I think it’s one of the best-ever wins we’ve ever seen from Cavendish,” Aldag told VeloNews. “Everyone assumes he’s fastest, but not always the strongest. Today he proved what a great sprinter he really is.”
The pressure was on Cavendish to win. Arch-rival Tyler Farrar took the Tour’s first bunch sprint with a dominant win in Monday’s third stage, on a day when Cavendish was blocked out in the closing kilometer.
Things weren’t looking good in the chaotic, high-speed run into Cap Frehel. Martin powered away from his own teammates, leaving HTC’s best-laid plans in tatters.
“When Tony went, Renshaw and Cav were nowhere to be seen,” Aldag said. “I really thought we were falling apart. Then Cavendish managed to do this all on his own. He’s used to having his lead-out, but he still manages to come out of nowhere to pull this off. It’s Cavendish at his best.”
Cavendish picked his way through the chaos, grabbing wheels of rivals when Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Sky) tried to surprise the sprinters with an early sprint with 500 meters to go.
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) was teeth to the wind and looked to have the win in his legs, but he told The Associated Press he couldn’t shift gears from his 12 to his 11, something the stage 1 winner said cost him the win.
Cavendish reeled past the Belgian and won for the first time in the 2011 Tour to bring his career stage-win haul to 16. Counting the Giro and Vuelta, Cavendish’s grand tour tally is an impressive 26.
“I love to win and the team gave it everything today to make sure I could get to the line first,” a happy Cavendish said at the post-stage press conference. “There are a lot of difficult finishes this year and not so many bunch sprints, so I have to make sure I got this one.”
Just how many more Cavendish can win this year remains to be seen. With the Tour’s first week loaded with hilly stages and hilltop finishes, the Manxster and the HTC train will be under the gun to deliver victories.
But Cavendish proved Wednesday his ability to improvise even when things don’t go to script.
Aldag said the team expects more wins to come their way.
“When the Tour first started, we thought there would be six or seven sprints. We missed an opportunity the other day, so maybe he can win five more,” Aldag said. “It’s the Tour de France. Everyone is trying to win. We cannot win six every year. It’s the most important race of the year, so even if we win only two, it’s still a success.”