April 30, 2021 0 Comments
Words by Shane Stokes
Photos by Fabien Boukla and Alex Broadway (A.S.O)
Mark Cavendish’s welcome return to victory has led to calls for the Briton to be selected for the Tour de France, including the #CavToTheTour push on Twitter. There is a considerable emotional appeal to him taking part, but is it practical?
Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) takes his third stage win of the 2021 Presidential Tour of Turkey. He added a fourth on the final day of the race. Photo © Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
There’s undoubtedly an allure to comeback stories. We featured one such story here several weeks ago, speaking to Brian Holm about Mark Cavendish’s clear improvement during his first months with Deceuninck – Quick-Step.
Cavendish has since gone on to take four stage wins at the Presidential Tour of Turkey, his first victories in over three years. As a result, he has earned a significant amount of positive attention in the press and on platforms such as Twitter. There have been calls there for him to be given a slot in the team’s line-up for the Tour de France, such as this story.
In the article, TV presenter and journalist Orla Chennaoui presents a strong argument for Cavendish’s selection. She talks about the big emotional draw of his story, mentioning the Epstein Barr virus and bout of depression which held him back in recent years, and the fact that he has shown commendable resilience and determination to return to the top of the podium.
As she correctly points out, “sport is nothing if not a chance for us all to live the highs and lows of life through others.” She adds, “He’ll forgive us, I’m sure, for taking personal, individual solace from his journey of validation, his proof of the power of relentless hard work and self-belief, of the humility required to fall nine times, and stand up ten. Those lessons are for all of us, for that is ultimately what sport — and being a sports fan — is all about.”
The argument is a powerful one, and does indeed explain one of the big attractions of professional sport. People are drawn to stories about struggles, particularly when they see hardships being overcome and setbacks being surmounted. Winning, losing and then winning again is a compelling narrative arc.
It is easy to see the attraction of a rider such as Cavendish at the Tour. The status of the race is undoubtedly enhanced when the biggest names in the sport take part and, as the best-ever sprinter in the history of cycling, he is undoubtedly a huge name.
There’s also the not-insignificant matter of Eddy Merckx’s Tour de France stage record. That stands at 34 victories and Cavendish, on 30, is surely the only rider with a chance of equalling that. And even if Chennaoui points that whether or not Cavendish can take the record is irrelevant at this point in time, considering what he has already achieved, there will still be many who would urge him on if he were to line out in strong form on June 26th.
Given how cycling has changed in the modern era, given how hard it is for any competitor to stay at the top for an extended period of time, it is doubtful that another rider could ever challenge the Merckx record again.
The romanticism of Cavendish at the Tour is indisputable. But the question is, is it realistic?
Sam Bennett (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) wins the Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne, his fifth victory this season. Photo © Luc Claessen/Getty Images
This year’s Scheldeprijs tells a story with some relevance. The race is regarded by many as the sprinters’ classic, and is one of the biggest one day races suited to a bunch finish. Deceuninck – Quick-Step did something unusual for the event, selecting both Cavendish and Sam Bennett. Bennett was the standout sprinter of 2020 and has been similarly impressive this season; prior to Scheldeprijs, he had clocked up five wins and was the big favourite for the race.
Deceuninck – Quick-Step did much of the work in the closing stages but, inside the last kilometre, appeared to be left a man short at a vital moment. Cavendish had sat on Sam Bennett’s wheel inside the finale and remained glued to it as the final metres ticked down. Michael Mørkøv is normally Bennett’s leadout rider but, due to the absence of others from the team’s sprint train, hit the front with over 500 metres to go. He held back so as not to launch too early, but this enabled the Alpecin-Fenix train to go over the top and for Jasper Philipsen to open a lead that Bennett couldn’t close. The latter was second, Cavendish was third.
Each had a big motivation to win. Bennett was chasing his first victory in the event, while Cavendish was in line for his fourth. Bennett explained afterwards what happened, stating the obvious. “I think we were missing one guy in the final.”
It was hard not to feel that had Cavendish lead out Bennett, or had Bennett led out Cavendish, the team would have won. Instead, it seemed that both rode like the designated team leader. The net result was that a likely race victory slipped away from them.
Now project forward to this year’s Tour de France. Bennett won two stages and the green jersey there last year. Cavendish took the green jersey in 2011 and clocked up 30 stage wins. Both are champions; both have high levels of personal ambition. And, with it being contract renewal year for both of them, both have additional reasons to chase success.
What happens in the sprints there? If each are present at the Tour, one or both will be left unhappy. Bennett will want to defend his green jersey and that means picking up points whenever possible. He’ll also want to equal or better his two stages wins of last year. Cavendish would likely be delighted to be back at the race after a two year absence, but is it likely he would be happy to play a leadout role? His competitive urge is so strong that it is difficult to imagine him being satisfied with such a position.
There is an obvious danger in that: the old adage about chiefs and Indians springs to mind.
This discussion is not to fault Chennaoui’s article; she made some very relevant points, not least the emotive appeal of Cavendish returning to the Tour. As she wrote, “if nothing else, it would be a chance to celebrate sporting greatness while it’s still with us, rather than reflect on it once it’s gone.”
That doesn’t unfortunately solve the conundrum that both he and Bennett being there would create. Speaking to Conquista last month, Deceuninck – Quick-Step directeur sportif Brian Holm said that he believed Cavendish was still capable of winning in cycling’s three-week races.
“To be honest, right from the hip, I think he can take another Grand Tour stage win now,” he said. “With the way he is riding now, yes, why not? We did not even discuss this [Cavendish doing a Grand Tour] with the team because we first have to see how he does. But like he is riding now, for sure he would take a Grand Tour stage win.”
Reassuringly for Bennett, Holm did say that there was no doubt that the team would back him for the green jersey in the Tour. But that was before Turkey, before four stage wins there, and before suggestions that Bennett could potentially move to another team.
And so to this week’s known unknowns. Is Bennett guaranteed the full backing he surely justified after last year’s Tour performance? Is Cavendish under consideration for the Tour? If he is, how could the team possibly balance the ambitions of two champions, particularly after the Scheldeprijs example?
When team manager Patrick Lefevere was weighing up last autumn whether or not to take Cavendish on board, he spoke of his internal deliberations. “Right now my heart says yes, but my mind says no,” he wrote in his Het Nieuwsblad column in October.
The team is yet to confirm if Cavendish is being considered for the Tour but, if he is, a similar battle between emotions and logic is surely taking place. There is an emotional and nostalgic appeal to him being there, but is it really worth alienating such a strong rider as Bennett?
Cav To The Tour may satisfy the fans, but perhaps Cav To The Giro or Cav To The Vuelta makes more sense this year.
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