Stubborn, brave, brilliant: Cavendish defies age again to rewrite history

In 2007, when Mark Cavendish made his Tour de France debut, there was plenty of expectation that the youth from the Isle of Man would produce special things on his bike, but longevity was never mentioned. Professional cycling is a world where the average career is said to last two and half years, where most professionals don’t get past their initial two-year contract, and merely to win one race is an achievement. To win a Tour stage is still viewed as the crowning glory for most, and to keep racing into the early 30s is a big ask. So where, then, do you rank winning 35 Tour de France stages, over a span of 17 seasons, and to be still winning at 39, let alone breaking the Tour stage-winning record held by Eddy Merckx?

The answer is, you don’t. You think back to where you were 17 years ago – when Tony Blair was a very recent memory, Sven-Göran Eriksson and Lance Armstrong slightly less recent, and Boris Johnson had only been sacked from a couple of prominent roles – and you think forward to where you are today, you compare the two, and you wonder. Which of us can maintain the drive to excel at anything for that long? And then you reflect on what it must take to persist so stubbornly at something as frankly insane as sprinting from a bunch in the Tour de France, something where the risks are blindingly obvious – just ask Fabio Jakobsen to name one – and the rewards magnificent but so often elusive.

It’s still as obvious when Cavendish is on song as it was back in the early years. You watch the diminutive figure in the helicopter shots – he’s always seemed smaller than the other fast men – and he has the cycling equivalent of an extra smidgin of spin, that apparent extra moment on the ball that is the hallmark of the greats. So it was for No 1 at Châteauroux, so it was for No 35 at Saint-Vulbas: a roundabout with 2.7km left, where he sailed through in the first 10, where on a bad day he’d have been shoved back among the flotsam, and then the little jostles and shimmies in the final 500m, now nudging Phil Bauhaus off the wheel he wants to own, now leaning on a Movistar ride, next keeping Jakobsen out of the gap he needs. The instinct that leads him to Pascal Ackermann’s wheel, and the final drive up the left.

View image in fullscreen Mark Cavendish on his first Tour de France in 2007, riding past Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There is little point in stating again that Cavendish is the greatest sprinter of all time. I’ve already written that he is “more prolific than most and more consistent than all the rest”, but that was back in 2011, by which time he had already clocked up 20 stage wins in four Tours. Had he continued on his prolific trajectory, he would have passed Merckx’s 35 by 2014, but from 2013 onwards, sprinting wasn’t quite so simple for Cavendish. Faster, younger men such as Marcel Kittel came and went. There were injuries, ill health and the inevitable lack of belief from a world where a cyclist is only as good as his last few races.

As remarkable as Cavendish’s sprint ability – the blistering speed, the split second reflexes, the brain bending courage – is the staying power he has displayed in the last few years, the sheer bloody‑mindedness that has kept him going when the gaps wouldn’t open and the legs wouldn’t answer his mind, when others would have reflected that what was already on the shelf was sufficient. At 32, Bernard Hinault was pulling on carpet slippers; Merckx quit at the same age, a washed-out shadow of his great self. For longevity in cycling, you look to others: Gino Bartali, a Tour winner at 24 and 34; Lucien van Impe, climbing like an angel from 1971 to 1983. Some might argue that the 35 wins makes Cavendish greater than Merckx; better to view him as completely unique in his sport.

Students of stattery will enjoy the fact that other records are within Cavendish’s reach: he’s still two behind Mario Cipollini’s tally of 57 career stage wins across the three Grand Tours, but with five more sprint stages to come in this Tour, you never know. With Cavendish, the unexpected has become routine.

For now, it’s enough to watch the replay as we could have watched any replay of the other 34 stage wins going back to 2008, and let our collective jaws drop as Cav does what he does best. We ask it of all the Tour sprinters, but we’ve been asking ourselves since 2007 how on earth the Manx Missile does what he does, and if we are still asking that question 17 years on, that is the measure of a truly remarkable athlete achieving feats that are the stuff of dreams.

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