Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
The 2022 Grande Partenza is done and dusted, the planes will soon be rising over the Adriatic and across the boot of Italy to Sicily, and, finally, the real Giro d’Italia will get going in Tuesday’s fourth stage on Mount Etna. Meanwhile, another simmering volcano exploded on the last of three Hungarian stages.
That is the only way to describe the fizzing firework that was Mark Cavendish bursting into life on stage three of the Giro. In the words of his leadout man Michael Morkov, Cavendish “nailed” his 16th career win in the Italian stage race with a peerless sprint in Balatonfured.
Not so long ago, that volcanic acceleration appeared dormant. In fact, many believed it to be extinct. But if there’s one thing Cavendish has never lacked, it’s self-belief. His flame, like Etna’s, is taking a very long time to extinguish.
Those who have advised others, sagely as it transpired, never to write him off, have been vindicated yet again. The stage win tally keeps on growing and he has now bagged a half century of stages in the two biggest Grand Tours — 16 in the Giro and 34 in the Tour de France.
Cavendish is never happier than when he’s on a finish line, celebrating and hugging his team mates. But talking about how he delivered, yet again, bores him. All that matters is that he crossed the line first.
“We wanted to do good in this first sprint,” he said. “We did, and I’m very happy. We’ve got half a team for the climbs, half for the sprints, but everyone committed. I’ve got an incredible final group there and they delivered today.”
“Other teams came,” he said of the finishing sprint, “but ‘Morky’ stayed super cool. In the end I had to go long, I had to go with 300 metres to go. I just had to hold the side. I’m happy I could hang on for that long.”
This latest victory comes nine years after his last in the Italian race, and like the very first, was taken with speed, assuredness and conviction. It’s another chapter in a sporting comeback that ranks alongside the very greatest. Some have now mentioned Ali, Woods, LeMond in the same breath as Cavendish.
“Mark Cavendish is the greatest sprinter in the history of the Tour and of cycling,” Tour de France director, Christian Prudhomme, said last summer. “His comeback is just amazing.”
Now almost 37, the British rider’s successes are into their 14th year and until last summer he had not won a stage in one of Europe’s three Grand Tours, of Italy, France and Spain, since 2016.
If last summer Cavendish sounded as shocked as anyone by his return to flying form — “After the first 20 kilometres on the first day (of the Tour), I thought to myself ‘what the fuck have you done?'” — these days, he’s as self-assured as he ever was. Yet even so, last winter was brimming with unexpected challenges.
A pair of broken ribs and a collapsed lung in last November’s Ghent six day cast doubt over his long-term fitness. Surely after such a bad crash, he’d think again about carrying on?
“People forget that I had a punctured lung at the end of November,” he said before the Giro. “I work hard. It doesn’t come easy.” Yet worse was to follow.
As he recovered from those injuries, he and his family were robbed at home at the end of November. Three men have now been charged with robbing Cavendish and his family at knifepoint in the middle of the night. In a subsequent statement, he and his wife Peta Todd, stated that they “feared for their lives.”
If that hearing is pending, in Balatonfured, it was case closed, with none of his rivals able to even get alongside the former world champion. Unlike in last year’s Tour, when it was easier to shrug off his success, due to a depleted sprint field, in this Giro he is facing down some of the best sprinters. This time, there are no caveats.
A little over a year ago, he couldn’t get close to victory. Retirement was looming. Yet in Hungary, by the shores of Lake Balaton, he relegated Arnaud Demare, Caleb Ewan, Fernando Gaviria, Binian Girmay, Matthieu Van der Poel, and Phil Bauhaus to the status of onlookers.
Certainly, Cavendish isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and he knows it. He is mellower but can still be over-controlling and hot-tempered. He is visibly weary of the media and there are rifts with some that go back years, rifts that may never be fully healed. He never forgets those who have criticised him, on and off the bike.
But all of that gets blown away every time he wins. None of the white noise matters when he hits 70 kilometres an hour, with 300 metres to race. For a sprinter, that’s the ultimate truth and Cavendish is, almost irrefutably now, cycling’s ultimate sprinter.