It’s been a long time since Mark Cavendish found himself at the pointy end of a bike race, but rain clouds are building at the edge of his drought.
At the one-day GP Monsere on Sunday, the 35-year-old came closer to victory than in any race in years, finishing second behind Tim Merlier. A late brake-check and imperfect leadout killed a bit of his momentum with 200m to go, but his closing speed in the final 100 meters showed that he’s not quite done. Not yet.
All credit to Alpecin-Fenix’s Merlier, who also won Le Samyn last week, for a perfectly timed and executed long-range sprint, shooting up the right side of the road as Cav and the other sprinters tangled with leadout men swinging off the front. Cavendish was never beating Merlier today, and the field of sprinters at Monsere wasn’t exactly Tour caliber. Nonetheless, he came close enough, and finished fast enough, that fans of the 30-time Tour de France stage winner should have reason for optimism.
“I’m a little bit disappointed. I felt it and I felt good,” Cavendish said after the race. “We were going good, the team controlled it in the end. We got sandwiched but honestly Merlier was really clever. When he saw that he launched it dead quick. What can you do? When you’re that smart and that quick and think that much on your feet in a bike race, then you deserve the win.”
You have to cast back to the Dubai Tour in 2018 to find Cavendish’s last victory. Since then he’s had two seasons without a Tour de France selection and few glimmers of the form and speed that made him the most successful sprinter of his generation. A year with Bahrain-McLaren, hyped as a refresh and reconnection with his old coach Rod Ellingworth, saw a season-best result of 12th in stage 2 of the Tour of Poland.
For a brief period at the end of 2020, it looked like Cavendish might have a somewhat unceremonious forced retirement. But a lifeline from Deceuninck-QuickStep, a team he rode for from 2013 to 2015, extended his time as a pro cyclist by at least a year. The terms of that contract are not particularly lucrative for Cavendish – as he said last fall, he just wanted a place to race his bike.