Mark Cavendish knows that his words and actions have often been misinterpreted, but if he didn’t have fire in his belly he wouldn’t be a star. And if he didn’t have a huge talent that has won him 11 stages (and counting) in the past three years, the media wouldn’t be interested in him.
He is a sensitive young man. His tears of joy after his breakthrough victory on Thursday were genuine, and his subsequent apologies for his recent words and actions were also the real thing.
Bike racing is a hard man’s sport, and sprinters are the gladiators who put their lives on the line every time they enter the final kilometers of a four- or five-hour race, knowing they will bang shoulders, elbows and handlebars in the culmination of a full-out sprint. Sprinting is about character, nerve and daring, qualities that all the best sprinters embody.
The Tour de France needs characters like Cavendish — just as it needed explosive sprinters in the past. Yes, the young Manxman’s emotions can boil over when he loses, as they did in Reims on Wednesday; but they are also on show when he wins, as he did so emphatically 24 hours later in Montargis.
Clashes of the past
By coincidence, Reims and Montargis previously produced sprints or winners that emphasized the need for controversial characters or incidents to enliven the Tour’s flat stages. At Reims in 1985, in a sprint to the foot of that city’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, Ireland’s Sean Kelly roughhoused with Belgium’s Eric Vanderaerden all the way down the finish straight. Both were disqualified for pushing, shoving and exchanging blows, and the judges awarded the stage to third-place finisher Francis Castaing of France — his first and only Tour stage victory.
Despite losing all his sprint points on that 1985 stage in Reims Kelly went on to win the green jersey for the third time that year, and he added a fourth sprint title in 1989. Kelly was greyhound fast and never shy about expressing his feelings on a bike. In the minutes after a rambunctious field sprint he would excitedly defend his actions in a voice that lifted several octaves.
The Irishman’s natural successor was the colorful Djamolidin Abdujaparov from Uzbekistan, who won the first of his three green jerseys in 1991. He established a lead in the points competition with a win the first day in Lyon, and he took a second stage at Reims. His green jersey was safe when the Tour arrived in Paris, where Abdu’ was expected to celebrate his success on the Champs-Élysées with a third stage win.
Instead of winning, the Tashkent Express justified his nickname by erratically veering right in a furious bunch sprint about 100 meters before the line, T-boning a five-foot-high fiberglass “can” of Coca-Cola, one of many lining the finish straight as part of the sponsor’s promotional package. The “can” shattered into hundreds of pieces (I still have one of them on my desk at home!) and the battered Uzbek eventually walked across the line dragging his broken bike to claim the green jersey.
Like Abdujaparov, another man to win the points title three times was Robbie McEwen, who is still contesting the Tour at age 38 this year and finished a close-up fourth in Reims on Wednesday. The little Aussie, like Cavendish, has sometimes been accused of dangerous sprinting. Such was the case in 2005 when the judges said McEwen head-butted compatriot Stuart O’Grady in a hard-fought field sprint at Tours and relegated him to last place.
McEwen said he was just trying to fend off O’Grady when the two bumped shoulders — except that the shorter McEwen was really leaning with his head. But he got revenge two days later in Montargis (also stage 5 like this year), where he decisively accelerated away from Tom Boonen, Thor Hushovd and O’Grady, just like Cavendish did on the same uphill finish this Thursday.
The emotional Cavendish
As with his predecessors, emotions have sometimes steered Cavendish into troubled waters. People say he is disrespectful, arrogant and should shut his mouth. The V-sign gesture he gave to his media critics when he won the Freiburg stage of the Tour de Romandie in late April got him fined by race officials, reprimanded by his HTC-Columbia team and set off a firestorm in the media.
A few weeks later, when he apparently pulled into the path of Australian Heinrich Haussler at 70 kph in a sprint finish at Wettingen in the Tour of Switzerland, causing them both to fall heavily with Frenchman Arnaud Coyot, Cavendish was again pilloried.
Even racers had ugly words for the controversial Brit that day, claiming he was a cowboy and blaming him for the nasty, spectacular wreck. Cavendish paid the price as he was covered in road rash and said he had never had such painful injuries. But there was little sympathy from his detractors because both Haussler and Coyot fractured bones that stopped them starting this Tour de France.
Matters didn’t improve for the Brit this past Sunday in Brussels, on stage 1 of the Tour, when Cavendish added to his bad-boy image by veering left on a sweeping right turn 2km before the finish and four men fell, including himself and three-time world champion Oscar Freire of Rabobank.
Critics said the HTC rider was the culprit, but close inspection of the video paints a more complicated picture of the crash. The gentlemanly Freire said it was no big deal, and the two of them rode together to the line, chatting amiably.
Because of that crash, Cavendish hadn’t contested a sprint at this Tour until Wednesday’ in Reims. And because of the months of controversy surrounding him, there was huge pressure on his muscular shoulders. Some wanted him to fail; others were eager to see him pull out a W.
In the end, after sterling work from his HTC-Columbia teammates, Cavendish came off Mark Renshaw’s wheel and realized he didn’t have the legs to sprint 300 uphill meters into a slight head wind; he just looked down at his bike and stopped pedaling. “He’s lost it,” crowed the critics.
Twenty-four hours later, Renshaw was more patient and left the responsibility for the final lead-out to the rival Garmin-Transitions team. But they messed up their sprint train and instead of Julian Dean being the last man to hit the front it was injured teammate Tyler Farrar — who discovered that his cracked wrist is not really up to a full-out sprint only three days after his accident.
As a result, Renshaw launched Cavendish only 200 meters from the line and he shot away in splendid isolation, lengths ahead of runners-up (and both former teammates), Germany’s Gerald Ciolek of Milram and Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky.
And then came the tears. Those months of bitterness, frustration and anger had finally ended in triumph. He says he will not perpetuate his outspoken behavior. But cycling needs men who are not shy to show their feelings. And the Tour needs Mark Cavendish.