TOURS, France — At this Tour de France, it is Marcel Kittel and no longer Mark Cavendish who is looking like the fastest man on two wheels.
Everything was primed on Thursday for Cavendish to win a 25th Tour stage in his illustrious career. His beefy teammate from Belgium, Gert Steegmans, did his job to perfection, guiding Cavendish into position for the final sprint to the line in Tours in the Loire valley.
But Cavendish simply wasn't quick enough. Kittel overtook him just before the line. That this was a man-to-man contest, fair and square with no excuses, made the German's victory feel more significant than the winning margin of mere inches.
"He was just simply faster," Cavendish conceded. "I can go back and look over and over again. I don't think myself or the team could have done anything different. He was just simply better, you know?"
It would be foolish and premature to suggest the Cavendish era at the Tour is ending. He is still by far the most successful stage winner still active.
Two of the riders with more stage wins — Bernard Hinault (28) and Eddy Merckx (34) — are long retired. The third, Andre Leducq (25), died in 1980. Cavendish came to this Tour with 23, the number is written in green on the black bike he rode Thursday.
He won his 24th last week in Marseille and could still get to 25 and match Leducq's total at this Tour. The last stage, especially, on the Champs-Elysees in Paris almost always offers a golden opportunity for sprinters. Cavendish is unbeaten on those cobblestones since 2009.
Still, the 28-year-old rider must have been hoping for better from this 100th edition of the race. Since his first victory in 2008, he has always won multiple stages at every Tour. In 2009, he won six.
Cavendish switched teams this year — from Sky to Omega Pharma-Quick Step — because he wanted to be even more successful at the Tour, specifically. Unlike at Sky, which last year focused its resources on Tour winner Bradley Wiggins and, at this Tour, race leader Chris Froome, Omega has built its team around Cavendish.
Yet, aside from his win in Stage 5, this isn't proving to be a vintage Tour for Cavendish. He had a heavy cold in the first week. He collided with Tom Veelers, knocking the Dutch rider off his bike, in the sprint finish of Stage 10. Cavendish insisted it wasn't intentional.
The next day, a spectator doused him in urine during the time trial. But perhaps worst of all is that Kittel is dominating Cavendish. The Argos-Shimano sprinter has three wins at this Tour. That makes a total of five for German riders, with Tony Martin winning the time trial and Andre Greipel winning a sprint on Stage 6.
"As we say in Germany, good things come in three," Kittel said.
Rolf Aldag, an Omega director, said he still regards Cavendish as "the best sprinter in the world." Given the tightness of the finish, Aldag says it "would be unfair to say that he doesn't have it. I think he still has it."
At Sky, Cavendish's former boss, Dave Brailsford, also warned against jumping to conclusions. He suggested Cavendish simply needs to completely gel with his Omega teammates responsible for maneuvering him into position to compete in the final sprints.
"Mark Cavendish has delivered more often for more times in more races than any other sprinter," Brailsford said. "He is not a machine, he has got a new lead-out team and that will take a bit of time to bed in."
The 136-mile Stage 12 produced no change at the top of the overall standings. Froome still has his big lead of more than three minutes over his main rivals, who are hoping to claw back time on climbs up Mont Ventoux on Sunday and in the Alps next week.
Froome narrowly avoided a pileup that floored about 20 riders just behind him on the road into Tours. The escape demonstrated that to win the Tour, a rider must be lucky as well as strong.
Teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen was among those brought down. Sky later announced his withdrawal from the race with a broken right shoulder. That leaves Froome with six teammates — from the eight he started with on June 29 — to shepherd him through the last 10 days. Sky's Vasil Kiryienka missed the time cut on Stage 9.
"It's never nice to lose a rider of Edvald's ability," Brailsford said. "But ultimately we're still confident that with the riders we've got left we can pull together and see the race through."
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.