Mark Cavendish's tough 2010 season continued apace yesterday as, despite winning his third stage of the Tour de France, he was forced to contend with a team-mate's expulsion for headbutting a rival in the bunch sprint.
The HTC-Columbia rider was cruising towards a comfortable victory — his 13th stage win in the Tour — when team-mate Mark Renshaw took a decidedly overenthusiatic approach to clearing the Manxman's path.
As Kiwi sprinter Julian Dean drew clear to Renshaw, just ahead of Cavendish, the HTC-Columbia leadout man suddenly opted to use his head — not once, which might have been forgiveable, but three times — to clear the New Zealander out of the way.
Cavendish (right) then roared pass the tussling duo to claim a magnificent victory by several bikelengths, but all too aware that the controversy over Renshaw's action was just about to hot up as soon as he got off the bike.
Sure enough, within minutes, the Australian had been expelled from the race, as criticisms of his actions flowed thick and fast from other sprinters and officials.
Cavendish justified Renshaw's actions by saying that in fact the highspeed headbutt had meant that other riders had not risked falling as a result.
“The officials took a decision, and we don't necessarially agree, but we will see what happens,” Cavendish said. “But when bikes are all so close they can tangle and that puts everybody in danger. Julian's elbow was hooked over Mark's and Mark used his head to get away. He gave everybody a bit of space.”
However race commissaires were adamant that Renshaw had behaved incorrectly and he was thrown out for what was later officially described “a particularly serious” offence.
Rightly or wrongly, Cavendish has been left bereft of his key wingman for the sprints, the man who has guided him through the final metres of each and every Tour win since 2009 — just as his bid for the green jersey was looking better than ever.
It is a massive loss, and comes when Cavendish had managed to reduce the difference on points leader Alessandro Petacchi to a mere 29, the lowest since the Tour left Rotterdam and giving him a more than reasonable hope of victory in Paris.
HTC-Columbia were already one man down following Adam Hansen's abandon because of a broken collarbone, with Renshaw's untimely exit the latest blow in a season that has repeatedly turned sour for Cavendish.
An early season battle with an infected molar wrecked his Classics campaign, Cavendish himself was withdrawn by his team for flicking a ‘V’ sign after winning a stage as a gesture towards his critics, and then in June the Manxman had one of the worst crashes of his career in the Tour de Suisse.
Off the bike, he split up with his girlfriend in April.
As if that was not enough to contend with, Cavendish's early Tour stages were a litany of accidents and lost opportunities, and it is only in the last week that he had managed to get back on track.
With Renshaw lost, Cavendish's latest bounce back to his usual winning ways is yet again thrown into doubt.