The first true sprinters' stage of the 2012 Tour de France ought to have ended in triumph for New Zealand cyclist Greg Henderson.
Riding for his Belgian Lotto-Belisol team, the 35-year-old Henderson produced the perfect leadout in the frantic final kilometre of yesterday morning's 207.5km second stage to Tournai.
The rapid pace set by the peloton, along with a series of sharp corners on the run into Tournai, ripped most of the squads apart, leaving just Lotto-Belisol with anything like a leadout train. Their sprinter, German Andre Greipel, clung grimly to Henderson's wheel then launched himself at the line with about 250 metres to go.
Henderson pulled off to the left and appeared certain to have a stage win to celebrate, until Team Sky sprinter Mark Cavendish rolled over the top of Greipel, pipping the German on the line by centimetres.
Those final kilometres had been a wonderful spectacle, full of bravery and tactical skill, while also providing a reminder that these so-called "transition" stages can be just as thrilling as the mountain ones that traditionally determine the Tour.
The final result, though, was cruel for Henderson, who'd produced exactly the ride Lotto-Belisol are paying him for. Like fellow New Zealander Julian Dean, Henderson was once an accomplished sprinter who's now fashioned himself into one of the most invaluable leadout men in the professional peloton.
"We were all at the right place at the right moment. Our victory will come," Henderson tweeted. "Sometimes you get beaten by someone faster on the day. It happens."
The fact that it was Cavendish would have upset Greipel. He, Cavendish and Henderson were all team-mates at the now-defunct HTC-Highroad team, where the two star sprinters didn't always get along. Cavendish was the undisputed star, and not afraid to talk about it, which upset Greipel among others.
While the HTC team was built around making sure Cavendish won as many sprint stages as possible, his Team Sky outfit are at this tour purely for the benefit of yellow jersey contender Bradley Wiggins. Without a leadout man performing the role that Henderson did so brilliantly yesterday, Cavendish had to fend for himself.
"I saw Henderson go on the left, with Greipel on his wheel, and I just moved left because when Hendy surged it kind of caught [Peter] Sagan by surprise and I was able to get on the wheel and then Greipel went," Cavendish said after winning his 21st stage at the Tour de France.
"I jumped off Greipel with about 200 [metres] to go. I should have gone a bit earlier because, as you can see, it was very tight for the line."
The stage victory lifted Cavendish to the top of the points classification, while prologue winner Fabian Cancellara continues to lead the race overall by seven seconds from Wiggins and Sylvain Chavanel. Henderson eventually finished the stage to Tournai in 26th place and is 147th on general classification, just over four minutes down on Cancellara.
- © Fairfax NZ News