This is not the sprint field that we expected to see challenging at the Tour de France this year. Just before the Tour started, the riders that were predicted to be up there on flat stages were Sam Bennett, Caleb Ewan and Arnaud Démare, three riders who have proved themselves as the fastest in the world over the past couple of years. They dominated at the Giro d’Italia and the Tour in 2020, and it was thought it would be exactly the same this year.
Things change at lightning speed in cycling, however. First, Bennett was withdrawn from the start list due to a knee injury, and replaced by Mark Cavendish. More about him in a minute. Then, Caleb Ewan unfortunately crashed out on stage 3, breaking his collarbone in four pieces. Démare, meanwhile, has barely challenged so far; fourth place on stage 6 being his best result, despite an entire team built around his success.
It means that the elite sprinters at the moment appear to be Cavendish, Jasper Philipsen and Nacer Bouhanni. Bouhanni has six grand tour stage wins, but none at the Tour. He had never even finished in the top three of a stage at the race before this year. Philipsen has only one grand tour stage win to his name, at the Vuelta a España, and had never finished above fifth at the Tour before this year. Cavendish, meanwhile, had 48 grand tour stage wins coming into the race, including 30 at the Tour, but is 36 years old and hadn’t been at the world’s biggest bike race since 2018.
But after winning his second stage in three days on stage 6, there is now no doubt that Cavendish is the fastest man at this race, or at least the most intelligent in the sprints. Deceuninck-QuickStep are the pre-eminent lead-out team in the peloton, and have expertly parachuted the Manxman in where Bennett was originally planned to be. This cannot be seen as Cavendish being given a magic carpet ride to these wins, though; it is seriously impressive that he is challenging for these sprints, let alone winning them, considering where he has come from the last three years.
The last time the Tour came to Châteauroux, in 2011, Cavendish won ahead of Alessandro Petacchi and André Greipel. It was also the site of his first ever Tour stage win, in front of Óscar Freire and Erik Zabel, in 2008. He has won stages in three different decades, against three different generations of sprinter, all in the same town.
The return of traditional-looking sprint trains has made the sprint stages even more interesting, with Philipsen and Merlier’s Alpecin-Fenix battling with Deceuninck, and others yet to fire. It has resulted in a shake up of the green jersey competition too, which Cavendish currently leads ahead of Philipsen and Bouhanni.
This year’s sprint-heavy route has opened the competition up to the pure fast men, rather than all-out suiting an all-rounder like Michael Matthews or Peter Sagan. Sagan basically owned the green jersey between 2012 and 2019, only missing out in 2017 when he was disqualified after colliding with, who would have guessed this, Cavendish in a sprint.
Matthews won the competition in his absence. Last year, Bennett won the green jersey ahead of Sagan after a fairly tense battle between the pair, building his lead on his stage victory and then bettering Sagan in almost every intermediate sprint.
Cavendish won the green jersey in 2011 and currently leads the competition again. And with five more possible sprint finishes in the race, with 50 points on offer for the winner, there is a chance of him wearing it on the podium in Paris, if he keeps winning stages at this rate. It has to be said that Cavendish has not completed a grand tour since 2015, and his lack of racing over the past three years could hurt him on that front when the race hits the Alps and Pyrenees. Matthews and Sagan can’t be discounted, but they are already 52 and 76 points behind the leader already, and the latter crashed heavily in the incident that saw Ewan withdraw as well.
If Cavendish keeps winning, or one of Philipsen or Bouhanni starts to fire properly, then it will not matter how many minor placings Matthews or Sagan get, or how many intermediate sprint points they pick up later in the race.
The intermediates have been fascinating so far in this race, and prove how open the points competition is: eight different sprinters competed for those bonuses today, including Colbrelli, who has not finished higher than fifth in a stage, and Danny van Poppel, whose best result has been 18th. All of these riders clearly feel like they have a dog in the fight, but cannot do anything about their chances if Cavendish wins a few more bunch sprints, which he is looking likely to do.
The Deceuninck rider is back to his spiky best, refusing to even countenance the idea of breaking Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage record, which he is now just two behind. Speaking after stage 6 of some of his rivals, Cavendish said: “I don’t understand why you bring a full sprint team and then don’t use it.”
Well, now he has won two bunch sprints in a row and is in green, it will not get any easier for him or his team, as his rivals look to him to do the work and deliver again. The thing is, in this form, he may just do that, with ease.
Adam Becket is Procycling magazine’s staff writer.