No one questions that Mark Cavendish is the fastest sprinter in the world. Cavendish will tell you as much, but so will his rivals.
The 2012 season saw a different Cavendish, however. For the first time since his meteoric rise began in 2007, he wasn’t surrounded by a train to control stages and drive home the sprints.
After his highly anticipated offseason move to Sky, Cavendish, in the rainbow stripes of world champion, soon found himself in the unfamiliar position of playing second fiddle to Bradley Wiggins and his GC aspirations.
Smelling the opportunity to make history with Wiggins, Cavendish became a cog in a larger wheel rather than the center of attention. The Manxman still won plenty in his world champion season, taking 15 wins on the year, including the overall at the Ster ZLM Tour in Holland.
But for all the highs — three stages each at the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia — there were plenty of lows to test Cavendish’s mettle.
He fell flat at Milan-San Remo when he sounded more confident than ever that he’d take his second win there. He missed out on a chance to win the Giro points jersey on the final day, losing out to Joaquim Rodríguez, but Cavendish fought bravely to the end.
The Tour proved frustrating. On one side, Cavendish enjoyed being part of Sky’s history-making Tour-winning squad, but he knew it was at his expense. He lost the green jersey to the rising talent of Peter Sagan.
All that didn’t matter because the Olympics were supposed to be his. The five-man British team was riding for him and no one else.
Things turned sideways when a big group of 30-plus riders pulled clear over Box Hill. With the Germans content to watch Cavendish not win, he settled for a bittersweet 29th on a day he, and everyone else, expected him to be crowned on the finishing straight on The Mall.
Ever confident, Cavendish expects things to return to “normal” with his move to Omega Pharma-Quick Step. With his train back on track, the locomotive is sure to be firing at all cylinders.
Throughout the season, Cavendish also got a good glimpse at the riders who will be most serious challengers to his sprint throne in the coming years.
Here’s a look at the best sprints of 2012 and some of the names that the Cannonball will be facing in the coming months.