All Mark Cavendish needed was one more chance
They say sprinting is as much a matter of belief as power, that desire can be as good as any leadout. That victories are defined most of all by decisions made without time to decide, by positioning, by bravery. They say that in sprinting, wins beget wins. And losses make more losses, until a sprinter slowly disappears.
This has always been Mark Cavendish. Flying high when his numbers said he shouldn’t have; dropping low when his personal pendulum swung the other way. Too hot or too cold, never comfortable. It was July 16, 2016 when he last won a stage of the Tour de France. Five long years between his 30th Tour win and his 31st. Years full of headlines for the riders who overcame him. Viviani and Démare, Greipel, Kristof, Ewan. Sam Bennett. All as Cavendish slowly, quietly faded. First the victim of Epstein Barr virus, then a victim of losses begetting losses.
Last fall, Cavendish was handed a lifeline. The deal came together just weeks after we watched him, in real time in a live interview, stare with wide eyes at a future without bike racing. We watched him recoil in terror. It was a future he couldn’t yet imagine.
For 2021, he would ride for Deceuninck-Quickstep, his old team, for almost no salary. Other sponsors would take care of him. Team boss Patrick Lefevere, for all his faults, was willing to giving Cavendish another chance and reconnect him with the best leadout in the business. He just wanted to race, Cavendish told us. His teammates confirmed it. The guy just wants to race his bike.
Still, the Tour was never really in the cards. Sam Bennett is the sprinter of the moment, last year’s green jersey, an affable and popular winner. A sure thing at this Tour, with an above-average number of sprint-friendly stages.
A knee injury (or not, if you ask Lefevere) derailed that plan. Just two weeks ago we still weren’t sure who would sit at the end of the fearsome DQS leadout, who would have the wheel of Michael Morkov, the world’s greatest leadout man. Cavendish took a good win at the Baloise Belgium Tour over Tour de France sprinters, but the smart money was still on Bennett.
Cavendish has been sticking his middle finger up at the smart money for a decade. In 2008, his second Tour de France, he barely made the team. His numbers weren’t there. They never had been; he’d almost been booted from British Cycling’s development programs. Team High Road Director Rolf Aldag saw something there, maybe it was bravery or positioning or the ability to make the right decision without the time to decide, and brought him. Cavendish won four stages.
Twenty six stage wins later, Cavendish entered this Tour de France with few expectations, but the punditry shifted. Tacked onto the back of Morkov, with a recent win in his back pocket, we all wondered what he could do. Did he have the belief? Would a win beget wins?
On a slowly sweeping right hand corner in Fougères, as the peloton overhauled an anguished Brent Van Moer, Cavendish looked boxed in. He took a short pause, spotted a small gap, made a decision faster than decisions can reasonably be made, grabbed the back wheel of Alpecin-Fenix’s Jasper Philipsen, dropped his head down toward his bars, and won.