From the Darkness, Mark Cavendish Wins a Bike Race. Then Another. And Another.
From the Darkness, Mark Cavendish Wins a Bike Race. Then Another. And Another.--
A trio of victories marks a stirring return for an aging cycling legend once left behind by the sport
Mark Cavendish reacts after a stage win at the Tour Of Turkey. STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES
By Jason Gay
Updated April 15, 2021 8:17 am ET
He was the man who won almost all of the bike races, until, rather jarringly, he was not.
At his peak, Mark Cavendish was the fastest sprinter on two wheels—a ferocious cannonball of raw power from the Isle of Man who collected an Olympic silver medal on the track, a world championship on the road, and 146 World Tour races in total, including an astonishing 30 stages of the Tour de France.
Bike sprinters are different. You’ve got to be a little mad to barrel into a finishing straightaway at 45 mph, knocking elbows and helmets in a risky, frantic scramble for victory. Cavendish seemed born to do it, though, and he won with swagger and regularity. There was a stretch in the late aughts to mid-2010s when, as Cavendish told me the other day, “it was bigger news if I lost than if I won.”
Then, in the late half of the last decade, Cavendish’s health and luck turned dramatically. In 2017, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, a condition that flattened him with fatigue, and turned mundane tasks into mountain climbs. “Not being able to walk up stairs without going to sleep,” is how he put it. Cavendish missed chunks of seasons. The illness returned. Depression crept in. He continued racing, but there were bad days, rough crashes.
Cavendish didn’t win a bike race, of any kind, for a couple of years, and then another full year after that, and it just seemed like that was the way it was going to go. By his mid-30s, he’d been largely written off.
”I was kind of lost in the wilderness, trying to find a way I could get back to knowing who I was again,” he told me.
Sports are cruel like this. Brilliant careers can wind down very quietly. This winter, as retirement rumors swirled, the 35-year-old Cavendish secured an offer to reunite with a former team, the starry Belgian outfit Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and an old sponsor, Specialized bikes. The arrangement warmed fans, but it looked like goodwill to a legend.
And then, on Monday, April 12, Mark Cavendish won a bike race.
And then on Tuesday, he won another.
And then on Wednesday, he won a third.
Cavendish hadn’t won a bike race in more than three years—and now, before the week was out, he’d won three in a row. The feat, accomplished in successive stages at the Tour of Turkey, shook the sport like a primal scream.
Caaaaaaaaavvvvv! He’s done it.
I reached Cavendish late Wednesday in Turkey. He was wide-awake—how could anyone tuck himself early to bed after winning three bike races in a row? He spent the first minute of our conversation heaping credit on his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates. “The atmosphere is brilliant,” he said. He raved about the return of his teammate Fabio Jakobsen, who’s back racing after a horrific crash last summer.
“For us, that’s the proudest moment, before any wins, that he’s back competing again,” Cavendish said of Jakobsen.
But, yes, the victories? They were deeply satisfying to Cavendish. How could they not be? He’d won bigger races, many of them, but considering where he’d been, how he’d been humbled, these were right up there.
“It’d just felt like everybody had given up,” he said.
Not everybody, of course. There’d been allies who’d stayed firmly in his corner during what Cavendish called the “dark moments,” none more important than his four children, and his wife, Peta Todd. She’d been witness to all of his struggles, he said, encouraging him to keep riding when he felt like hell and thought about hanging it up.
“She’s the one who pushed me when I wanted to stop,” he said.
The hard years had been isolating. Cavendish was not shy about acknowledging it. There’d been challenges of all kinds. Physical challenges. Mental challenges. Challenges with teams. He struggled to finish races, much less compete to win sprints. That brash Cavendish confidence had been stripped away.
“Imagine if you spent 10 years building a house, and a bulldozer comes and knocks it down,” Cavendish said. “You’ve to start from scratch again, and that is basically what I had to do.”
To win again? It sounded as if Cavendish was still processing it. He’d been feeling good at the season’s start, on the verge of a breakthrough—“we’ve known for a couple of months, it was there, waiting to come”—but winning three in a row was amusingly showy, a flash of the old Cav. He’d done it before, back in the glory days, but to do it now?
“I couldn’t imagine winning three in a row,” he admitted.
I reached out to the U.S. racer Ben King, who’d been a teammate of Cavendish’s on the Dimension Data squad during some of Cavendish’s later, leaner seasons. He sounded elated for his friend.
“Cav is such a rare personality in sports, and we really connected,” King wrote in an email. “There’s so much more to him than all of his victories, but for any athlete, rough periods can lead to existential crisis.”
“It would have been easy for him to hang it up and go down as an all-time great,” King continued. “The grit it took for him to keep pushing, win or lose, says a lot about who he is.”
Cavendish is realistic. The Tour of Turkey isn’t a pinnacle showcase. “We’ve got some of the best sprinters here, but it isn’t all of them all together, like in the Tour de France,” he said. Cavendish remains four victories short of Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour de France record of 34 wins, so there will be sentimental pleas to see him return, but Deceuninck-Quick-Step is a team crowded with stars, including sprinting sensation Sam Bennett.
“I am happy just being part of the team, whatever I do,” Cavendish said diplomatically.
He is returned from the wilderness. He knows who he is again. Cavendish has already gotten what he wanted from cycling, which was to feel what it’s like to win a race again.
And one more time after that.
“The one thing I have always said to my kids is—and it’s the biggest thing I can instill in them—is to never give up,” Cavendish said. “I’m so proud that it isn’t just something I can say to them now.
“It’s something I can show them.”