Mark Cavendish - 35 and counting.

Mark Cavendish - 35 and counting.

“IT’S DONE! IT’S DONE!”

A soon to be immortal refrain thunders from the television in a cramped South London living room. A family sat on a slightly skewed and crumbling sofa erupt into tears of joy, some sink to their knees sobbing, others sit eyes wide, mouths gaping in delighted disbelief at what they’re watching unfold.

No, it’s not live footage of our editors celebrating the completion of the mammoth task that is compiling The Road Book each year. No, it’s not another Jude Bellingham bicycle kick after 90 minutes of turgid, depressing football to bring home England Men’s first trophy since 1966 (roughly 51 years of hurt bearing in mind that said years cannot have begun before England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1973).

It's the sound of a certain Ned Boulting, vocal cords straining as he tries (and succeeds) to convey the immensity of the scene unfurling in front of him: Sir Mark Cavendish, the Manx Missile, former World Champion, 17x stage winner at the Giro d’Italia, twice the wearer of the Green Jersey at the Tour de France; has just battered his way to a 35th stage win in Saint-Vulbas.

 

 

35 – the magic number which makes the Isle of Man native the greatest rider in the history of cycling’s most prestigious race. 35  one more than a certain Eddy Merckx.

A year ago, after a mechanical problem left Cav furiously pedalling to no discernible effect forcing him to watch Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) power over the line ahead of him, and after crashing heavily the next day, suffering a broken collarbone and subsequently abandoning the Tour de France; it looked like Mark Cavendish would be denied that magical moment.

Just four days ago, as he was dropped on the Col de Valico Tre Faggi, the first climb of the first stage of this year’s Tour, it looked like a race too far. Cavendish’s Astana Qazaqstan teammates pulled together, and despite his determination to wave them away, formed up around their leader and doggedly brought him home, drenched with water to fend off the oppressive Italian heat and barely 10 minutes within the time limit. You’d have been forgiven (probably not by Sir Cav himself though) for thinking it wasn’t going to happen, for asking whether he really had a chance, or whether Project 35 (like a certain Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United) was a vanity project, driven by the ego of an aged and fading superstar too stubborn to know when they were beaten.

You’d be forgiven, but you’d also be an idiot.

 

 

It doesn’t take much to see who Mark Cavendish is. A glance at his palmares should be enough for most to understand that you just can’t write him off. Read about his victory at the World Championships in 2011, when under immense pressure and in one of the most chaotic finishes we’ve ever seen, his British Cycling teammates got him in position to blow the opposition away and take the rainbow bands. Or read Mark’s account of his victory in Rome on the final stage of last year’s Giro d’Italia. It looked as though, for the first time, he would ride the Giro and wheel away without a single victory. His lead out train was in shreds, he was isolated against a phenomenal field of sprinters. But with the help of ‘fucking legend’ Geraint Thomas, he improvised, and shot to victory.

In many ways, today’s victory was similar. In the final kilometre Cavendish was again isolated, separated from his teammates and after an unprecedentedly tough first four days in the saddle, and at the age of 39, most sprinters up against the likes of Philipsen, Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) and Girmay (Intermarché–Wanty) might have conceded defeat. Many would have settled for conserving energy, and trying again on tomorrow's stage which (ironically) suits the skills of the Manx man better.

 

 

Not so Cavendish. His turquoise blue jersey could be spotted, leaping from wheel to wheel, his powerful frame used with exquisite skill to fend off opponents as he cannibalised the better organised trains of his rivals. Even then, there was a moment, as they went round the final bend with Cavendish four or five wheels back from the front, where it looked as though he might not manage it. But as the TV camera cut from an overhead shot to one parallel to the riders as they exploded out of that corner, suddenly Cavendish was there, right at the front, able to pick his line and unimpeded by the chaos which was unfurling behind him.

The Manx Missile drifted to the left-hand side of the rode, and with target lock alarms suddenly chirruping, and afterburners roaring into life, the Greatest of All Time unleashed the sprint of his life and crossed the finish line, comfortably in first. He rose from the saddle like a beast summoned from the unmarked, unfathomable depths of the ocean to avenge some great and heinous wrong, and unleashed a roar of defiance. A release of all the pain from the last few years and the doubt which must have at times clouded Cav’s mind. An explosive dispersal of all the tension from within him. A roar of victory.

 

 

We should never have doubted him. I saw a photograph of Cavendish taken by Scott Mitchell (@modcyclingphoto on Instagram) just after this victory. It’s one many will have seen before, and justifiably so, it captures everything about Cavendish which has made him such a prominent figure across the 20 odd years of his career.

His tight, boyish curls plastered by sweat to his lined forehead, face caked in grime, and with a few days of dark stubble coating his square jaw. There is exhaustion evident in his face. His mouth parted as though gasping for air in the wake of herculean exertion, the bags under his eyes speak of days without proper rest, as though he has just emerged from some apocalyptic conflict. Yet at the centre of this burdened visage, in his almost grey eyes there twinkles a glint of defiance. That bulldog attitude which has characteristed his career. A refusal to be beaten, and a slight crooking of the eyebrow which teeters on the precipice of a smile. One which starts in his eyes and hasn’t yet reached his mouth. One which gently teases you for doubting.

There is something gladiatorial about Sir Mark Cavendish, from his brutal, uncompromising sprinting style, to his prickly and at times antagonistic attitude towards the press and authoritarian figures. In the wake of today, I think there is only one way to sum up his career:

“Are you not entertained?”

 

Written by Henrik Bassett

Photography courtesy of: Graham Watson (2011 image) and Russ Ellis (images from Stage 5 of TDF 2024).

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