He won’t dispute stage win number five in Paris, but Mark Cavendish’s 2016 Tour campaign was nevertheless a blazing success. How did a rider who seemed to be slowing turn the clock back five years?
MEGÈVE, France (CT) – Just under a year ago it appeared that Mark Cavendish’s career was in a slow decline.
The Manxman was decidedly outclassed by former teammate Andre Greipel in the Tour, with the German notching up four sprint victories and Cavendish netting just one.
The difference between the two was underlined by Greipel’s final win of the race on the Champs Elysees in Paris.
Previously the big stomping ground of the Briton, a place where he notched up four consecutive wins between 2009 and 2012, Cavendish could only manage a distant sixth.
It was a stark contrast to the old days, a time when the Briton dismissed Greipel’s sprinting talents and said he only won small races.
Many doubted that Cavendish could get back to his old dominance. His Etixx-QuickStep team was one of those. It didn’t make a serious bid to retain him when his contract was up, instead opting for Marcel Kittel.
However Cavendish has had the last laugh.
The Manxman signed for Team Dimension Data, which also inked Cavendish’s past leadout men Mark Renshaw, Bernhard Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Getting the band back together proved to one factor behind a big resurgence. He got his 2016 Tour campaign off to a brilliant start, winning stage one and achieving a long-desired goal of wearing yellow. He then followed that up with victory on stages three, six and fourteen. The latter raised his career tally to 30, approaching the all time record of Eddy Merckx.
A fifth stage win the race could have been possible on the Champs Elysees on Sunday, but he took the difficult decision to withdraw on the second rest day and begin preparing for the Olympic Games.
Still, even though he is out of the race, his campaign was a complete success and proved he was back.
But what are the reasons behind the resurgence?
“F for fun means freedom”
Brian Smith was, until earlier this year, the general manager of MTN Qhubeka. He had been brought on board by team owner Douglas Ryder in 2014 and was instrumental in the signings which helped the team secure a WorldTour licence for 2016.
Perhaps the most important of those was Mark Cavendish. Smith said he first spoke to him at last year’s Tour of Turkey. A deal was soon hammered out, with the Qhubeka charity one of the factors that attracted Cavendish. Months later, the rider attended team training camps and the gelling began.
Smith said that he had a clear philosophy which resonated with the Manxman.
“Sometimes you need to take a step back. With riders like Steve Cummings, Serge Pauwels, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Mark Cavendish, you have to be able to take a step back and not keep pushing, pushing, pushing,” he told CyclingTips. “You get to know the person, get to know what they want to do. Allow them the freedom.
“I have got a three letter word that I introduced to Team MTN Qhubeka last year. It is fun. And the F for fun means freedom. It is the freedom to do what you want.”
He gives an example around the time of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. “We went to the Australian Open. I saw Cav in the hospitality with Cadel. The first thing Cadel said to me was, ‘oh, he is only drinking one, he is only drinking one.’
“I said, ‘look, Cadel, he is old enough to decide whether he drinks one or three or two. There is no pressure.’
“Everybody forgets there is an enjoyment in cycling. Once you get into these big teams, there are certain pressures on every team. I am not criticising any other teams but they really have to get to know their riders and allow them a little bit of freedom.”
The key, he says, is treating his riders like adults. It’s also important to take time to understand them, to work out what makes them tick. It’s accepted that there is an optimal amount of pressure for an athlete to perform, and having the right approach is key to helping them to do that.
“I treat people as human beings, not commodities,” Smith explained. “Everybody is different. The mental approach is crucial. You selectively put a team together, get them working as a team, get them enjoying things as a team, get them sitting together at a dinner table [and interacting]. All the small things. Bring them all together, understand that they are individuals as well and just motivate all the individuals to collectively do their best job.”
The approach seems to have clicked with Cavendish. If he choked under pressure at Etixx-QuickStep, the same wasn’t true at Team Dimension Data. His Tour campaign has proved that in spades.
“For me, the margin gains are all mental,” Smith explained. “It is getting the mental state of a rider right, then he is happy. If he is happy, he wins and you get the best out of him.
“Cav has found more motivation with the change”
When Cavendish swooped to win stage one at Utah Beach, Mark Renshaw was as elated as his teammate. He was beaming after hearing the news and spoke for several minutes to CyclingTips and others, sharing his perspective on what had been done.
It was clear that the victory meant a lot to him and gave him a big feeling of accomplishment.
The Australian is one of the best placed to assess how Cavendish has benefitted from the transition. Renshaw has been alongside the Briton for six out of Cavendish’s ten pro seasons. He rode with him on the HTC High Road and Omega Pharma/Etixx-QuickStep teams and now Dimension Data.
In addition to playing a crucial leadout role for him, he also knows him extremely well. He has seen the change in him since he moved to his new squad and believes the different environment has been fundamental to that.
“It’s chalk and cheese with the teams,” he explained to CyclingTips. “Etixx-QuickStep is one of the biggest…big budget, most experienced, most pressure teams in the peloton. He’s gone from there to Dimension Data, a new startup to the WorldTour.
“Last year when we lost a race, it wasn’t acceptable. In QuickStep, winning was normal. Here, if you lose a few, no problem. But when you win, it is such a big thing. It is a big change and I think Cav has found a bit more motivation with that change.
“There is a different mentality and I think that is rubbing off in a good way.”
However Renshaw emphasised that things didn’t come easy after the switch in squads. “We have had to work hard in the start of the year. We have had to change a lot of things to get to where we are here in the Tour de France.”
Roger Hammond also raced with Cavendish in the past, being part of the T-Mobile squad which then morphed into HTC HighRoad. The duo were on the same squad in 2007 and 2008 and, at the same time, Cavendish lived with Hammond at the latter’s house in Belgium.
Hammond came on board this year as a directeur sportif and has played a crucial role.
“My [early] input in the team was to go to Qatar and get that ball rolling as soon as possible,” he told CyclingTips. “The most stressful race of my year was Qatar. A new team, new signings, new group. As a sports director, how do you bring those people together? Success does that with bike riders. They smell success, they want to be part of it. So Qatar to me was a very important race.
“I knew if we could get a win there, it would be huge. The overall victory was more than we could have hoped for, really, but with Mark there it was a pretty good chance. That is what we went for and we got it. Winning those sprints, winning the stage, winning the overall. That gave the confidence to come here and get that ball rolling.
“Once that small ball rolls here [at the Tour], it becomes big because they have already confidence from the first races of the year.”
The magic of momentum
The notion of confidence is one that crops up repeatedly when talking about Cavendish’s success at the Tour. Grabbing success early on sets a pattern; that momentum helps subsequent victories to come about more easily.
Recent editions of the Tour are a real case in point. In 2013 Marcel Kittel won the opening stage in Corsica and went on to be the dominant sprinter in the race, clocking up four victories. He then repeated this feat a year later. He was ill in 2015 and missed the Tour, but Andre Greipel stepped forward, took the opening gallop and also notched up a total of four successes.
Sprinters thrive on good morale, with success breeding success. Cavendish’s stage one win this year got the ball rolling in that regard.
“I think he is definitely going to have momentum,” Team Dimension Data Principal Doug Ryder said after that day one triumph. “This will lift the whole team because with Bernie [Bernhard Eisel], with [Mark] Renshaw, with all of these guys it will give them that sense of belief that it can happen and that they did it.
“So many times this year we have looked at what could have been and what should we have done a little differently. And now it works. Of course it will lift them big time. They will be riding like they are an inch taller for the next few days.”
Renshaw was one of those riders and, several days later, agreed that momentum is huge in a team going for Tour sprints. He said it can work the other way too. “You look at Greipel here…he has had a bad stage and suddenly he is already three stages down on the other guys. Everyone is saying that he is not as good as last year, whereas he is probably in better shape. It is just how the ball starts rolling.
“With sprinting, it is all position and the sprinter’s mental strength. That plays a big part.”
Had Greipel, or Kittel, won on the opening day, they might have been the ones to clock up multiple stages. But they didn’t, and they weren’t; Cavendish was the rider who ended up in that position. As a result he was top dog in the Tour sprints.
Velodrome velocity: going back to the old blueprint
If a good team environment, a humanistic approach and early success played a part in the renaissance, so too did a complete change in programme this year. Early on in Cavendish’s career he mixed the road with the track, winning world Madison titles in 2005 and 2008 and the Commonwealth Games scratch race in 2006.
In more recent years he has competed almost exclusively on the road, something which Etixx-QuickStep encouraged. Its general manager Patrick Lefevere said more than once that he didn’t pay Cavendish to race on in the velodrome, and didn’t want the risk of him crashing.
It was a pragmatic approach but, in retrospect, may have been the wrong one.
With Dimension Data, the freedom that Smith talked about included the freedom to aim for the Olympic Games in Rio. Cavendish missed out on gold in his previous two participations and has long made clear that he wants that medal before he retires.
Getting a green light to aim for Rio was a factor in him signing for Dimension Data. It was also an element in his strong mental and physical condition at the Tour.
Prior to the race, Team Principal Douglas Ryder told CyclingTips that he had been blown away by Cavendish’s efforts to succeed in both wings of the sport.
“He has been working so hard doing three sessions a day on the track and on the road,” he stated. “I mean, the guy has a work ethic like I have not seen in cycling. He is an exemplary student of cycling. I have never seen a guy so committed and so focussed.”
During the race, Head of Performance Rolf Aldag said that the track was key to Cavendish’s Tour success. He offered up two reasons for that: sharpening the ability to make split second decisions, and a more chaotic buildup to sprint finishes which rewarded that skill.
Cavendish himself agreed with this, saying it showed how Aldag – and Hammond – understood him so well. He explained things from his perspective.
“It is the track [which has made the difference], but it not what people think,” he stated after his fourth win. “It is not that I have more leg speed or strength. I am absolutely the same physically as I have been in the last years.
“I think it is just that you refresh your racing nous when you are riding the track. You learn to be patient and to assess situations really quickly. I think that has been quite a key pointer this year. I have been a lot more patient than I was last year.
“You can see today [at the finish of stage 14]…it is normally the instinct to jump when the person in front of you jumps. I knew Marcel [Kittel] would be on the front early. I assessed with two kilometres to go that he only had four guys and that is not enough into a headwind…
“It is a case of just waiting until he lost his peak speed and jumping around him in the final.”
It sounds simple and, to some extent, looked it, but there was months of hard work as foundation for those final 200 metres.
Hammond summed things up well. “Winning stages at the Tour de France is stressful. And Mark is stressed,” he told CyclingTips after win number three. “But he has just got this utter sense of unbelievable belief in him here. There is no question mark. There is no co-sprinter, there is no division of tasks.
“On and off the bike the team supported him openly in the beginning of the year. They supported him in his personal quest for a gold medal in the Olympic Games. If that is not a seal of approval and a sense of absolute 100 percent faith and backing, then I don’t know what else is.”
Cavendish has already rewarded that faith with a stunning Tour, but isn’t content with that. If he recovers well from the Tour, if he can keep the all-crucial momentum going and if things go to plan in Rio, his standout summer will also include an Olympic gold medal.
He’s already shown flair, but that would be a real extra flourish.