“There are a lot of guys in the peloton who f**king hate me to be fair,” Mark Cavendish admitted in the aftermath of his opening day victory at the Tour de France, which put him in the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. He might easily have added that opinion on him outside the pro peloton is very polarised too. Blessed with unparalleled brilliance when it comes to negotiating bunch sprints and emerging from their manic mayhem with the rest of the pack chasing his heels, Cavendish can be boorish and rude, quick to take offence at even the most anodyne of questions.
It’s that aspect of the British sprinter’s personality that led to so many in the media and beyond writing off Cavendish as a spent force going into this year’s Tour. Winner of just three stages in the previous three Tours having bagged a staggering 23 in the five preceding that, Cavendish was, many declared, past his best. Marcel Kittel, who Cavendish had never managed to beat in a head-to-head sprint, was anointed the king of the sprints.
Yet, less than a week into the Tour, Cavendish has ripped that analysis apart and, for British cycling fans at least, his resurgence has been glorious to watch. In a nation where sporting failure, particularly among the most high-profile sports, is almost accepted as the natural way of being, Cavendish is an anomaly. He’s an athlete who is not only blessed with immense natural talent, but also the strength of mind to ensure he has consistently got the best from that ability – a Maradona or a Messi on two wheels.
Since the 2008 Tour, when he claimed his first four stage victories, the Manxman has consistently surpassed expectations. However, his success has been questioned just as consistently. In his HTC/Columbia days, criticism focused on his supposed need for a highly organised and fully committed lead-out train. More recently, it’s been widely suggested that he’s simply not as quick as he once was. But Cavendish has proved time and again that he can win any kind of sprint either with a train or without one.
His third victory in this year’s race at Montauban perfectly encapsulated Cavendish’s astonishing ability to read a sprint and to react at exactly the right moments in order to win it. In the midst of a chaotic finish where no team managed to deliver a well-organised lead-out for their sprinter, the Briton surfed from wheel to wheel until he was on Kittel’s. By the time the German decided it was time to open up his sprint, Cavendish had already accelerated past him and got the gap he decisive gap he needed for success. Graphics later showed that Kittel and third-placed Dan McLay had sprinted faster than the Manxman, but Cavendish produced his fastest burst at the moment it counted the most.
It was thrilling to watch, one of those shout-at-the-TV occasions. It was confident and cocky Cavendish at his very best, as undoubtedly the greatest sprinter cycling has ever seen.