Remember when Mark Cavendish used to look like he enjoyed racing his bike?
It seems like a long time since the Manxman gave the impression he was having fun in the saddle, but that may all change in 2021. And that’s good for all of us.
Cavendish will be back with his old besties at Deceuninck-Quick-Step next season, returning to the squad where he enjoyed a prolific three seasons from 2013 to 2015. And though the 35-year-old great isn’t going to just suddenly start winning again when he returns to the Belgian squad, team boss Patrick Lefevere has thrown his former talisman a lifeline that could turn the tide on a career at risk of being blighted.
Years of illnesses and emotional struggles have converted the once fiery, fearsome fastman into something of a tragic hero as a long battle with mononucleosis stacked up against grand tour snubs and struggles with depression. Firecracker near-miss post-race interviews have been replaced by averted eyes and awkward excuses as Cavendish has sought to explain where his legs have gone.
A return to the Belgian “Wolfpack” could be just what the sprint supremo needs to put a happy ending on what has been a largely fairytale career.
Staffers at Quick-Step aren’t expecting bucketfuls of race wins from Cavendish in 2021, and instead are taking the pressure off the Manxman’s shoulders. But you can bet your bottom dollar they won’t be giving any leeway to laziness or primadonna attitudes, and they have made clear that the 35-year-old will be just another one of the pack in 2021.
It will make a stark contrast to his final years with Team Dimension Data and then Bahrain-McLaren, where Cavendish was in the spotlight and under the screw to deliver success. Lefevere has tempered expectations from Cavendish, and with that, the veteran manager has nothing to lose.
On top of that, rumors swirl that the squad is bearing no financial burden in welcoming Cavendish back into the fold. The Manxman has reportedly found a personal sponsor to fund his racing and so, other than the cost of a slot on the start-sheet, Quick-Step’s coffers have nothing to lose either.
And just as there’s no pressure on Cavendish to win, there’s no expectation on Lefevere and Co to return Cav to winning ways.
Cavendish hasn’t won a bike race in 36 months. How many people expect that to change overnight? Not many. But while the Belgian squad hasn’t booked itself more victories for 2021, it has bagged a talismanic role model for its dozen young riders, a good news story to keep the baying home media happy, and who knows – a victory may even come along the way.
He’s proven that he still loves bike racing, even if it seemed that bike racing hasn’t loved him for the past few seasons. Cav was on the attack during Gent-Wevelgem and Scheldeprijs this fall, getting his fingers dirty in the grit and guts of the days’ breakaways, racing as you do at your local cat. 4 crit – throwing caution to the wind and seeing what sticks.
Cavendish shed tears — in what was a typically Cavendishesque outpouring of emotion — when he thought his racing life would be over after Gent-Wevelgem. He didn’t want to go out off the back of years of dejection. And surely nobody else did either.
I’m not putting any money on Cavendish stepping onto many podiums with Deceuninck-Quick-Step next year. But I would wager that he’ll go all-in with Quick-Step’s pack-hunting, “total racing” ethos in 2021, at least if his Twitter feed is anything to go by.
“I’ve never hidden how special my time was there [at Quick-Step], how special the people & atmosphere are & how special the Flemish heart philosophy of pure racing is,” he wrote.
To say I’m excited would be an understatement. Incredibly proud to announce an agreement to again join my friends @deceuninck_qst. I’ve never hidden how special my time was there, how special the people & atmosphere are & how special the Flemish heart philosophy of pure racing is pic.twitter.com/xJ6gjlijQs
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) December 5, 2020
Cavendish is just glad of the opportunity to race his bike a bit longer, with winning off the agenda. Getting a couple more seasons in his legs mucking in with the Quick-Step mob could give him the chance to enjoy bike racing again, and give everyone else the chance to enjoy watching him do it.
Cavendish made his name by amassing the most stacked sprinter palmarès of recent decades. That winning tally isn’t likely to go up in 2021, but it could pivot our most recent memories of the Manxman away from one of desperation, dejection, and defeat to one of a gutsy great ending his career in one last blaze of pure racing.