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Tour de France

Tour de France daily digest: The Tour will fill your heart, too

Mark Cavendish's stage win gave the Tour de France a shot of joy at exactly the right moment, writes Fred Dreier.

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There are moments when the Tour de France will fill your heart with joy, surprise, and the full spectrum of positive emotions.

Yep, the race can break your heart. It can also give you all the feels, as the kids say these days.

Tuesday’s stage 4 gave us one such moment, as the collective cycling world shed happy tears for Mark Cavendish, who took a sprint victory long after everyone — and I mean everyone — had concluded that Tour stage win No. 31 wasn’t ever going to happen for him.

That’s right, I said everyone — even Geraint Thomas said he had doubts that Cavendish would ever win again at the Tour.

“Good old Cav, it’s great to see him win. I gotta say, I was a little surprised, I hope he doesn’t hear me say that,” Thomas told reporters on Tuesday.

Thomas, a former team member with Cavendish, then added a caveat to undoubtedly save him an awkward encounter at the post-Tour discotheque: “I thought he always had a chance.”

Yeah right, G.

Congratulations to Mark Cavendish, and let us all thank him for giving us an injection of joy after three consecutive days of crashes and setback stories. The Cav Is Back story is all about positive vibes and teary-eyed, sweaty, man hugs. It’s nothing but joy.

Of course, the reason Mark Cavendish’s win today is such an incredible story is because of how totally washed-up he appeared to be for years. That’s right — in order to have a comeback story like today’s, you need to have something to come back from. And for Cav, that was three consecutive seasons of stinker performances, plus a few emotional moments in front of the press, and a game of WorldTour team musical chairs.

Cav was like a hot potato — teams couldn’t wait to toss him to the next owner. From 2016 until now that progression went Dimension Data, Bahrain McLaren, and then Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

And could you blame them? Hiring Mark Cavendish brings your squad global media attention and daily scrutiny. And in those years when Cavendish wasn’t winning, his dismal performances simply turned the heat up on whichever team was employing him. Doug Ryder, Rolf Aldag, Rod Ellingworth, and others all sat in front of the microphones answering the same question: what’s wrong with Mark Cavendish?

And there was something wrong with him. In 2019 I watched Mark Cavendish in person at the UAE Tour and the Amgen Tour of California — both races where the wide, flat, open roads catered to his power sprinting style. Cavendish didn’t even contest the sprints, often rolling across the line midpack, huffing and puffing.

This was akin to Michael Jordan air balling every free throw, and then getting stuffed by the rim.

I thought he was done.

Over the years, we’ve heard about what was going on with Cav behind the scenes. He battled multiple Epstein-Barr flare-ups, and he also battled depression. And for top sprinters, where victory is a byproduct of brute strength and supreme self-confidence, these two afflictions were akin to chaining a bowling ball to Michael Phelps.

A few years ago U.S. sprinter Tyler Farrar gave us some insight into the slippery psychological slope that top sprinters face once they lose even a tiny percent of their winning oomph. When a sprinter doubts his legs, he begins to take more chances in the chaotic battle to the line. When that happens, he’s more vulnerable to flying elbows, crashes, and disaster.

Injuries begin to pile up, and the self-doubt snowballs. That’s why top sprinters tend to dominate for a short window, and then fall precipitously out of the picture. Marcel Kittel bailed on the sport altogether just two seasons after winning five Tour stages.

Yep, a hero can go to zero in the blink of an eye. One crack in a sprinter’s pillar of confidence can quickly topple the entire tower.

And make no mistake, my friends, Mark Cavendish’s tower of confidence at the end of 2019 was a pile of dust.

And yet, he built it back up, brick by brick.

Joining the team with the world’s best lead-out train helped, of course. Winning four stages at the Tour of Turkey helped, too. But the gap between winning in Turkey and winning at the Tour de France is one that we must not underestimate, either from a physical or psychological perspective. Cavendish bridged that gap today, and I cannot wait to hear him someday explain how he did so, from a physical and psychological perspective.

And that’s why, my friends, the Mark Cavendish comeback story is truly a happy and amazing one. This is like Dave Scott getting 2nd place at Ironman at age 40, or Tiger winning the 2019 Masters. George Foreman winning the world heavyweight title at 38.

No, Cavendish’s win didn’t break history — he may never crack Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 Tour de France stage wins. But Cavendish got millions of people to feel happy at the precise moment they needed to feel that way.

And for that, we will always thank him.

Social media reacts to Cav’s win

You want to read all the feels? See below: