WSJ The Emotional, Outrageous Comeback of Mark Cavendish at the Tour de France


Tom Snitzer
 

The Emotional, Outrageous Comeback of Mark Cavendish at the Tour de France
On the verge of leaving the sport, a reborn rider equals Eddy Merckx’s legendary record of 34 stage wins
Mark Cavendish celebrates as he crosses the finish line after taking the 13th stage of the Tour de France on Friday. 

By Jason Gay
Updated July 9, 2021 2:42 pm ET


To appreciate the full picture of what Mark Cavendish is doing right now at the Tour de France—to understand why this story is so thrillingly emotional and unexpected that it’s making grown, grizzled cycling fans weepy—you’ve got to appreciate where Cavendish was, not terribly long ago.

And where was he?

He was all but out of the sport. Done. Kaput. A shell of his former, spandexed self.

There are comebacks in sports, and then there is this one: Mark Cavendish, the 36-year-old missile from the Isle of Man, back from the brink and born anew, winning four stages at the 2021 Tour and tying bike legend’s Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stages Friday with a brilliant closing gallop in Carcassonne.

It’s a feat so improbable, not even Cavendish was willing to consider it, until maybe a few days ago.

Why would he? A few months back, it would have been outrageous to think Cavendish could even start the 2021 Tour. He hadn’t won a stage of cycling’s grandest event since 2016. He hadn’t even been invited to participate in it since 2018.

A close-to-unbeatable tornado in his 20s, Cavendish fell apart as he entered his mid-30s. He endured bad luck, bad crashes, awkward fits with mediocre teams, and was flattened by successive bouts with the Epstein-Barr virus, which drained his energy and stripped his unshakable sprinter’s confidence. Depression reared from the darkness.

A once-swaggering phenom was humbled. The man they call “Cav” collected 30 Tour stage victories by 2016, and then, abruptly, he couldn’t win at all. He kept pushing on, turning the pedals, but it became difficult to watch. After a grueling race last fall, he tearfully told a reporter: “That’s perhaps the last race of my career.”

Please understand: Bike sprinting is an underrated head game. You’ve got to have ferociously strong legs, yes, and it helps to have some talented teammates to deliver you close to the finish line, but in the final, furious meters, you have to believe, unequivocally, to barrel out of that blurry pack at 45 MPH and gun it for the finish, elbows wide, head over handlebars, brakes be damned.

Cav wasn’t sure if he could believe again.

“I was kind of lost in the wilderness,” Cavendish told me in April.

The sport had moved on.

“It’d just felt like everybody had given up,” he said.

Cavendish had to cobble together his own, last-ditch offer just to stick around. Last winter, he grabbed a lifeline from an old team, Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and a bike sponsor, Specialized, but expectations were minimal. Maybe Cav could help out with the young riders. Maybe he could swipe a victory at a C-list race.

Win stages of the Tour de France? Close the gap with Merckx’s 34, a mark which loomed over cycling like DiMaggio’s 56?

Ha, ha. No way. It was such a ridiculous proposition that Cavendish grew to loathe being asked about it.

In the spring, he showed a flash of his old self, winning four sprint stages of the Tour of Turkey. It was a stirring moment, enough to walk away from the sport with his head held high, but it wasn’t France in July. Cavendish wasn’t mentioned in Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Tour de France plans. The team had a strong, younger sprinter in Sam Bennett, who’d won the green jersey as the Tour’s top speedster in 2020.

They were set. Cav would again watch the Tour on TV.

Then Cavendish got lucky—lucky in the grim way a cyclist doesn’t ever want to be lucky, but fortunate still. Bennett, struggling to rehabilitate from a knee injury, got scratched from the Tour roster. Cavendish was summoned off the bench, less than a week before the start.

And since then, it’s been like turning a switch, back to the brilliant old days. Cavendish has stepped into the cockpit of a cycling powerhouse—Deceuninck-Quick-Step is an outfit in which Cavendish has a reigning world champion, Julian Alaphilippe, helping to protect him in the pack, and other teammates have lugged Cavendish through difficult mountain stages. In the sprints, Cavendish barely has to stick his nose into the wind until the closing kilometer.

But you know what? He still has to do it in those closing meters, and he’s done it, turning on those diabolical jets everyone presumed were long, long gone. He’s been speedy and crafty and calm under pressure. This may not be peak Cavendish cannonball, but in a Tour that has seen some top competition like Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan depart with injuries, it’s been plenty enough.

Cav’s joy has been—well—a joy. Late edition Cavendish brims with gratitude, to his teammates, to Deceuninck-Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere, to the entire sport, his family, and to his fans who never gave up. It seems he, too, can’t quite believe it. The Brash Missile has gone Warm and Fuzzy. A sport is swooning.

Even Eddy seems OK with it. Merckx, aka “The Cannibal,” is cycling’s Babe Ruth—and, as he recently reminded La Gazzetta dello Sport, he won his 34 Tour stages in an assortment of sprints, mountain climbs and time trials. There’s no comparison between what Eddy did and what Cav’s doing as a sprint specialist. Still, the 76-year-old respectfully allowed: “He’s been through a difficult time and has fallen in love with cycling again. That’s a great message for young people in the sport.”

It is indeed. And it isn’t yet done. More mountains are coming, which will be another slog for Cavendish, but there are a pair of sprint stages late, including a final romp on Sunday, July 18 on the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées. A record-breaker could be coming, but I would caution you that nothing in cycling’s ever given, that luck can change in an instant, and you can never count on an outcome, but you already know that. You’re watching Mark Cavendish win at the Tour de France again, and it’s enough to take anyone’s breath away.  

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Thomas Snitzer
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