This week, the 105th Giro d'Italia begins when the starting gun fires in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. After COVID-related issues forced race organisers…
How quickly a man’s fate can change in the world of sports. Once seemingly forever glorious in form, dominant beyond doubt, pristine in movement and though, within a single, definable instant it can all come crashing down.
Others draw it out, let it linger on. They hang in there, certain for a while at least that their innate talents will pull them through the trough and drag them back towards the pinnacle of their respective endeavors.
But it so rarely happens that way. In fact, apart from Michael Jordan I can’t think of anyone who has truly regained the heights they vacated either through choice or through a slip in their abilities.
Diego Maradona, Boris Becker, Jack Nicklaus, Tommy Hearns, the list goes on and on. In cycling Eddy Merckx had his day, so too Lance Armstrong.
Either they lost it through the accumulation of age and the grinding effect of the sheer effort involved, or because someone younger came along.
Maybe not someone better than they were for so long, but better than them in that present moment.
Others just simply, inexplicably, fade fast. Fernando Torres of Spain and Chelsea springs to mind, once a galloping thoroughbred, he’s now barely recognisable.
Michael Owen of England lit up the World Cup on his debut in 1998 when he was just 18 years old.
Already great and perhaps unable to live up to expectations and despite moving to some of the world’s biggest clubs, he never quite reached the stratosphere again – perhaps in terms of salary yes, but not in terms of form.
In cycling we can look to one Andy Schleck for a similar example.
A shadow of his former self, Schleck has been rocked by injury and the suspension of his older brother following a positive dope test, and yet even that does not fully explain the considerable drop off in form currently being exhibited by the Luxembourger.
Very few sportsmen have the mental acuity and mastery of their ego to know when to step aside before the inexorable slide begins. Even the great Michael Jordan didn’t know when to stop.
The last ball he ever threw should have been the one that won the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz for the Chicago Bulls. And with that, having won six NBA championships, His Airness could have stepped off the court forever.
But then he made an ill-fated second comeback with the Washington Wizards in 2001 and stayed, trying to recapture the greatness until 2003.
Now, some may think this a stretch but I am going to propose this: Mark Cavendish should retire right now.
Why? Because for Cavendish, the highest honor in his game is to win the green jersey at the Tour de France and that is never going to happen again.
Not as long as Peter Sagan is around, and not unless the rules that decide the Points Competition change radically.
Quit, Cav. Your time is up. Your coupon is no longer valid. The milk’s gone off, the cake is stale, and the party’s over.
Will he win another stage at the Tour to add to the 23 he currently has? Yes. For sure.
Another classic like Milan-San Remo? Very possibly.
Another World Championship? If the course is designed for a rider like him, he has a great chance.
But another green jersey? No chance.
Now, some are daring to suggest that the current Points Competition is unfair because it is no longer awarding the coveted jersey to the best sprinter.
That logic is about as sound as Lance Armstrong’s biological passport.
Why? Because it functioned perfectly well until a young Slovakian turned up.
It awarded the jersey to the best traditional sprinter in the pack.
Thor Hushovd gave us a brief break from that in 2009 when he ‘stole’ the jersey by staging long range breakaways (the Norwegian is a favourite of mine but he is struggling these days and at 35 is past his best), but for the past few years the fastest sprinter has won.
The problem is not that the Points Classification’s awarding of points is somehow ‘wrong’.
It’s that no one ever expected the arrival of a rider quite like Peter Sagan.
Fast guys aren’t supposed to be able to get over hills like he does. On Stage 3 he lost by a couple of tire widths to Simon Gerrans but just about every commentator in the building had his money on Sagan.
So fast is he over three hundred, five hundred, a kilometre and more that when he gets into a lead group without the sprinters it is a given almost that he will be in the top three.
And that means points. On flat stages he can not only be a pretty safe bet for a top five but he actually has the ability to win there too.
They call him the Terminator but he is no robot. His natural verve is infectious, though he irritates most traditionalists.
But its source is a natural confidence in his own talents, and these are abundant.
And the Manx Missile? Brilliant rider. The most accomplished sprinter of all time. A genius on the bike in that last kilometre.
But neither he nor Andre Greipel nor any of the other pretenders to what has become Sagan’s green jersey can compete on these terms.
So should we tweak the terms of the competition to allow the best sprinter to win? I’d argue that the ‘best sprinter’ is currently wearing that jersey.
They needn’t fuss too much in any case – in 15 years or so Sagan will retire anyway, and the rules will once again be perfect for the more traditionally dimensioned sprinters.
Riders like Cavendish and Sagan come once in a generation and, they may prove ultimately, once ever. They are both brilliant. And do I really want Cav to hang up his cycling shoes?
No, but, on his terms, he might be better to accept that green is gone for good and focus on other goals.
For Sagan truly is the Green Eyed Monster.