What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
Long gone are the days when Mark Cavendish joked about Andre Greipel only winning insignificant races. With two victories in the opening five days, the big German is very much eclipsing his formercteammate.
There was no love lost when Cavendish and Greipel rode in the colours of T-Mobile and HTC.
Greipel was a consistent winner but annually kept out of the Tour de France squad because of the all-conquering Cavendish, who once made the harsh observation that his ‘rival’ only won stages in smaller, “shitty” races.
When Greipel was finally given his chance by Lotto in the world’s biggest bike race he established himself as a consistent, if not prolific, performer: since 2011 he has won at least one stage in every Tour but until this year he had never once even donned the green jersey.
In the year of Greipel’s maiden win, Cavendish posted five; in 2012 the British sprinter managed to match Greipel’s haul of three wins despite having to support Bradley Wiggins’s yellow jersey quest; in his debut year for QuickStep Cav took two wins against Greipel’s solitary scalp.
Since 2013 Tour success has dried up for Cavendish.
Even before he crashed out in last year’s opening stage to Harrogate, there was the suspicion that Cavendish had lost a lot of the explosiveness that saw him notch 25 wins in France and threaten to catch Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 Tour wins.
I remember writing a piece that suggested Cavendish would struggle to catch Bernard Hinault’s tally of 28 wins let alone Merckx’s landmark. It was met with widespread derision. I knew nothing, according to those faceless followers on Twitter who deemed my opinions as bordering on the sacrilegious.
Well, I still stand by that statement today – and seeing Cavendish comprehensively out-sprinted by Greipel in Amiens is hardly going to change my mind.
If you could rely on anything it was Cavendish winning on the Champs-Elysees: for four successive years he triumphed in Paris until Marcel Kittel stole his crown.
If you could rely on anything else it was Cavendish winning stage five of the Tour: four of the past seven years has seen the Manxman open up his account on the race’s first stage.
Both those truisms are over. The tide has turned.
I spoke to Cavendish just days before the start of the Tour in Utrecht and he was upbeat about his chances. He looked lean and appeared focused and confident. His only gripe was that Kittel would not be in France to race against him.
You see, Cavendish understandably has a chip on his shoulder about that stat which shows he has never beaten Kittel in a head-to-head sprint.
“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” he told me. The implication was that even if he were to win stages on the 2015 Tour it wouldn’t please some people because they would be hollow victories against a field deprived of his German nemesis.
Instead it has been another German – his old foe and team-mate – who has filled the sizeable void left by Kittel’s non-selection.
Greipel’s opening win on Sunday in Zeeland came after Cavendish was forced to launch his sprint very early once left isolated by his Etixxteammates. Pilot Mark Renshaw was said to have copped an earful from his friend in the aftermath.
Tony Martin’s win over the cobbles in Cambrai on Tuesday put the smile back on Cavendish’s face and boosted morale no-end at Etixx.
Personally, it must have been a huge relief for Cavendish, whose easing up at the end of stage two allowed Fabian Cancellara to take the bonus seconds that denied Martin the elusive jersey two days earlier.
On Wednesday the scene was set for Der Panzerwagen to help lead out Cavendish to victory in Amiens – and when the German powerhouse swung onto the final straight in pole position with 2km remaining it looked like everything would go to script.
When Cavendish appeared to lose touch with Renshaw he recovered to go shoulder to shoulder with Alexander Kristoff. But then Greipel opened up his surging sprint, sweeping past both rivals and holding off a late burst by Peter Sagan.
Third place was an improvement for Cavendish on his fourth on Sunday – but try telling that to a rider more used to topping the podium rather than propping up the bottom step.
Could it be a problem with the mechanisms within the team, perhaps? Apparently not.
“The team’s been great,” Cavendish said. “We’ve got the yellow jersey, we were close today, we been working well all week – all year – and Etixx-QuickStep has excelled at everything they’ve done all year. That hasn’t changed here at the Tour de France.”
So what was the problem?
“It was a bit chaotic. We’re a man short – Matteo [Trentin] has hurt his shoulder and we could have done with his speed at the end. There’s nothing else to say. We’ll take a look back later. I was beaten. I actually did quite a good sprint but I was beaten today by two other guys.”
Pressed further, Cavendish suggested that the journalists present were over-eager to find a story.
“You should go and speak to Greipel. Instead of it being news that I was beaten again perhaps you should focus on his win. He’s a phenomenal sprinter – he’s in the green jersey and that’s the second stage of the Tour he’s won this year.”
Tellingly, Cavendish’s first WorldTour points of the season came with Sunday’s disappointing fourth place finish behind Greipel.
It seems that Cavendish is the one now only winning the “shitty” races while Greipel – two years his senior and written-off by many – who is enjoying an Indian summer to his career.
By my estimations there are just three more stages that could welcome a bunch sprint ahead of the final stage into Paris. Cavendish has time to turn things round. He could still match or even beat Greipel’s tally of wins. Heck, he could still win the green jersey.
But by the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, don’t hold your breath.