Mark Cavendish’s Tour de France solo glory is the triumph of meticulous teamwork
There is a photo of Mark Cavendish, tweeted in February 2019, showing him training in Mallorca. He smiles alongside Michael Morkov, the Danish three-time road racing champion widely regarded as the best leader in the industry: if you want to win cycling’s biggest sprint stages, hop on the Morkov high-speed train and Throw yourself to finish.
What’s interesting is that they were on different teams back then: Cavendish was still riding for Team Dimension Data trying to recover his form and health after a long period of exclusion from the Epstein-Barr virus . He traveled to Mallorca to train and discuss tactics with the best in the world in the hopes of finding his racing touch – something that was thought to be long gone. But two and a half years later, he’s on Morkov’s train as part of the Deceuninck-QuickStep team, and it was their teamwork that brought Cavendish to the brink of Eddy Merckx’s famous record of 34 wins. stage on the Tour de France.
Cavendish and Morkov, both 36, are deep thinkers. They spend their evenings studying the road book and examining Google Maps to understand the itinerary for the next day. In particular, they break down the last mile: the ripples of the road, the surface, every turn and turn to the right until the optimum angle to enter the last turn. Cavendish has it all etched in his memory: ask him about the last pangs of a stage he won 10 years ago and he will be able to recite every pedal stroke.
Despite all their planning, the reality is that sprinting is usually an unpredictable activity, boiling down to split-second decisions made in a 50mph vortex. As Cavendish said The independent in a 2019 interview: “You can only pre-plan things to a certain extent because there are so many variables – road conditions, weather, mechanics. You have an idea of which wheel you want to be on, you know that realistically there’s a good chance Team X will do this or that, so you think it’s the most likely thing and you plan it. But it doesn’t always work. “
Here, however, their plans worked out perfectly. “I remember buying cycling magazines when I was younger and you could find articles on the art of sprinting, and that’s what we had today,” Cavendish said after winning the stage 10 last week, bringing in victory # 33. “Old school, end of textbook, as you read in magazines.
With each carefully choreographed victory, Cavendish made a point of crediting his team, and rightly so. Leadership is a fun thing in cycling, requiring not so much an inspiring figurehead but rather a queen bee, to be protected at all costs. It is the road captain who makes the difficult decisions, the servants who sacrifice. Most of the time, the leader’s job is not really to lead at all in a meaningful direction, but to do as little as possible until they reach the mountains, or the straight line in the case of ‘a sprinter.
“I am so touched by the sublime efforts of my teammates and the starting gear they gave me,” added Cavendish, before carefully checking the names of each of them. “They all left everything on the road for me. I just had to finish it. I really didn’t do anything.
This is not true, of course. Cavendish has replenished his own strength over the cold months. He’s the one with pistons for the thighs, plus every sprinter’s essential dose of madness to be ready to roll hip-to-hip at 50mph, to tackle a tiny gap knowing full well the pain that awaits if a door is opened. closes itself. More importantly, Cavendish has a unique instinct to visualize these gaps before they appear, to ride the wheels and judge exactly the right time to explode in clear air.
“You can believe or you can doubt yourself,” he explained. “It’s the difference between being a yard behind that you’re going to throw for a gap, and then it’s three seconds later and you’re sitting on the wheel and you’re about to lose. It’s about having confidence in the decisions you make – having confidence in yourself impacts the decisions you make.
The pressure is immense. The sprinters live on the cutting edge of cycling, to the millimeter and the millisecond, and over three grueling weeks of the Tour de France, most of their work comes down to a few key moments leading to a few flat finishes: winning a stage by an inch and the Tour is considered a success; lose and they failed.
But it’s also true that in a sport that combines individualism and teamwork, Cavendish has a lot to be thankful for. He was right that these victories were almost a manual. His racing instincts were only exhibited in brief glimpses, with Cavendish rarely having to jump from wheel to wheel like stepping stones towards the line. Instead, he was driven to the finish in a limousine, with Morkov and his team of bodyguards blocking the road, crushing rivals so effectively that Morkov himself finished second almost by accident.
Morkov’s brief is global: knowing when to accelerate, be aerodynamic, listen to his instincts tell him when and where to push and pull the peloton; to adapt in a headwind, to rely on his rivals and exploit their efforts, to free his sprinter when he is locked up. “There are a lot of things that can screw up a lead,” Morkov said. “A big part of the sprint is analyzing what other teams are doing, playing on them and playing on their mistakes. We watch the other teams very carefully, and then we seize the opportunities that arise. “
And it wasn’t just in the sprints that the team played its part. Most telling was their reaction after surviving stage 11, a brutal double climb of Mont Ventoux. As a scruffy Cavendish crossed the line just inside the time limit, the three teammates who had shielded him from the wind along the way – Morkov, Davide Ballerini and Tim Declerq – banged their fists and patted the back as if they had won another stage.
Winning 35 Tour de France stages shouldn’t even be a thing – Cavendish’s predominant rival over the years, Andre Greipel, has only won 11. If he does win today, or on the Champs -Elysées on Sunday will be one of the greatest individual feats in the history of British sport, a triumph of one man’s genius and indestructible perseverance. But it will also be a symbol of teamwork and sacrifice, of what can be achieved when great minds and great talents come together.