The opening week of this year’s Tour de France was one of the most chaotic yet awe-inspiring nine days of racing we have ever seen. With mass crashes, the celebration of a legendary grandfather and a young Slovenian crushing his opposition against the clock, there were a lot of storylines to follow. For British fans, however, the biggest story was the comeback of the world’s greatest sprinter, Mark Cavendish. Having taken three victories (at the time of writing) he not only wears the green jersey of points classification leader, he’s also brought his total to within just one win of Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 Tour stage wins. But this only tells half the story.
At the finish of the one-day race Ghent-Wevelgem in October 2020, a tearful Cavendish wondered if he would ever even turn the pedals in anger again. Retirement seemed to be the only option after two years in the cycling wilderness, so his climb back to the very top of the sport is the stuff of fairytales. Here’s why Cav’s success at the Tour is such a big deal.
The mental health challenges
“I thought I was never coming back,” the Manxman said after his victory in Fougères on stage 4. It’s where he came back from that makes his return so inspiring. The first signs of what he was dealing with came at the 2018 Tour de France where he didn’t figure in any of the bunch sprints and then missed the time cut on stage 11 at La Rosière. Something was up. That something was the fatigue-causing glandular virus, Epstein-Barr, which he had been battling since April 2017. He later revealed to The Times that the effects of this battle resulted in him being diagnosed with clinical depression in August 2018.
These struggles effectively put Cavendish on a two-year hiatus as he came to terms with the virus and his own mental health journey. Speaking to Joe Wicks last year, Cavendish explained that he didn’t believe in depression until he was diagnosed with it, but he soon realised that talking was the best way of coping. “Even if you’re not talking about where you are mentally, just having someone who you trust and makes you positive. You don’t have to talk about your problems. You just need to talk to somebody.” This battle with the virus and the long-term effects it had on his performance and mental health is something fans can empathise with, especially after our shared 18-month isolation imposed by the pandemic. It’s these depths that make the highs of Cavendish’s comeback so awe-inspiring.
This year’s victories are such a big deal because Cavendish is on the verge of creating Tour de France history. As of the time of writing, following his victory in Valence, the 36-year-old sits on an incredible 33 stage wins, just one behind tying the record of ‘the Cannibal’ Eddy Merckx. With probable bunch sprints coming in Nîmes, Carcassonne, Libourne and on the Champs-Élysées, there is a very real possibility that Cavendish will match and even beat this record. When you think about all the legendary riders that have come between the Merckx and Cavendish eras, the fact he is the only one who’s come within touching distance of the record shows how phenomenal an achievement it is.
Having honed his track craft in Greece with coach Vasilis Anastopoulos – skills that have helped him navigate many a hectic bunch sprint – Cavendish, who wasn’t meant to go to the Tour this year, finds himself on Deceuninck-QuickStep’s world-class sprint team. And what a team it is. The self-styled ‘Wolfpack’ have an impeccable ethos and each rider will gladly leave it all on the line for the leader of the day. The 2021 sprint train of Declercq, Alaphilippe, Asgreen, Ballerini and Mørkøv rivals Cav’s legendary 2009 team HTC engine of Rogers, Martin, Eisel, Hincapie and Renshaw. The results are similar too with Cavendish being delivered to the front of the race in pole position time after time. The victory in Valence was particularly HTC-evoking and was described by the man himself as a “textbook lead out”.
Cavendish has always been his own team’s biggest cheerleader, focussing on their work in the lead up to the final kick, rather than his final effort itself. This is no different in 2021. “I didn’t really do anything, just 150 metres, I have the team to thank for everything.” This shows that being with the right personnel has helped the Manxman recapture his sprinting legs of old.
Perhaps more impressive than the record is the fact Cavendish has won Tour de France bunch sprints in three different decades over a 13-year period. Not only that but these decades have seen generations of top sprinters who could have knocked Cavendish off his perch at any point. He came of age in the time of Oscar Freire and Thor Hushovd, created an endearing rivalry with ex-teammate André Greipel, weathered the storm of the super powerful Marcel Kittel, and has even won against the bright talents of Caleb Ewan, Tim Merlier and the multi-disciplined Wout Van Aert. In short, this longevity against such stiff opposition shows proves he is the greatest sprinter in all 118 years of Tour de France history.
It’s hard to believe now but before Cavendish’s four stage victories at the 2008 Tour de France, there wasn’t much to shout about for British cycling fans. Sure, Great Britain was on the cusp of total domination in the velodrome, but this had not yet spread to other disciplines. In the early noughties, British representation at the Tour would mainly be found during time trials or in the shape of Charly Wegelius in an alpine breakaway. So, when a 23-year-old Manxman started racking up the stage victories, it was a huge deal.
These days it’s maybe easy to forget given the GC performances from British riders that followed, but Cavendish was without a doubt the modern trailblazer. His wins captured a new generation of cycling fans and put Britain back on the map at the world’s biggest bike race.