TOURNAI, Belgium (VN) — Oh come on. It couldn’t really have been possible that Mark Cavendish could show up at the Tour de France and not be a favorite, could it?
That is exactly how the world champion played it before the Tour started on Saturday. He didn’t have a leadout train. He was too light to be as quick as normal. It was a solid bluff… until the finish line in Tournai, the Tour’s first bunch finish.
After his roommate and close friend Bernhard Eisel dropped him off with 500 meters to go, Cavendish (Sky) freelanced the final 500 meters, finally grabbing André Greipel’s (Lotto-Belisol) wheel and jumping the big German for the win at the line. It was an absolutely clinical example of how to win a sprint without a leadout; he skipped from wheel to wheel and came around Greipel with under 25 meters to the line to win by half-a-wheel. It was as if he was climbing a ladder.
“Mark showed today why he is the world champion, why, when you put him in that two or three kilometers, he’s the master. How he got on Greipel’s wheel, I don’t know. Who knows? But he did. That’s what makes him the champion that he is,” said Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford.
“He just makes more right decisions than wrong decisions and more often than not finds himself in the right position to sprint. And when he is in that position, he doesn’t really lose.”
Cavendish did it without the vaunted leadout train that he’s had in years past. Without the extra weight he usually carries for more power. Without, if it’s possible, heavy expectation. The team that lines up in the morning for Sky isn’t here to help Cav’ in the sprints; it’s here to put Bradley Wiggins into yellow, plain and simple.
The win, Cavendish said, meant no more and no less because it came largely alone.
“A win at the Tour de France is the win at the Tour de France,” Cavendish said. “They don’t come easy. This is the most important race of the year for me. It’s what my season is normally based around, you know? It just gives me an extra drive, an extra determination.”
It’s evident Cavendish is pulling on the strength of his world champion stripes. He mentions the jersey in interviews, and said he looks down at the bands on his sleeves in training and races.
“Every race since I’ve won this jersey, I’ve wanted to wear this jersey and show why I wanted to wear it. I have massive respect for this jersey. I have massive respect for every rider who’s ever worn it,” he said Monday. “I really wanted to do it an honor this year… That doesn’t mean winning a stage at the Tour de France. It means wherever I go.”
Just before this year’s Tour started, Cavendish sat down with reporters and broke down his chances in the sprints. He said he’d lost weight for the Olympics, and that it would be hard to win without a dedicated train. It was almost as if he didn’t expect to win at all. He was subdued. It was all very Un-Cav’.
“I’m realistic. When I know I’ve done everything I know I’m better than everyone else. Fear of failure is a big thing,” Cavendish said before the Grand Départ. “So, if I fail, I know I’ve done something wrong. So, right now I’m realistic. I know I have limited support… when I’ve lost in the past, it’s because I’ve failed.”
Since he showed up for the 2012 Tour, it’s been about all about Wiggins, Cavendish’s madison partner on the track at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“I’m in the world champion’s jersey, riding for a British team. We’ve got the favorite in the Tour de France, a British rider and good friend of mine. It’s an honor to be here,” he said.
Ah, yes. An honor. But the Tour is Cavendish’s stomping grounds. The “Manx Missile” has won 21 Tour de France stages since 2008, including Monday’s. The win draws him within one win of the all-time Tour record for sprinters.
“For sure it’s nice to come in with less pressure, with less expectation to win multiple stages,” he said. “I think now if I don’t win five stages it’s seen as a failure to some people… On the other hand, we come in with the favorite for the yellow jersey, and that brings a heightened sense of responsibility, a heightened sense of pressure, a heightened sense of tension.”
There has also been speculation that Cavendish would leave the Tour early in order to recover and focus on the Olympic road race in London. To that, he said he planned to ride to Paris.
“It’s (the Champs Élysées) the most beautiful boulevard in the world. It’s my favorite place to sprint. I’ve won there the last three run-ins,” he said.
Eisel, a rival-turned-mentor to Cavendish since they began working together at High Road in 2007, said the stage 2 win comes as relief.
“It’s like we expected it. I was pretty sure we weren’t going to have the leadout train like in the past years, but he showed he’s able to win this sprint without a train, just floating around and moving up in the last moment,” Eisel said. “I’m happy for him. Really happy for Mark that he won this stage. Now, I think it’s easier for him.”
With a cheeky dance through his rivals in the final half-kilometer Monday, Cavendish certainly made it look easy.