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Mark Cavendish has admitted it would be a “dream” to return to the Tour de France for the first time in three years when it begins in Brest a week on Saturday. Speaking to Telegraph Sport on Wednesday, the 36-year-old denied reports there were contractual issues to resolve first with his team Deceuninck-Quick Step and revealed he was now heading to Italy to train “as if I’m going to the Tour”.
However the Manxman stressed he was still waiting to hear whether team-mate Sam Bennett had recovered from a knee injury, conceding the Irish sprinter and winner of the green jersey in 2020 remained the “logical choice” to lead the team if fit.
“I’d love to go to the Tour, of course I would,” Cavendish said. “Ultimately we have Sam Bennett who won two stages last year and the green jersey. He’s the logical guy to take. He’s the sprint leader of the team. But I’m sure Sam will only go if he’s 100 per cent fit.
“Obviously there is a lot of pressure on him as the green jersey winner to perform. I’m sure he will do what’s best for the team. Sam is a pro. I just have to be ready in case I’m needed."
Cavendish’s stunning return to form after years of injury, illness and mental health issues has been one of the standout stories of the season.
The 36-year-old won four stages of the Tour of Turkey in April – his first victories of any description for over three years – before stepping in for Bennett at the 11th hour at the Tour of Belgium last week. That may prove to be a sliding doors moment.
Cavendish won the final stage on Sunday, beating a high-quality field that included Tim Merlier, Pascal Ackermann, Caleb Ewan and Dylan Groenewegen, and triggering speculation that he might line up in Brittany next week.
One obstacle mooted was his contract. Deceuninck-Quick Step general manager Patrick Lefevere suggested in a recent newspaper column that Cavendish had demanded a better contract when he asked him about riding in another grand tour, having signed a “minimum contract” late last year with “minimum expectations” placed on him.
Cavendish told Telegraph Sport his contract was not an issue. He did say, though, that if he was selected for what would be his 13th Tour and his first since 2018, he would not expect too much from himself.
“I mean, I haven’t prepared for it,” he said. “I used to base my entire year around the Tour. You didn’t see me at the beginning of the year because I had to save my energy for the Tour. This year I haven’t.
“I’m also heavier than I normally would be because I’ve been riding in predominantly flat races. So of course I’d love to go if the opportunity arose. But I would be realistic about any expectations.”
After briefly catching up with his family post-Belgium, Cavendish said he was now heading to Tuscany to train in the heat. He is hoping to lose around a kilogram in weight in short order. “I’ve packed a suitcase for the Tour de France,” he added. “I don’t know whether I’m going away for a week or a month. But I’m training as if I’m going to the Tour de France.”
Cavendish admitted he could not be sure he would survive the mountains this year if selected. Long-time sherpa Bernhard Eisel is no longer around and there have been no discussions with Deceuninck-Quick Step over who might help him through the Alps and the Pyrenees were he to be given the nod.
However, with most of the sprint stages taking place in the first half of the race, the 30-time Tour stage winner said he hoped he would be “competitive” if called upon.
Not competitive enough to challenge for the green jersey, which Bennett would presumably be targeting again now that it has become a more even contest following years in which Peter Sagan hoovered up intermediate sprint points post-climbs. But competitive enough to challenge in the bunch sprints.
Ultimately, though, Cavendish said the only pressure he would feel if selected would be from himself.
Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage wins would be certain to be a big talking point once again if he did make it to Brest, but Cavendish said he no longer cared whether people expected him to win or lose or climb off his bike in the mountains.
“I don’t really give a ---- any more,” he said . “I’ve been through too much. Too many people writing me off, too many people saying ‘he can’t do this or that’. It’s been my whole career.
“How could I be embarrassed about not finishing after the last few years when I was the worst rider in a lot of the races I entered? Not just the worst sprinter, the worst rider? I didn’t get to a lot of sprints the last couple of years. So what can I lose? It makes no difference now to me if I don’t win. Nobody expects me to win.
“But listen, I wouldn't go to the Tour if I didn't think I could be competitive. Why would I go otherwise? Just to suffer in the hardest sporting event in the world? No. I’m not 20 any more where I just dream of riding the Tour de France for the sake of it. I dream of riding the Tour de France because of what it means to me and because I believe I can be competitive. That’s why I have a duty to be as prepared as I can be in case Sam doesn’t make it.
“Ultimately, I didn't think I was going so I haven’t prepared for it but now I have to prepare the best I can in a week.”
Will Cavendish be at the Tour and can he win stages?
If he makes it, and goes on to add to his 30 Tour de France stage victories, it would surely rank as one of sport’s great comebacks. Even if he doesn’t, it has been an extraordinary tale.
Cavendish’s stunning renaissance this season – which has seen the veteran sprinter, at the age of 36 and after three years without a victory – turn back the clock with a series of wins, continued on Sunday with victory in the final stage of the Tour of Belgium.
With Bennett’s fitness still up in the air, talk is growing that the Manxman could find himself heading to the Tour for the first time since 2018. But is it realistic to expect a rider, who was without a contract seven short months ago and who looked to be heading into forced retirement, to make his return on the biggest stage of all? Where the pressure to add to his palmarès and further close the gap to Eddy Merckx (the all-time leader on 34 stage wins) provides an incessant distraction, one which no other rider has to face?
Will it happen?
It may well. Bennett’s knee does appear to be a problem. Initially referred to in a team press release as a “small incident in training”, they are now describing it as inflammation of the patella tendon. Sources close to the team suggest it is a worry, with Bennett off the bike all last week. Hardly the ideal build-up to the biggest race in the world.
Patrick Lefevere, the Deceuninck-Quick Step general manager, said in his most recent column in Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that there was “no Plan B” if Bennett did not make it. But there is an argument to suggest that he would rather have Cavendish than Bennett in his Tour team anyway. The Irishman, who won the green jersey last year, is leaving the team at the end of the year of course. A win for Cavendish would not only be a bigger story PR-wise, it would be the ultimate recognition for Lefevere for believing in him. An injury to Bennett could be an elegant solution.
Can Cavendish still cut it?
If you had told anyone in cycling seven months ago that Cavendish would be in the running for Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Tour de France squad for 2021, they would have looked at you as if you had two heads. Not only had he not won a race in years – the result of seasons lost to debilitating Epstein-Barr virus, assorted injuries, mental health issues and resulting loss of confidence – he did not even have a team. The Bahrain-McLaren project, where even his old pal Rod Ellingworth appeared to have lost a bit of faith in him, had collapsed. It took Lefevere to step in and offer him a last-minute deal to save his career. But there were no great expectations.
The manner of his latest win on Sunday, however, was sensational, and surely ends any doubt over whether Cavendish still has it. His four wins at the Tour of Turkey in April were one thing. It was a great story but the field in Turkey was not the deepest. Cavendish’s win in Belgium was on another level. He went from 200 metres out and beat some of the world’s top sprinters for pure speed. The confidence surging through him now is plain to see. Cavendish was incredibly energised in his post-race media and his post on Instagram in the immediate aftermath offered a little insight into his motivation levels: "Done? Nah mate, nowhere near.. Whaaaaa that was a nice win today @belgiumtour.” It has been coming, too. With 12 podiums this season, Cavendish has been consistently competitive.
There appears to be some confusion on this score. Lefevere wrote in his newspaper column that at a dinner with Cavendish after Elfstedenronde, the one-day race where he was second to Merlier following a photo-finish, he had brought up the subject of riding in a grand tour again, to which the sprinter had basically replied: "Not on my current salary."
Lefevere added: "I understand his point of view. Mark joined our team at 35 years of age and at the last minute. At that time, the Tour was out of the question. He signed a minimum contract because we had minimal expectations." Lefevere mused that Cavendish’s contract could be extended on better terms prior to the Tour. This has been taken in some quarters to mean that Cavendish is on a UCI minimum salary, and would not countenance going to the Tour unless he had a new deal. It seems more likely Lefevere was simply using a figure of speech about a 'minimum contract' as there is no chance Cavendish is on the UCI minimum salary (some 40,000 euros). Either way, there is not thought to be anything to stop Cavendish going to the Tour if he is selected. And he certainly wouldn’t say no if asked, new contract or no new contract.
Cavendish does not enjoy all the hype over the Tour; the talk of whether or not he will go. And if he does whether or not he can add to his 30 Tour stage wins. He consistently bats it away and tries not to engage. "I don’t know. At the end of the day, it’s all talk," Cavendish said after his win on Sunday, adding graciously that it was important to see the status of Bennett, the reigning green jersey holder, before discussing his own ambitions.
"The reason the whole Tour de France came up – I didn’t mention it and Patrick didn’t mention it – I won in Tour of Turkey and all of a sudden the media started talking about it. This is a thing that happens a lot. The thing with Eddy Merckx record? I never started that, it was the media that started that, and all of a sudden, it’s like, I’m going for it. It’s the same with this. It’s you guys [the media] that started whether or not I should go to the Tour de France."
He knows it is inevitable though. As one of the biggest stars in the sport - the greatest sprinter in cycling history - Cavendish understands it would be a huge story. The hype is inevitable. Of course, he does not need to win to prove himself. Even if he retired now, he has already proved to himself and to the world that he still has what it takes. He has stuck two fingers up at his doubters in remarkable fashion. But would he still want to go back, even with all that pressure and hype? Of course he would. We can only wait to see whether he will.