TOURS, France — At this Tour de France, it is Marcel Kittel and no longer Mark Cavendish who is looking like the fastest man on two wheels.
Everything was primed on Thursday for Cavendish to win a 25th Tour stage in his illustrious career. His beefy teammate from Belgium, Gert Steegmans, did his job to perfection, guiding Cavendish into position for the final sprint to the line in Tours in the Loire valley.
But Cavendish simply wasn’t quick enough. Kittel overtook him just before the line. That this was a man-to-man contest, fair and square with no excuses, made the German’s victory feel more significant than the winning margin of mere inches.
“He was just simply faster,” Cavendish conceded. “I can go back and look over and over again. I don’t think myself or the team could have done anything different. He was just simply better, you know?”
It would be foolish and premature to suggest the Cavendish era at the Tour is ending. He is still by far the most successful stage winner still active.
Two of the riders with more stage wins — Bernard Hinault (28) and Eddy Merckx (34) — are long retired. The third, Andre Leducq (25), died in 1980. Cavendish came to this Tour with 23, the number is written in green on the black bike he rode Thursday.
H e won his 24th last week in Marseille and could still get to 25 and match Leducq’s total at this Tour. The last stage, especially, on the Champs-Elysees in Paris almost always offers a golden opportunity for sprinters. Cavendish is unbeaten on those cobblestones since 2009.
Still, the 28-year-old rider must have been hoping for better from this 100th edition of the race. Since his first victory in 2008, he has always won multiple stages at every Tour.