In Tour de France sprints, Mark Cavendish is in a class of his own.
The British speed specialist showed what he can do on Monday without any assistance from his Sky teammates, flying past German rival Andre Greipel in the last few meters to lead a tight sprint and win the second stage in Belgium.
It was the 21st Tour stage victory for a man with ambitions of winning gold at the London Olympics.
A rising sports star at home, he has been consigned to a backseat role because his new team is focusing on Bradley Wiggins’ hopes of becoming the first Briton to win the Tour. Cavendish has been all but left to fend for himself in the sprints.
“It was always going to be difficult to win stages — if anything it made me kind of more relaxed,” Cavendish said. “In the past, I’ve always had a dedicated team to sprint with ... so there was always that pressure to win.”
The top standings did not change after the bunch finish on the 207.5km stage from Vise to Tournai — the race’s last day in Belgium before heading to France.
Wiggins, a three-time Olympic champion, is second — seven seconds behind leader Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, who retained the yellow jersey for a third day after seizing it in Saturday’s opening prologue.
Defending champion Cadel Evans is eighth, 17 seconds behind Cancellara. The Australian has been overshadowed this season by Wiggins winning three multi-stage races.
In past years, Cavendish was the star of his teams and enjoyed the support of one or several lead-out riders to help him conserve energy for a burst of speed at the finish line.
In public, at least, Cavendish seems to be adjusting to the team-player role.
“I always said I wanted to make history,” the 27-year-old native of the Isle of Man said. “That means winning a lot of sprints, but there’s not many better ways to make history than be part of a team that wins the Tour de France with a British rider.”
Cavendish’s main support rider with Sky has been Bernard Eisel of Austria, with Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway — a rising star, who last year won two Tour stages — in a backup role.
Cavendish is not a likely contender for the Tour title because he struggles in the mountains and fares less well than complete riders such as Evans and Wiggins in the time trials, which have taken on a greater importance in this year’s 99th edition of cycling’s showcase race.
On Monday, Cavendish just wanted to be opportunistic.
“I was a bit like: ‘Give it a shot, see what happens, and if you don’t win, you don’t win — we’ve got bigger things to try for here,’” he said.
It paid off.
With several hundred meters to go and Greipel trailing his lead-out man — New Zealand’s Gregory Henderson — Cavendish stayed close to the German’s back wheel.
As Henderson peeled away to let Greipel go it alone, Cavendish whizzed by on the left and nosed ahead with 5m to go as the German bobbed frenetically in a failed effort to stave off the Briton’s surge.
“Normally I win by some bike lengths. Today, I had to lunge at the line, so you see that it wasn’t too easy,” Cavendish said.
Cavendish is renowned for his short fuse and he rebuffed a reporter who suggested that Sky appeared to have two goals — success for him in the quest for the green jersey awarded to the best sprinter and Wiggins’ hopes for the yellow.
“There are not two objectives. There’s one objective,” Cavendish said gruffly.
Cavendish also sought to dispel speculation that he might be already looking ahead to the London Olympics, at which he will be one of the favorites to win gold in the road race.
“It [the Tour] is the most beautiful race of the year for me,” he said. “Here, it’s the Tour de France ... I can’t say the Olympics are more important.”
The riders’ only climbing challenge on Monday was a winding, low-grade ascent up the citadel of Namur — a medieval town that is the capital of the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium and hosts an annual beer festival in the spring.
The flat layout helped riders keep pace with each other in a tight peloton against the wind, setting the stage for a sprint finish.
Three breakaway riders, including Anthony Roux of France with an injured left wrist which hung limply by his handlebars, led for most of the day. The peloton swallowed up Roux, the last to hold out, with 14km to go.
Nursing injuries from crashes in Sunday’s stage, Tony Martin of Germany — the reigning world time-trial champion — and Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain straggled across the finish line, 4 minutes, 22 seconds behind the peloton.
The three-week race now returns to France for more mostly flat stages before the Alps next week and Pyrenees in the week after that. The race finishes on July 22 on Paris’ Champs-Elysees.
Stage 3 is a 197km trek from Orchies to the English Channel fishing town of Boulogne-sur-Mer.