Opinion: Echoes of HTC as Deceuninck-QuickStep make it as easy as one-two-three for Mark Cavendish
A third captivating victory on this year’s Tour de France – and a 33rd in Mark Cavendish’s career – came thanks to yet another textbook performance from his Deceuninck-QuickStep team. Felix Lowe asks whether having such a formidable train is cycling’s equivalent to driving the best car in Formula One.
‘It’s another chapter to the fairy-tale!’ WATCH Cavendish’s brilliant Stage 10 win
Mark Cavendish’s fantastic third victory before the halfway point of the 2021 Tour de France was, even more than his preceding two, the epitome of a collective team effort – so much so, that the winner admitted himself that: “I didn’t really do anything until the last fifty metres”.
Resplendent in his green skin suit and beaming ear to ear as he performed the post-victory interview duties to which he’s become rather accustomed this past week, Cavendish didn’t hold back as to the secret of his latest win of an astonishing comeback.
“It was an old school, run-of-the-mill, like-you-read-in-a-cycling-magazine, textbook lead-out,” Cavendish said. “Just getting the lads on the front, pull as fast as they can so none of the others can pull up past you, and do it at the finish.”
It was rare to see a team so utterly dominant as Deceuninck-QuickStep was on Tuesday. Not simply in the finale – where they still had four men on the front going under the flamme rouge – but also during the entire business end to the stage.
Stage 10 highlights as Mark Cavendish makes it 33 Tour wins and counting
Having shielded Cavendish on the final uncategorised climb – a similar ascent to where the Manxman became unstuck in 2016 when Andre Greipel won on the second-to-last Tour stage finish in Valence – Deceuninck-QuickStep came to the front to force some splits inside the final 30km.
“It split in the wind, but we didn’t try and split it,” Cavendish explained. “We weren’t that bothered because we were confident that we had the team for the sprint.” Be that as it may, it was the world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Tim ‘Breakaway Killer’ Declercq and his fellow Belgian, Dries Devenyns, who were alert to the danger and pressed hard as the pack started to split – catching out, momentarily, the yellow jersey of Tadej Pogacar.
Cavendish was correct, though, in that QuickStep didn’t look to go for the jugular at this point when they clearly could have caused much more damage – at a time, too, when the Italian champion Sonny Colbrelli was off the back with a puncture.
Instead, they marshalled the front of the pack on the fast run into Valence, ensuring that no other team took control despite regular attempts by Ineos Grenadiers, AG2R-Citroen, EF Education-Nippo and Bora-Hansgrohe to muscle in on the action.
'Humbled' Cavendish thanks his team after another historic Tour stage win
Entering the final five kilometres, Cavendish flew along on a magic carpet with six teammates in blue ahead of him – reminiscent to his yellow HTC-Columbia train of old. It was a sign of considerable strength – like the best poker player around the table revealing the best hand.
Typically, Cavendish underplayed his own contribution to his latest landmark win while thanking those around him. “I’m just humbled,” he said. “You have the winner of the Tour of Flanders [Kasper Asgreen], the world champion [Julian Alaphilippe] who had the yellow jersey, we’ve got Michael Morkov who’s won the Madison in the Olympics, and the Omloop Het Niewsblad winner [Davide Ballerini] … and they were all leaving everything on the road.
“For me, I have to finish it off. But I didn’t really do anything other than the last fifty metres. It was the team – I have them to thank for everything.”
Cavendish's very own insistence does pose the following question: how much does this Indian summer of Cavendish’s career come down to the team in which he finds himself, rather than his own ability as a sprinter. Does, for instance, being a sprinter inside the Deceuninck-QuickStep train equate to having the best car in Formula One?
In other words, is QuickStep to Mark Cavendish (and indeed to Sam Bennett, given what the Irishman achieved last year for the Wolfpack at the Tour) what Mercedes is to Lewis Hamilton, Red Bull to Sebastian Vettel, Brawn to Jenson Button, Ferrari to Michael Schumacher, Williams to Nigel Mansell?
'Catch him if you can' - Analysis of Cavendish and Deceuninck's pitch-perfect sprint finish
Cavendish is on the cusp of becoming the all-time leading stage winner in Tour de France history. One more win and he will draw level with Eddy Merckx – just as, last year, Hamilton drew level with Schumacher with seven Formula One championships.
No one doubts the innate ability, hard work and drive of Hamilton, the all-time leading Grand Prix winner, in getting to the pinnacle of his sport. But would he have won all those races in a Torro Rosso or a Renault? Likewise, would Cavendish be back to winning ways if it were Arkea-Samsic who gave him a career lifeline at the end of 2020? It’s unlikely.
But it’s also sure that it takes two to Tango. Cavendish needs his train as much as they need him to finish it off. And he wouldn't be there in the first place if the team and its components did not all have utmost faith – faith earned by his achievements over the years and his performances right now – in his ability to do just that. For finish it off is what Cav did brilliantly, flawlessly, graciously and peerlessly on Tuesday – surfing the wave created for him by Asgreen and then Ballerini entering the final kilometre, before firing himself from the back wheel of Morkov at the perfect moment.
For his part, the Danish veteran Morkov expertly peeled off and used all his experience to stop others coming around on the home straight – all while retaining enough speed to take sixth place. It was poetry in motion – the perfect manual in how to win a bike race.
There was also a little bit more to it than that. For not only are Deceuninck-QuickStep the best in the business, they’re operating in a world where their rivals either don’t have an answer, or are busy trying something else to avoid succumbing to the same result.
“When I go for the green jersey, I don’t go for the green jersey – I go for the stages and hopefully the jersey comes with it,” Cavendish said, referring to the intermediate sprint where he lost ground to his rivals Michael Matthews and Sonny Colbrelli.
“I always try and go for the points but I’m not going to put myself over the limit to try and do it. But they will do it. They’ve got to try something – it’s bike racing – but I feel they burn their matches doing that, rather than in the final.
“So Michael [Matthews] just had one guy in the final – Luke Durbridge, who’s a powerful lad – whereas he could have had the whole team, like I did. But they [Team BikeExchange] went with that tactic, to try and drop me, but the team just stayed round me, got me over it, I just needed to get over that climb and I knew it would be safe in the sprint.”
It is for that reason that Deceuninck-QuickStep would be shoo-ins pretty much every year for cycling's equivalent of Formula One's constructors championship.
And yet, when it comes to the Formula One analogy with regards to Cav alone, for all its cuteness it has one fatal flaw: the engines driven by Hamilton are man-made whereas Cavendish's team engine is made of men, his personal engine made of a single man – a man who, soon, could well stand alone in the history books.
Would Cavendish be on the verge of matching Merckx this summer without Deceuninck-QuickStep? No, clearly not. But Cavendish fought back and earned his place. His team have coaxed the best out of him; they have provided the final piece of the jigsaw to get back to winning ways. But Cavendish was always the fuel. He may have stayed on 30 Tour stage wins without this current train, but this very same QuickStep train may not have won as many stages with a different driver behind the wheel.
It’s a match made in heaven – and we’re all blessed to be able to watch it play out in France this summer.