This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Mark Cavendish (Team Sky) claimed the honours in the first mass sprint of the 2012 Tour de France. The Manxman came around arch rival Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) to claim his 21st Tour stage win in a photo finish. Third place went to Orica-GreenEdge's Matthew Goss. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) finished in the group to easily maintain his overall lead.
Cavendish proved he could win alone, as he came into the finale without his sprint train. "I knew that there was some headwind, and it was clear to me that I could also have a chance if I started from a bit further back," he said.
He was more than satisfied with his victory, noting that he had come to the race as an auxiliary to team captain Bradley Wiggins, which meant he would have to be opportunistic and take other riders' wheels. Interestingly, it was his first Tour stage win outside of France.
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Tour de France stage 2 highlights. Courtesy: ASO
Lotto Belisol looked to have everything under control, as they led the charge into the final km, espeically since Cavendish was on his own and far enough back to be almost unnoticeable. Greipel was in the best position, with the ever-dangerous Peter Sagan on his wheel.
Greg Henderson, in his first Tour de France, pulled hard and delivered Greipel to the 200m marker. Then the mighty German took off on his own, grinding away with his powerful legs.
But he was not alone. Cavendish had come up behind him, picking out the perfect wheel to be on. He didn't panic at being without his sprint train, or attempt to go too early. The world champion pulled out and went for the finish line. It was neck and neck, with both sprinters giving their all. At the end it was Cavendish who had his wheel forward.
"I was alone in the last kilometre. I told Edvald [Boasson Hagen] with five kilometres to go just do your own thing. We haven’t worked enough together when it's so hectic like that. If it had just been the sprinters then it would have been okay but there were climbers and GC riders at the finish. I’d rather just go alone,” he said on the team's website.
"I knew (Oscar) Freire always goes up in the last kilometre so I stayed [with him] and it was just perfect - with the headwind I knew you could come from behind."
Cancellara called it "business as usual" and was happy there were no crashes. "We spent as little energy as possible. The final was pretty intense, pretty hard. I didn't have my best day, but I think that is normal."
All 198 riders were again at the start of the stage in Vise, including several wearing splints, braces and bandages. The biggest name invalids included Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) who suffered a fractured scaphoid in his crash early in Sunday's stage, and Luis Leon Sanchez of Rabobank, with a brace on his left hand, where he also had a broken bone.
It took about 24km for the day's break group to form. It was a small one, with only three riders: Anthony Roux (FDJ-Big Mat), Christophe Kern (Europcar) and once again, Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff). Roux was another of the wounded, and noticeably rode one-handed over the many cobblestone passages.
The gap jumped quickly to 7:40, but that was enough. The field brought it back to the five-to-six minute mark, and let it stay there for a long time. Even the climb up to the magnificent citadel in Namur brought no changes.
The breakaway of the day
There was one ranked climb on the day, that same Cote de la Citadelle de Namur at 82.5km Morkov went over the top first, to cement his lead in the King of the Mountains competition. From there, the gap started slowly coming down.
The first real action of the day came in the day's only intermediate sprint at 153km. There was a wild sprint for points from the field. After the three leader calmly rolled through, the sprinters from the peloton showed their stuff. Not all of them though - Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) didn't participate in the intermediate sprint.
Daniel Oss led the way for Liquigas teammate Peter Sagan, but he didn't have a chance against Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) and Mark Cavendish (Sky), who crossed the line ahead of the previous day's stage winner.
From there the job was to bring the gap down and catch the break group at the proper moment. That moment came with 29.7km to go. Roux had jumped earlier, leaving his two companions to fade back into the field. He held on to a 45 to 50-second lead, but finally he too was caught and passed with just over 14km left.
Greipel and Cav go for it
Immediately the sprint teams started forming,with Orica-GreenEdge and Omega Pharma-QuickStep at the head of things. Argos-Shimano's Marcel Kittel, said to be having stomach problems, was back amongst the team cars and out of contention.
Lotto Belisol led the way under the flamme rouge, Greipel took off from Greg Henderson's lead and drove hard. Cavendish came around and the two fought for the win in a photo finish, with the Briton taking the win. Goss was a distant third.
About four minutes later, Martin and Sanchez, with their broken bodies, rolled across the finish line.