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Tour de France

Rebuilding Cav: How Mark Cavendish returned to the top of the Tour de France

Trainer Vasilis Anastopoulos reconfigured Cavendish's training and helped rebuild the confidence that saw the Manxman land victory number 31.

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What does it take to Mark Cavendish win Tour de France stages again?

Focus on his sprint and make him happy. At least, that’s according to Deceuninck-Quick-Step coach, Vasilis Anastopoulos.

Cavendish wound back the clocks with his first Tour de France stage win since 2016 with his powerful kick into Fougères on Tuesday, completing a turnaround few believed was possible. But Anastopoulos was one of a minority.

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The Greek trainer sensed the old ‘Cav’ wasn’t far away almost as soon as he started working with the Manxman at the turn of the year.

“As soon as we met I realized that this man is not done yet, that there’s so much more in him. I am not talking just physically, I’m talking about his mindset and his passion,” Anastopoulos told VeloNews on Wednesday morning.

Many factors were attributed to how Cavendish had returned to winning ways ahead of his late call-up for this year’s Tour. The return to old allies Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Specialized bikes, and the unstoppable leadout of Michael Mørkøv were among them. But Anastopoulos was rarely mentioned.

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Perhaps that’s because of his almost blinding obvious approach to Cavendish’s training. Since hooking up with Cavendish during the winter, Anastopoulos’ sole focus had been about the sprint.

“Every trainer has his own philosophy. But what I saw is that in previous teams they were trying to make Cav a better athlete, to increase his endurance and his ability to go to the sprints, surviving the climbs,” he said. “What I focused on was his sprinting.”

“I know that Cav is a sprinter. To me, it doesn’t matter if he’s going to drop on a climb after 3ks, 2ks or 4ks. For me, all the emphasis was sprinting.”

Six months of relentlessly sprint-focused training paid off Tuesday. The Manxman went without the limousine ride typically provided by Mørkøv and outkicked Nacer Bouhanni with a muscling sprint reminiscent of his former poise and raw power.

A happy sprinter is a fast sprinter

After long bouts of both physical and mental illness and several seasons in the shadows, Cavendish’s tearful victory speech Tuesday was the final part of a journey that began with Anastopoulos and his team.

Anastopolous points to the pair’s close relationship and Cavendish’s return to the warm embrace of his former team as fundamental to the remarkable turnaround.

The 45-year-old said he and Cavendish “clicked” as soon as they met and realized they used to race each other on the track. A shared outlook and ambition followed automatically.

“Whatever I thought, Cav thought already,” Anastopoulos said. “We thought exactly the same things and were on the same page and same line from the first moment. That was really crucial to our training relationship, the coach and athlete relationship. And then we just started working together to make Cav the sprinter he was in the past.”

Anastopolous knew what he needed to do to get Cavendish back to his best – focus on his sprints again. Tough sessions on the road and the velodrome soon started to deliver, and the trainer sensed something special could be on the way.

Rebuilding Cavendish’s confidence and momentum was equally important as rediscovering his winning kick. Anastopoulos believes rebuilding “castle Cav” required a lot of different blocks.

“I can’t say I built his confidence – I was a part of a team that built his confidence. He came back to the team and almost everybody was the same since 2015 when he left,” he said.

“We tried to give him the best materials, and the material that he wanted, and that made him confident. And we knew for him to be happy was important. I was a small part of the puzzle.”

Piecing together the Cavendish puzzle

Cavendish rejoined Quick-Step this winter with the ambition to refind his love of cycling. At the time, the results were secondary.

A reunion with long-time ally Patrick Lefevere and the all-racing approach of the Belgian team was enough to set the mojo back ablaze. Before everyone knew it, he won four stages at the Tour of Turkey.

A knee injury for Sam Bennett and the breakdown of relationships between the Irishman and his boss were the unlikely final parts required to rebuild one of the most prolific Tour de France sprinters as Cavendish got a late call-up for France.

“Yesterday we saw all the pieces of the puzzle come together – it comes with so many coincidences,” Anastopoulos said. “He was not supposed to do the Tour of Belgium and then Sam got sick and Cav was a late call. He flew from London to Belgium at 10 o’clock in the morning the day of the first stage.

“And then he didn’t know he would do the Tour de France, but we insisted that he went to Italy to prepare himself to do the Tour de France. In my mind, I was sure that he should be ready for the Tour in case he got a call from the team.”

Cavendish had the dedication and belief to leave his family for a “what-if” training camp that Anastopoulos believed many would have turned down.

“I insisted he should be prepared as if he was going to the Tour because we never know what would happen. What Mark did that week to me was the epitome of professionalism. He was so professional,” Anastopoulos said.

“Yesterday was the reward of the work he’s doing in the last year. That’s why everybody got emotional – it was like the comeback of someone who was not there.”

‘We can expect some more’

It all sounds like a fairy tale right? Well, it could be a story that’s not yet finished.

Now that the pressure is off and the momentum has been tipped, Anastopoulos is confident there are more wins to come.

“We saw yesterday the legs are there. I don’t see any reason why he won’t win one or two more stages – there’s no stress anymore,” he said.

“The dream scenario was for him to be at the start of the Tour de France. Winning a stage again was something fantastic, so now he has nothing to lose, only to gain. We can expect some more. “

Anastopolous spoke with Cavendish on Tuesday night, and they’ve earmarked stage 6 into Châteauroux – where Cavendish scored his first of 31 Tour de France trophies 13 years ago – on Friday as a sprint with ‘Cav’ written all over it.

It would make for a fitting way to complete Cavendish’s circular Tour de France success story.