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Tour de France history: Cav becomes King of Sprinters in 2010

In-depth
27 Dec 2021
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A miserable start to 2010 saw Mark Cavendish struggling for wins and losing respect. He needed to do something special…

Photo: L’Equipe

‘This was June 2010,’ writes Mark Cavendish in his second autobiography At Speed. ‘The Tour was three weeks away and I was a mess. Lonely, miserable, out of form, unpopular with journalists, fellow riders and even fans, after the highs of the previous two years I’d somehow fallen into a pit of despair. I had three weeks to crawl out.’

To say the first six months of the 2010 season were difficult for Cavendish is an understatement. Twelve months earlier he had wracked up 13 individual wins including Milan-San Remo before the Tour’s Grand Depart. In 2010 his tally stood at three. But it wasn’t just the lack of victories that troubled the sprinter – there was plenty of controversy as well.

Cavendish’s pre-season had been impacted by agonising abscesses following a cosmetic dental procedure in Paraguay. Behind in his preparations and with pressure building from poor results and speculation over the possibility of a move to the newly launched Team Sky, his frustration spilled over. In April he gave an interview to The Guardian that ratcheted up his in-team rivalry with André Greipel and generated further headlines over his future.

Later that same month he was pulled from the Tour de Romandie after celebrating what was just his second win of the season by raising ‘my middle and index fingers in an emphatic V-sign. V for victory. V for, well, you know,’ as he later wrote, and saying in the subsequent press conference that it was ‘to send a message to commentators and journalists who don’t know jack shit about cycling’.

And so it went on. At the Tour of California in May he won the opening stage only to finish outside the time limit five days later. Then, at the Tour de Suisse, blame was heaped onto his shoulders for a huge crash in the last 50m of the stage into Wettingen, prompting rider protests the next day and one sports director to tell the press, ‘We just want to send a message to Cavendish to ask him for more respect.’

Two days later Cavendish left the race because of injuries sustained in that crash. It all added up to a miserable six months in which he had only finished three races.

And then came the Tour.

From despair to delight

It is 7th July 2010, Stage 4, Cambrai to Reims. It might be early in the race but Cavendish is winless and the knives are already out. He missed the only mass-gallop so far on Stage 1 after crashing on a tight corner 2km out. That led to more negative headlines – ‘Mark Cavendish at heart of crash controversy,’ was The Guardian’s view – and spectators to shout from behind the protection of barriers that he ‘sucked’ and to ‘go home’.

Now, with 2km to go on Stage 4, Cavendish is perfectly placed. The HTC-Columbia sprint train is truly on track and he’s taken to the 200m mark by Renshaw before his lead-out man departs stage right just as Lampre’s Alessandro Petacchi launches his own bid. Cavendish kicks for home and… nothing happens.

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That familiar burst of acceleration is nowhere to be seen. Instead Petacchi leads the way and Cavendish sits up. As the veteran Italian sprinter celebrates, Cavendish crosses the line in 12th. He throws his bike down before storming into the bus, and moments later his helmet comes bouncing down the steps. Cue more headlines.

Inside that bus Cavendish was distraught and without an explanation as to why his legs had failed him. In At Speed he writes that he hadn’t thrown his helmet as was later reported – it had just fallen from a seat – but that he had sat in the arms of the team’s press officer with his head under a towel ‘staring at the carpet through tears’, the telling silence of his team’s general manager fuelling his anger.

The next day was to bring another sprinter’s stage. That night in the hotel, in a bid to lessen the pressure on the sprinter’s shoulders, sports director Brian Holm asked Cavendish if he’d prefer the team didn’t go for the stage.

‘I’m going to win tomorrow,’ he replied.

Cavendish was true to his word, finishing off a fine day’s work by his team by outsprinting Milram’s Gerald Ciolek into Montargis to cry tears of joy and relief during the presentation. Then he made it back-to-back wins a day later in Guegnon, his team working all day to keep in check and then bring back a break that had gone at the 4km mark. Tony Martin, Bernie Eisel and Renshaw guided Cavendish to the finish, and while the Garmin team took the initiative in the final kilometre, Tyler Farrar could do nothing against Cavendish once the Manxman had been launched.

‘I was delivered perfectly with about 175m or 200m to go and the rest was fairly straightforward,’ Cavendish said.

‘For the rider who puts a premium on perfection, all was back to normal,’ reported the New York Times. As it turned out the ‘back to normal’ Cavendish ended the 2010 Tour with five stage wins, including a second straight victory on the Champs-Élysées, the first time any rider had won on the famous avenue in successive years. That win really captured his dominance, the side-on camera angle showing him exploding past a fully sprinting Thor Hushovd as if the Norwegian was standing still.

‘Forget about it,’ said commentator Phil Liggett. ‘Mark Cavendish is streets ahead of the Tour de France when it comes to a sprint finish,’ as Cavendish’s reign as the King of Sprinters continued despite his early-season travails.