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Mark Cavendish - the Fastest Man on Two Wheels

As Mark Cavendish crossed the line on the Champs Elysees, he ensured that he finished a difficult Tour de France on a high. This is the stage that all the top sprinters want to win, but for the second year running, Cavendish proved that he is a class above as he comfortably pulling clear of his rivals. He finished a couple of feet clear of Alessandro Petacchi in 2nd, which, in sprinting terms, is a large margin. It is not quite the stunning margin that he somehow pulled off last year, but he has had a difficult year, marred by controversy, and this will help to recover some pride.

This stage victory took his tally to 15, and moves him into joint 12th on the all-time list, with only 12 men ahead of him. Those ahead of him include some of the legendary names of the sport – Lance Armstrong, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault to mention just a few. But what makes Cavendish’s achievement all the more impressive is the time that it has taken him to achieve those 15 victories – a mere 3 years.

He began his professional career in 2007, but it began disastrously. With talk of him being dropped from the team, he was hardly setting the cycling world alight. His first victory came in April 2007 at the Grote Scheldeprijs race in Belgium. This was all the more surprising as he had failed to even finish any of his previous races. This victory boosted his confidence and sparked his career into life. Stage wins in the Four Days of Dunkirk race and the Volta a Catalunya convinced his T-Mobile team to select him for the 2007 Tour de France. However, having crashed in Stages 1 and 2, he abandoned the race during Stage 8 as they reached the Alps. Further stage victories followed, equalling Alessandro Petacchi’s record of 11 stage victories in a debut season. It was during this period that his slightly arrogant character began to show, stating that “if I am in front with 200m to go, then there is nobody who can beat me.”

The following year, Cavendish began to make his mark on the big stage. He picked up two stage victories in the Giro d’Italia – his first stage wins in one of the three Grand Tours. Things continued to get even better as he won his first stage in the Tour de France, crossing the line first in Stage 5 from Cholet to Châteauroux. Further stage wins followed in Stages 8, 12 and 13, before he pulled out to concentrate on the Beijing Olympics. In just a few days, he had become the ‘fourth most successful British professional cyclist in history’.

However, disappointment was to follow at the Olympics, as he and teammate Bradley Wiggins were only able to finish 8th in the Madison, leaving Cavendish as the only British track cyclist not to win a medal. The two friends did not speak for months after the event. Wiggins admitted that he struggled to give his all to the event following his gold medals in the individual and team pursuits, and Cavendish also blamed British Cycling for not paying sufficient attention to his event. Despite being World Champion in the Madison, Cavendish announced in November 2008 that he had no intentions of ever returning to track cycling, preferring to concentrate solely on the road races.

The following year saw Cavendish showing good early season form, with stage wins in both Qatar and California, before backtracking on his word and competing in the Track Cycling World Championships in both the scratch race and the Madison, although he failed to win a medal in either. One of his finest moments came in the Milan – San Remo classic. This race is regarded as one of the ‘Five Monuments of Cycling’ – the five oldest and most prestigious one-day races in the cycling calendar. His rivals had claimed that he was simply not good enough over the climbs, but he showed great resilience to hang on with the leading group and win the sprint finish. It made him only the second British rider to win one of the five monuments after the late Tom Simpson.

The first stage of the 2009 Giro d’Italia saw Cavendish’s Columbia team win the team time trial, and Cavendish was given the Maglia Rosa jersey – the Giro’s version of the Maillot Jeune in the Tour de France. He became the first British rider ever to wear it. Three further stage wins followed before he pulled out ahead of Stage 14, claiming he needed the time to prepare for the Tour de France.

After four stage wins in 2008, Cavendish had the British record of 8 stage wins in his grasp, and he shattered that record after winning an incredible six stages in the 2009 race. However, following his disqualification in Stage 14, meaning that he recorded no points for that stage, he gave up his attempt on the green jersey for the points classification. The final stage on the Champs Elysees emphasised his sheer dominance over the rest of the pack, winning by several metres – a huge gap as far as sprints go. His partnership with his lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, was proving virtually unstoppable. His 50th career stage win came soon after at the Tour of Missouri, and despite links with the new British Team Sky, he decided to remain at Team Columbia for 2010.

After three years of almost unprecedented success, 2010 began turbulently for Cavendish. A dental problem disrupted his preparations, meaning he did not race for the first time until mid-February. He struggled to find the form that had blown away the field in previous years, finishing a disappointing 89th when defending his Milan – San Remo crown. A feud with German teammate, André Greipel, followed, when Greipel criticised Cavendish’s performances. Cavendish responded by claiming that “there’s no chance he’s coming to a bike race that I’m in. Me on bad form is still better than him.” He also said that being in the same team as Greipel “is not a problem, because I am a better rider.”

However, further controversy was to come less than a month later when his team withdrew him from the Tour of Romandie, following a two-fingered gesture as he crossed the line, supposedly aimed at the critics who know “jack shit about cycling”, who had written him off following a poor start. He skipped the Giro d’Italia to try to regain some form, and won only his third race of the season in the Tour of California. The Tour of Switzerland was next for Cavendish, but he crashed in the sprint finish of the 4th stage, veering offline and bringing down Heinrich Haussler amongst others. This prompted a protest by other riders about his dangerous riding style, culminating in a go-slow at the beginning of the fifth stage.

A disappointing start to the Tour de France followed, crashing in Stage 1 after failing to negotiate a corner at speed. Finally though, he seemed to recover some form and ended up with five stage wins, including another impressive victory on the Champs Elysees. He finished second in the points classification behind Alessandro Petacchi – a slight disappointment, but it is surely only a matter of time until Cavendish finishes with the green jersey. What was particularly impressive this year was how he dealt with the loss of his lead-out man and close friend, Mark Renshaw, following Stage 11, after Renshaw headbutted Julian Dean to gain a better position for Cavendish. People questioned whether Cavendish could cope without Renshaw, but three more victories showed that he is capable of winning on his own.

Cavendish is rumoured to be the second highest paid rider in the peloton behind three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. His arrogant attitude occasionally rubs people up the wrong way – “when journalists at the Tour de France ask me if I’m the best sprinter, I answer ‘Yes’, and that’s seen as arrogance, but if they don’t ask me, I don’t say I’m the best sprinter in the world.” However, on his day, there is no doubt that he is by far the fastest sprinter on the planet, able to blow away his rivals at will.

So what next for the Manx Bullet? Next year, he will undoubtedly be looking to add to his already impressive collection of Tour de France stage victories. If he were able to repeat his five stage wins of this year, he would move into joint 6th in the overall standings, and 5th in the post-war standings, only behind Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Lance Armstrong and André Darrigade. Another target would be to become the first British rider to win the green jersey for the points classification. He has finished in 2nd place in both 2009 and 2010, and few would bet against him finally winning it in 2011.

In the longer term, with 15 stage wins in only 3 years, he will undoubtedly be eyeing up Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage wins, as well as trying to prove that he is able to win in some of the other classic races. He proved that he is capable when he won Milan – San Remo, and will be looking to try and add more wins to his tally. Whether this will be with Team Columbia or Team Sky remains to be seen, although he will always been linked with the British team.

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