Last fall, Cavendish was in tears at Gent-Wevelgem when he realized his career might end without another trip to the winner’s podium.
Flash forward six months, and a string of resurgent sprint victories coupled with some back-room drama involving Sam Bennett sees the Manxman returning to the race that helped forge his reputation as one of cycling’s greatest sprinters.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step confirmed Cavendish’s Tour comeback in a stunning announcement Monday that left defending green jersey-winner Bennett at home nursing both a sore knee and dented confidence.
Aware that second acts are rare in elite racing, Cavendish is intent on capitalizing on the unexpected opportunity.
“I am excited to be going back to a race that I have such an affinity with and where I have so much history,” Cavendish said. “It is the biggest bike race in the world, and I am going to do all I can to grab this opportunity with both hands.”
Cavendish and the legacy of speed
Cavendish and the Tour de France are synonymous.
Following his debut in 2007, when he abandoned in stage 8, Cavendish quickly emerged as the dominant sprinter in the Tour for the better part of the next 10 years. He built up a tremendous track record, winning 30 stages, second only to Eddy Merckx with 34 on the all-time list.
Cavendish was unrivaled in the mass gallops and won on the Champs-Élysées four years in a row from 2009-2012 to confirm his reign at the top of the sprinter hierarchy.
A move to Dimension Data (now Qhubeka Assos) in 2016 saw him hit his peak, winning four stages before pulling out early to attend the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Age and illness started to catch up with him, not to mention a new generation of younger, faster sprinters. His last Tour wins came in 2016, and he hasn’t started one since 2018.
Now he’s back, but the question begs — will he win a stage?
The peloton is a very different place than when he took his final Tour victory in 2016.
The stages are harder, the speeds are faster, and the peloton waits for no one.
Patrick Lefevere, who had sharp words against Bennett in the Belgian media on Monday, said the team isn’t expecting miracles from Cavendish.
“As far as Mark Cavendish is concerned, the expectations are not too high,” Lefevere told Sporza. “He is not 30 anymore. It is to his credit that he is nervous as if he has to ride his first race in the juniors. If he does not win, everyone will think that is normal. If he does win, everyone will put him on a throne.”
Deceuninck-Quick-Step brings the team
There are two parts of the equation to winning a Tour de France sprint — the team and the speed.
Of the first part, Cavendish will see perhaps the best lead-out team in the race. He’ll have the powerful legs of Kasper Asgreen, Dries Devenyns, and Tim Declercq to help drive the bunch to the line, and then have lead-outs from Davide Ballerini and Michael Mørkøv, the best lead-out man right now in the bunch.
It’s not quite the perfect lead-out train of his HTC glory days, but it’s close.
Also read: Mørkøv and the art of the sprint train
Only Lotto-Soudal will bring a team as equally fitted for the mass gallops.
It’s the speed that could be a problem for Cavendish. At 36, he’ll be sprinting against riders a decade younger.
World Champion @alafpolak1, Ronde van Vlaanderen victor @k_asgreen and 30-time stage winner @MarkCavendish will all feature on Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s squad for the biggest race in the world – @LeTour. pic.twitter.com/H56OQ9l2rv
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) June 21, 2021
Top rivals in the bunch sprints will be Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), and Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), with the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and perhaps even Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) trying to elbow in.
Also read: Van der Poel proves he’s ready for Tour
Cavendish returned to the winner’s circle this year for the first time since 2018. Four of his wins, however, came at the Tour of Turkey against a weak field. His win at the Belgium Tour this month was his first in Europe since 2016 – also the last year he won a WorldTour-level race.
Cavendish boasts 12 Tour starts on his palmares, but he’s only made it to Paris on six occasions, with the last coming in 2015. Will he make it to Paris? Unlikely. He hasn’t raced more than 10 days in a row since he was time-cut in the 2018 Tour.
Cavendish will light up the race, win or lose
It doesn’t matter if Cavendish finishes. What matters is if he can be a factor in the sprints.
There could be up to eight sprint finales in this Tour, but the first real chance for Cavendish won’t come until stage 4. The opening three stages finish with brutal “walls” and there’s no way he’s going to beat the likes of van der Poel or Sagan, and the team will be racing for Julian Alaphilippe anyway in the first weekend.
On paper, stages 4 and 6 will be his best chances, and after a few shots at the line, the peloton and Cavendish will quickly realize if he’s in with a real chance at victory.
Thank you @deceuninck_qst to give @MarkCavendish a ride in @LeTour This will awesome!! What an fantastic example of never giving ip, never loosing faith in yourself, never stopp dreaming. Shaping your own destiny.
— Jens Voigt (@thejensie) June 21, 2021
Who knows? If Cavendish gets into a rhythm, perhaps he could find the same flow he had in 2016. Odds are that will not happen, and Merckx’s all-time mark should be safe.
Class cannot be bought, and Cavendish always brings it in a race as big as the Tour.
His opportunities will quickly run out of road as the route chugs toward the mountains.
Things will get lumpy by stage 7, and the Tour tilts into the Alps for stages 8 and 9. Stage 19 and the finale in Paris could present more chances for Cavendish Version.2021, but chances are even if he can get through the Alps, he will not survive the savages of Mont Ventoux and back-to-back summit finishes in the Pyrénées.
Regardless if Cavendish can win another stage or not — or even make it to Paris — the Tour de France will be far more interesting and engaging by seeing Cavendish back in the race.
The outspoken superstar attracts attention, win or lose.