TOURS, France (VN) — Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) may have lost a head-to-head sprint today in the Tour de France, but he remains the fastest man in the sport, according Sky principal and head of British Cycling David Brailsford, who said the Manxman simply needed “support and credit.”
“He’s by far the most prolific winner of his generation,” Brailsford said on Thursday. “When you step back and look at the entirety of his career, it’s absolutely phenomenal what the lad’s achieved.”
The 28-year-old Brit barely lost the sprint in Tours today to German Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano). He was up for what would have been his 25th Tour de France win. If he notches a second victory to follow his stage 5 win in Marseille, Cavendish would reach 25 Tour wins at a younger age than all-time leader Eddy Merckx.
His 24 wins are highlights on a long palmarès that includes the Tour’s green jersey, Milano-Sanremo, and a road world championship. In 2011, Brailsford assembled the British team that led Cavendish to the world title in Copenhagen.
After a rocky, one-year ride with Sky, during which he fought for space with GC greats Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, Cavendish joined Omega Pharma over the winter. This season, it took him a few tries, but the Manxman came up to full speed for the Giro and the Tour.
At the Giro, he won the points jersey, completing a set from each of cycling’s grand tours.
However, he has not won as much (only once so far) as in the past editions of the Tour and has been at the center of controversy — nothing new for Cavendish. In Saint Malo, he bumped Tom Veelers (Argos-Shimano) and was blamed by many for the resulting crash. Yesterday, fans reportedly booed him for the incident and one throw urine on him as he rode his time trial.
At the start on Thursday, Cavendish explained that he was ready to put it all behind him and win: “We’ll get back to bike racing today.”
Cavendish looked ready to win number 25 in the final kilometers on Thursday. His team took on Kittel’s Argos train and delivered well, but he lacked the spark. Gert Steegmans piloted Cavendish into the finale and dropped him off to open the sprint in the final 200 meters, but Kittel was too strong.
After the stage, once again surrounded about journalists, he explained that he was just slower.
“You can sit and analyze it,” Cavendish said, “but when someone is just faster there is nothing you can do.”
Omega Pharma previewed the finale and, with a solid headwind, decided to launch its leadout later that usual.
“We talked about staying calm and staying patient, and going at the last moment. The guys did that; it made my job a lot easier,” Cavendish added. “I’m just really disappointed I couldn’t finish it off.”
The journalists at his team’s bus out-numbered those at the Argos camp. The sprint was so close that some thought Cavendish had won, but most just wanted to hear the “most prolific winner of his generation” explain how he failed.
Brailsford explained that critics should go easy on Cavendish and that his team only needs to encourage him.
“We are all in the moment, but we should put it into perspective. Mark has delivered more often in more races than any other sprinter. We need to get behind him, and recognize that he’s not a machine. He’s got a new leadout team and that will take a time to bed in,” Brailsford said. “He deserves support and credit. When things don’t go [in favor of champions], that’s when you need to get behind them and remind them what great champions they are.”
Friday is Cavendish’s last chance to win before the next round of mountains. He has historically bounced back after being beaten, but has now gone a full week without a victory. Time will tell how badly the head-to-head loss to Kittel has dented his armor. As Kittel said, “I showed that I can beat the best sprinters.”