By now you have surely seen the results of the second road stage of the Tour. Mark Cavendish won, slipping by Andre Griepel in the final 150m and going so quickly Matt Goss never had a chance to come off his wheel. Cavendish crossing the finish line first, hands held high and arms outstretched, is by now a very familiar sight. But the 5 kilometers which preceded his win today bore little resemblance to what we have become accustomed to - he had no leadout.
From the days when he first showed his promise on the Columbia team, Cavendish has always had a dedicated leadout squad for the Tour de France. While an occasional GC rider found their way onto the Columbia / HTC Tour roster, one would still see Michael Rogers, Peter Velits, and Tony Martin at the sharp end of affairs in the final 10 kilometers of a sprint stage helping to keep the pace high and their sprinter at the front. This year, though, Cavendish has moved to team Sky, whose GC rider has loftier ambitions than those Cavendish has ridden with in prior years. You see, Bradley Wiggins is the number one favorite to win the Tour de France.
Winning the Tour is something that requires extensive team support. A contender must be protected from the wind, kept out of trouble, and ushered up the tall climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees by as many support riders as possible. And while some riders can play valuable double duty, working for both a sprinter and GC rider in the mold of Bernie Eisel or George Hincapie, few resources can be allocated to a leadout train. So, this year, Cavendish is flying largely solo. Forgoing a proven winner for a talent still unproven in the grand tour game is risky business for Sky. Is it worth it?
If you were like me, you were searching and searching for Mark Cavendish in the closing kilometers of today's stage. No Sky leadout and a throng of sprinters still fresh after only one day of proper racing meant the Manxman's dimunitive figure was hard to spot despite the World Champion stripes around his midriff. To make matters worse, Cavendish was nowhere near the top 10 riders with a mere 2 kilometers to go. Egads!
Suddenly, a pair of Sky riders appeared in the picture along the left side of the road. The latter had a white jersey - could it be Cavendish sitting behind his inseparable partner Bernie Eisel? A second glance and the stature reveals it is Edvald Boassan Hagen, not Cavendish. The lack of a dedicated train appears to be hurting Cav as he is finally sighted on the other side of the peleton, about 20-25 riders back with under 2 kilometers to race.
Just when hope seems to be lost for Cavendish, he slots onto the wheel of Daryl Impey, cheekily latching onto the free ride Matt Goss was getting to the front by his leadout man. Impey, he can't stop pedaling because screwing over Cavendish means doing the same to Goss. Then, as if it is nothing, Cavendish eases to the left to get on Andre Griepel's wheel, taking advantage of a small gap left as Greg Henderson starts his final leadout for the muscular German sprinter. Cav worked magic and now has the best spot in the bunch. The rest? It goes predictably.
If today is any indication, Cavendish should be just fine without the dedicated leadout train he is accustomed to. Take into consideration the twisty nature of the finale today, which makes a dedicated leadout even more imperative, and the picture improves even more. The Manx Missle showed his promise while largely freelancing sprints in his early days at T-Mobile and it is more likely his knack for finding the right wheel has been honed rather than slipped away. Sky's gamble? It could very well pay off this year.