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Tour de France: Cavendish’s hopes hit buffers

Mark Cavendish's bid for the Tour de France's green jersey suffered a major and probably fatal setback on stage four when he finished a disappointing twelfth in the race's first all-out bunch sprint.

The HTC-Columbia fastman was perfectly positioned behind Australian team-mate Mark Renshaw to claim the eleventh Tour stage of his career as the peloton roared into Reims.

But when Italy's veteran sprinter Alessandro Petacchi darted away to the left of the bunch with 250 metres to go, instead of the expected last-minute acceleration by Renshaw, Cavendish's leadout man suddenly ran out of gas.

Cavendish appeared caught by surprise but although he then briefly stomped on the pedals, in a 70kmh sprint even a moment's hesitation can prove fatal, and the 25-year-old — seemingly lacking the strength to respond with a trademark acceleration — was swamped by other riders.

That was the last straw for the Manxman, who eased back, looked down at his bike chain twice as if demanding an explanation for such a stinging defeat, and free-wheeled across the line. Game over.

His face rigid with fury, the British sprinter flung his bike down when he reached the team bus before storming on board.

That was the last any media saw of him, although rather than Petacchi's second stage win in three days, Cavendish's continuing poor season was the biggest subject of discussion in the Tour press room.

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Renshaw's sudden energy drop was more than understandable given he had spent the previous kilometre keeping Cavendish in pole position.

It was an unusual strategy but Cavendish's squad had no choice but to burn Renshaw out. HTC-Columbia are severely limited on back-up for Cavendish, with two riders less than last year for the leadout train that previously gave the Manxman an armchair ride in the closing kilometres.

Another gaping hole in Cavendish's leadout train is American George Hincapie, who quit the team for American squad BMC. Cavendish said this spring that the team would need to sign two riders to do Hincapie's work — and they were sorely missed yesterday.

“The team's changed a lot,” Renshaw commented later, “we've lost Adam [Hansen] to a crash and Mick [Rogers] is seeing what he can do for the overall so he isn't there like last year.

“At the same time, other sprinters teams are stronger. But I'm sure Mark will be back to winning again this week.”

As for the green jersey, yesterday's defeat placed Cavendish a whopping 79 points behind overall leader Thor Hushovd, making winning it all but out of the question.

Sprinters apart, the bulk of the Tour peloton had an uneventful stage, largely thankful that after three days of continuous crashes, yesterday was an almost accident-free zone. The only rider to fall was Spanish climber Amets Txurruka.

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