BOURG-D’OISANS, France (VN) — Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) woke up Friday morning atop l’Alpe d’Huez pessimistic about what lie ahead.
Two brutal mountain stages stood between the peloton and the final stage in Paris. Except for the GC battle and a few stage hunters, this weekend’s shootout in the Alps is all about surviving.
And for Cavendish, the rider who’s won four times down the Champs-Élysées, making the time cut and arriving to Paris is priority No. 1.
“This morning at breakfast, Mark told me, ‘Brian, why even start? I won’t even make the time cut,'” Omega Pharma sports director Brian Holm told VeloNews. “It’s going to be difficult. I think he will make it. I was surprised to see how well he did [Thursday]. The riders are more worried about [Friday] and Saturday. We hope he can make it to Paris fresher than all the other sprinters.”
For the peloton’s sprinters, all of whom made the time cut in Friday’s mountain trek, Saturday’s stage might as well be across the Himalayas.
The stage will have huge implications about who is going to win under the lights down the Champs-Élysées.
Cavendish will be especially determined to win down France’s most famous boulevard.
Not only will it have huge historical importance, being the final stage of the 100th Tour, but the stage will be held at dusk, under the lights. That’s just the kind of drama Cavendish laps up.
But more importantly, Cavendish has only won two stages so far during this Tour. He’s also been dogged by controversy, bad luck, and by a surprisingly strong Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), who came around him in stage 12.
Cavendish wants to remind everyone he’s still the fastest man in the peloton.
“Cav really wants to win,” Holm said. “We know it’s going to be very difficult. It’s a pretty good field of sprinters this year; Kittel, Greipel, Sagan, Degenkolb, and all the rest. It’s going to be a real fight to win down the Champs-Élysées.”
The man nipping at his heels will be Kittel, the big, brash, blonde German who’s barnstormed to win three stages, surpassing even his own expectations.
Assuming he clears the hurdles in the Alps, Kittel will be sprinting down the Champs for the first time on Sunday.
“I will not pressure myself because of this final stage. We have already achieved much more than we aimed for,” he said. “For sure, we have another chance to win, so we will take it if we can. I was very excited about l’Alpe d’Huez. This was the cycling party of the year. Sunday will be even bigger.”
Robbie McEwen, the former Aussie sprinter who now works with Orica-GreenEdge as an advisor, said Cavendish is still the favorite for Sunday’s sprint.
“It’s all about experience on the Champs,” McEwen said. “All the sprinters will be tired. It’s more about positioning. Cav has won five times down the Champs. I think he’ll win again.”
One rider who is keen to have another shot at the Champs is André Greipel, the big German sprinter on Lotto-Belisol.
Greipel has only scored one stage win so far in this Tour, and he’s also been dogged by bad luck. He missed out on a shot at the first sprint in Corsica when his derailleur was destroyed in a late-stage pileup, and he misjudged his sprint into Saint-Malo over some cobbles to lose to Kittel.
Losing leadout man Marcel Sieberg in a crash on Friday certainly doesn’t help.
“I learned a lesson in last year’s sprint in Paris. Last year, I was too far back in the final right hand turn before the sprint, and I could not recover my position,” Greipel said. “This year, I realize I need to be in better position there if I hope to win.”
Saturday’s main task for the sprint teams is pushing their leaders under the finish line banner within the time cut.
Riding up l’Alpe d’Huez twice was hard enough, but riders are even more worried about the jagged, explosive profile on tap for stage 20, which features six rated climbs — including the HC ascent of Annecy-Semnoz at the finish.
“It wasn’t too bad up the Alpe. The guys stayed together and we made it within the time cut pretty easily,” Orica-GreenEdge’s Daryl Impey told VeloNews before stage 19. “[Friday and Saturday] are going to be another story. There are going to be a lot of fireworks. We’ve just got to try to get our guys through so we have a chance to make the sprint on Sunday.”
And then there’s Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
Not a pure sprinter, Sagan still packs a powerful punch. Last year, he finished second to Cavendish in the final stage but won the points title.
With the green jersey all but wrapped up once again, you can bet Sagan will be racing to win. He always does.