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Mark Cavendish knows what many in cycling were expecting him to say when he reached the Champs-Élysées at the end of a fairy-tale three weeks in July.
The Manxman, who had rolled back the years to win four stages of this year’s Tour de France, at the grand old age of 36, in the process drawing level with the great Eddy Merckx at the top of the Tour’s all-time stage winners list, had nothing left to prove. He had conquered depression, illness, injury, and stuck two fingers up at the naysayers. “It would have been easiest thing in the world to just go ‘mic drop’ after the Tour [and retire],” Cavendish admits. “But I know there’s even more to come.”
Cavendish has always backed his instincts. Which is why he will suit up at the Deceuninck-Quick Step team hotel on Sunday morning and head to the start line of the Tour of Britain in Penzance, Cornwall. It is why he will try his best to make Britain’s road worlds team in Flanders later this month. It is why he will line up at the national road race championships in Lincoln next month. He still wants to race. He still needs to race. He still believes he can get better.
Actually Cavendish is even more bullish than that. “I know I’m going to get better,” he says. “It’s not even like I ‘hope’ to get better. I know I’m still on an upward trajectory. I wasn’t actually back to my best this year. I was back to a top level but everyone knows what I was like at my best. I believe I still have more to come.”
Chances to add to his haul of 10 Tour of Britain stage wins – a record in the modern era – are likely to be few and far between this week.
Two lumpy days in Cornwall and Devon are followed by a team time trial in Carmarthenshire on Tuesday. There is then the queen stage of this year’s race, when the riders will finish atop the Great Orme in Llandudno.
Stage five from Alderley Park to Warrington is the first true “sprinters” day. But that is swiftly followed by two more classics-style stages as the race passes through the North of England and into Scotland before the final stage from Stonehaven to Aberdeen, which again could also finish in a bunch sprint depending on the strength and direction of the wind off the North Sea.
“Yeah, there are no sprints this year,” Cavendish concedes. “One or two stages might end in one. Might. But I’ll admit when I saw the route, objectively-speaking, it didn’t really make sense for me to go.”
So why is he? “I’ve always supported this race,” he says. “I always try to ride it if I can. I’ve seen how this race has grown. And I want to ride at home. I get massive support from the British public. And especially after what happened in July, to be able to see the fans up close and thank them for their support… it’s pretty special for me.”
It is a shame, in that respect, that Covid-19 restrictions will prevent fans from gathering around the buses at the starts and finishes, one of the great traditions of the sport. But they will still line the roads in their thousands and Cavendish points out that there are other perks this week.
It “feels good”, he says, to be able to give back to team-mates after their support of him at the Tour de France.
In particular world champion Julian Alaphilippe who will lead Deceuninck-Quick Step as he prepares for the defence of his crown in Flanders. He buried himself for Cavendish on multiple stages in France.
“That was one of the most humbling things about that whole whirlwind,” Cavendish admits. “To have such incredible support. I’ll do whatever I can for him this week. Julian is a past winner of the overall here [in 2018]. He could win again. But it’s not just Julian. There will be some stages where [Davide] Ballerini excels, for example, and I’ll be working for him too.”
Cavendish is coy about whether he will ride in Flanders himself, with Britain yet to announce their full line-up. But he says the route this week will certainly stand him and others in good stead if they do go.
“They [organisers SweetSpot] have clearly tried to appeal to world championships contenders with the route and they’ve been successful in their objective with Julian, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers), Dan Martin (Israel Start-up Nation who announced on Saturday he will retire at the end of the season), Ballerini. It’s a pretty decent field.”
Whether he goes to the worlds or not, Cavendish says he will ride in the nationals – “I’ve paid my £40” – before knuckling down to winter training.
With which team? Deceuninck-Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevere has said that talks have stalled on a new contract for Cavendish, whose deal expires at the end of this year. But the Belgian added that he wanted Cavendish to stay so long as he did “not overestimate his market value in the euphoria of the Tour”.
“If everyone acts normal, we’ll figure it out,” Lefevere said. Again Cavendish pleads the fifth. But he reiterates his firm belief that, given the right preparation, he can be even better next year than he was this.
Defeat on the Champs-Élysées, he says, when he rashly decided to leave Michael Morkov’s wheel on the final approach, only to find himself boxed in on the barriers, has if anything motivated him still more.
“I was disappointed by the result but it wasn’t like I got outsprinted,” he says. “It p----d me off for a few days but it would have knocked me more if I’d been beaten in a sprint rather than been boxed in by rival team-mates. It was a ---- up rather than anything else. You can’t change it. Change it next time. It won’t happen next time.”
So there will be a next time? Cavendish pauses. “In a way it’s a gamble to carry on next year,” he says, finally. “People always expect me to win four stages [of the Tour] and if I don’t it will be described as a failure.
“That’s just how it’s always been.
“All I know is I can still win. And I know I’m going to be even better next year. So for me it’s a no-brainer [to continue]. I wouldn’t be riding my bike if I didn’t believe I could win again. I would have stopped two years ago, or a year ago. But I just knew I was going to get back to the top level of sprinting. I’m still hungry. I’m still professional. And I know I can be even better.”