Mark Cavendish is racing in the 2021 Tour De France. Riding for the Deceunink-Quick Step squad, the Manx Missile is returning to the Le Grand Boucle after an absence marked by injuries and illness, as well as a global pandemic. His return to this event was made possible by the last-minute withdrawal of Sam Bennett, the Wolf-Pack’s current star sprinter, who is either sitting out Le Tour due to a knee injury or because he is “afraid of failure”. Whatever the truth behind the slings and arrows being lobbed back and forth in the cycling media, the situation has opened the door for Cavendish to race once more in the arena that has been his hunting ground for a very long time. The speculation and rumor machine is running in high gear, and the cycling world is watching, wondering just what sort of performance the Manxman will unleash.
Cavendish is a headline-generating machine. He is a phenomenal sprinter, with a list of victories stretching back all the way to 2005 attesting to his prowess at barging across the finish line in a blaze of muscular speed. He is also no stranger to controversy. In addition to racing against, and beating, sprinters from the Boonen/Petacchi era, showing Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan a wheel on more than a few occasions, and keeping a sharp enough edge to rack up four sprint victories on the trot at this year’s Tour Of Turkey, he has a long and widely documented history of crashes, infractions, and displays of physicality that can be considered either daring brilliance or straight-up dangerous depending on who is doing the telling or who ends up in the barriers.
Regardless of the path to victory, consider this: He has won 30 Tour De France stages during his 16-year stint as a professional cyclist. There is only one person who has ever won more stages of cycling’s greatest race, and that person is named Eddy Merckx. Cavendish has won the points classification at the Tour de France, the Giro D’Italia, and the Vuelta a España. He has won the World Championship, Milan San Remo, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (twice). He won the final sprint finish of Le Tour along Le Champs-Élyssés four years in a row. Discount him at your peril.
But then again, Cav’s 36 years old now, which is generally considered to be a few years beyond the fast-twitch sweet spot for sprinters (don’t try telling that to André Griepel, though). And in a discipline where careers are often ended or defined by injuries and violent collisions, Cavendish has weathered many a storm. There have been cracked ribs, fractured bones, dislocations, separations, lung infections, and Epstein-Barr sized obstacles to overcome. These things all add up.
And yet, here we are. A vastly experienced, notoriously bold, exceptionally talented sprinter with a long and remarkable history of wins is once more facing his greatest test, at the scene of arguably his greatest victories. He has a deeply talented squad at his disposal, an absolute freight train of a lead-out man in Michael Morkov, and a parcours that should offer sprinters plenty of opportunities to fight for stage wins. Those four stage wins at the Tour of Turkey indicate that Cavendish is not quite ready to be put out to pasture.
Caleb Ewen, Peter Sagan, Arnaud Démare, Mads Pedersen, Sonny Colbrelli, Alexander Kristoff, and the very real dangers of Wout Van Aert and Matthieu Van der Poel are all present and ready to rip some legs and throw some bars at the line, however. If our boy Cav is hoping to add to his legendary number of wins, he is facing powerful, motivated, young opposition. However this shakes out, it will be spectacular and intense. Buckle up, folks. It’s time for the Tour De France!