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Commentary: The new Mark Cavendish

The British sprinter recently took to social media to honor his longtime foe, Marcel Kittel

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Introducing the kinder, more gentle Mark Cavendish.

By now, you may have heard about the recent social media back-and-forth between Cavendish and his longtime rival, German sprinter Marcel Kittel. Last week Kittel said he was taking a break from pro cycling, because, as he wrote, “I am not able to train and race at the highest level.”

Cavendish took to Instagram to offer support to his former foe.

“As competitors, we all try to have an edge on each other,” Cavendish wrote. “But as humans, we should only wish for peace and happiness for each other. From my heart, I wish you all the best for your next chapter.”

Cav’s Instagram gesture is akin to Rocky Balboa tweeting a heart emoji at Ivan Drago after their fight in the Soviet Union. Yep, it’s one of those rare exchanges of emotion between two stoic rivals who invest countless hours of sweat and toil into beating one another. It’s the kind of exchange that prompts fans to clap, and sportswriters to pen columns.

Cavendish was asked about his Instagram comment during Friday’s press conference at the Amgen Tour of California, where the Brit will look to add another stage victory to his career total of 10. Cavendish said he sympathized with Kittel, and he wanted him to return. Like the German, Cavendish said had felt the various stresses that bear down on the world’s top sprinters.

“The amount of times I’ve heard, ‘Oh, one less competitor’ — but it’s like, I don’t really wish for one less competitor because it’s someone who is suffering,” Cavendish said. “I wanted to write something for the heart, and it doesn’t matter if you’re friends or not. You don’t wish suffering on anybody. It was as simple as that.”

It’s simple to chalk this banter up as fluff; a flurry of tweets and Instagram posts that will soon fade into pixel dust amid social media’s constant churn. Collect the likes and retweets, and move on. I, for one, think we should stop and view this kind gesture through the context of Cavendish’s long career.

I have heard stories from multiple people within the sport about Cavendish’s kindness and generosity. Those of us in the media are also familiar with his prickly personality, which is the stuff of legend. Over the years he has told reporters to shove it, berated spectators, angrily chucked equipment, and delivered a two-fingered salute to his doubters. Cav is often the first across the line, and the first to let fly with profanity.

It’s understandable. Chalk this behavior up to the no-nonsense attitude required to survive in pro cycling’s kill-or-be-killed sprint battles, where elbows bump and tempers flare at 45mph over cheese-grater tarmac. Survive this high-risk game of chicken, and a sprinter then faces countless questions from pesky journalists like me. I get it, it does not look easy.

And that’s why this show of kindness to a foe, in my eyes, represents something bigger than just words on social media. Kittel’s problems are undoubtedly embarrassing, and present an opportunity for rivals to turn the screws on him in the media. Instead, it was nothing but love from Cav.

Perhaps it’s because Cavendish realizes he’s closer to the end of his own career than to the start. Perhaps its because he’s finally healthy after losing nearly two seasons to mononucleosis.

And perhaps it’s because Cavendish knows better than anyone the rub of being a WorldTour sprinter. Victory is fleeting. Hot and cold streaks can last for years. While the victories bring adoration, losses bring criticism, both from team management and from those pesky journalists and trolls on social media. It’s that type of perspective that comes after 14 years of highs and lows in this punishing sport.

In his press conference, Cavendish referenced this new era of social media, and how anyone with an opinion and a computer can blast an athlete online.

“We’re living in a world now where everyone has access to have their say, and that puts a different pressure onto anybody, let alone professional sports people,” Cavendish said. “It’s changed the whole dynamic of professional sports, and it’s changed the whole dynamic of life.”

Like the other cadre of top sprinters, Cavendish has come to the Amgen Tour of California to win stages and prepare his legs for the rest of the season. Fans will undoubtedly watch Cavendish for signs that he’s returned to his top form as he prepares for the Tour de France.

I will be watching Cavendish for other signs.  If – OK, when – a journalist asks a dumb question, will Cav take the guy’s tape reporter? Maybe he will just shake his head, smile, and just live and let live.