Seven minutes may not sound like it was touch-and-go but there will be a big sigh of relief in the Deceuninck-QuickStep camp after Mark Cavendish chalked off another obstacle standing between him and another win and his unlikely ride towards Paris in green.
At this moment in the race – with three wins bagged before the halfway point – Cavendish’s biggest rivals have proved not to be his fellow sprinters, but the mountainous stages that he has not had to compete in for so long, and which he hadn’t prepared for ahead of his shock call-up for the Tour.
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Wednesday’s double ascent – at least on paper – looked to have been a possible moment of derailment for the QuickStep train. But in the end, there was no repeat of the kind of tears and emotion that came over the weekend as Cav fought his mental and physical demons in the sodden Alps.
Cavendish in tears after crossing the line just in time
As is stood, despite being distanced with over 150km remaining – and well before the first of two back-to-back ascents of Mont Ventoux, one of the sport’s toughest challenges – Cavendish’s buffer was a comfy seven minutes as he rode across the finish in Malaucène alongside Davide Ballerini, Michael Morkov, Tim Declercq and Dries Devenyns – the guys usually responsible for propelling him towards the finish line faster than anyone else.
"We knew today we were not going to be as close to the time limit as we were on Sunday, but still we had to be focused the whole day. My teammates were there with me, helping me up and down the mountains," Cavendish said.
Cavendish even showed his class on one of his ascents of Ventoux by removing his helmet and doffing it as a sign of respect as he passed the memorial dedicated to the late Tom Simpson, the British trailblazer who died on the very same mountain in 1967.
And when he passed Simpson's memorial on the other occasion, the 36-year-old adhered to the old cycling tradition of leaving a token in memory of Britain's first ever world champion cyclist - in this case what looked to be a Deceuninck-QuickStep casquette which he threw at the foot of the shrine.
Cavendish was by no means the last rider to cross the line, with his French sprint rival Nacer Bouhanni arriving on his own and without any Arkea-Samsic teammates three minutes later. There was also some late drama from the Dane Soren Kragh Andersen of Team DSM who missed the cut by just three seconds after a frantic 11th hour – well, it probably felt like 11 hours – dash to the line some 47’36” down on the stage winner Wout van Aert.
Others were less lucky: seven riders failed to complete Wednesday’s stage – Tiesj Benoot, Tosh van der Sande, Tony Martin, Victor Campenaerts, Miles Scotson, Daniel McLay and Clement Russo (the latter rider trailing the peloton by eight minutes at the intermediate sprint before throwing in the towel).
And Welshman Luke Rowe of Ineos Grenadiers, one day after he came down in a tumble, finished over 50 minutes behind Van Aert, and over the time limit.
That the rider who emerged victorious after the Tour’s first ever double-ascent of Mont Ventoux was the man who almost beat Cavendish in Tuesday’s sprint at Valence was another quirk of an intriguing day on the Tour, the script of which continues to surprise and delight.
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Both riders will no doubt do battle again in Nîmes, where the fourth of Cavendish’s career Tour stage wins came back in 2008. Thirteen years on, and the Manx Missile can add a 34th win that will see him level Eddy Merckx’s long-standing record.
"I'm very tired - I guess everybody is," Cavendish said after making the cut. "I've done many Tours de France, but this for sure is one of the hardest. Being here is very cool. I spoke to [race director Christian] Prudhomme on the eve of the race and I told him how much I love this race. I'm a man of my word, so I won't quit; I'll keep going for as long as I can."
With the record he hates talking about there for the taking, there's no way Cavendish will quit while there's a chance he'll break it on the Champs-Elysees - if not before.
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