Mark Cavendish is the most successful Tour de France sprinter of his generation. It wasn’t so long ago that we were talking about him overtaking Eddy Merckx and becoming the guy who’s won more stages of the race than anyone else.This year he’s barely been in camera shot as the Tour’s sprint stages reach their crescendo. How the hell has it all gone wrong for the one-time Manx Missile?
There’s been a real change in Mark Cavendish’s post-race demeanour this year. His performances on the bike have hardly been vintage Cav, his average finishing position on Tour sprint stages so far this year is 22nd. Yet there’s been little sign of the snarly young man we’ve become used to in his post-race interviews. Instead, we’re getting sweetness and light.
The old Cavendish would be giving chippy soundbites after a loss. He’d be inferring that those asking the questions knew nothing about racing. He’s be suggesting that the riders that got in his way weren’t good enough to be at the race. The old beaten Cav would be stealing recorders, blanking reporters and hiding behind his trademark Oakleys.
When Mark Cavendish had a bad race you could feel the self-loathing come through the screen. Then you’d hear the stories of post-loss postmortems with his team. In those meetings, Cav would dial the intensity up to eleven to get the win that he craved.Embed from Getty Images
Cavendish would turn all that negative energy into a positive force. As often as not, he’d turn that dark cloud hanging over him into a beam of sunshine as he hit the line first on the next sprint day with a huge smile on his face. It was an admirable process to observe.
That intensity seems to have gone. Instead of the sneer on his face, there’s a hint of a grin as he breezily infers that if he had the same bikes as Quick-Step and Bora he’d be doing much better.
Has that lack of intensity found its way onto the road too? Cavendish has had three big crashes this season, which have disrupted his build-up to the Tour. Only one of those crashes happened when the racing was fully on (at Milan-Sanremo). The other two occurred at much more benign points in the racing.
We can speculate he’s getting complacent and losing his sharpness. Whatever the reason Mark Cavendish has won just one race this year, a stage of the Dubai Tour way back in February.
In the same time, Fernando Gaviria has won 9 races, Elia Viviani has won 14 and Dylan Groenewegen has taken 11.
Maybe it’s age? Maybe it is, but Andre Greipel has finished ahead of Cavendish in every Tour sprint stage so far and the German is nearly three years older than him. In fact, Greipel has a significantly bigger win rate over the past couple of years.
There is speculation that Cavendish is no longer willing to put himself fully into the dangerous explosion that is a sprint finish. We’ll never know for certain, but it can’t get any easier picking yourself off the floor after hitting the deck 50 metres from the line.Embed from Getty Images
One thing is for sure, unless he has a remarkable change in form then we’ll see the infamous crash with Peter Sagan on stage 4 of last year’s Tour de France as a turning point in the Manxman’s career.
The other factor at play is the team he rides for. In the past, Mark Cavendish has thrived when he’s at the big sprint team of the day. In those teams, he’s had a lot of help achieving his wins. He also worked with managers who’ve pushed him to be the best and talented teammates ready to take his place should he not be up to the job. When the pressure was on you could count on Cavendish delivering.
At Dimension Data, Cav is the star of the show. At many other teams, given his form this year, he wouldn’t have been selected for the Tour. His participation in France was never in doubt. Without him, Dimension Data would struggle to get noticed above the noise of the race.
If Mark Cavendish has lost some of his personal intensity then he’s also missing the external intensity. Dimension Data has gone from being one of the most distinctive teams in the peloton to one of the blandest. They still have a laudable purpose but can you remember the last time they imposed themselves on the road?Embed from Getty Images
When Cav arrived at the Tour with HTC or Quick-Step all the talk would be about how many stages he’d win. With Dimension Data there’s none of that bombast. There are no high expectations. There’s no pressure.
So how the hell has Mark Cavendish stopped winning? Somewhere along the line, the intensity that drove him on has gone and it doesn’t seem that there’s anyone around him who can help him get it back.
Header image: ©GETTY/Matteo Marchi