The words “end of an era” should not be lightly used, but when Mark Cavendish hangs up his wheels later this season the term will apply, absolutely. The Manxman’s glittering career has lasted nigh on 20 years, if his first world title in 2005 is taken as a starting point. In bike racing, he is almost unique for a sprinter, both in terms of longevity, and the depth and breadth of his results. Generations of fastmen have come and gone as Cavendish’s list of wins has lengthened over the years, and all the while, from a brash, motormouthed youth, ready for anything, “Cav” has morphed into an elder statesman, a fixture in the sport, if occasionally a slightly terse one.
The intensity of sprinters’ careers, as well as the frequent crashes, mean that as a breed of cyclist they rarely last long. To take just one example, the German powerhouse Marcel Kittel managed eight years, quitting at the age of 31. Cavendish’s absolute peak, the period where if he started a sprint stage of a major race it was virtually a given that he would win, lasted, arguably, from 2009 until 2012, when he became the only sprinter to win the iconic stage finish on the Champs-Élysées in four successive Tours de France, and was named by the newspaper L’Équipe as the best sprinter of all time.
Now, Cavendish does not have the legs of the period of his pomp; then he was virtually impossible to beat thanks to his ability to read a finish, to motivate his teammates with his absolute certainty that he could win, capped by his ability to produce two devastating accelerations as the finish approached. As he rides out his final months with the Kazakh Astana squad, he has yet to win a race in 2023, but the desire to win and the self-belief common to all sprinters still run deep.
When he sprang to prominence in 2004-2005, Cavendish was one of the first generation of riders to come through the newly formed British Cycling academy, under the aegis of Rod Ellingworth. The big breakthrough came with his first Grand Tour stage win in the 2008 Tour de France at Châteauroux; Cavendish had a ghost-written column in the Guardian at the time, so he made the front page with the headline, “Guardian man wins Tour de France stage; I told my manager to put €1000 on me”.
The next few years were relatively seamless, until a new generation of sprinters headed by Kittel and Peter Sagan emerged; after 2013, Cavendish’s dominance ended, highlighted by his massive crash at the end of the first stage of the 2014 Tour de France in Harrogate. The wins kept coming, but not as straightforwardly as before, and it took until 2016 for him to return to his best, taking stage one of the Tour at Utah Beach in Normandy and with it the yellow jersey, completing a full house of all three leaders’ jerseys in all three Grand Tours.
Three tough seasons followed, marred by crashes and illness, with his non-selection for the Dimension Data team in the 2019 Tour being a major blow. As a result, when Cavendish returned to Châteauroux 15 years on in his second spell at the Quickstep team, it was to take his 32nd Tour stage win after returning from a difficult spell marred by illness and depression. A few months earlier, few would have put money on that comeback when, as he floundered at the Bahrain team, Cavendish said he was likely to quit the sport.
That he went on to take a further two stage wins in the 2021 Tour, equalling Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage victories, will remain the most remarkable achievement of his career; had he not quit the 2008 Tour de France early in an abortive attempt to take an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, it is as certain as anything can be in sport that he would have won at least one more stage if not two.
If the stage win record is the absolute highlight, there have been many other great Cavendish moments. The last-ditch sprint to win the world road race title in Copenhagen in 2011 is an obvious one, the culmination of a two-year campaign masterminded by Ellingworth, who also placed a major role in Cavendish’s only Monument win, the narrow victory in the 2009 Milan-San Remo. His silver medal in the 2016 race in Doha was different again, coming at the end of a hugely selective race in the desert crosswinds.
In Grand Tour stage win terms, the final two stages Cavendish won in the 2012 Tour will always stick in the mind, with the yellow-jerseyed Bradley Wiggins leading out the Manxman in the rainbow jersey of world champion; my personal favourites are the stage to Aubénas in the 2009 Tour, when the peloton got smaller and smaller over a tough final climb, with Cavendish hanging tough for the win, while the 2013 stage win into Saint-Amand-Montrond was a cross-wind masterpiece created by the Quickstep team.
As the Tour de France approaches, the questions will inevitably centre on whether Cavendish will ride and if so, whether he will be able to land the single stage wins that will take him beyond Merckx’s tally. In one sense, that is barely relevant. For a specialist to have drawn level with an all-rounder like Merckx was truly remarkable when it happened, and it is almost certain that the record will last well beyond the moment when the tears flow down the Manxman’s cheeks as he rides his last race. Cavendish is, and will remain, one of a kind, and there are few sportsmen of whom that can truly be said.