​Mark Cavendish's Season of Uncertainty – Bike Magazine Australia

Now mired in controversy, Tuesday’s sprint finish showed just how wild a bunch sprint at the Tour de France can be. Mark Cavendish, who’s never one to back off with the finish line in sight, tried to surf the barricades—a dicey move under the best circumstances. Whether World Champion Peter Sagan intended to slam the door on Cavendish or not, Cavendish ended up on the ground, and the race jury has disqualified Sagan from the Tour de France as a result.

Though initial reports suggested Cavendish had fractured his shoulder in the crash, a statement from the Tour’s race doctor confirmed that he’d escaped with just heavy bruising. He also received stitches on the index finger of his right hand. As of Tuesday evening, his future at the Tour remains uncertain.

But uncertainty’s been the theme for Cavendish this season. The year started normally enough for him, with a stage win and victory in the points classification at the The Tour of Abu Dhabi in February. Then came a road block in the form of Epstein-Barr virus, which kept Cavendish away from racing for three months. The Tour of Slovenia in June marked his first race back, and his best results were tenth and second. At a pre-Tour de France press conference last week, Cavendish said he’d be lucky to win a stage at all this year— a disappointment considering he’s currently poised to challenge Eddy Merckx’s record for career stage wins. 

But Cavendish is not a rider anyone should ever count out of the game. “Cavendish is the best sprinter of his generation, and in my opinion, ever,” said NBC Sports cycling commentator Christian Vande Velde, in a pre-Tour conversation with Bicycling.

In addition to his 30 Tour stages, Cavendish, 32, won a world championship title in 2011. He’s also conquered the Italian monument, Milan-San Remo. With its torturous winding roads and rally-car speeds, Milan-San Remo is one of the most dangerous races on the calendar and famously hard to win. Including the Tour, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España, Cavendish has won an almost inconceivable 48 stages in cycling’s grand tours, including 30 at the Tour de France.

Winning a Tour de France sprint requires an ability to accelerate from a very high speed—and then accelerate again. As the Tour field streaks under the one-kilometer-to-go banner, riders are typically turning 53×11 gears and hitting speeds of 60 kmph. Cavendish can make these accelerations like few other riders in the history of the sport. Vande Velde aptly describes him as a freak of nature.

The physiological demands are only part of the story when it comes to winning bunch sprints, though. Success in the final kilometer requires acrobatic bike handling and the kind of fearlessness typically reserved for swimming with sharks. For most of us, the Tour de France field in the final kilometer would look like an impenetrable wall of bodies, but wizards of the final kilometer—sprinters such as Cavendish and Sagan—can find gaps where there are none. When it works, it’s quite simply magic.

“He Loves it When People Doubt Him”

It doesn’t always go completely to plan. In 2014, Cavendish had a similar crash during the Tour’s opening stage, which him out of that day’s results and sent him home from the Tour. The following year, Cavendish returned to win a sprint stage during the Tour’s opening week. And last year, Cavendish won four stages—all bunch sprints.

This year’s Tour is not off to an auspicious start for Cavendish, but if anyone can turn it around, it’s him. “He loves it when people doubt him,” said Vande Velde. “Ever since he was a kid, that drives him to prove them wrong… when he gets a win or two and regains that ‘swagger’ about him, like he did last year, it’s over,” said Vande Velde. “He’s almost unbeatable.”

Yet for now the season of uncertainty continues for the world’s best sprinter. Thanks to Tuesday’s crash, it’ll be a rough ride to the next sprint stage for Cavendish, if he can manage to continue at all. But that’s the Tour de France—you never know what’s going to happen. 

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