at least once more

tour de france stage four

A couple of days ago, I opened my exaltation of Mathieu van der Poel’s triumph on the Mur de Bretagne with a sober few paragraphs about the bargain we all accept when we involve ourselves with cycling. About how sometimes, for various reasons and to varying degrees, it can all be a bit shit, and we keep the faith because of how the sport often rewards those who persevere. 

I won’t lie, despite fancying myself a relatively clear-headed person, I hoped I was writing those words having seen the worst that week one of this Tour could possibly have to offer. I’m sure we all hoped it. 

Yesterday, we were disabused of that happy notion by another series of shocking crashes, which ended the races of Caleb Ewan, Jack Haig and Robert Gesink, and left several others battered, bloodied, or both, including two overall favorites in Primoz Roglič and Geraint Thomas.

Inevitable recriminations and relitigations followed. The parcours was deemed either far too dangerous or perfectly suitable and no different from any other year. Riders had either forgotten how to ride with respect for one another, or were following the orders of overly zealous directeurs sportif, or had done nothing wrong in particular, and were victimized once again by a callous race organizer and a power structure which affords them far too little agency.

I have opinions, of course. Maybe I’ll go into them another time, but right now the prospect of deliberately spending another second of thought, or allocating any more space in this essay to yesterday is nauseating, and I just can’t stomach it. 

Today, once again, the sport owed us all one.

You didn’t give up hope, did you?

To talk about Mark Cavendish is complicated. There are people who know him far better than I ever will and do not like him, and others who swear by him as a decent man to his very core. There are those who believe with conviction that he is the greatest sprinter of all time, opposed vehemently by those who insist he doesn’t hold a candle to Cipollini, Kelly, Maertens, or whomever else.

His story is a bit too jagged to fit neatly into any of the traditional boxes. As a young lad, he appeared so unremarkable at first glance that the sport nearly missed him entirely. You may have heard about how as a teenager he was nearly passed over for British Cycling’s Olympic Academy due to poor performance testing results, being selected only on appeal from Rod Ellingworth, among others. 

To go from that point to dominating sprints in the Tour for the better part of a decade and winning a World Championship seems like a neat and tidy Cinderella story from far away. Zoom in, though, and you’ll see feuds, fall-out, and a few more ups and downs than the wide shot would seem to suggest.

Yes, his personality can be jagged too — often combative toward the press with little provocation, but other times incredibly generous. He has been transparent about both his internal and external struggles these past few years, but seems to only want to talk about them on his own terms, which strikes me as more than fair. 

Still, the consensus has always been that you never quite know what you’re gonna get from him. He is eminently human, and never loses the natural charisma that is evident even when he is being difficult, which makes him all the more likable to some, and frustrating to others.

Let’s talk about the bad years.

His time at Dimension Data started out well enough, even by his lofty standard. But in 2017, he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus (which causes mononucleosis) after experiencing chronic fatigue in the spring. After recovery from a bout of mono, most cases of Epstein-Barr go (and remain) dormant. But in rare cases like Cavendish’s, the virus persists and causes recurring or chronic symptoms. By the time he was better in 2019, he’d been off-form for so long that it was difficult to envision a way back.

His lone, pandemic-marred year at Bahrain-McLaren was even worse. 

When he gave a short, tearful interview after going in the break and ultimately finishing in the last group at Gent-Wevelgem, it was hard to believe how far he had fallen, but easy to believe him when he said it was likely his last race. He really did look finished.

It could so easily have ended that way, if not for his determination, the belief of the sponsors he brought to the table, and the willingness of Deceuninck-Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevere to take a gamble on his former star. Even as it is, Lefevere has spent much of the year downplaying expectations, clarifying at every available opportunity that Cavendish is not option 1, and true to form, even prodding him in the media. 

But when things got going, Cavendish’s spring campaign looked promising nearly from the start. At GP Monseré, he couldn’t quite get out of Tim Merlier’s wheel, but that was still good enough for second place, his best result in a couple of years. At Coppi e Bartali, he took second in the first stage, and even got to wear the leader’s jersey following the team time trial that afternoon. 

At Scheldeprijs, he and Sam Bennett finished second and third behind Jasper Philipsen, drawing a few jeers for a perceived tactical cock-up. All the same, Cavendish’s form appeared to be on an upswing heading into the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey, a second-tier one-week stage race generally known as a feast for sprinters. 

One win on stage two was all it took to open the floodgate. He wheel-surfed through the bendy finale, jumping from old rival Andre Greipel’s slipstream to Philipsen’s, before powering past the Alpecin-Fenix man in the closing meters and kicking off celebrations throughout much of the cycling world. He’d waited one thousand, one hundred and fifty-nine days since his last win, but would only have to wait one more for his next on stage three. For good measure, he snagged stages four and eight as well. 

The predictable chatter about whether or not he would be selected for the Tour began after his first win in Turkey, and only got louder as he continued winning. The campaign hit a bit of a snag, however, when Cavendish drew Lefevere’s ire by pulling out of the Vuelta a Andalucia after struggling in the hills, only for Greipel to win the next sprint. 

Speculation came roaring back, though, when Cavendish took the victory on stage five of the Baloise Belgium Tour, from a field much stronger than he’d beaten in Turkey, including the two fastest sprinters who’d been at the Giro in Merlier and Ewan.

Cavendish’s will-he-or-won’t-he rollercoaster continued over much of the past month with Bennett, the defending green jersey winner and Quick Step’s main sprinter, recovering from a minor knee injury. Lefevere was understandably reluctant to send both, and when Bennett was cleared to compete in mid-June, the idea appeared to be a non-starter. 

But when Bennett suffered an apparent setback in his recovery less than a week out, Lefevere was forced to pull the trigger. At long last, Cav was coming back to the Tour.

After yesterday’s horrors, today’s proceedings started with a slightly disjointed protest by the riders lead by Greipel, after which a break of only two riders, Lotto-Soudal’s Brent Van Moer and Cofidis’s Pierre-Luc Périchon, went away. Never allowed a gap of even three minutes, this appeared to be very much the “for television exposure only” variety of breakaway. 

With fourteen kilometers left, Van Moer attacked his companion and dropped him for good, and some strange scenes followed. Perhaps troubled by the events of yesterday, the GC teams had taken many of the positions at the front of the peloton, and with no particular concern about this break, were perfectly content to slow things down and get through the final safely. 

The gap to the peloton, which had shrunk to about forty seconds by the time Van Moer dropped Périchon, has expanded back over a minute heading into the final ten kilometers. 

“... and I’m just wondering whether this is going to go the way of Brent van Moer!” Carlton Kirby chuckles on the broadcast, unable to keep the note of amused incredulity out of his voice.

Finally, with seven and a half kilometers left, Team TotalEnergies hits the front, determined to pull it back. They are succeeded by DSM and Groupama-FDJ, and finally, the chase gets some momentum. 

But is it too late?

Van Moer — dubbed the new Thomas De Gendt by none other than Thomas De Gendt — is no stranger to pulling off heists like these, having just done so in stage one at the Dauphiné. He’s a big, powerful rider, and these types of efforts are exactly what he’s built for. Theoretically, there’s still enough time to get him back, but the peloton can hardly afford to waste a second with any lapses in cooperation.

With head down and hands on the drops, he keeps his legs churning steadily. At this point in the effort, this far into the day, every pedal stroke is agony. 

But a Tour de France stage win is a genuine career-maker, the sort of immortalizing event that can fundamentally alter a rider’s trajectory. Van Moer is such a talent that he’s likely to have plenty of shots at wins like these, but there are no guarantees in life, and he’s determined to make this opportunity count. 

His gap is falling constantly, but that’s inevitable. He doesn’t need to win by a minute, or fifty seconds, or forty. He can afford to let these seconds go, as long as he crosses the line first.

Cavendish’s Quick Step boys have arrived at the front, and this spells trouble. Mattia Cattaneo rapidly eats into Van Moer’s lead, bringing the buffer down to little more than thirty seconds before ceding the work to Alpecin-Fenix. All the while, Lotto-Soudal is trying to disrupt the chase, but it’s clear their efforts are in vain. The sprint teams smell blood, and whether they succeed or fail isn’t up to anyone else. 

Through the roundabout with just over two kilometers left, the peloton is getting stretched, and it’s a wonder they get through it cleanly given all the nervousness of the last few days. With a kilometer and a half remaining, Cavendish is nowhere, and for a moment it appears he may have gotten lost for good in the chaos of the technical portion of the final. 

Suddenly, he emerges from the pack, piloted by Michael Mørkøv, renowned as the best lead-out man in the sport. The belated chase has eaten into so much of Quick Step’s arsenal that even Julian Alaphilippe, the World Champion and current wearer of the green jersey, is pressed into action and takes a shift in the chase.

Rounding a slight S-bend with five hundred meters remaining, the peloton has Van Moer in its sights. He’s still pedaling, never resigning himself to defeat, but the peloton is coming far too quickly. Mørkøv, having done all he can, drops Cavendish off on the wheels of Trek-Segafredo’s sprint train. 

Cavendish, guided by instinct honed by over a decade and a half of sprints like these, maneuvers through the chaos past DSM’s Cees Bol, and onto Philipsen’s wheel just as Philipsen passes Van Moer, whose legs have given out. With two hundred meters left, Philipsen opens up a violent, explosive sprint, choosing a line on the right-hand barriers. 

Cavendish is a picture of concentration, sticking to Philipsen’s wheel on the slight uphill drag, and then darting into the gap between Philipsen and Bol. Wrenching out every last bit of power his compact frame can provide, he kicks past Philipsen and crosses the line first, just ahead of an also-surging Nacer Bouhanni, who beats Philipsen with a bike throw. Cavendish raises his arms in a victory salute not entirely dissimilar to the one following his first ever Tour stage win in 2008. 

It’s absolutely unbelievable.

Kirby is noticeably crying on commentary, Cavendish is crying as he bear-hugs each approaching teammate and soigneur, and damn man, leave me alone, I’m crying too. 

What happens next? Who cares.

Fine, Cavendish gives an emotional post-race interview, beaming from behind his facemask and getting choked up when he describes his teammates’ belief in him. Then, after taking the podium as both the stage winner and new green jersey holder, he proceeds on to the press conference. 

There, he’s punchy again, especially around the oft-discussed, never-anything-but-inane topic of whether or not he intends to challenge Eddy Merckx’s record for stage wins at the Tour.

Honestly, and I could not possibly mean this any more sincerely: who cares?

It has been five years since Mark Cavendish last won a stage at the Tour de France, and probably at least two years since the last holdouts gave up hope of him ever winning anything important again. The only person I feel certain has never given up on Mark Cavendish is Mark Cavendish, and even he has readily acknowledged that being at the Tour at all is beyond any expectation he held for the remainder of his career. 

He could take his bike and go home tomorrow, and this would be enough. He won’t, because he loves racing his bike, and I’m thankful for that.

Anyway, for once, I’m prepared to resist the temptation to contextualize this achievement historically, and for once, I’m not even the least bit tempted to look ahead, especially given the way this Tour has so far alternated between beauty and disaster. 

Instead, let’s stay here, just a little while longer. Mark Cavendish won a stage of the Tour de France. In 2021. What a world, and what a sport.