If Team Columbia deliver their ‘train’ on time again for Britain’s Mark Cavendish, sprint rivals Oscar Freire and Robbie McEwen are likely to be left off the Tour de France podium.
After 11 stages on this year’s race both Freire, of Spain, and Australia’s McEwen – considered among the fastest sprinters in the world – are winless. And both will be among the fast men looking to take advantage of one of the few remaining Tour stages likely to end in a bunch sprint, Thursday’s 186km race from Lavelanet to Narbonne.
Standing in their way is a 23-year-old from the Isle of Man, described by his team manager Rolf Aldag as “probably as mad as the motorbike riders on the (island’s) TT races”.
But it’s thanks mainly to his impressive top end speed – taken to its limits by Columia’s disciplined train of riders in the home straight – that the speedy ‘Mongoose‘ will go into the race brimming with confidence.
Cavendish’s double stage win last week meant he equalled one of the feats of former British great Barry Hoban, who twice claimed double stage wins in single editions of the Tour, in 1969 and 1973.
Although in with a chance of becoming the first Briton to claim three stage wins in one edition of the race, it remains to be seen whether Columbia have recovered sufficiently from a gruelling three days of climbing in the Pyrenees.
Aldag, a former lead-out man for German sprint great Erik Zabel, has helped establish and fine tune the Columbia train that has been a big help to Cavendish so far. And he seems confident they they can leave their rivals in their wake again.
“Once you get that status in the peloton everybody sees you as the best team for the lead out and they’re not even going to pass you any more,” Aldag said. “They respect you, they only fight for back wheels of the sprinters, and once you get that status is so much easier because you don’t have to fight.
“If somebody tries to pass you it’s almost useless, they don’t get very far and usually end up behind you,” he added. “That’s the idea, to show you’re there and show how strong you are. If you can build that kind of train over two to three years it guarantees you so many more wins.”
The start of the 12th stage is undulating, and the day’s only real climb – the category four-rated Col de Camperie at the 57.5 km mark – could tempt a breakaway or two, if they haven’t already gone before then. After the short descent, the rest of the stage is a mix of flat and undulating terrain although a fair deal of that will be on a slight downhill almost all the way to the finish.
Two intermediate sprints, at the 76 and 142.5km marks, are likely to spur Rabobank sprinter Freire, wearing the points competition’s green jersey, into action – unless a breakaway has gobbled up the points for the first three across the line already.
A long home straight of nearly 1km will lead the peloton – or the breakaway riders – to the finish line. From there, only time will tell if the ‘Mongoose’ can win his third stage of the 2008 Tour.