There’s one thing abundantly clear about Mark Cavendish and his early season intentions: he does not want to talk about the Tour de France.
One would think that the Manxman might have an inkling to wax lyrical about his record-equaling success there last year. Yet as he kicks off his 2022 campaign at the Tour of Oman, Cavendish isn’t dishing.
Cavendish is a living legend of the sport, but up until the Tour last year, the once-lavished sprinter had almost become a forlorn and forgotten character.
He’d been overlooked for the two previous Tours, and even before that, the deep, heaving crowds once a fixture outside his team bus had made way for quiet, empty space.
Long-time lieutenant Mark Renshaw opted to retire instead of enduring repeated kickings in a position that he and Cavendish were traditionally not accustomed to – the back of the bunch.
In fact, it’s hard not to imagine if it had not been for a reporter who in 2020 plucked Cavendish out of an anonymous crowd at the finish line of Gent Wevelgem, which ran in October that year, the story could have had a very different ending.
The TV cameras gave the former world champion a mouthpiece to tearily contemplate retirement — not of his own volition but through want of a contract — and without that emotional moment, his career could have ended with a literal, wet-eyed whimper, not befitting his brash nature or body of work built on passion and ferocity.
Quick-Step threw Cavendish a lifeline in 2021 with a one-year deal, and his surprise performance at the Tour, including a well-documented four stage wins and the green jersey, has bought him another 12 months in the peloton to do what? Well, that is the question.
“He’s still eager to perform well. We see he’s still motivated, and I think he will do good again,” Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl sports director Klaas Lodewyck said in Oman.
“He had a good winter so far, good training. Obviously, it’s the first race, it’s always a bit searching, but I think he’s ready for it.”
On the eve of the Tour of Oman, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s press officer set the tone with the international cycling media present in Muscat.
Don’t ask for Cav, and don’t ask about the Tour.
Cavendish would do a group interview the afternoon before the race started as part of official proceedings, but it’d be cut short if the ‘T’ word was mentioned.
For extra measure, one-on-one interviews were also off the table for the duration of the six-stage race, which allows time for such. Enquiring about a rider’s race program is stock standard at this time of year, and it wasn’t so long ago that Cavendish entertained interview requests even from people he doesn’t like.
In the group interview, the 2011 world champion spoke plainly to a handful of journalists as he sat next to teammate Fausto Masnada, a favorite for the overall honors in Oman, at a small table by a large hotel water feature.
None of his answers were more than three to four sentences long and nearly all were short on genuine insight. He said something but nothing at the same time.
Asked about his shape after a winter that included a crash at Gent Six and then a reported home invasion, Cavendish gave an inkling into how he measures performance.
“I think everybody coming into the new season looks forward to starting the season to see their shape. You don’t really know. It doesn’t matter how you’re going until you compare yourself with the other people,” he said.
That was about as interesting as it got.
The Tour of Oman, he said, was a brilliant preparation race “for bigger races coming up”, which naturally begged the question about his program. What are those bigger races?
“I go from here to UAE Tour, straight from here,” was all Cavendish said when asked what his race schedule looked like.
It was akin to drawing blood from a stone and no one bothered following up with the painfully obvious.
And then … ?
Speaking before the start of stage one on Thursday, Lodewyck also adopted the apparent party line.
Cavendish has a program, he said, which rumour has it includes the Giro d’Italia, but it’s for now classified.
“The policy of the team, they’re going to announce when they want to announce it, but these two races here are perfect step to what will come next,” he said.
You could speculate about the reasons behind the reluctance to share a program that is never set in stone anyway. The Tour de France almost certainly was not on Cavendish’s schedule at the start of last year.
Quick-Step’s former No.1 sprinter Sam Bennett has changed teams this season and despite Cavendish’s resurgence at the Tour, Fabio Jakobsen has been fashioned as the new leader of the A-Team.
At 25, his best years are ahead of him and the Dutch cyclist, whose recent success is every bit remarkable given the injuries and trauma he’s come back from, is in-form. He opened his season earlier this month with two stage wins at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana where he went up against Elia Viviani and Alexander Kristoff.
Jakobsen for one didn’t appear too concerned with the so-called “team policy” at a recent team training camp, telling Wielerflits that the plan was for him to be at the Tour and Cavendish the Giro this season.
“That’s the schedule that has now been plotted,” he said. “I feel good about it, and I want to try it.”
Cavendish has never been afraid of competition though, and avoiding the ‘T’ word, or any talk of a race program period is odd, especially now.
He is perhaps the most popular he’s ever been in the bunch, with many, from Fernando Gaviria, who beat him to victory on stage 1 of the Tour of Oman on Thursday, to Caleb Ewan and Michael Matthews, speaking highly of the veteran racer, rivalries aside.
His return to the winner’s circle last season was not just an historic triumph but surely a deeply personal one, too, given his time out in the wilderness, far away from the spotlight he plays up to and knows not a lot outside of.
Cavendish was reared through an institutionalised system, which conditions athletes a certain way. They become accustomed to being surrounded by “yes” men and women.
From a young age they’re encouraged every day, congratulated on all they do right, sometimes daily, supported in every waking aspect of life. Rarely are they told no, star power overrides admonishment for bad behaviour, and when all that stops, it can be extremely confronting, and affect their mental health.
Nothing has been said of retirement since that day at Gent Wevelgem although some pundits speculated at the Tour last year that had Cavendish have won the last stage on the Champs Élysées, which he ran out of puff and fell short on, he may have called it there.
So then, is it a question of confidence, which Cavendish has never seemed short of?
There is a belief in cycling that you’re only as good as your last bike race and consistency is key to the game.
Is there doubt of whether he can, new year, fresh slate, different circumstance, return to grand tour stage winning form in 2022? He’ll be 37 come the Giro.
Cavendish last season had a lot of things go right for him. The established guard of young sprinters all had a bit of mare. Ewan crashed out on stage 3. Gaviria, who has fought bouts of COVID-19 the past two years, wasn’t selected or up to his usual scratch. Dylan Groenewegen was also absent from the Tour and coming back from a ban due to his involvement in a crash with Jakobsen at the 2020 Tour of Poland.
Cavendish replaced Bennett, whose season was derailed by a niggling knee injury and a public fall out with Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere sealed his departure from the team.
Since then, the landscape has changed again and there’s been a lot of movement.
Gaviria and Groenewegen, who has transferred to BikeExchange-Jayco following six years at Jumbo Visma, are back in the winner’s circle. Ewan is calling the shots at Lotto Soudal, Bennett is keen to reassert himself as the sprinter of measure, a standing he ascertained in 2020, now back at Bora-hansgrohe.
Viviani hopes his return to Ineos Grenadiers pays dividends after a winless stint at Cofidis. It remains to be seen how Pascal Ackermann, now a teammate of Gaviria, fits in at UAE Emirates. And then there is Alpecin-Fenix, which has a lead-out that showed a lot of promise at the Tour last year where Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen proved Cavendish’s biggest rivals.
In short, Cavendish’s competition, which has undergone its own change, is on the precipice of being back at the level it was during his period in the wilderness with Bahrain-McLaren and Dimension Data before that.
In Oman on Thursday, the drive was there. Age has not wearied an obstinate Cavendish, who shook his head in frustration as he crossed the finish line behind Gaviria. Afterwards he declined to speak to media. He apparently needed time to calm down, which spoke to his unrelenting, competitive nature even as a veteran.
At the Tour last year, Cavendish insisted he’d matured; he was no longer a self-described boy racer, but his reactions in and around racing there and since show otherwise.
Young Australian sprinter Kaden Groves, who finished third, remarked how fast the 34-time Tour de France stage winner passed him inside the final 100m or so.
Cavendish’s greatest strength at the Tour last year was his team. In Oman, he won’t be able to rely on it as much. Quick-Step fielded six riders instead of a full seven-man contingent, some of whom are not inherently familiar with the art of sprinting.
“I felt good throughout the stage and the speed was good at the end, but I was just in the wrong position, which meant I had to come around the outside and catching Fernando was just that bit too much,” he said in a team statement after stage 1.
Regarding the season at large, you’d presume Quick-Step’s best pilots would be assigned to Jakobsen, too.
For now, Cavendish will have you believe that his program doesn’t extend past the UAE Tour, which for sprinters serves as a mini-Tour de France. Wins there will set the pecking order and can create a momentum that rolls through to July.
Cavendish there will be able to compare himself against the new guard, and maybe after then we’ll know.