British Mark Cavendish has decided to put an end to his career as a professional cyclist. The legendary sprinter born on the Isle of Man is getting off the bike after eighteen seasons at the highest level. At exact 38 years of age, the current Astana Qazaqstan rider has gone public with his decision while he was also getting off the Giro d’Italia, just before the big mountain stages, and gives way to a rest and recovery period with one goal in mind: surpassing Eddy Merckx’s record of victories in the Tour de France. Despite having announced the expiration date for him as a pro rider, having a challenge with such an impact as that will keep him busy for the next few weeks before the beginning of the coming queue of tributes and events in honor of the echoes of his more than 160 victories.
Among all of them, 34 are stages in the Tour de France. Another 16 in the Giro and another 3 in the Vuelta for a total of 53 victories in Grand Tours. Merckx, his great competitor at the moment, adds eleven extra ones. 16 grand tours in which the Belgian wore a number at the back, 22 for the Englishman. 23 if his presence in this year’s Tour is confirmed, although everything indicates that he will be in Bilbao wearing who knows if the cyan blue maillot of Astana or will revalidate his national champion jersey just a few days before the great French race.
This cyclist, also controversial at times due to several statements built through sincere sentences, which of course also heads to the positive side roof. Also for the helps he apparently received by some fans in some climbs, the forgiveness of time limit exceedings to avoid the never wanted DNF or the awards based on communication strategies more than in sport reasons, such as the awards for combativeness in the Giro d’Italia in 2012 and 2013. To him, a sprinter that is strange to be observed even fighting for the breakaways.
World champion, in addition to victories in Sanremo and Scheldeprijs
At all times considered a last-metre cyclist, he won the UK National Championship in quite different demonstration, a way of reinventing himself in a scenario where he had zero support from his team (he was the only British one) and all his enemies knew that day he was the fastest in the competition. For this reason, he looked for a model that was antagonistic to the usual one and that on this occasion worked out wonderfully. It’s quite an unusual move for a rider accustomed to showing off on his best days through his great top speed down the final half kilometre.
Being the best rider in the arrivals almost in the whole pro world during several of his years of stardom, he was a clear and safe bet on behalf of the teams, who devoted themselves to helping him reach the final stretch in full condition and practicing that control over the bunch usually applied in these cases. As such, the teams he has been a part of, with perhaps the exception of Astana, have been absolutely top in pre-sprint work. People like the extinct T-Mobile or the Quick Step in its various names have been dominant in these facets.
Thus, he won in San Remo with the Team Columbia jersey in 2009, beating his an predecessor in rainbow jersey Hushovd, successful Italian Petacchi, safe Benatti and company in Via Roma, shore where almost 300 kilometre ride reaches out. A German team that was raising a multitude of sprinters under his shade who little by little took partial or even total control during some phase after his reign. Cyclists like André Greipel, Matthew Goss or Gerald Ciolek were the youngsters with the most projection among sprinters back in the day, and they all coincided with him in the HTC Columbia in 2008. Goss and Greipel were his great rivals in the 2011 World Championships, where the Briton earned the right to wear the rainbow in his chest for a entire season. And to be a member of the Order of the British Empire for his sporting success.
Scheldeprijs has been his greatest contact with the spring classics, although the Belgian is a fairly accessible test when most occasions the sprint takes place to name a victor. He won it three times, for one at Milan San Remo, where he won in his very debut, back in 2009, when it was still a competition for mere sprinters, and he never won a Monument again. He tested himself at Flanders twice and once at Roubaix, where he finished in a plausible 30th place.
His time in successful Team Sky
It also happened as a cyclist for the Columbia team itself, the World Championship’s coronation. Although the colors of the rainbow were mixed with those of Team Sky then also in the National team. Cavs signing closed the circle of a competitive team on all fronts with Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and a line of domestiques who could have been leaders of any other squad in the world. With Cavs on the back of the black jersey fused with the world champion jersey, in addition to the worldwide known triumph in the Tour de France with the ‘Sir’, which brought so many headlines all over.
Success that was repeated with ‘Froomey’, who despite his four wins in Paris did not reach anywhere near the impact of that team made in Britain that took six stages (3 from Cavendish) plus the first two positions in the overall: an absolute dominance of the race. Curiously, Sky also sponsored the clothing of the British national team that prevailed in Copenhagen and dressed the Englishman as world champion. Sky, one way or another, had credit for taking the return of a star without equal in cycling on the islands (including Man’s).
Their official relationship lasted only one year, but what a year of success and victories that ended up elevating who was already considered the best sprinter in the world. Just what he needed to add to these numerous victories in sprint summit destinations such as the Giro and the Tour were the great victories he had achieved that year or the green jersey himself in Paris, one of his great conquests. With the merit of conquering it in 2011 and just ten round years later, in 2021.
The difficulties of finding a team
The relationship with the Quick Step structure was complicated at its end. After a successful return to the known as ‘Wolfpack’, a group of young and not so young with a very particular way of acting and presenting themselves before victories, the signing of Mark was an added motivation and pressure in equal parts together with the technical tie with Eddy Merckx at the head of the Tour de France stage winners table. He had everything on his side to overcome it in Paris, but Van Aert prevented the target and protected Belgian pride, so the great Eddy retained the honor along with the Briton of holding the lead in this historic classification.
However, he had the opportunity to try to beat the record a year after, without being selected by the team, in a maneuver as strange as so an evidence that something was behind the smiles that everyone showed behind the scenes. Lefevere didn’t want Cavs on the team and Cavs picked up the luggage and left. B&B seemed the chosen destination, since the French were a sure bet on the Tour. On the other hand, the effort to welcome Mark into the team with the added financial effort of facing not only his record but also some of his favorite domestiques such as Max Richeze, made the operation undone and finally had to wait to be saved by the bell by Astana.
The Kazakhs need not only points, but presence and notoriety after having lost their natural leader, the Colombian Miguel Ángel López, last winter. Although only and exclusively in that, because in number of victories the team has not gained from the investment made in the British. Three third places and an image that went viral in the cycling world with the British champion’s jersey battered on the ground crossing the finish line without his bike, of which he had lost control thousandths of a second before.
Farewell to the last great pure sprinter
More than one generation of sprinters that have been just that: sprinters. It was not Peter Sagan, very fast finisher and winner in multiple disciplines such as the classics or even in other disciplines. Or the current champions, who are bright in almost every type of race. Petacchi, Cipollini, perhaps Zabel, Freire, Greipel… a series of sprinters with whom he had a rivalry and which is less and less clearly seen nowadays. Yes, there are sprinters and very good ones, there is no doubt about it, but either they reign for a very short period of time or they submerge in an enormous equality, the one that currently exists in the massive sprints today.
The Giro itself is living proof of this fact, as no sprinter has been able to repeat victory in the six or seven times they have contested in this 2023 edition. Cavendish has represented those generations of arrogant last-meter riders. So was McEwen, Australian, but very similar in some ways, for finding impossible gaps to beat his rivals when his teammates had failed to position them in the sprint.
The best riders at his disposal, like fellow Aussie Mark Renshaw. A true out of the ordinary who sacrificed his personal harvest to encourage those of his great friend. With such a tandem, so many rivals had to compete against so many years of dominance and hierarchy over arrivals. If he had not coincided with such a good generation of rivals, who knows where this Briton’s records would have stopped, who is now leaving cycling to become even more of a myth in the history of this sport.
Written by Jorge Matesanz
Cover photo: RCS // Photos: Sirotti