There are not supposed to be happy endings at the elite level of road cycling. You ride and compete, ideally for a long time, perhaps even successfully, and maybe you’re lucky enough to go out like Alexander Vinokourov or Chris Horner, but the sport always takes a chunk out of you (usually an actual physical chunk), and at some point, the younger, hungrier generation always takes over. This dynamic is especially true for sprinters, mercurial fastmen who need an architecture of team support around them to facilitate the gutsy impossibility of emerging from a sprinting pack of maniacs upright and first across the line. Marcel Kittel, for example, won five stages at the 2017 Tour, then only three more races before retiring at age 31. The sport chews, then it spits.
Today, Mark Cavendish earned himself one of the most miraculous victories the sport has seen in a long time, when he won a bunch sprint to take Stage 4 of the Tour de France. Though he’s the second-most prolific stage-winner in Tour de France history, Cavendish’s victory was an acutely unlikely one. Eight months ago, it seemed far more likely that he’d never race again, let alone even participate in a Tour de France.
The sprint was perfect: the peloton reeled in valiant solo escapee Brent Van Moer inside the final few hundred meters, and Cav, after his team nestled him into position, navigated through a crowd as the sprint trains widened out to accommodate Van Moer, followed Jasper Philipsen’s wheel to get into just the right spot, and let loose a thunderous kick from his trademark aerodynamic leaning position. It was magnificent sprinting. After the win, the entire peloton paid tribute to Cav as he stood quivering and weeping, visibly unable to metabolize what he’d just done.
Five years ago, it seemed like Cavendish had a great shot at breaking one of cycling’s most hallowed records. The Manx rider had just won five stages of the 2016 Tour, his first with Dimension Data, and all he needed was four more to equal Eddy Merckx’s 34 Tour stage wins. He was flying, enjoying the prime of his storied career on a team built to support him. Other sprinters had emerged to challenge him, but not even the rise of Peter Sagan could slow him down. Instead of sniffing the record, Cavendish stopped winning races after the 2016 Tour, as disaster after disaster struck. His stage win today is his first in Europe since that season, and the trials he had to endure between the two wins would have broken most athletes.
Cavendish came back to the 2017 Tour looking for more, but on the fourth stage, he went down hard after Sagan elbowed him into the barriers, breaking his shoulder. The crash was both of their faults, as Cav tried to squeeze through a gap that didn’t exist after some frantic jostling with Sagan. Cavendish abandoned and Sagan was kicked out of the race. That disastrous Tour came months after Cavendish was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which he was tested for after suffering from unexplained fatigue in training. He took time off here and there, but kept on racing when he could, all the way into a rotten 2018 season that began with him sustaining a concussion, returning a few weeks later to Tirreno-Adriatico, breaking a rib in that race, racing Milan-San Remo and suffering a violent crash at speed after catapulting off his bike, and then enduring half of a horrid 2018 Tour before he missed the time cut on Stage 11.
The 2019 season was even worse. Cavendish’s Epstein-Barr flared up again, and Dimension Data’s owner Doug Ryder overruled his sporting staff and personally kept Cavendish off the Tour team. It was the first time Cavendish had missed the race since his debut season in 2007, and it led to his departure at the end of the season. Cavendish blamed the team for mismanaging his condition, and later revealed that he’d been diagnosed with clinical depression in August 2018. Shortly after he started racing for his new team, Bahrain-Merida, the pandemic hit and shut cycling down for months. He didn’t make the 2020 Tour team, though this time, it wasn’t a surprise. Aside from a stage in Abu Dhabi and a stage in Dubai, Cavendish hadn’t won since 2016. A sprinter is only as good as their results, and Cav wasn’t producing. It’s not like he’s got an engine big enough to be a lead-out man, or the profile to aid anyone in the mountains. He’s a blunt object who does one thing.
He ended his 2020 season at Gent Wevelgem, openly weeping on the road and saying in a post-race interview, “That’s perhaps the last race of my career now.” No teams were lining up to sign Cavendish, and it seemed a virtual certainty that this would be the end of the road for him. It would have made a grim sort of sense. Sprinters who are 35 and don’t win do not often get third chances, and as much as Cavendish is a legitimate legend in the sport, teams had five years of evidence, contingent as it was, that he no longer had it. Instead, an old friend brought him back in from the cold.
Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere—one of the most respected and imposing names in cycling, and the manager of the best team in the sport—signed Cavendish for one last go-round in Dec. 2020. Cavendish had spent three of the best years of his career with Quick-Step, and both sides talked about it as a homecoming. Back with his old buddies, Cavendish started winning again, with four stages at the Tour of Turkey and another in Belgium.
Even then, Cavendish was not the team’s premier sprinter. Sam Bennett had just won two stages and the green jersey at the 2020 Tour, and the team was so loaded that a place on the 2021 Tour team seemed unlikely. But Lefevere and Bennett are currently at war, with Lefevere saying this week, “He didn’t show me respect. It’s more a pity for him than it is for me. If you fight like a devil and cry like a child because Bora-Hansgrohe treat you wrong and then after nearly 14 months you sign with the team again it says more about him than it does about me. I have balls, he doesn’t. If he behaves himself he will race. If not, then three months less riding and 50 per cent less salary.” Days before the start of the Tour, Lefevere dropped Bennett for Cavendish.
And now, Cavendish is once again a stage winner. “I thought I was never coming back to this race. When you come to Deceuninck—Quick-Step, they have the best riders in the world, so it wasn’t even a thought to come here,” he said after the win. Lefevere said the entire coaching and support staffs were crying after the win, and who wouldn’t be after a five-year comeback like that finally happens? Cavendish defied serious odds, and even if he never reaches 34, getting from 30 to 31 took everything he had and that’s worth toasting.