Mark Cavendish is the best sprinter of his era and – if we’re honest – the most decorated bunch finisher of all time. His best form lasted a full four years and he racked up double-digit Tour de France wins by the end of his second appearance. Even after leaving for a Wiggins-focussed Team Sky, Cavendish continued to collect victories and it was only when he moved to Omega Pharma-Quickstep in 2014 that his title of ‘best in the world’ came under any threat. He returned to hot form this year to pick off four more stages against arguably the fastest rivals he’s ever faced. His name is synonymous with cycling’s biggest race but what are his most impressive victories?
Cutting thirty down to five proved more difficult than it should and I’ve had to omit all four of his stunning Champs-Elysees wins. In many ways, shots of Cavendish jumping away from rivals on the French capital’s most famous avenue are the most defining of his career. However, there was always a certain smooth inevitability to those dominant wins and Cavendish has pulled some more exceptional feats. Here’s five of the best.
The one when we realised how good he was…
12th July 2008, Stage 8, Toulouse
The 2008 Tour didn’t give Cavendish his first major victories; those had come months early at the Giro d’Italia. The race did, however, make the world sit up and take note of his unbelievable sprint talent. Not many had seen the 2007 Volta Catalunya – or the same year’s Tour of Britain – and Cavendish arrived at the Tour as ‘just’ a hot prospect. After failing to get on terms in the race’s first sprint, Cavendish took Stage 5 ahead of Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel. There was an element of surprise in ITV commentator Phil Liggett’s voice as he uttered “Cavendish is being challenged by the sprinters” as if to indicate he was not part of their club. Three days later Cavendish proved he was far too good for any such club as he roared round the outside and sprinted away to a dominant of victory. It had been a hard, rainy day and Cavendish had tagged on to a line of riders in the closing stages. Picking his moment carefully, he swung wide and made light work of defeating his experienced rivals. He was actually followed home by teammate Gerard Ciolek.
The one when he really had to do some climbing…
24th July 2009, Stage 19, Aubenas
You have to spare a thought for Tyler Farrar. The American sprinter was in decent form in 2009 but constantly found himself swamped by an excellent HTC-Colombia train and, ultimately, beaten by the world’s best sprinter.
Cavendish took six wins in the 2009 race as his team changed the game with a ruthless, almost flawless, leadout. ‘Cav’ might not have even needed that level of elite support having become the fastest sprinter around by some margin.
His crushing victories are all worth watching but one was a little bit different. The stage to Aubenas wasn’t meant for Cavendish. The Col de l’Escrinet arrived in the final 35km and at nearly 20km long it was far harder than the bumps Cavendish would usually float over. On the eve of the stage, a mixture of cockiness and curiosity (and perhaps even boredom) stirred Bjarne Riijs to encourage Cavendish to ride for the sprint.
On the Col de l’Escrinet, Cavendish headed to the front in order to stay safe from potential splits and was protected by close friends Tony Martin and Bernie Eisel. However, as the climb continued, Cavendish slipped down the peloton and attacks over the top suggested this would not be the Brit’s day. Nevertheless, he was never seriously dropped and weaved his way forward on the fast descent. In Richard Moore’s book ‘Etape’, Cavendish recalls how Martin caught up with him in the closing stages and delivered a monumental ‘1600m lead-out’ on an uphill drag. With all the talk of the Escrinet, little had been said about the difficult finish which was not best suited to the Manx Man. The stage had been pencilled in for Thor Hushovd and the big Norwegian sat on Cavendish’s wheel until the final moments. Cav jumped first and the gap he opened up was too great for Hushovd to close. It was an outstanding win for both Cavendish and the teammates he lovingly refers to as ‘the guys’.
The one when he thundered round the breakaway…
20th July 2012, Stage 19, Brive-la-Gaillarde
In terms of visuals, this one’s the winner. Whilst most of Cavendish’s victories at the turn of the decade can be grouped into the same vein, Stage 18 of the 2012 Tour is one that sticks in the memory.
Once or twice in each Tour an escape goes agonisingly close to surviving only to be caught by a storming peloton in the final kilometre. On Stage 18 the peloton wasn’t quite up to the task of catching Nichols Roche and Luis Leon Sanchez; but Cavendish was. Roche and Sanchez were the final two survivors from a breakaway that began to fall apart inside the final kilometre. With around 500m to go, the pair used the last of their energy to launch jaded sprints. There was little in the way of a head-to-head battle with both men knowing the peloton was their main concern. Cavendish’s race had been solid, though at Sky he was missing the perks of sole leadership and had collected just one victory in the first two and a half weeks. The Brit sat at the front of the peloton behind teammates Bradley Wiggins (wearing the Yellow Jersey) and Edvald Boasson Hagen. He made a bold – but calculated – move to launch his sprint early and hunt down the leaders. As if swinging from tree to tree, he used slipstreams to slingshot forward and propelled himself round Katusha’s Luca Paolini to eat heavily into the deficit. No other sprinter could replicate his accelerations and the escapees looked painfully slow in comparison. Cavendish had launched from a long way out but his strength and determination carried him comfortably past the leaders. It all happened so quickly and words can’t do justice to the display of speed Cavendish produced.
The one when he snuck into the front split…
12th July 2013, Stage 13, Saint-Amand-Monrond
The 2013 Tour was not Cavendish’s best. When Omega Pharma-Quickstep signed the Manx Missile they had not anticipated the red hot emergence of Marcel Kittel. On Stages 10 & 12 the German had beaten Cavendish to the line and the days will rank as some of the most frustrating in his career. Cavendish would go on to lose his undefeated Champs-Elysees streak later in the race but displays of strong hill climbing and tactical nous ensured he did not leave the race empty-handed.
On Stage 13, Omega worked hard to create splits in a crosswind on the wide roads of central France. However, when joined by Alberto Contador’s Saxobank and Bauke Mollema’s Belkin, the front group was cut to just fourteen riders and Cavendish found himself in a breakaway situation. It’s difficult to name many other pure sprinters who’d have the road sense – and riding strength – to follow a move of this sort. If Cavendish had failed to make the move, Omega riders Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra may have been favourites to steal a victory and they may have allowed themselves a flicker of disappointment when seeing just how good their team captain had become. Nevertheless, they worked hard for the Brit trapping the dangerous Peter Sagan into leading out the sprint and allowing Cavendish to rocket past him for an easy victory. Cavendish was asked serious questions in the 2013 race and provided answers in the form of an adapted and more adventurous riding style.
The one that we didn’t expect…
2nd July 2016, Stage 1, Utah Beach
It almost seems a waste to dedicate one of these five spots to something we all remember from this past July but this victory was really that good. Several things made it so special. Firstly, Cavendish had won just one Tour stage since 2013 and the ‘old Cav’ looked to have been well and truly buried. The ‘new Cav’ was savvy and tough but was often beaten for pace in the purest of sprints. Even if Cavendish managed to produce his old speed, the quality of his rivals (and their teams) had vastly improved and the 2016 Tour was packed with riders who had regularly beaten him; Kittel was the obvious nemesis whilst Andre Greipel had been the star of the previous Tour. There was also the British National Championships where Cavendish was cleanly beaten by Adam Blythe. Whilst far too much was made of this result, it added to the feeling that Cavendish was an outsider in France.
Lastly there was the prize at stake; not just a stage win but the Yellow Jersey. Cavendish had been favourite to win the road stage which opened the 2014 Tour but crashed out on home soil and abandoned. The final sprint commenced with all the big names prominent and the fab four (Kittel, Greipel, Cavendish and Sagan) began hurtling towards the line. Cavendish emerged on the right side of the road and flew past Kittel. It was a sight we had never before seen and provoked a stunned euphoria into all Cav’s faithful fans. He was the fastest man in the world again and went on to win three more stages.