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Remembering Mark Cavendish for what he is: cycling’s greatest ever sprinter

12 Oct 2020

Watching the scenes after Gent-Wevelgem was tough for anybody with a heart. One of the best riders to ever grace the sport of road cycling was being hit by the realisation that it might all be over.

When Mark Cavendish stopped to offer a word to Sporza after rolling in over six minutes adrift of winner Mads Pedersen, I’m not sure he knew what he was going to say. Having been in the day’s breakaway, he was asked to comment on the race.

He sniffs, his bottom lip quivers, a tear rolls down his cheek. ‘That’s perhaps the last race of my career...’ he responds, voice trembling. Asked for clarification on whether that truly was his last ride, Cavendish says ‘maybe, yeah’.

He rides off in tears. We were watching a man realising that his hugely successful 15-year career was likely to be coming to an end.

Now 35 years old, the end has admittedly been in sight for the Manx Missle for a few seasons now. A rider who amassed 146 professional victories last raised his arms aloft at the finish line at the end of Stage 3 of the Dubai Tour in February 2018, 977 days ago.

Since that day he has battled serious illness that stopped him racing for long periods, crashes, a lack of belief in his ability to return to top form and the realisation that the current crop of sprinters now going head-to-head at Grand Tours are simply quicker than he is.

Offered a contract at Bahrain-McLaren for 2020, there were hopes that a glimmer of his former self could manifest as he teamed back up with Rod Ellingworth. A Covid-hit year put paid to that. Now it looks as if Cavendish’s time as a professional bike racer is coming to an end.

Seldom does a pro athlete go out on top. We so often see a sense of hubris in somebody so successful, being unable to stop while at the peak of their powers; always chasing that high they felt those years ago.

When a rider retires past their peak, especially having battled in vain to return to their former glory for so long, it is easy to remember them for those final memories of suffering, setback and disappointment, and be left with the sentiiment: ‘He never quite managed to get back to the man he once was.’

And so it is very easy to forget that in Mark Cavendish you have one of the sport’s all-time greats and the greatest road sprinter to ever race.

Cavendish is a 30-time Tour de France stage winner, with 46 Grand Tour stages in total, a road World Champion and a Milan-San Remo winner. Simply put, he is a winner. But it is not just the stats that tell of Cavendish’s impact. Winning 46 Grand Tour stages is exceptional. Being a World Champion and Milan-San Remo victor is phenomenal.

Winning 23.8% of Tour de France stages he raced between 2008 and 2011, however, is truly absurd.

It was the normalisation of sprint domination that he should really be remembered for. He targeted the biggest stage races throughout the season, then turned up, winning multiple stages, blowing away the opposition, going home, coming back and doing it again.

When Cavendish was at his pomp, we felt we were witnessing something new. Nobody was as untouchable in the discipline of the road sprinting as he was. Mario Cippolini, Erik Zabel, Freddy Maertens, Alessandro Petacchi were all excellent before him but Cavendish was on a different plane.

Every time he entered the final 500m of the stage on the wheel of longtime lead out man Mark Renshaw, the result was almost a formality. For a competitor to beat Cavendish – Petacchi, Andre Greipel, Matt Goss – they needed to catch him on a rare bad day while they were on an exceptional day.

Since this time, no sprinter has been able to replicate this dominance. Marcel Kittel was very good but for a brief period. Fernando Gaviria and Caleb Ewan win lots of stages but not to the same extent. Dylan Groenewegen is extremely fast but nowhere near as dominant.

Speak to any sprinter to have raced in the past decade of the sport and there will be a ubiquitous opinion. Cavendish was the greatest they ever raced against or he was their idol when they were trying to get into the spot. If they beat Cavendish it made the win that bit sweeter, and if they were compared to him they were flattered.

Witness the outpouring of support from his fellow competitors after that Sporza interview, it is clear they respect him as one of the greatest ever.

Of course, Cavendish says this was his last race but who knows what could happen. Clearly emotional, his own comments could motivate him to keep going if not for another season, at least to this Wednesday’s Schheldeprijs, the race where it all really began for him 12 years ago.

But if this is the end, let’s be sure to forget the rider he is now and celebrate the rider he was: the greatest sprinter of all time.