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Mark Cavendish's comeback: The missile flies again

In-depth
30 Sep 2021
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It was the comeback no one expected – except, perhaps, Mark Cavendish. Here’s how the Manx Missile went from boy racer to history maker

Words Giles Belbin Photography Graham Watson and Chris Auld

If you’d been walking down Boulevard des Déportés in the Breton town of Fougères on the morning of Stage 4 of the 2021 Tour de France, you might have spotted a bicycle rack outside a primary school.

This particular bike rack is forged in the shape of a cyclist at speed, and on it you may have noticed the inscription that reads: ‘Mark Cavendish. 30 stage wins at the Tour de France including the stage Livarot-Fougères in 2015. Tour de France green jersey in 2011; World Champion 2011.’

And if you had retraced your steps later that day, after the hubbub of the Tour’s stage finish had died down, you might have seen a green jersey-wearing cyclist arrive outside the school. You would have seen him jump off his bike, take a white marker pen, scrub out the number 30 and replace it with the number 31. Then you would have seen him write the words ‘Always believe!’ and sign his name: ‘Cav’.

When the Jean de la Mennais primary school commissioned that bike rack, they couldn’t have imagined its inscription would one day need revising. Mark Cavendish wasn’t supposed to win more Tour stages.

He had struggled for results for four years after being diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus in 2017 and clinical depression in 2018. He hadn’t claimed a Tour stage for five years; hadn’t even started the past two editions of the race.

By common consent the era of Cav was over. His legacy as the greatest sprinter the sport had ever seen was as secure as it was remarkable, but it was also fully written. Even Cavendish himself seemed to sense it: in October 2020, after finishing 74th in Gent-Wevelgem and with his one-year contract at Bahrain-McLaren not to be extended, he tearfully hinted he may have ridden his last race.

But then the phone started to ring and the offers came in. Cav was still Cav after all.

‘Ultimately there was really only one place I wanted to come,’ a revitalised Cavendish said in January. That was back to Patrick Lefevere’s Deceuninck-QuickStep team. Soon Cavendish was winning again – four stages in Turkey and one in Belgium.

Ah, but it is not the Tour, said the sages. Then came a late call-up and suddenly it was the Tour. Cavendish was back in France. Once there he wasted little time in turning back the clock and on that day in Fougères he exploded from the bunch to take his 31st Tour stage like it was 2008 all over again.

By Paris Cavendish had claimed three more stages, bringing his tally to 34 and equalling the record of Eddy Merckx. He had also secured a second green jersey. These were results no one would have thought possible.

‘I think he deserves to have a good season and not to end like Mr Nobody,’ Lefevere said at the start of the year. ‘With his palmarès, his charisma, he deserves a place in the team.’ How Cav rewarded that faith.

From stagiaire to stage wins

‘Cavendish to ride as stagiaire with T-Mobile,’ was the rather functional headline Cycling Weekly went with in July 2006. Cavendish was 21 years old. Two and a half years earlier he had wheel-spun into the Manchester velodrome carpark in his Vauxhall Corsa, stereo pumping, having secured a place at British Cycling’s newly established residential academy. N

ow, having spent the past 12 months on T-Mobile’s development squad Sparkasse, the rider who had already been dubbed the Manx Express back home was making the jump to the big league.

Just two months later he won the green jersey at the Tour of Britain and signed a two-year contract with the team.

His first appearance at the Tour came in his maiden pro season. After a strong start, including a first win at Scheldeprijs, Cavendish took the unusual approach of writing to team management to say he wanted to start the Tour.

He got the nod but the pre-race pressure was intense – Britain’s newest cycling star starting his first Tour in London, with a real chance of a first stage win in Canterbury, was an intoxicating concoction for the media and the relentless interview schedule left Cavendish in tears.

He crashed twice on the stage and trailed in 185 places behind stage winner Robbie McEwen. One week later Cavendish abandoned, with ninth his best stage placing.

If his Tour bow was a rude awakening, 12 months later his experience could not have been more different. T-Mobile pulled its title sponsorship in late 2007 but the team continued under the Team High Road name.

Cavendish entered the race having already opened his Grand Tour stage account with two wins at the Giro in May, but there was well-publicised tension within the team between Cavendish and fellow sprinter André Greipel.

‘We were all really young,’ recalled their High Road teammate František Raboň in 2018. ‘Cav won two stages, Greipel one. Then they had one big clash [Cavendish had gifted the stage to Greipel, something Greipel refused to acknowledge afterwards], but I think the team managed them very well. Now I think they have become good friends. They have families so you think about things differently than when you are younger and are just going with your head against the wall.’

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A little under two months later Greipel was racing in Austria while Cavendish was riding his second Tour. Stage 5 was the longest of the race: 232km from Cholet to Châteauroux. Cavendish hit the front for the first time with around 100m to go, his team having pulled back the final break with little time to spare. Five metres out, knowing the win was his, he put his hands on his head and punched the air.

‘It’s a mixture of relief and elation really,’ Cavendish said afterwards. ‘It was close getting them on the line but the team worked 100% again today, you saw how strong they were.

‘Without Adam [Hansen], without the other guys, we wouldn’t have got the break back at the end. He’s amazingly strong, amazingly selfless and amazingly dedicated, and he went like a motorbike to bring back that break.’

Cavendish has always been at pains to make sure teammates get the credit they deserve. In the aftermath of Cav’s 2021 comeback, Hansen tells Cyclist, ‘It’s important sprinters have guys they can trust. The workers need a leader who will support them. They both need each other. The sprinter takes all the credit, so when the sprinter says nice things about the work of the workers, that’s what workers want and need for their jobs.’

Cavendish would leave the 2008 Tour after Stage 14 with four stage wins in the bag. Hansen recalls how those victories came as a result of Cav’s supreme self-belief.

‘Cav has got more confidence than all the other sprinters combined. Rooming with him in 2008, I remember him practising victory salutes in front of the mirror. He has had a tough time and lost it. I could see it, but I knew once he got a little taste he’d be back. Cav was treated pretty badly and that reflected on his results, but once he had a taste of that confidence… bingo.’

The Express becomes a Missile

Someone who has watched Cavendish’s career up close is commentator Phil Liggett.

‘I didn’t really see much of him until he came to the Tour de France,’ Liggett tells Cyclist in a break from commentating on the 2021 race. ‘But since then I’ve been so privileged to have called every one of his stage wins first hand.

‘The first call, that was when I called him the Manx Missile purely because that’s what he was,’ says Liggett. ‘He was so fast and so low on the bike; it was like he’d just been put down a tube and launched. The nickname was totally instinctive; he just came out the pack like a missile had been fired.’

With 34 Tour stage wins now to choose from, is there one that sticks in Liggett’s mind as being particularly impressive?

‘His 2009 stage win into Aubenas,’ says Liggett. ‘We’d never been there before and when Paul Sherwen and I were driving to the finish in the morning we said, “This is not going to be a finish for Cav.” It was a rollercoaster approach up and down little hills and then a long uphill to the finish.

‘Cav was absolutely brilliant. The team were making sure he was where he should be but he was suffering like a dog. He came out on an uphill finish and he killed them. It was a fabulous sprint.’

The complete package

Cavendish’s palmarès stretches far beyond the Tour. Among the highlights are 15 stages at the Giro and three at the Vuelta, with points competition wins at both to add to his 2011 and 2021 Tour green jerseys.

Beyond stage races, his 2009 Milan-San Remo win brought him a Monument that few had thought possible – ‘I wanted to prove I am more than just a sprinter, but a great rider – that is what I did today,’ – and his 2011 World Championships win was the culmination of three years of careful planning by British Cycling under the moniker Project Rainbow Jersey.

‘That World Championships win was the best I have ever seen a team ride for Great Britain in a World Championships,’ says Liggett. ‘They just pulled all day long for Cav. If he feels everybody in the team is on his side, he becomes two men. He was untouchable when it came to the finish; it was a foregone conclusion. They brought him to the line and Cav delivered.’

In the summer of 2021 Cavendish’s teammates again brought him to the line and again he delivered.

‘I’m a realist. I’m not looking to hang onto something or finish my career in any fairytale way,’ Cavendish said in January. ‘I just know that I’m still good.’

Cavendish’s remarkable return to cycling’s grandest stage is no fairy tale. It is instead one of the greatest works of non-fiction the sport has ever seen. The question now is: will it prove to be the final chapter of what has been a very special career? Only time will tell. 


A sprint through time 

Cav’s pro career timeline

2007: Signs with T-Mobile and takes his first pro win at Scheldeprijs. Starts Tour de France but abandons before the first rest day.

2008: Wins two stages at the Giro and four at the Tour.

2009: Wins Milan-San Remo, saying, ‘When you win sprints you prove you’re a great sprinter. When you win a great one-day race you’ve proved you’re a great rider.’

2010: Wins on the Champs-Élysées at the Tour for the second year in a row and claims the points jersey and three stage wins at the Vuelta.

2011: Wins the green jersey at the Tour and becomes only the second British male to win the Road Race World Championships.

2012: Rides the season with Team Sky and takes fourth successive Champs-Élysées win while wearing World Championships stripes.

2013: After signing for Omega Pharma-QuickStep takes the points jerseys and five stages at the Giro. Wins Road National Championships.

2016: Wins a third World Madison title on track with Bradley Wiggins. Now at Dimension Data, takes four stages at the Tour and wears yellow for the first time.

2020: Signs with Bahrain-McLaren for 2020 but continues to struggle after suffering with Epstein-Barr virus and clinical depression.

2021 Returns to Deceuninck-QuickStep and gets a last-minute call-up to the Tour, winning four stages and a second green jersey, ten years after his first.

Cav on…

Sprinting

‘I watched a documentary on time recently, about how time is just what you perceive it to be. If your adrenaline is going, it’s your body trying to absorb every bit of information, physical and emotional, so it can learn for the next time it happens to you. And that’s what happens to me. It’s what your body does in its instinctive state.’

His 2009 Milan-San Remo win

‘They [Columbia-HTC management] said to me what are you going for next year. I said I wouldn’t mind giving San Remo a shot and they just laughed; laughed straight in my face. I was like why not? I’ve never done it before but the hills are not mountains. I just have to train to get up there. And they were like, alright, let’s do it.’

Winning the first of four Tour stages in 2021

‘It’s not about proving anyone wrong. Half of that press room hasn’t written a good story for longer than I haven’t won a bike race, but they’re still here at the Tour. I wanted to be here for myself. I just needed someone who knows bike racing and who understands me as a person and that was Patrick Lefevere. That’s why I wanted to come back here to Deceuninck-QuickStep.’