It may be the Tour de France, but two American teams and their growing rivalry are making this race variegated, textured, and fascinating. It is becoming one for the ages.
Columbia-HTC boasts dynamite sprinter Mark Cavendish, from the Isle of Man, who has won four, nearly five, stages this year and has worn the green jersey for several days.
With strong, organized leadout support and legs of iron, Cavendish is nearly impossible to beat in bunch sprints.
Impossible, that is, unless your name is Tyler Farrar.
American Farrar is riding for Garmin-Slipstream in his first TDF. He seems to be one of the only men consistently capable of beating Cavendish at the line. Thor Hushovd (of Cervélo) is the only other true threat this year.
While he was soundly outmuscled in stage 10, finishing perhaps six lengths behind, the next day under less favorable conditions, Farrar was just a wheel behind Cav at the finish.
Garmin is a young team, and has two overall lead contenders in the top ten in Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde.
Columbia-HTC’s priority in this Tour is to make sure Mark Cavendish is in contention for every sprint finish.
Today in stage 14, however, they were faced with a pleasant surprise: Veteran George Hincapie vying for the yellow jersey.
Hincapie is respected for his steady leadership and teamsmanship, in addition to being Lance Armstrong’s lieutenant in all seven of his Tour wins.
Hincapie broke away today in group of a dozen, riding strongly, but wound up five seconds shy of seizing yellow from Rinaldo Nocentini of Team AG2R.
Nonetheless, he leapfrogged over Astana’s Contador and Armstrong into second overall.
In part, today’s shortfall happened because Garmin paced the peloton to make up time on the breakaway pack.
Columbia is equated with its marquee rider, Cavendish, despite the presence of Hincapie and other outstanding GC contenders like Kim Kirchen.
Tony Martin has also emerged as a well-rounded rider, currently sitting in eighth overall.
Columbia had the weird problem of pacing the peloton to allow the breakaway enough lead time for Hincapie to grab yellow, and then organizing into their typical precision leadout formation for Cavendish to win the finish line sprint.
Complicating matters, Cavendish’s position was relegated to the rear of the peloton following a complaint by Hushovd, upheld by officials, that Cavendish squeezed him into the barrier.
If Garmin could choreograph leadouts for Farrar like Columbia does while controlling the final approach, it is likely Farrar can beat Cavendish. He has beaten him, once, at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this year.
However, until the team is restructured toward that main purpose, it will be very difficult, unless Cavendish beats himself.
In the meantime, we are being treated to what’s becoming an epic rivalry between two American teams, even if they ultimately finish behind Astana.
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