You may recall that in my first blog post, I claimed that Marcel Kittel was going to take a full sweep of the sprint stages as he did so dominantly in 2014 and 2013. Well with only 4 stages raced, I hold my hands up and admit I have been proven wrong by the greatest sprinter of all time. Mark Cavendish outsprinted the bunch into Utah Beach to take his 27th stage victory at the Tour de France and in the process won his first ever yellow jersey. It beggars belief that we all doubted the Manxman, and with two stage victories in four stages, it looks like Cavendish is firmly back to his best.
Mark Cavendish came into this Tour de France as arguably the least prepared of all the big name sprinters at this year’s race. The big German duo of Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipal both raced at this year’s Giro d’Italia taking two and three stages respectively whilst also picking up stages in smaller one week stage races too. Cavendish decided on an alternative route this season, splitting his targets three ways, with eyes looking at the yellow jersey, a second World Championships and gold at the Rio Olympics, arguably the biggest omission from the Brit’s palmares. Most of Cavendish’s spring was spent on the track unlike seasons previous that had focused on the precise art of drilling his all-important sprint train. Many claimed that the Manxman was spreading himself too thin, and some even predicted he would finish the season without hitting any of these three targets. However, those who doubted the 2nd most successful rider in Tour history in terms of stage victories are now left with their tails between their legs.
The Manxman’s return to form can be attributed to two reasons, his team members and astute sprinting tactics. This season saw the “band” get back together with Cavendish and lead-out man Renshaw partnering with Edvald Boassan-Hagen and Bernie Eisel again, reforming the HTC sprint train that dominated Grand Tours for season after season. This combination of proven success cannot be underestimated. Bernie Eisel is one of the best lead-out men in the world and has proven this in his team at HTC, Sky and now Dimension Data. Eisel tactically understands were he needs to place his riders in the final kilometres better than any rider and seems to be faultless when it comes to riding at the front of the bunch. In Eddy Boss, Cavendish has one of the pelotons most powerful riders. More than capable sprinting himself, Boassan-Hagen can Time-Trial and is a very good classics rider meaning he is able to impose himself at the front of the bunch while also maintaining high speed and high power. Notably, the Dimension Data team have also taken a different approach to the Quickstep led Cavendish team of years past. The African team are not sitting for mile after mile at the front of the bunch driving along the pace. Instead they are sitting in the wheels, letting the likes of Tinkoff, Etixx and Lotto-Soudal do the pace setting. This could be leaving the Dimension Data boys fresher to perform in the final few kilometres. Just look at Lotto-Soudal as an example. On Stage 3 and 4, the Belgian team did the majority of the pace setting with all nine riders driving on the front of the bunch. Yet, on both occasions, it seemed as if they had burnt their matches too early leaving Andre Greipal too much work to do ending in defeat on both stages.
Tactically, Mark Cavendish was faultless in both of his stage wins. Re-watch the sprint from stage 1 and you will notice Cavendish was still looking for a wheel 300-250 metres from the line before taking Peter Sagan’s. Then, in stage 3, the Brit attributed planning to his victory, knowing the final hundred metres were uphill and that any early sprint would surely be beaten. Watch the sprint back and you will see Cavendish take Greipal’s wheel and only come past him with the finest of margins. This change in approach has suited Cavendish. No longer does he carry the speed that saw him dominate sprinting for season after season, so by using this tactical approach, he is able to match the more powerful Kittel and Greipal. Additionally, Cavendish will be carrying ‘track speed’ from his Olympic preparation meaning the legs will be used to high cadence acceleration work, something that is vital on the track.
With victory on stage 3 of this year’s Tour, Mark Cavendish took his 28th stage victory in the Tour de France pulling him level with the great Bernard Hinault on stage victories with only Eddy Merckx ahead on 36 victories. If any doubts still remained over Mark Cavendish, the names surrounding him surely dispel them. Mark Cavendish is the greatest sprinter of all time and we cannot dispute that. World Champion, Milan San-Remo, the points jersey at all three Grand Tours, 46 Grand Tour stage victories and now the leaders jersey in the three Grand Tours. Yet, it is not just victories that enshrine Cavendish as a great. The methodical nature into which he approached sprints was like no one before him, partnered with the monstrous sprint train he built at HTC-Columbia that dominated race after race, sprinting was taken to a new level, with whole teams focused around this one discipline. Right now, we are watching some of the greatest sprinters of all time, in the fastest and most competitive sprint finishes off all time and much of this can be attributed to Mark Cavendish.
With little alluding the British sprinter, and as his palmares conclude, Mark Cavendish is an all-time great who should be mentioned in the same breath as Merckx, De Vlaeminck and Hinault. When he takes to the boards in Rio this year, do not be surprised if he takes Gold and on current form, you cannot discount him from a second Rainbow jersey. The 31-year old is an enigma, whose success not only catapulted the popularity of cycling in Britain but also captured the imagination of the cycling community as a whole. So when Mark stood on the podium to collect his yellow jersey on stage 1, I certainly tipped my hat. You could tell that the Yellow jersey remained as one of his last goals and when he pulled it on for the first time, you could not help but get a bit emotional.