ANGERS, France (CT) – Given he had 26 stage wins to his name before this year’s Tour de France, it was something of a surprise that Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) came into the race as a slight underdog to sprint rivals Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep).
But three stages into this year’s race Cavendish has silenced the naysayers, racking up two wins and equalling Bernard Hinault’s tally of 28 Tour stage wins in the process. The Manxman’s success has thrilled his team principal, Doug Ryder.
“It’s not supposed to happen to us, I mean this is amazing, it’s unbelievable,” Ryder told CyclingTips. “What a f**king legend, Cav. Ohh, love his work. Unbelievable. Now I mean the guy is all-time second in [Tour de France] sprints.”
But what factors are coming into play when it comes to these two wins? Is this the simple resurgence of the Cav of old, a Cav we’ve not seen for a few seasons? And what is the impact of the fact Cav is now racing for more than just a brand?
Bernhard Eisel is a rider Cavendish had a close working and personal relationship with at HTC and Sky, and in 2016 the pair have been reunited. Eisel suggests that friendships such as these have contributed to the team’s successes so far in the Tour.
“I think it is the chemistry. It is just a really good mix of people,” Eisel said. “I know that not everybody can help us in a bunch sprint. But the other group with Edvald Boasson Hagen, [Mark] Renshaw, me. Reiny [Reinardt Janse van Rensburg] is new, but the rest — we know each other for many years.
“We know how to do it but at the same time the pressure is on and we can handle the pressure pretty well at the moment. It is always easy when you have Mark Cavendish in such good form.”
In the week before the Tour, Cavendish finished second to Adam Blythe (Tinkoff) at the British National Championships. This prompted many to suggest he would be unable to compete with Greipel and Kittel come the world’s biggest race. But according to Doug Ryder, people doubting Cavendish only seems to make him stronger.
“Do you know what – when guys say that to him it’s like putting a red flag to a bull,” Ryder told CyclingTips. “He’s so motivated, I’ve never seen him so motivated.
“He rode so hard that day [at the Nationals] because he was on his own, and it just showed what form he was on. That was a hard race, and he took it on himself to try and get it. You can see every race he is riding now he really want’s to do something.
“Everybody says that he’s in the twilight part of his career. Far from it.”
Last year Dimension Data (then known as MTN-Qhubeka) gained a huge following, not just for the way they rode but also for the way in which they presented their charity, Qhubeka to the cycling world. With the announcement last year that Cavendish would be joining the team, many questioned whether a name and character such as Cavendish would see the team lose sight of its bigger vision in the hunt for wins.
Ryder believes that signing Cavendish has only been a positive for Dimension Data’s charitable goals.
“What with Cav coming in everybody thought that the strategy and the culture of the team was going to change and it hasn’t,” Ryder said. “And him winning does so much more for the Qhubeka charity, does so much more for our new sponsors.
“I mean it’s amazing. African cycling has never been on such a high level ever. This is a team that does so much more for others, and having Mark on this team, so motivated and committed to doing what he does best is exceptional.
“It’s given him a new lease on life too. We’ve supported him with his Olympic program too. He came to a team that actually cared about his goals and look at what he is achieving.”
Cavendish himself admits that riding for a team with charitable goals has rejuvenated him.
“I’m very fortunate in my career to have rode for probably the biggest teams in cycling and they were successful years and I had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends,” Cavendish said after winning stage 3. “But obviously with the biggest teams and with the biggest funds comes a lot of pressure. I was always lucky to have great teams behind me to deliver.
“From the moment I turned professional I was winning and I had the pressure to win. Now it’s something more than just winning; just being a moving billboard. We ride for a cause; we ride for the Qhubeka charity which is getting 5,000 children in Africa on bicycles. It’s close to every rider’s heart on the team.
“Like I said before, it could be something you kind of spiel off but it’s not. It’s something we really do care about. It’s 50% of what we do, along with the other 50% being results, and it just gives more to the meaning of riding than just going out and trying to ride and win and eat your dinner and go out and do it again the next day.”
Talking with teammates, team management and the man himself, it would seem that Cav just needed to find a new road in order to get himself back on track. Bernhard Eisel puts it perfectly.
“Cav is just happy,” the Austrian said. “People would say he is back. He was never gone. I think he has just found the right atmosphere again and just the right people around him.”