Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com
Back in April 2018, I was invited to a bit of a get-together in deepest Flanders to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Quickstep Floors’ sponsorship of Patrick Lefevère’s team, today known as Deceuninck-Quickstep. There were various luminaries from the team’s sponsors, a smattering of bike riders, and greats from past incarnations of Lefevère’s team, most notably Johan Museeuw, Paolo Bettini and Oscar Freire, but not, surprisingly, the best of them all: Tom Boonen.
Another surprise was to bump into Mark Cavendish, who had taken the trouble to nip over from Dimension Data’s team hotel. If my memory serves me right, Cavendish was the only active rider there who wasn’t riding for Quickstep. And the Manxman didn’t just pop in, press the flesh and beetle off back to his hotel. Boonen’s absence made Cavendish’s presence there just that little bit more significant; when you’re a team owner celebrating a sponsor’s longevity, you want your former world champions to be in the room to help you do it.
I wouldn’t say that Cavendish’s presence that evening explains Lefevère’s decision to hire him for 2021, a decision announced a few weeks ago to a rash of raised eyebrows across the piece. Of course it doesn’t. But it does illustrate that the links between the best sprinter of all time and the winningest team in cycling run pretty deep, and that does go some way to making Cav’s return to the Belgian squad easier to understand.
Lefevere isn’t the kind who will just ask “how high?” when a former rider asks him to jump. The Flemish manager has been in the game since the early 80s, and he knows that professional cycling is a “what have you done for me lately?” kind of sport. He himself has a personal rule, according to the writer Philippe le Gars of l’Equipe, that if you leave the DQS or OPQS fold, you don’t come back in. His thinking, apparently, is that if a rider chooses another team, that means there is no reason for him to return.
He’s made an exception for only a few riders. In the past, Frank Vandenbroucke was one; in recent years, two Flemish racers have been let back in: Dries Devenyns – a gesture which has taken on fresh perspective given the closeness and fruitfulness of Devenyns’ working relationship with Julian Alaphilippe – and Kevin de Weert. Cavendish, is, apparently, the only example of a non-Flemish rider who has been offered a second chance with Lefevère.
It’s easy to forget that Cavendish enjoyed the second most successful season of his entire career with Lefevère and company. For most of us, the default is that Cavendish was in his prime in the long-distant High Road years. But in 2013, riding for Omega-Pharma-Quickstep he won 19 races, including his 100th career victory at the Giro, where he was on stunning form, with five stage wins, and the points prize which meant he had been crowned best sprinter at all three Grand Tours. He took the British national title in Glasgow, and at the Tour de France, OPQS engineered him a stunning victory in the crosswinds on stage 13 into Saint-Amand-Montrond.
No one expects Cavendish to repeat his achievements of 2013 in 2021, although it’s amusing to remember that seven years ago at the Tour de France, questions were already being asked about his future as a sprinter because Marcel Kittel was on such unbeatable form. But the reference to the here and now is this: team managers remember those great moments; they create an emotional bond.
That’s why, when Patrick Lefevere saw Cavendish getting in the break in several of the Belgian Classics – a completely atypical thing for the Manxman to do – and took his phone call, he didn’t dismiss out of hand the idea of Cav finishing his career with him. Yes, Cavendish may struggle to find his place in the team at times, given the wealth of hungry young talent in there, but the reality is that cycling has moved on in the four years since he was in his pomp, and that would apply wherever he went.
No one knows what Cavendish will achieve in 2021. Many followers of the sport feel he’s finished, and some seem to take a positive pleasure in his struggles. But three things are certain. One is that the 2020 season can’t have worked in his favour. There was uncertainty at Bahrain-McLaren, and uncertainty for much of the season. Once racing got going again, there were relatively few chances for any sprinters. Older riders didn’t seem to find form as easily as the younger generation. There was no opportunity for anyone to ride into form: it either happened or it didn’t. If 2021 is closer to the pattern of a “normal” season, that will help his cause.
The second certainty is that if any rider gets back into a positive spiral of form and success, surprising things can happen, and there is probably a better chance of that scenario happening for Cavendish at a well-structured team like DQS than in most places. The final point is this: most of the greats struggle to make a perfectly neat end to their careers, because the qualities which make them great militate against just walking away. Ask Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, or even Sean Kelly. If Cavendish and Lefevere can engineer anything close to a neat conclusion, they will have done better than most.
If you enjoyed this, why not try our review of the 2020 season
‘Racing in the Time of Covid’ – available to purchase here >