Cavendish wins stage 10 of the 2021 Tour de France. Photo: Gruber Images

The travesty and tactical folly of leaving Mark Cavendish at home 

The lineup puts a huge amount of pressure on a first-time Tour de France sprinter. It could backfire spectacularly.

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If all goes to plan, Mark Cavendish will not be on the start line of the Tour de France on Friday. He is on the reserve list, albeit this is the age of COVID, so nothing is impossible. But he is not in the starting eight. 

It will be the first time since 1987 that the defending green jersey has gone unselected for the Tour de France when available, according to cycling stats guru Cillian Kelly. Cavendish only needs one more stage win to break Eddy Merckx’s stage win record and, at 37 years young, the clock isn’t just ticking, it’s very nearly stopped.

The decision is a travesty of lost publicity and a sad moment for cycling fans hoping to follow that particular narrative through the Tour de France. Beyond that, it’s a tactical miscalculation that puts a huge amount of pressure on a first-time Tour de France sprinter. It could backfire spectacularly. 

All-in for Fabio

There are intelligent arguments to be made for the team presented Monday. Team boss Patrick Lefevere has always said he wouldn’t bring two sprinters to the Tour, and that logic is generally sound. Sprinting takes ego, and under normal circumstances, one team ain’t big enough for the two of them. 

Jakobsen is sprinting’s future, if you ask Lefevere. He’s sprinting’s present, too, already arguably the best sprinter in the world over the last year. He’s 25, has amassed five Grand Tour stage wins at the Vuelta a España, and has his own incredible comeback story. He deserves his shot, and if he doesn’t get it sooner than later Quick-Step AlphaVinyl will likely have trouble holding on to him. 

He’s on form, too. Just a week ago he took a stage at the Baloise Belgium Tour, beating one of his primary Tour de France rivals, Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck).

In any other year, Jakobsen’s narrative is one that the public would rally behind. This is a rider who almost died within a few meters of a finish line not so long ago and is now returning to the very pinnacle of his trade. But this isn’t any other year. 

Plus, there just aren’t many sprint stages in this Tour de France. That makes any two-sprinter setup even more difficult to balance. 

The tactical folly

Lefevere’s single sprinter dictat makes a lot of sense if there are serious, viable alternatives to sprint victory within his Tour de France squad. Primarily, if Julian Alaphilippe is in it. But he is absent, not yet recovered adequately from his horrifying Liège crash to race the biggest Grand Tour. 

As a reminder, here is the team currently slated to line up in Copenhagen:

  • Kasper Asgreen (DEN)
  • Andrea Bagioli (ITA)
  • Mattia Cattaneo (ITA)
  • Tim Declercq (BEL)
  • Mikkel Honoré (DEN)
  • Fabio Jakobsen (NED)
  • Yves Lampaert (BEL)
  • Michael Mørkøv (DEN)

Cattaneo finished second in a stage of the ’21 Tour, Bagioli is an interesting young climbing talent, Honoré is a breakaway threat. Those are your stage hunters for the majority of the race. Asgreen and Lampaert could perhaps do something on the Roubaix stage, and it was likely between Lampaert and new French champion Florian Sénéchal for that squad slot. Lampaert, Asgreen, and Mørkøv are Jakobsen’s leadout for sprint stages. Tim Declerq is there to sit on the front for four hours at a time as well as to make sure Jakobsen makes the time cut.

Of the group, only Asgreen is the sort of elite non-sprint talent a team can rely on to do something special at the Tour de France. Any other non-Jakobsen victory from that group will take a great deal of luck because it will need to come out of a breakaway. Could Honoré or Bagioli bag a stage? Absolutely. But it’ll be tough.

That puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on Jakobsen, who has never raced a Tour de France before, to perform. Quick-Step AlphaVinyl’s entire Tour likely rests on his shoulders. An early illness, crash, or mere dip in form could result in near total anonymity for the squad this July. 

Should Jakobsen fall flat, the rest of the team is a collection of stage hunters and sprinter-less leadout men who would be tasked with salvaging July. That’s a big ask. 

And therein lies the tactical folly. The prevailing wisdom is that a two-sprinter lineup is a recipe for disaster, but given Jakobsen’s Tour rookie status the presence of the Cavendish may have actually improved the Dutchman’s chances. Take Jakobsen out of the limelight. Provide a backup should he falter. Ride for whoever has the legs on the day. With no Alaphilippe, no GC contender at all, there is plenty of room. 

With Alaphilippe and Cavendish at home, there is no plan B. The team could remove one of the stage hunters and replace him with Cavendish and have more options with a greater likelihood of success.

That’s ignoring the fact that Quick-Step AlphaVinyl would get many times the publicity this July simply by having Cavendish in the team bus.

It’s a decision we can only truly judge with hindsight. Jakobsen could dominate, winning three, four, maybe even five sprints. At which point Lefevere and his directors will be vindicated. Or, up against the world’s best at the world’s biggest race, he could falter, and they’ll all look like fools. 

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