Mark Cavendish’s sunset years deserve to be champagne supernovas | Richard Williams
Amid the lights and noise – loud music, louder cheering – of the Six Days of London meeting, Mark Cavendish rediscovered what winning feels like. This was not the sunlit splendour of the Champs Élysées, where he triumphed in the climactic stage of the Tour de France four years in a row with the eyes of the world on him. It was the very different environment of the Lea Valley VeloPark velodrome, where the crowd’s hot breath is on a rider’s neck as he circles an infernal oval for lap after lap, calculating strategies while trying to retain enough energy for a final lung-scorching sprint.
By the time the event wound up on Sunday night, Cavendish and his riding partner, the Welshman Owain Doull, were not on the top step of the podium. They had been pipped for victory in the general classification by Elia Viviani and Simone Consonni. But earlier in the week’s points-gathering programme they had won the 40-lap Derny races on Tuesday and Thursday nights, the Madisons on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the team elimination races on Thursday and Saturday and the 60-lap Derny final on Sunday, in which Cavendish swept past Viviani and the Australian sprint ace Caleb Ewan in the final 50 metres to take the win.
‘Do or die’: Australian cycling in limbo amid landmark governance reform | Kieran Pender
In the last race, a massively intense hour-long Madison final, Cavendish failed to catch Consonni in the penultimate sprint by a couple of millimetres before Viviani took the hand-sling to burn off Doull and take the points that gave the Italians the overall title. But after a three-year nightmare of illness and injury, it was no surprise Cavendish looked practically radiant as he and his teammate sprayed champagne from the second tier of the winners’ podium.
The week had also been punctuated by another bit of encouraging news for the 34-year-old when it was announced that on 1 January he will be joining Bahrain-Merida, the World Tour squad whose team principal, Rod Ellingworth, nurtured Cavendish’s talent during his days as the head of the British Olympic cycling programme’s academy. In 2011 Ellingworth, a brilliant coach, was the chief strategist of the British team when Cavendish won the world road race championship in Copenhagen, the rider’s day of days.
After spending most of his glory years with the Highroad, Team Sky and Quickstep squads, Cavendish joined the Dimension Data team in 2016. As he entered his thirties, the moved to a South Africa-based outfit, even as the squad’s designated leader, seemed like a step down. Perhaps the edge had gone from the double-kick that a sprinter needs to demolish the competition at the highest level; perhaps a new generation had outpaced him.
His answer, unforgettably, was to win four stages of that year’s Tour de France, beginning on the opening day at Utah beach in Normandy with a victory that put him in the yellow jersey for a day. Those four wins took him to a total of 30 stage victories in the Tour: the highest ever for a pure sprinter and only four behind Eddy Merckx, generally regarded as the greatest rider in the sport’s history. Three months earlier, back in the Great Britain jersey, he and Bradley Wiggins won the Madison title at the world championships in London, resuming a partnership that had disintegrated in acrimony during the Beijing Olympics.
But then, at the start of his second season with Dimension Data, disaster struck in the form of a medical diagnosis. Cavendish had contracted the Epstein-Barr virus, a deep-lying condition that affects the immune system and can lower the body’s defences against glandular fever and other debilitating illnesses. He recovered sufficiently to start the Tour that summer but a tangle at the end of stage four with Peter Sagan, one of the pretenders to his standing as the world’s pre-eminent sprinter, left him on the floor with a fractured shoulder blade.
In his mid-thirties, Cavendish is unlikely to be the rider he was but Ellingworth knows which buttons to press
Three more nasty crashes at the start of 2018 – at the Tour of Abu Dhabi, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo – resulted in shoulder and rib damage and ruined his preparation for the Tour, which he abandoned at half-distance after finishing outside the time limit on a short but brutal mountain stage to La Rosière. That August the symptoms of the Epstein-Barr virus were spotted again and his season was over.
Worse, in a way, than illness and injury was the decision by Dimension Data’s chief, Doug Ryder, to leave him out of the 2019 Tour team, against the advice of his sporting director, the former sprint champion Rolf Aldag. Cavendish could only watch on in impotent fury as, without him, the team failed to win a single stage.
In his mid-thirties, he is unlikely to be the rider he was 10 years ago. Ellingworth, however, knows which buttons to press to focus Cavendish’s energies and he will be wearing the colours of a team now half-owned by McLaren, the Formula One outfit whose aerodynamicists collaborated on the design of the bike that Cavendish rode to the rainbow jersey and five Tour stage wins in 2011. (The other 50%, owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Bahrain, which also owns 56% of McLaren, is more problematic, at least to human-rights campaigners.)
As yet no one knows whether Ellingworth has the qualities required to make a successful transition from sporting director to team principal, although his years at Dave Brailsford’s side will at least have shown him what the job entails. It is now his responsibility to ensure one of the greatest British sporting figures of the current millennium brings his career to an appropriate close. No small task but one that should be worth watching.Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.