Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
Let’s get the bus joke out of the way now: you wait three years for a Mark Cavendish win, and then two come along at once.
You’d need a heart of stone not to go a little bit goose-bumpy at the sight of Cavendish winning a brace of stages in the Tour of Turkey. As sports fans, one of the things we all love is a comeback, to see persistence rewarded against the odds. And last season, as cycling got going again amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the sight of Cavendish in difficulty wasn’t pleasant to see.
Doubts about his future were legitimate – cycling is a ruthless sport for those who are struggling to find their place – but one thing has never been in doubt: the extent to which this rider loves cycling and lives for it. In everything Cav’ has said and done since he was a callow youth on the GB cycling academy the best part of 20 years ago, that’s shone through. And when you know that, you can’t help but want that to be rewarded.
It’s been pretty obvious for several weeks that Cavendish has been headed in the right direction again; he’s been in with more than a shout at the back end of some tough races, getting stuck in when it matters. You can’t suggest that the GP Pino Cerami – where he finished second – is a straightforward day out, and you can’t claim that making a 30-rider split early doors in Scheldeprijs is an energy-saving way to head for third place. Cavendish has been up there, he’s been in the wind for long periods, and he’s still looked good in the final sort out.
None of that means winning one stage let alone two in the Tour of Turkey was inevitable. It’s not easy to win any bike race. Mostly, it looks relatively seamless on the telly – Mathieu van der Poel’s last gasp stage win at Tirreno being the recent exception – but any win needs a lot of things to go right. Just ask André Greipel, who finished third to Cav on Monday. He last crossed the line first in Leamington Spa in September 2018, and has finished in the top ten 12 times since then. At times, he’s not been far off the win he must covet desperately, but it isn’t happening.
I would never claim to be prescient. Sometimes I get things right, far more often I get it wrong. But back in January I wrote, “if any rider gets 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 Deceuninck-QuickStep than in most places.” That, pretty much, is what I would argue has happened in the last few weeks.
As I read it, being in a team which wins as many races as DQS must create different and more positive pressure than an athlete would experience in a team that’s struggling to win. Fear of failure stalks every sportsman, but it must be a different kind of nerves when you’re riding for a team that has won 15 times in two months with seven different riders, as DQS had when they travelled to Turkey.
A winning environment creates pressure that pulls athletes upwards, which is why, so often in sport, we see success breeding success: a winning team that wins prolifically, an athlete who gets the monkey of failure off their back then strikes again, rapidly, as Cavendish did in Turkey. Plus, one constant in Patrick Lefevere’s teams over the years has been their ability to line up rapidly behind a winner, to put egos to one side in the common cause the second that there’s a sniff of success.
Cavendish’s brace of victories doesn’t change one reality, however. It’s still true that the greats of cycling tend to struggle to end their careers neatly. Of all the names I’ve written about, only Bernard Hinault managed it – and inevitably, because he quit before he hit the downward slope, there is speculation that he could have won more if only he’d stuck around for another year or two. The reason why it’s so tough is this: the obsessive quality that makes a rider great means they either want to hang on because they might win again, or they want to hang on because they are winning again and want to keep winning. But whatever the outcome, the concluding chapter of the Cavendish story already looks much happier and neater than it did back in November – and full credit to the Manxman and Patrick Lefevere for that.