Australian Michael Matthews has just missed out on a podium finish at his maiden Tour of Flanders, won by unfancied Italian Alberto Bettiol.
Last year, Mark Cavendish told his then Etixx-Quickstep teammate Tony Martin that he’d sign one more contract and then retire.
Last November, the 30-year-old former world champion sprinter and leading Tour de France stage winner of his generation signed on the dotted line for three seasons with MTN-Qhubeka, the then African Pro-Continental team which was one of the sport’s success stories of last season.
For many, a rider of Cavendish’s calibre swapping a €3.5 million per year contract to join a second-tier team is a sign of the times, and a reflection on his gradual demise.
In 2013, he may have become only the fifth rider in history to win the points classification of all three Grand Tours, but the diminutive sprinter from the Isle of Man has notched just a single Tour scalp in the past two years.
His dominance has been shaken by both Slovakia’s Peter Sagan (the four-time green jersey winner and newly crowned world champion) and the German powerhouse Marcel Kittel, the Briton’s shock replacement at Etixx, who won eight Tour stages in 2013 and 2014 and has famously never lost to Cavendish in a head-to-head.
Even former foe Andre Greipel has picked up more wins in recent years – and not just in the “shitty races”, to coin a memorable phrase of old from Cavendish himself.
But there’s a certain buzz surrounding Cavendish’s move which has people thinking that, far from being an epilogue, there are still chapters remaining in the story of the sport’s speediest sprinter.
MTN-Qhubeka – now known as Dimension Data after a sponsorship restructure – may be a small team, but their outlook is bright. With the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gerald Ciolek, Tyler Farrar, Theo Bos and Steve Cummings already in place, the nuts and bolts of a fine sprint train were present before Cavendish and his entourage climbed on board.
With the exception of his troubled year at Sky, Cavendish comes as a package with Australian Mark Renshaw, his lead-out man at both HTC and QuickStep (once described by Cavendish as “the most gifted person I’ve ever seen at moving round the peloton”).
The pair will also be reunited with another one of the old HTC dream team, the popular Austrian Bernie Eisel, alongside whom Cavendish won 23 of his 26 Tour stage wins. It’s a tally which puts Cavendish two shy of Bernard Hinault’s 28 career Tour stage wins, and eight behind the record held by Eddy Merckx.
If his stats speak for themselves, then Cavendish certainly won’t shy away from telling it like it is either. The fiery poster boy of the British cycling revolution – who bucked the trend by becoming a Tour stage winner for the first time aged 21 in a sport dominated by continental athletes – is renowned for his incendiary character and outspoken antics.
A troubled start to the 2010 season (largely owing to issues stemming from dental problems) took a turn for the worse when the victorious Cavendish was ejected from the Tour de Romandie for flicking a V-sign towards the media zone – not long after the wretched defence of his Milan-San Remo crown (he finished a lowly 89th).
Two months later, after colliding with Australia’s Heinrich Haussler during the Tour de Suisse and causing a mass pile-up, Cavendish withdrew from the race after his colleagues in the peloton staged a two-minute protest against the Briton the next day.
The Haussler incident was far from a one-off: in 2013 Cavendish was allegedly doused in urine by spectators in Normandy after taking out Dutchman Tom Veelers on the finishing straight a day earlier; and who can forget Cavendish’s collision with Simon Gerrans in the opening stage of the 2014 Tour in Yorkshire?
For all his achievements, Cavendish has suffered many a meltdown and a succession of setbacks. That crash with Gerrans came in Harrogate, his mother’s birth town, where local fans expected to see Cavendish don the race’s first yellow jersey on home soil.
During his time in Great Britain’s omnipotent track team, Cavendish was the only big-name rider not to win an Olympic medal at Beijing in 2008. And when the Games came to London in 2012, fans expecting to see Cavendish sprint to gold on The Mall instead had to make do with Alexandre Vinokourov outfoxing Rigoberto Uran after Team GB botched their tactics on Box Hill during the men’s elite road race.
With Bradley Wiggins basking in the success of his Tour-Olympic double en route to becoming knighted and showered with every award possible, it was a bitter pill to swallow for Cavendish. After all, having won 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year off the back of his world championships victory in Denmark, Cav had spent his subsequent year in rainbow stripes largely in the service of Wiggo – his old friend and Madison partner – at Sky.
Perhaps even more than Wiggins, Cavendish has sought the trimmings that come with being – stormy times aside – at the top of his game. With the wins came the endorsement deals, the shampoo adverts, the McLaren MP4-12C supercar, the two autobiographies (Boy Racer and At Speed), the Tuscan villa, the former glamour model wife, and his own hip CVNDSH brand.
Indeed, for a man of so many words, Cavendish doesn’t half have an aversion to vowels – even if he’s no stranger to avowals. Fans who have a pop at him on social media are “imbeciles”, riders who dope are “dickheads”, journalists “who know jack shit about cycling” are shown two fingers and have their dictaphones seized – even Renshaw has had to bear the brunt of his irascible ire when things don’t go Cav’s way.
It’s fair to say that Cavendish has mellowed since the birth of his daughter Delilah, although that may boil down to the realisation that he is no longer the undisputed cock of the walk. Where Cav could point at former HTC teammate Greipel back in 2010 and say, “Me on bad form is still better than him,” this no longer automatically rings true.
In the absence of Kittel in last year’s Tour it was not Cavendish who – contrary to expectations – went on to win four stages, but German veteran Greipel instead.
Shorter (5ft 9in) and lighter (69kg) than most of his sprint rivals – most notably the bulky German duo – Cavendish has always relied on more than brute strength alone when it comes to bunch gallops. This is a man who once scored over 140 in an IQ test, and who trains his brain with Sudoku puzzles specifically so he can keep up with the hundreds of split-second decisions that need to be made at the conclusion of a race.
His desire to return to the track in the Rio 2016 Olympics may see Cavendish put on some of the weight he lost while at Etixx. As a result, he’ll likely struggle on more of the Tour’s climbs, but it should make him more competitive in the mass sprints once again. As he has reiterated many a time, the speed’s still there – but that is just one component required to come out on top.
With Cavendish, Renshaw and Eisel reunited, alongside two key signings for Dimension Data in Australians Nathan Haas and Cameron Meyer, we could well be seeing a different kind of Cav than the one who struggled during his final two years at Etixx.
Still only 30, Cavendish has many years left at the top level and – despite his admission to Martin – another contract beyond his current three years is not out of the question. If Greipel can win four stages in the world’s biggest bike race aged 33, then why not the man who for so long kept the Gorilla in the shade?
Many critics believe that Cavendish’s arrival at Dimension Data will not only upset the balance of the team but also distract from the vision of developing home-grown African talent.
But having Cavendish on board allows the team to take things to a whole new level. The Manxman remains one of the biggest names in cycling. If he wins, it’s front page news, and yes, if he loses, it can be even bigger news. Either way, Cavendish will make headlines, and already Dimension Data have benefited from his presence by being accepted into the UCI WorldTour.
Cavendish brings more exposure and sponsorships opportunities – evident already in the team’s deal with Deloitte, arguably the most established global brand of its kind involved in the sport.
Put simply, you don’t turn down someone like Mark Cavendish when he still has so much to prove.
If Cavendish can realise his ambition of wearing the maillot jaune, if he can end Sagan’s run in green, if he can add a second Monument to his 2009 Milan-San Remo scalp, if he can pass Hinault’s Tour stage tally or even overtake Merckx to become the most successful stage winner in the Tour’s history – if he can do any of the above while at Dimension Data, the windfall for the team and African cycling will be colossal.
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