Great champions can rise to the occasion.
Mark Cavendish appears to be doing just that as uncertainty over Sam Bennett’s participation at the Tour de France continues to linger.
Cavendish was parachuted back into Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s squad for the Baloise Belgium Tour last week after Bennett picked up a knee injury in training. He grasped the opportunity with both hands to nail a stage win against a tough field on the final day.
His last-minute replacement of Bennett in Belgium and his growing form have set tongues wagging about whether the Manxman will be traveling to Brittany later this month. Cavendish, well used to the cycling rumor mill, has been diplomatic in his response to the suggestion.
“We have to see. We have the current green jersey winner in Sam Bennett. I think it’s right to see how he’s going before we think of anything else,” Cavendish said after Sunday’s sprint in Beringen.
“Belgium was always on my program and Sam wanted to do it, so I got kicked out of it, so it’s serendipity that I’m back in it with [Michael] Mørkøv and the rest of the guys.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to work with Mørkøv this year, obviously he works with Sam, and everybody knows that if you go behind Mørkøv then you win.”
While a stage win at the Baloise Belgium Tour is far from the hustle and bustle of a Tour de France bunch gallop, Cavendish still had to get past Tim Merlier and Caleb Ewan – two of the most prolific sprinters this season after Bennet and Arnaud Démare – to take it.
It was a far cry from the Cavendish of even a year ago, who appeared to have almost given up on battling it out in the bunch sprint and was in tears at the thought that the 2020 Gent-Wevelgem could be the last in his career.
Eight months on, the Manxman appears to have a new zest for his racing. His laugh of joy after the finish line, and his million miles an hour post-stage interview, where the microphone operator had to fight to keep up with him, showed just how elated he was with the win.
“I’m incredibly happy. You can’t stop me talking when I’m excited. It was nice to sprint against Caleb,” Cavendish said.
“Tim is arguably the best sprinter at the minute, and I saw him go early, which is where he is strongest. I wanted to stay on Mike a little longer, but I had to go at 200 and drag stripped it. [The lead] kept changing and then I felt myself go ahead at the end. I’m over the moon.”
Can Cavendish make the Tour de France team?
Despite his win, claiming one of the eight Deceuninck-Quick-Step places in the Tour de France peloton is still a tough ask for Cavendish.
Once a dead-cert for a raft of grand tour wins, Cavendish has not ridden a three-week race in three years.
Struggles with the Epstein Barr virus and a slide in form have meant the “Manx Missile” last rode a grand tour at the 2018 Tour de France – which he left after missing the time cut on stage 11.
The journey back to the front of the bunch has been a protracted and difficult one, and Cavendish had to wait until April this year to find that winning feeling again. His four stage victories at the Tour of Turkey was a sign that the Cavendish of old was still in there, but his win Sunday was arguably worth more than those.
Still, his place on the Grande Boucle roster depends very much on how Bennett responds when he returns to training this week. The Irishman is still a more certain bet than Cavendish, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step will be keen to have him in France.
Should Bennett be unable to overcome his knee injury in time for the Grand Départ, then Cavendish has certainly put his case forward as his replacement.
Team manager Patrick Lefevere expressed his doubts over whether Cavendish has the form to ride the Tour de France this year, but he has changed his tune in recent days.
However, Lefevere revealed last week that Cavendish riding the Tour de France depended on more than just form. Cavendish wants a better contract if he is to deal with the pressure cooker of the biggest race in the world.
A shrewd businessman, the Belgian understands where Cavendish is coming from.
“For him, that means racing with pressure, under the magnifying glass of the media,” Lefevere wrote in Het Niewsblad prior to Cavendish’s success in Belgium. “It’s not fair to have a rider with a minimum contract as a Deceuninck-Quick-Step lead sprinter, with all the pressure and expectations that come with it. I agree with Mark on that.
“It’s something I’m thinking about right now: extending Cavendish for the Tour, on better terms. At least to get that issue out of the way. With the level he has now, Mark wants to continue for at least another year. We’re going to at least talk about it together.”
Remco Evenepoel is another potential replacement for Bennett, but asking the 21-year-old to do two straight grand tours might be too much for his young body.
If Cavendish does earn a place at the Tour, question marks still remain over whether he will be able to manage the effort of a three-week race after so long without doing one.
It’s hard to predict, but would it really matter if he didn’t make it all the way to Paris?
Even if he rides the full three weeks, Cavendish is unlikely to be a match for someone such as Peter Sagan in the green jersey competition.
If Cavendish, with the backing of Mørkøv et al, can summon up even one win during the opening sprint stages, then he could go home early with his head held high.
The public attention that would be gained from taking Cavendish to the Tour de France wouldn’t hurt Lefevere’s hunt for additional sponsors for 2022 either.