The best lead-out man ever? A tribute to the career of Mark Renshaw

by Matt de Neef

Last Saturday afternoon, in the English city of Manchester, Mark Renshaw rolled across the finish line to complete the final stage of the 2019 Tour of Britain. He was nowhere near winning the stage — in fact he was second-last across the line, 6:30 behind stage winner Mathieu Van der Poel — but the moment was one of great significance for the 36-year-old Australian.

Arm in arm with Bernie Eisel and Mark Cavendish — two of his best friends and long-time teammates — Renshaw had just completed the final professional race of his 16-year road cycling career.

Like many of Australia’s best riders, Renshaw came to road cycling from the track. The Bathurst local three-time junior world champion in the sprint disciplines, before switching to the endurance program in the hope of transitioning into a pro road career.

In 2002, he became a team pursuit world champion and helped Australia to a gold medal in the same event at the Manchester Commonwealth Games. In 2004 ,Renshaw was again part of Australia’s world-title-winning team pursuit squad.

Renshaw (centre) after winning team pursuit gold at the 2002 Track World Championships. Can you name the other riders?

Renshaw turned pro on the road with in 2004. He spent two years with the squad before joining another French outfit, Credit Agricole. In his two years in green he was tasked with lead-out duties for Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd, while also getting his own sprint opportunities here and there. It was with Credit Agricole in 2006 that Renshaw took his first pro win on the road, at the Tro-Bro Leon.

But it was from 2009 through 2011 — with Columbia-HTC, HTC-Columbia and HTC-High Road — that Renshaw really started to build a reputation for himself. There he earned his keep as Mark Cavendish’s lead-out man, a role he performed with great success. Cavendish won 47 races across those three seasons (23 in 2009 alone), many of them with Renshaw as his last man. Chief among those wins were 16 stages of the Tour de France.

Perhaps the most memorable of Cavendish’s Tour wins of that period came on the final stage of the 2009 edition. Renshaw was the first rider around the last corner on the Champs-Elysees and was able to open a sizeable gap on the rest of the sprinters. Cavendish powered past his lead-out man to take his sixth stage win of the Tour while Renshaw held on for second place.

The side-on moto footage of that sprint didn’t just highlight the dominance of the Renshaw/Cavendish combination — it became one of the defining images of the 2009 Tour de France.

The 2010 Tour de France was perhaps less satisfying for Renshaw. While Cavendish went on to win five stages, Renshaw was controversially ejected from the race on stage 11 after headbutting Julian Dean during the lead-out (Cavendish won the stage).

After HTC-High Road folded at the end of 2011, Renshaw and Cavendish went their separate ways — Cavendish to a one-year stint at Sky; Renshaw to Rabobank to get his own sprinting opportunities. Renshaw stayed on with the Dutch squad into 2013 as the setup became Blanco and then Belkin, before reuniting with Cavendish at Omega Pharma-Quick-Step in 2014.

The pair raced together at the Belgian setup for two seasons before joining Dimension Data together in 2016. Both have raced with the South African outfit since. While success has come here and there for the pairing in recent years, they’ve never quite scaled the same lofty heights they reached with HTC/Columbia/High Road at the turn of the decade.

While Renshaw is best known for his prowess as a lead-out specialist, his palmares also shows 12 wins of his own. Among those victories: two stages of the Tour Down Under (2007 and 2008), a stage of the Tour of Denmark (2010), a stage and the overall at the 2011 Tour of Qatar (stepping in after Cavendish crashed early), a stage of the Eneco Tour (2013), a stage of the Tour of Turkey (2012) and two stages of the Tour of Britain (2011 and 2014).

That 2014 victory at the Tour of Britain was Renshaw’s last. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the same race would be his last as a professional, five years on.

Renshaw announced his retirement in July this year, on the eve of a Tour de France he’d go on to miss.

“I know it’s the right time to step away from racing,” he wrote on the Dimension Data website. “My body and mind won’t allow me to perform and compete to the level that’s required for a race like the Tour de France. I am very fortunate to be able to make the decision to finish this chapter of my life on my terms, and I’m hugely excited about my future ventures.

“I’m trusting 2020 and beyond will allow me to stay within the sport in some way but also provide an opportunity to chase some other passions that have had to be pushed aside, while also being able to relax with family and friends. I am most looking forward to being able to spend more time being a dad to Will, Olly and Maggie and giving my wife Kristina some extra support.”

Mark Renshaw leaves professional cycling with a reputation as perhaps the greatest lead-out man the sport has ever seen. Together, he and Cavendish formed a formidable pairing that, at times, seemed nigh on unbeatable. Cavendish owes no small number of his 30 Tour de France stage wins (and many more wins besides) to Renshaw’s racing nous, composure, impressive top-end speed, and his seemingly preternatural ability to get his sprinter into the right position at exactly the right time.

The gallery below features a bunch of highlights (and one memorable lowlight) from Renshaw’s long and storied career. Be sure to check out our interview with Renshaw from 2010, in which he breaks down a successful lead-out.

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