Cav outsprinted on line
Mark Cavendish's frustrating Tour de France continued as he watched German powerhouse Marcel Kittel roar past him to win stage 12 by half a wheel in Tours.
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In the past two days Cavendish has been sprayed with urine by a spectator and had a Dutch rival Tom Veelers calling for his disqualification, but he looked ready to put all that behind him as his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team delivered him to the front on the final stretch in Tours.
The last thing he needed to see was Veelers' team-mate Kittel steaming past but Cavendish could only look on in surprise as the German collected his third stage win of the Tour.
"When you get beaten like that you can look at it over and over again, but I'm just disappointed that I let down my team-mates," Cavendish said.
"At the end of the day I didn't do anything wrong, my team didn't do anything wrong. We were beaten by a better guy."
Cavendish had already described Kittel as "the real deal" after watching the 25-year-old take the yellow jersey on the opening day and follow it up with victory on stage 10 to Saint-Malo - just as Cavendish was colliding with Veelers behind.
But the extent of the threat Kittel poses to Cavendish's status as the best sprinter in the world had never been seen so clearly as when he came from a bike-and-a-half's length down to claim victory.
"I was beaten and that was it," said Cavendish. "The team did everything perfectly, it was spot on today, it was a good duel between my team and (Argos-Shimano), but eventually he was just faster than me.
"I said the other day he's the next big thing, I think he's the next superstar sprinter. He's got his three stages now and I can tell you from experience it's not easy."
Peter Sagan, who leads Cavendish by 96 points in the battle for the green jersey, crossed in third, while Chris Froome was in close attendance in the yellow jersey as he retained his three minute and 25 second lead in the general classification.
Cavendish had been looking in feisty mood, and for the first time in this Tour he led his green jersey rivals through the intermediate sprint, sixth overall as a five-man breakaway had gone up the road early on.
But the wait goes on for the 28-year-old to record his 25th career Tour stage win, a number which will put him joint third all-time with Andre Leducq when it comes.
It had been expected to happen long before now, but Cavendish's Tour has turned into a series of disappointments.
He hoped for yellow on the opening day in Bastia, but was caught behind a crash amid the chaos caused by Orica GreenEdge's errant team bus, and another crash on stage six prevented him from following up his only victory so far this year, on stage five to Marseille.
Saint-Malo presented another opportunity, but he collided with Veelers - who had just delivered Kittel to the front - and lost all momentum in the final 100 metres.
To top it all, he suffered the indignity of being sprayed with urine during yesterday's time trial to Mont-Saint-Michel as fans blamed him for the collision even after race officials had ruled in his favour.
Cavendish, having spoken to Veelers before Thursday's stage, said he just wanted to get back to riding his bike but the matter refused to go away.
Kittel dedicated his win to Veelers, while the Boxmeer Criterium, a lucrative one-day event in Holland held immediately after the Tour, spotted their opportunity for some free publicity by saying Cavendish would not be welcome - a move denounced by Cavendish's team manager Patrick Lefevere as "classless".
British Cycling supremo Sir Dave Brailsford, Cavendish's former boss at Team Sky, backed the Manxman to bounce back and remind everyone why he is the best in the business.
"What we shouldn't forget is a bit of perspective and Mark Cavendish has delivered, more often and more times in more races than any other sprinter," he said.
"What we should do with Mark is just get behind him and recognise that he's not a machine.
"When you step back and look at the entirety of his career it's absolutely phenomenal what that lad's achieved."
Cavendish 'only' won three stages in last year's Tour, having averaged five victories in the four he had contested prior to that, but was able to blame Team Sky's focus on the general classification as Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the yellow jersey.
However, now with a team built to his requirements, Cavendish is in danger of falling short of that number this year, with only tomorrow's stage to Saint-Amand-Montrond and the grand finale to Paris - where Cavendish has won four times in a row - left among the stages which favour the sprinters.
"He's having a Tour where it's not quite working for this reason or that reason but it's not a time to get on his case," Brailsford added.
"It's a time to get behind him, remind him what a great champion he is, and say, 'Listen, we're super proud of you, keep on what you're doing and it will all come right'.
"He's the sprinter of his generation. Give the guy a break."