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Tour de France

Cavendish always delivers

During the stage-winning celebrations at the Columbia-HTC team bus in Paris Sunday evening, directeur sportif Allan Peiper pointed out that Mark Cavendish scored his record six field-sprint wins at this Tour in very different ways. The 24-year-old Brit not only packs a kick that is fast enough to out-accelerate most of his rivals but he can also improvise in way that few sprinters have ever been able to do.

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By John Wilcockson

During the stage-winning celebrations at the Columbia-HTC team bus in Paris Sunday evening, directeur sportif Allan Peiper pointed out that Mark Cavendish scored his record six field-sprint wins at this Tour in very different ways. The 24-year-old Brit not only packs a kick that is fast enough to out-accelerate most of his rivals but he can also improvise in way that few sprinters have ever been able to do.

In the recent past, the Italian sprinters Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini each won four stages in a single Tour: Petacchi in 2000 and Cipollini in 1999. But they both relied on totally dedicated lead-out trains and long, big-gear sprints. Cavendish can win like that, too, but this Tour has shown that he has the ability to win in many different ways. That’s why he was able to take six stages this year, on top of the four he won in 2008.

He used a conventional lead-out to win stage 2 in Brignoles (after some of the sprinters veered off course in the last kilometer to avoid a crash). The next day, his Colombia team split from the front of the peloton with 30km to go into La Grande Motte — and Cavendish won unopposed.

His third win came at Issoudun on stage 10 after an acrobatic run-in, with a slightly uphill finish, where his finishing power saw him blow away from his main two rivals, Thor Hushovd of Cervélo and Tyler Farrar of Garmin.

These three were again in the mix at the more difficult hilltop finish in St. Fargeau the following day. That’s where German sprinter Gerald Ciolek’s Milram squad set a furious pace over the final kilometers in an attempt to prevent another Cavendish victory, and where Farrar’s Garmin riders “slingshot” their man up the hill — Farrar did get close, but Cavendish wisely sprinted in a lower-than-normal 53×14 gear to get a jump on his American rival and gave Team Columbia its fourth win of the Tour.

Despite their differences, all of those wins were ones that a “regular” sprinter like Cipollini or Petacchi would probably have won. That wasn’t the case with the two stages Cavendish took on this final weekend of the race.

On Friday, Cavendish had to make an extraordinary effort to stay with a 40-strong front group that split from the peloton on a 14km-long Cat. 2 climb before dashing down to the finish in Aubenas. This time, his regular lead-out man Mark Renshaw was dropped on the hill, so Columbia delegated its GC man Tony Martin to pull Cavendish on another slightly uphill finish; and the Brit simply ground his teeth to keep sprinting all the way to the line to hold off Hushovd and Ciolek.

Which brings us to Sunday on the Champs-Élysées. This is the stage that every sprinter would love to win, but very few succeed. Cipollini never survived the mountains to make it to Paris; but Cavendish rode impressively through the Alps last week, and he calmly rode to the summit of Mont Ventoux on Saturday, before boarding the TGV train in Avignon Sunday morning.

His team manager Bob Stapleton said that Cavendish was more nervous than usual going into this final stage. “He really wanted to win this one,” Stapleton said. And his Columbia team responded impressively, pulling the peloton for lap after lap of the 6.5km circuit around the center of Paris, before Farrar’s Garmin riders usurped their rivals 4km from the finish.

Some of the Garmin men wore skinsuits on this short stage to make their lead-out train faster for Farrar, but his Dutch teammate Martijn Maaskant got shunted from the train 2km out — and that was a factor in Columbia’s George Hincapie getting past the Garmin boys in a tremendous sprint effort with about 800 meters to go.

Hincapie’s brilliant move — especially in consideration of his injured shoulder (which may be a fracture) — pulled Renshaw and Cavendish to the front; and when Renshaw aced the final corner with Cav’ on his wheel, Farrar, Hushovd and the other sprinters were so far back that the sprint was virtually won before Cavendish unleashed another brilliant burst of speed.

When Renshaw sat up and looked back, he could barely believe how far back the others were. The young Aussie thrust his hands up even before Cavendish did. “It’s always good to finish one-two,” Renshaw said. “It really shows you have depth in the team.”

At this rate, with 10 wins in two years, Cavendish could easily overtake the record of the great French sprinter, André Darrigade, who won 22 Tour stages through the 1950s and ’60s.

Cavendish is not a rider who seeks records. He just loves winning — and can improvise better than perhaps any other sprinter in cycling history. Seven in 2010?

Follow John’s twitter at twitter.com/johnwilcockson. His latest book, “Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion,” is available at www.velogear.com.