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Mark Cavendish is a believer once again

In-depth
13 Apr 2021
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Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Deceuninck-QuickStep

Is Mark Cavendish back? In a word, no. No, Mark Cavendish is not back, at least not to the Cavendish of days gone by – the man who won 20 Tour de France stages in four years, who launched a rocket of a sprint at the 2009 Milan-San Remo to win a race that he had no right to win and who completely reinvented the discipline of sprinting with his HTC-Columbia team.

Cavendish is not about to hit an Indian Summer within his career either. Don’t expect the Manxman to have a Michael Jordan ‘Last Dance’ moment, headlining the Deceuninck-QuickStep team at the Tour later this year with his eyes on another six-stage haul.

No one, including Mark himself, expects to see the return of that rider from a decade ago. Time waits for no man, especially one who relies on being fast for a living. So nobody was kidding themselves into believing we would see the now 35-year-old winning multiple stages of a Grand Tour again or powering his way to another San Remo or springing himself to a second rainbow jersey.

Cavendish's place among the sprinting elite of today’s peloton is no more. Others around him are younger, faster, stronger. No longer is he even the quickest man in his team, something that would have been utterly unthinkable for the best part of a decade.

But the thing is, it’s not about being ‘back’ for Cavendish. It’s not about dominating Grand Tour sprint stages or hauling 20 victories in a season or being the best sprinter in the world.

This year, this season, these victories at the Tour of Turkey are about belief. Belief in himself, his capabilities and his ability to prove people wrong. Using actions on the bike to dispel the words of so many that had decided his time was up.

Last year, when Cavendish rolled through the media parade at Gent-Wevelgem with a quivering bottom lip, and we witnessed live the moment he realised that his career as a bike racer could be over, it was a gut-wrenching sight. Cavendish had been through the wringer.

Constant battles with injury and illness had plummeted his form and confidence to depths he had never been confronted with before in his career. With almost three years without a victory and no contract for the following season, it felt almost morbid to watch a true great of cycling realise his time was up.

At that moment, it was easier to give up on Cavendish’s career than it was to back him – like how it is easier to euthanise an injured racehorse than it is to nurse it through to recovery.

Yet one of the defining characteristics of any great athlete is that of self-belief – the underlying ability to always trust yourself and your abilities even in the toughest of situations, when all the chips are down and it looks as if there is no hope. Although he has realised he is no longer the athlete he once was, Cavendish never gave up believing in himself. He always believed he could win a bike race again.

Most of us wanted to see this moment again but seldom actually believed it would happen, myself included. But it didn’t matter if we believed, all that mattered was that Cavendish did.

As the story of this season has continued to unfold, we have seen the flame of faith within Cavendish grow stronger. From Le Samyn to the GP Jean-Pierre Monsere to Coppi e Bartali to Scheldeprijs, with each race he ticked off, the closer he got and the brighter the flame glowed. And on Monday, it was like somebody had lit the touch paper.

Yesterday’s victory in Turkey was just as much down to belief as it was ability. As he shot from the wheel of Andre Greipel to round Jasper Philipsen in the dying metres, it felt as if that decisive surge that catapulted him across the finish line in first place was as much powered by unwavering faith that he could win as it was his legs.

‘NEVER EVER give up,’ Cavendish wrote on Instagram after his victory.

‘For every hard time, there’s something that’ll taste sweeter. For each individual that kicks you, there’s a good person to pick you up. If you begin to doubt, remember when you believed.’

And Cavendish believed so much that he even managed to back up his Stage 2 victory with a much more convincing repeat on Stage 3. Like buses, you wait three years for a win, and two come at once.  

These wins at the Tour of Turkey are not his biggest wins, nor his most prestigious. But given the circumstances, it is very well his most impressive.

Will this victory provide a domino effect towards more victories? Looking likely, isn't it? Will he be able to eke out a final Grand Tour stage? Who knows, but faith is a powerful thing, after all.