Both on and off the bike, Mark Cavendish had been quiet, unnervingly so, during the first week of the 2010 Tour de France. Either something was wrong or we should prepare ourselves for an explosion. On the evidence of Thursday’s fourth stage from Cambrai to Reims, it may be the former.
Everything was set up perfectly for the 25-year-old sprinter to claim his first victory of the race but, when he needed to make the final push, his legs failed him. With 100 metres to the line, Alessandro Petacchi flashed past him and Cavendish dramatically sat up and stopped pedalling.
After the race, the sight of his helmet flying out of the middle doors of the HTC-Columbia team bus just after he entered gave some hint of the frustration he felt. Later he said, "I'm disappointed about today. I felt really good during the stage. I feel sorry for my team-mates who rode unbelievably and I just didn't finish it off at the end."
Stage four already had a make-or-break feel about it for Cavendish. He had missed the chance of victory on Sunday when he overcooked a corner.
On the cobbles on Wednesday, he punctured before the first section of pavé and lost any chance of staying with the leading groups. Going into Thursday, he sat in 137th place in the green jersey standings, dead last, with just one point. His main rival, Thor Hushovd, was far off in the distance on 62.
Erik Zabel, Cavendish's "adviser" at HTC-Columbia, even conceded defeat in the race for the maillot vert - the green jersey for the best sprinter - his charge's stated goal for the 2010 Tour.
"I was behind, 20 points, 25 maximum," said Zabel, a winner of six green jerseys himself, before Wednesday’s stage. "But it's an unspoken rule in the Tour that you can miss one stage, be 30, 35 points behind and it's still no problem because the [other] sprinters can have some bad luck. But now, 62 points, it’s a lot."
The good news for Cavendish is that he is no longer bottom of the standings, his 12th place enough to move him up to 36th, but he is now 65 points behind Hushovd. With the green jersey apparently out of his reach, there will inevitably be speculation about whether he will even continue all the way to Paris.
Thursday’s stage, which meandered pleasantly along the east side of France from the industrial north towards champagne country, gave the riders a chance to catch their breath.
Petacchi, the Italian who won his second stage by a bike length, put his success down to the timing of his attack.
Zabel, however, was less forgiving, blaming Cavendish’s condition after an injury-disrupted start to the season.