Can Mark Cavendish be stopped?
Cavendish vs Goss - Cav holds the upper hand in the Green jersey stakes - if he wants it Image: Graeme Watson
With 20 stage victories from just five Tours de France, Mark Cavendish already sits sixth on the list of all-time Tour stage winners.
Of those above him, only Eddie Merckx (34) and Bernard Hinault (28) appear safe, at least for now.
Andre Leducq (25) may hold his third place beyond this year, but the 22 victories amassed by Lance Armstrong and Andre Derrigade will almost certainly be surpassed.
Barring illness or misfortune, Mark Cavendish will once again be a multiple Tour de France stage winner.
The Manx Missile is peerless, and those who suggest he will ‘save’ himself for the Olympic Games are kidding themselves.
Cavendish loves to win and once he takes to the roads of France in just under a month’s time, he will be totally focused on what he does best – winning stages of the world’s biggest bike race.
Since 2008, he has dominated the Tour’s bunch sprints and that trend will continue in 2012 for the simple reason that no one else is good enough to beat him on a regular basis.
That is not an insult to the likes of Andre Greipel, Matt Goss, Tyler Farrar or Mark Renshaw, but rather a measure of how spectacular Cavendish’s sprinting actually is.
He is a rare talent.
Former teammate and now arch rival Greipel often felt aggrieved that he was only ever considered for HTC’s ‘B’ team.
While he was winning stages of the Tour Down Under and the Tours of Turkey and Britain, ‘A’ team sprinter Cavendish was winning Milan-San Remo and multiple Tour de France stages.
A move to OmegaPharma-Lotto last year gave Greipel the chance to prove that he was the equal of Cavendish.
Going head-to-head with the Manxman at the Tour, Greipel finally had the victory he craved.
In what was perhaps the finest moment of the big German’s career, he rode past Cavendish in the finishing straight to claim an emotional stage-10 win at Carmaux.
It was without doubt one of the most impressive and powerful displays of sprinting that you could hope to see and yet it was just a hiccup for Cavendish.
He had already won two stages and would get revenge over Greipel on the very next stage.
Cavendish would then claim another two stages later on for good measure. Stage 10 remained Greipel’s only victory.
Greipel will carry good form into the 2012 edition of the Tour and may even steal a stage at some point.
Yet at 30 years of age, he won’t be getting any faster and will only ever be keeping that top podium spot warm for Cavendish should he chance to stand upon it.
Another who managed to claim a sprint last year was Tyler Farrar.
Farrar rode away with stage three, but Cavendish was out of position and a head-to-head battle failed to eventuate.
The American has been disappointing and his palmares is littered with minor placings. He is yet to win a sprint this year and is only the slightest of chances to upset Cavendish.
Former teammate and lead-out man Matt Goss, is perhaps the biggest threat to Cavendish.
Yet even his confidence must have taken a battering after several close, but not quite, results.
Beginning with last year’s world championships and carrying through to this year’s Giro d’Italia, Goss has made Cavendish work harder for his victories than anyone else.
But the key word here is victories, which – hard fought or not – still belong to Cavendish.
Goss pulled out of the Giro early and will go into the Tour fresh.
Cavendish rode all the way to Milan chasing the points jersey, only to lose out to Joaquim Rodriguez by one point.
Will Cav’s added workload make a difference?
Probably not, but the Australian must take any advantage he can if he is to reverse the run of near misses against his former team leader.
Young gun Marcel Kittel shapes up as a potential rival to Cavendish, if not this year then certainly down the track.
The Argos-Shimano rider stormed his way to 17 victories as a neo-pro last season, including a Vuelta stage and a string of wins at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland.
Australian cycling fans also got to witness the young German’s impressive finishing speed as he took home two stages of the Jayco-Herald Sun Tour last October.
Both Kittel and Cavendish have speed and confidence, but that is where the similarities end.
Cavendish also has experience and enormous team support.
His lead-out train at Sky has become just as lethal as his former HTC set up.
Despite the team leadership being split between himself and Bradley Wiggins, enough support will remain to ensure that he has every opportunity to continue on his winning way.
At just 27 years of age, Cavendish has only reached the middle stages of his career.
With no serious rival in sight, he has the chance to dominate bunch sprints for a long time to come.
While Eddy Merckx will never be usurped as the greatest cyclist of all time, his record of 34 Tour stage victories will almost certainly fall.
If Cavendish can stay fit and healthy, then the record is his for the taking.
Another four years should do it. Five at the most.
The Roar welcomes Sean as an expert cycling columnist. Sean loves to combine his love of sport and writing. He recently won the Stringybark Australian Short Story History award for his depiction of the Aboriginal game of Marngrook and his work has appeared in various newspapers and anthologies.
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