The challenging climbs that made stage 11 of the Tour de France a thriller for the GC contenders proved too much for star sprinters Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin).
The fast-finishing duo, as well as Cavendish’s lead-out man Mark Renshaw, came across the line well outside the time limit of 31:27 behind stage winner Geraint Thomas (Sky) on Wednesday.
For Kittel, it’s a disappointing end to his first Tour with new team Katusha on the heels of a dominant campaign that saw him take five stage victories last July. For Cavendish, it marks a second straight Tour without a win. Two seasons ago, his 30 career Tour stage victories seemed so close to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34, but Cavendish will now have to wait until next July to have another shot at adding to his total.
“We wanted to come in hot and win some early stages and see how we go in the first week. Neither materialized for us,” Dimension Data team principal Doug Ryder said. “It didn’t materialize for Cav and for what we wanted to achieve. He misses the time cut today, it’s obviously disappointing, for him, for us.”
Tuesday’s stage 10 had already seen a number of riders cutting it very close to the day’s time limit. Cavendish and Kittel crossed the finish in Le Grand-Bornand among an 11-rider group just 30 seconds before the time cut. With that in mind, stage 11 was always going to be a major challenge. The parcours featured a pair of hors categorie ascents and closed with a category 1 summit finish at La Rosière. Dimension Data knew that making the time cut would be a tall order.
“Everbody expected this. It was this stage and the 65-kilometer stage that was challenging,” Ryder said. “It was definitely a concern.”
Cavendish was suffering early in stage 11, gapped and bringing up the back of the race by the summit of the first categorized climb, 26 kilometers into the day. He initially had Renshaw and Jay Thompson to help but waved them on ahead as his situation worsened. That allowed Thompson to make the cut, although it wasn’t enough to save Renshaw.
“He’s a champion. He doesn’t just give up. But he started to realize that we weren’t going to make it too, so that’s why he told us to go and he’d try for himself,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, we did what we could but it isn’t what it is. The Tour de France isn’t easy.”
Kittel spent the day a bit farther up the road than Cavendish but still marched up the final climb well behind any of the larger groups that might have provided wheels to sit on. His lieutenant Rick Zabel was up the road fighting to stay in the race himself. As it became clear that the clock was ticking down, Zabel made a dash for the line. He technically rolled home mere seconds outside the limit, but the race jury granted him clemency, noting in the jury report that he had suffered a mechanical while far removed from any support vehicles.
Kittel, however, was too far back to save his Tour, and it would be the same story for Renshaw and Cavendish. All three did finish the stage to applauding fans, but that would be their only consolation for the day’s hard work. Cavendish headed to the team bus without speaking to media.
Cavendish’s Tour exit is just the latest in a series of disappointments for Dimension Data going back to last year. Cavendish abandoned the 2017 Tour after getting tangled up with Peter Sagan in stage 4 and breaking his scapula. He fell on the same shoulder blade at the Abu Dhabi Tour this January and abandoned that race. In his return to racing at Tirreno-Adriatico, he crashed in the opening team time trial and broke a rib. He still managed to make the start shortly thereafter at Milano-Sanremo, but crashed again and broke another rib.
Dimension Data had hoped that Cavendish could ride his way into form at the Tour de France, but they’ll need to look elsewhere for results now.
“It wasn’t what we expected at the start and we were hoping that if we could get Cav through the mountains, we’d have another chance to win on Friday and that he’d get better,” Ryder said. “But I guess it wasn’t to be.”
Fred Dreier and Andrew Hood contributed to this report from La Rosière, France.