The Sprinters (Tour Guide 2010)

This is from the Australian edition of the Official Tour de France Guide published in June 2010.

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When one rider wins six sprint stages in one edition of the Tour de France, it’s clear that he’s the maestro of the bunch gallop. Mark Cavendish is just that. He is a precocious talent who is awkward at times, angry at others but when the rider from the Isle of Man allows his legs to take care of things, there are few who can match him. The key to success has been found. Now he has to avoid locking out those who appreciate his special gift.


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The photo of Thor Hushovd and Mark Cavendish at the end of the 14th stage of the 2009 Tour de France reflects the pivotal moment of the green jersey battle.

It was a sprint for 13th place in Besançon. You see the rider who finished 14th gesturing to the man who beat him to the 13 points on offer. Leading the sprint classification at the start of the day the Norwegian had 205 points, five more than the Manxman. They were trading days in green – the only two, since the prologue, to wear that jersey last year – but Cavendish effectively lost his hope for the title after being relegated.

There was more on the line than just the points to be collected and Columbia’s sprint maestro was riding with a team-mate in mind. It was a difficult scenario at the end of what had been a transitional stage for there was a chance that the yellow jersey could change hands. George Hincapie had put himself in the escape of the day. He, along with 11 others, would finish ahead of the peloton. He started the day ranked 28th but built up a sufficient advantage with his attack in stage 14 that he became the virtual leader of the Tour de France. ‘Cav’ didn’t care about 13th place. He’d grown used to winning, but in Besançon he needed to gain points on Hushovd in the points classification. That’s what this sprint was all about, green… and yellow.

The scene of debate captured (above) begins only about 25 metres after the finish. It had been an odd approach: Columbia wanted the lead and assumed it, but there were two objectives – they wanted to ensure the peloton arrived as late as possible, to enhance George’s chance of taking the maillot jaune, for he needed five minutes and 25 seconds to take the overall lead. The bunch arrived five minutes 20 seconds after Hincapie…

When they did begin the sprint, Columbia was in control. It had forces everywhere at the front and they spread across the road, hoping to delay the arrival but also leading Cavendish to the line for maximum points. On the approach, Mark Renshaw holds a straight line just right of the centre of the road. Cav is on his wheel and Hushovd following Brett Lancaster further to the right. The final sweep is a very subtle right-hander and as the sprint opens up there’s a lot of looking around from the two Columbia riders at the front: a slow sprint. That’s what they needed for George. But Cav had to be quick to take on Thor.

They weaved a little. Mark looked over his shoulder – to the left a glance, to the right a quick peek – and out of shot for a moment… back into the picture he steals another few glimpses of the green jersey coming at him quickly down the right.

Did he sway in towards the barriers? That’s the question. But the UCI deemed that he had. And Cavendish was DQ’ed. This was the moment he lost the green jersey.

“Any sprinter who tried to go on the inside,” Cav reckoned, “should be automatically disqualified. But the guy ahead of him doesn’t have to deviate to let him through. Bennati did it for me at the Giro in 2008 but he didn’t have to. I’ve said I don’t look for other riders. That day, I was just waiting for a guy to jump, then going myself. I don’t care what Thor’s doing. I don’t care about beating Thor. What would I need to outmanoevure him for? He should know that I’m faster than him.”

That was his take on the matter and it did affect him deeply.

“He screamed at me: ‘Do you think thar’s fair?!’ I looked at him in disbelief. I was like, ‘What?’ I had no idea what I’d done. Thor then starting kicking off. I said, ‘Calm down Thor’ and rode off. I then got to the bus and never imagined I’d be disqualified. We were all preoccupied with what had happened to George. We then got back to the hotel, turned the TV on to watch the end of the stage and my name wasn’t in the results. I called Valerio and said he had to do everything he could to get the decision overturned, because I’d done nothing. An hour later, I was on the massage table and Rolf came in. He said the decision stood and I burst into tears. Cried like a baby. I’d just lost 13 points and I knew that was the jersey.”

Many more points would be accumulated by Cavendish and the fifth and sixth stage wins were yet to come so he would prove he was the fastest sprinter but by then the damage was done and he failed to understand how he could cope with this added strain of missing out on something he really should have won. His competitive spirit takes hold and when he doesn’t get the prize, he ponders why. A natural reaction, surely.

There are ways to cope with stress and one way is to prove the critics wrong and enjoy the moment. Cav did the first part, winning again and again, but in the moments after success he failed dismally in the second component. If he was happy about taking stage after stage, this joy wasn’t on display immediately afterwards. He had some media cringing upon approach. They had reason to complain too: he was abrupt with his responses – particularly scathing should anyone, in a line-up of five or six networks with live coverage rights in various languages, ask the same question twice – and downright angry at trivial things. The star was born at the 2009 Tour.

Before that, Cavendish made his victories enjoyable for all. He had a universal appeal: against the odds, he made it good… but then it turned. The scowl at the press conference in Monaco said it all. You didn’t need to hear his comments to know that he wasn’t interested in all the attention. He whispered answers, and spoke with his head hunched so that his chin was near his chest. It was obvious he didn’t want to be there. This was when the contradictions began and they continued through the race.

He wanted to be liked, but seemed to hate it when he was.

All he ever dreamed about in cycling was wearing the green jersey, but didn’t care about it when he didn’t have it.

He wanted to talk to people who understood him but when some close to him tried, they were dismissed because he was too busy to be bothered. Cav is a great rider and although the hype that comes with success seems to annoy him, he accepts praise so well that he seems to think he is allowed to be rude because he can ride a bike fast… very fast, in fact.

“I wouldn’t say that he turned into an arsehole at the Tour,” said one of Cavendish’s confidants, “but it’s the biggest objective – the most important – and you do have to give one hundred per cent so he’s focused. In the team he’s a humble guy.”

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Throughout the Tour he kept on winning. Afterwards he chastised anyone who even dared try to gloat about a time when they did come close to him in a sprint. Tyler Farrar was singled out by Cavendish for a particularly scathing retort to comments made by Garmin’s sprinter. “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler… I heard you. Please look at the three times last year when I went 100 per cent in a sprint,” begs the Brit before explaining those instances.

“Milan-San Remo, stage one of the Tour and the Champs-Elysées. Look at the distance I put into you. Okay?

“The first stage of the Tour, you had a lead-out, and your lead-out man was me, Tyler. The thing is, I went 100 per cent and I dropped you from my wheel, Tyler.”

Cavendish has his take on how to handle Farrar: “If Tyler goes faster, I’ll just go 85 per cent instead of 80 per cent.”

He’s a fast talker and an entertaining one. Cavendish speaks his mind and that’s one thing that endears him to the media and fans alike. There are times, however, when his bluntness can be construed as arrogant. But he’s developed this persona over the years and it’s come as a result of the success he’s had. Team-mates not only endure him, they enjoy his company even if they cringe a little at the way he conducts himself.

Cavendish’s room-mate for the duration of his third Tour was his lead-out man Mark Renshaw. The two get along well but the Australian admits that his mate could do a little bit of work on his diplomacy. “There’s always a lot going on in Cav’s mind,” explained Renshaw. “He has problems like everyone.

“I think the thing that snaps him most is when he gets the same question over and over again. That’s something the team is working on with him – to try and manage it better. He gets a lot of stupid questions that he has to repeat the answer for, but that doesn’t excuse him for upsetting people. He can be upfront and he doesn’t make friends all the time.”

In 2007, when the Tour began in London, he had recently turned 22 and was thrilled about the prospect of starting the race for the first time. He was humble and appreciated the chance to be part of the T-Mobile team; a win in England was his quest but a mishap near the end of the stage to Canterbury ruined his chances. He featured near the top of the results sheets twice – ninth in Compiègne for stage three, and 10th the next day at Joigny – before abandoning in stage eight.

The next season he was scheduled for the Giro d’Italia but was to miss the Tour so that he could prepare for the Beijing Olympics. He won twice in Italy and the team changed plans and opted to send him to France for the first 10 days, after which he was to quit and concentrate on being in peak condition for the madison (which he would ride with Bradley Wiggins).

Once at the Tour, he was happy. Cav joked and grinned his way through the pre-race media conference and happily hung around afterwards talking to journalists. Then, finally, his legs did the talking in Châteauroux at the end of stage five.

His first Tour stage victory was emphatic. He relegated veteran sprinters Oscar Freire (who would win the green jersey that year), Erik Zabel, Thor Hushovd and Baden Cooke – all of whom had won the points classification before. “Oh man, it’s just beautiful,” he declared, close to tears but still able to thank his helpers. “The team did such a great job. Kim Kirchen was prepared to sacrifice his own green jersey in order to help me.”

Back then he was in awe of men who would become true rivals only 12 months later. “The gap [to an escape group] was coming down really quickly at the end of the stage and I spoke with Thor and said, ‘We’re going to have to slow down a little otherwise we’ll catch them too early…’ and he was just like, ‘No, we’ll just keep going like this; they’ll accelerate at the end.’ That’s just what happened. It shows his class and experience.”

He was a sponsor’s dream. Complimentary, funny, fast and capable of winning again and again and again. In Toulouse in the rain, in Narbonne in horrid heat, and in Nîmes ahead of Robbie McEwen. But after 14 stages, it was time to go home.

When he returned to the race it was as a different ‘Cav’. In the off-season he had collaborated with journalist Daniel Friebe on Boy Racer, a book about his career to date, which came out the month before his third Tour. He hadn’t even finished the race before writing an autobiography with a coverline stating, ‘My journey to Tour de France record breaker’.

Believe the hype. He did. He knew he was fast but was still coming to terms with how to handle all the attention.

Squirming uncomfortably in the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco he endured question time, grunting answers without a smile. There seems to be a lot of pressure, suggested one journalist, how do you cope? “I tend not to think about it.

“It’s my job. It’s what I have to do. I try to do it. I have the best support to do it and hopefully that will help.”

“You’re looking at stage wins and the green jersey; which is more important in the grand scheme of things,” I asked.

“I’ve never said I want the green jersey,” he said, correcting me. “I’d like it but I think it’s more realistic to look for stage wins here. I think that’s what I’m looking for. It’s what I’ve said all along. I want to win stages and get to Paris. They’re my two goals. For sure, the green jersey is more special but I have to be realistic. I never reached Paris yet. To go in with thoughts of the green jersey is a bit optimistic, I think.”

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Beforehand, he only had two goals. Then he won the first bunch sprint, and the second. By the time he won his third, he had survived the Pyrenees and it seemed like he would make it to Paris. And so his ambition grew but not his tolerance.

After each victory he got more cranky. In the area behind the podium he lashed out often, swearing at journalists and berating people who, just like him, were doing their jobs. When a TV camera cable tangled in his feet, he stopped a live interview with a British network to pick up the cord and throw it away violently before scolding the crew responsible. The fun of talking to Cav had gone. It became something some networks would have liked to avoid for fear of a confrontation.

He at least still got along with his team-mates. He would go to war with Thor over the incident in stage 14 but praise for the other Columbia-HTC riders was always there. But questions linger about his intentions once his contract with the squad expires at the end of the year. “Everyone’s going to speculate,” he said of the suggestion he be poached by Sky. “When there was proof that a British team was going to start, I still re-signed with this team, because I wanted to be at the best place for me.

“Columbia’s close to my heart. I’ve seen it evolve with me. If it’s still the best for me, I’ll stay here.”

Negotiations will surely be well underway before the start of the 2010 Tour but his current team will certainly send a roster composed of assistants for the maestro who is bound to deliver a few victories this July. Meanwhile Hushovd has acquired support for his cause and if Theo Bos goes to the Tour, there could be a rider with the speed to take on Cavendish. The Dutchman may not be in the line-up but given the site of the start, he could be given a similar opportunity to that which Cav received in 2007. Rotterdam could be Theo’s equivalent to Cav’s London.

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Even if this other former track rider – one who did the sprint events, as opposed to the endurance ones that Cavendish was so good at from a young age – does get to the start, can he survive three weeks? With three behind him now, and a comprehensive victory in Paris in the back of his mind, the Manxman believes he understands the formula for victories in the Tour.

“You go into the Tour and don’t know anyone else’s form,” he explained. “The reason I don’t go 100 per cent all the time is that the Tour is 21 days and every bit of energy you use, you pay for. You’re not racing for that day – you’re racing for the 21 days – so everything you eat on the first day has an effect on the 18th day.” It was kind of precise, but that was his example of things. “But you have to go 100 per cent on the first day because you don’t know. Then I see the overhead shots and how much I won by and I can calm down.”

Be that as it may, he still never recovered from the incident in stage 14. The next day, they rode to Verbier, high in the Swiss Alps and Cavendish doesn’t remember it fondly. “Cried three times on that stage,” he said, before mixing Bungy and base. “You know base jumping? Well, that piece of elastic – or rope or whatever it is – is like your emotions in the Tour. It was all too much. Thor tried to speak to me on the climb. He’s like, ‘Can we talk?’ I said, ‘What do you want?’ I mean, he’d been so disrespectful, saying that I’m a dangerous sprinter. No one has ever said that about me in my life. It’s something I pride myself on. I told him to say what he liked but that the jersey had a stain on it. I said ‘f— off’ and rode away. My morale had been so high and it fell so low after the disqualification.

“You can’t believe the emotions on the Tour.”

- Rob Arnold

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Author: design@ride

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