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Cav’ crushes in stage 3 as late break astonishes field

2009 TdF, stage 3: E.T. phones home — Cav’ gives his team’s new sponsor a shout-out.

Photo: Agence France Presse

Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) won his second consecutive stage of the Tour de France on Monday as a late break of two dozen riders — Astana’s Lance Armstrong among them — stole a march on the dozing peloton in a crosswind through the Camargue.

Armstrong, race leader Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and the entire Columbia team made a split with some two-dozen kilometers to race that left defending champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), Alberto Contador (Astana), Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and the rest of the contenders fruitlessly chasing through ever-changing crosswinds.

It was a day when having a radio link to the team car made at least one person happy.

2009 TdF, stage 3: Astana's Lance Armstrong made the break.

2009 TdF, stage 3: Astana’s Lance Armstrong made the break.

Photo: Graham Watson

“I was there at the right time,” said Cancellara. “I had some information from the car that there was a bend on the right hand side and with crosswinds after it.

“After the split I just tried just to stay calm and well hidden in the leading group to save as much as possible for the team time trial. It’s too bad I was the only Saxo Bank guy there, but that’s all part of cycling.”

Hot, humid and windy

Quick Step’s Jurgen van de Walle did not start the 196.5km race, a hot, windswept slog across the Camargue marshlands from Marseille to the beach resort of La Grande-Motte. He broke a collarbone in a pileup near the finish of Stage 2 and gained the dubious honor of being the first rider to leave the Tour.

Stage 3 featured rolling terrain and two Category 4 climbs — The Côte de Calissanne at 56km, a 1.3km climb averaging 5.5 percent, and the Col de la Vayède at 102km, an 0.7km climb averaging 7.4 percent. After that, the course bent toward the coast and crossed the Camargue marshlands. From there, it was nearly pan-flat to the finish, making it an ideal day for the sprinters.

2009 Tour de France

Stage 3: Marseille to La Grande-Motte
196km (122 miles)
Stage winner: Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) in 5:01:24
Stage winner’s average speed: 39.0 kph (24.2 mph)
GC leader: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
Points leader: Cavendish
Climbing leader: Jussi Veikkanen (FdJ)
Team GC leader: Astana
Best young rider: Tony Martin (Columbia-HTC)
Previous stage wins/GC leaders
Stage 1: Cancellara/Cancellara
Stage 2: Mark Cavendish/Cancellara
Up Next:
Stage 4 is the critical Montpelier team time trial, held on a hilly and technical 39km (24.2 mile) course. Unlike recent Tour TTT’s, there is no limit to the time a team a can lose (there also is no time bonus for the winning team).

Cavendish began the day in the green points jersey, while Jussi Veikkanen (Française des Jeux) became the first Finn to don the polka-dot mountains jersey. Cancellara, of course, was once again resplendent in yellow.

It was another hot day in the saddle, with temperatures in the low 30s (mid-80s Fahrenheit) and equally high humidity, with a brisk wind out of the north-northwest for good measure.

Despite the sultry conditions, four riders decided almost immediately to break a serious sweat — Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), Maxime Bouet (Agritubel), Koen de Kort (Skil-Shimano) and Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi) hooked up and set about building an advantage that surpassed 12 minutes by 50km. Bouet was best placed in the break, sitting 74th overall at 1:39.

By 65km the gap had come down a bit. But with 120km to race it had gone back out again, to 11 minutes. Seven kilometers later the margin was nearly 13 minutes, and with a crucial team time trial on the menu Tuesday nobody seemed eager to begin the hard work of bringing the escapees back.

Saxo Bank turns the screws

Finally, with 112km to race, Saxo Bank moved forward and twisted the throttle, chopping two minutes off the break’s advantage in just 4km with Kurt-Asle Arvesen driving the train. As the leaders summited the Col de la Vayède, their advantage was down to nine minutes. By the feed zone, with 86km to go, the gap was under eight minutes and falling.

Sixty-five kilometers from the finish, with the gap at a manageable six minutes, Saxo Bank took a break and the sprinters’ teams moved forward — Columbia-HTC, Française des Jeux, Rabobank, Garmin-Slipstream and Cervélo TestTeam. Columbia took the wheel with 60km to go, putting seven riders on the front and driving toward the break.

Forty-five kilometers from the finish the break had slightly more than four minutes on the Columbia-led peloton and the clock was spinning backward. Ten kilometers further along and the gap was down to 2:30 as the four leaders ground along into a head wind.

The wind changes — and so does the race

2009 TdF, stage 3: Columbia-HTC saw an opening and took it.

2009 TdF, stage 3: Columbia-HTC saw an opening and took it.

Photo: Graham Watson

Suddenly, as a corner transformed the breeze into a crosswind, Columbia went to echelon, gave it the gas and split the bunch. Cancellara was not caught out, and neither were Armstrong or Thor Hushovd (Cervélo). But Evans was, along with Sastre, Contador, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer (Astana), Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream).

“It wasn’t that they didn’t take advantage. It was just that they weren’t
there,” said Armstrong. “When you see what the wind is doing and you have a turn coming up, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out you have to go to the front.”

The move took 20 seconds on the peloton and ate quickly into the break’s advantage, sweeping them up them on a bridge and pressing forward. Saxo Bank was chasing, not liking that Cancellara was isolated — and perhaps thinking about Andy Schleck’s chances as the race goes forward.

The lead group was a big one, 29 riders strong, and with 25km to race it had half a minute on the peloton, with the entire Columbia squad — including George Hincapie and Mick Rogers — on board and doing the lion’s share of the work.

2009 TdF, stage 3: Armstrong and former lieutenant George Hincapie (Columbia) found themselves working together again.

2009 TdF, stage 3: Armstrong and former lieutenant George Hincapie (Columbia) found themselves working together again.

Photo: Graham Watson

Saxo Bank abruptly shut off the chase as the wind forced the bunch into echelons. Armstrong had Haimar Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovych for company, but Columbia had an astounding eight men in the break, after Bert Grabsch drifted back to the bunch.

Ten kilometers from the line the break held 33 seconds on a disorganized peloton, with Liquigas trying to jump-start a pursuit. But the gap just would not be closed.

With 3km to race the bunch was disintegrating but the break held fast, charging toward the finish with a half-minute’s advantage. A sweeping left-hander with 2km to go fed into a narrower road, then swept left again in a narrow bend heading to the final kilometer. The course turned almost 180 degrees just after the red kite, then it was straight ahead to the finish with 800 meters to go.

Cav’ crushes it

2009 TdF, stage 3: He wasn't dialing information, that's for sure; Cav' had everyone's number.

2009 TdF, stage 3: He wasn’t dialing information, that’s for sure; Cav’ had everyone’s number.

Photo: Graham Watson

In the final kilometer Hushovd was glued to Cavendish’s wheel — but that’s where he stayed when the Manx Missile finally launched off teammate Mark Renshaw’s wheel, and the British sprinter repaid his Columbia teammates for their hard, smart work by claiming his second consecutive stage win in the 2009 Tour. Cyril Lemoine (Skil-Shimano) took third.

“It was always going to be hard in the last kilometer,” said Cavendish. “We’d used all our guys to get the break in the first place so it was up to me and Mark Renshaw, and again he’s showed he’s the best lead-out man in the world.”

The peloton raced in 40 seconds later, and Cancellara added another yellow jersey to his collection. Columbia’s Tony Martin vaulted from eighth overall to second at 33 seconds back, while seven-time Tour champ Armstrong leapt from 10th into third at 0:40 — 19 seconds ahead of his less-attentive teammate Contador.

Race note

The post-race polemics continued on Monday, with Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux) blaming Contador for the split. “When the split happened I was right on Contador’s wheel,” he said. “If it’s true there were 29 guys in front he must have been 30th and I was 31st. It was him who caused the split. I saw the gap opening up just in front of us and we just couldn’t close it. With a lot of leaders stuck, it was complete panic.”

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