Opinion: Mark Cavendish insightful as ever after making Tour de France history in Châteauroux
Forget Eddy Merckx's record - looming just two triumphs away - Mark Cavendish can keep on winning if only for the post-race interviews. Now unbeaten in Châteauroux in three attempts, the 36-year-old man in green demonstrated that he is peerless both in the sprints and with a microphone in front of his beaming face.
Right, Mark Cavendish celebrates winning Stage 6 of the Tour de France in Chateauroux and, left, winning in the same city 13 years earlier
After Mario Cipollini came Mark Cavendish – three times. You don’t have to be a pure sprinter with the initials M.C. to win a Tour stage in Châteauroux – but it helps.
A decade after Cipo won the Tour’s inaugural finish in the sleepy city of Châteauroux in 1998, a fresh-faced Cavendish opened up his Tour account with a maiden win ahead of Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel. By the end of that race, his haul was up to four, adding six the next year and then five in 2010. Châteauroux was on the parcours again in 2011 when Cav powered past Alessandro Petacchi and Andre Greipel to take the 17th Tour stage win of his career.
Another decade has passed and it’s difficult to decide what is more astonishing – the fact that Cavendish’s career is still going on, or the fact that he’s back to winning ways. After five years without a win on the world’s biggest bike race, the Manxman rolled back the years on Tuesday in Fougeres – where he’d won in 2015 – to take a green jersey no one expected to see him in again.
With Thursday’s Stage 6 returning to Châteauroux once again, it was written in the stars that Cav would strike for a second time to bring up the 32nd Tour victory of a career that had been revived in such dramatic fashion this season. We won’t know if it was intentional, but Cavendish’s reaction to the latest chapter of comeback was almost identical to the hands-on-helmet incredulity that came with his first ever Tour triumph back in the same city 13 years ago.
In a race which seems to be visiting all of Cavendish’s old triumphant haunts, the 36-year-old has clearly learnt his lines and keeps delivering like the very best of Hollywood stars. Cav and his expert Deceuninck-QuickStep team can now tick the boxes next to Fougères and Châteauroux.
At this rate, he’ll only need to continue winning at places where he’s won before to equal Eddy Merckx’s historic record of 34 Tour stages, which he’ll do so, after Nîmes in Stage 12, in Paris on the final day… and quite possibly in green. What a fairy tale that would be for all the doubters and cynics.
His stunning comeback aside, Cavendish can keep on winning if only for the post-race interviews. Indeed, it is seeing the Manxman in full flow – not just in the sprint, but with a microphone under his expressive face – that reminds us just what we have missed on the Tour since 2016.
No one gives an interview quite like Cavendish. Out of the window go the stale cliches, the super-nices and hackneyed assurances of taking each day as it comes. Cavendish says it as it is, never shies away from controversy, and is not afraid to hide his feelings.
Tour de France highlights as Mark Cavendish roars to Stage 6 victory
Whether it’s recalling the differences – both sizable and minute – between the finish locations of his three wins at Châteauroux, or thinking out aloud about the tactics of his rival sprint teams, Cavendish is a fascinating subject who gives more than he gets and opens up like no other. He’s both insightful and funny – with an encyclopaedic knowledge, an astonishing memory, and a true passion for what he does – all while remaining firmly grounded, gracious and grateful.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since I last won here,” Cavendish told Seb Piquet, the voice of Radio Tour and ASO’s post-stage interrogator of choice. “It’s pretty special – and actually, it was in pretty similar fashion than here today.”
Stressing how the strength of the sprint trains contributed to make the finishes “a bit swamped”, Cavendish then went off on a glorious tangent while trying to figure out the motivations of the home teams following a stage which saw a dangerous eight-man move neutralised early on before a seemingly harmless duo of Greg van Avermaet and Roger Kluge was allowed to stay out until just two kilometres to go.
“I don’t understand why you’d bring a full sprint team here and not ride for a sprint,” Cav said, looking genuinely affronted. “A lot of the sprint teams had guys in the break and all of a sudden, Groupama-FDJ and Arkea – they’re French teams at the Tour de France – and they panic because there’s a group gone then, but when there’s a breakaway to challenge for the sprint, they don’t pull.”
'Textbook sprinting' Brian Smith's analysis of Cavendish's Tour de France stage 6 win
He explained how it was left to his Deceuninck-QuickStep team and the Alpecin-Fenix team of Tim Merlier, Jasper Philipsen, and the yellow jersey Mathieu van der Poel, to do all the work of pulling in the remaining two riders ahead of the finish. Cavendish then detailed how he won the sprint:
“The wind was coming from the right and Michael [Morkov] left the left for me to go but I wanted just a split-second longer in the wheels before I went, so I had to switch trains and go from there. So happy with that.”
And suddenly, Cavendish was off singing the praises of his teammates for the work they did for him in the final. “You see the guys, how much they pulled there. The world champion, Julian Alaphilippe, just burying himself in the last kilometres. That’s something special. Sorry I’m just talking on now, but I’m buzzing, you know?”
It’s quite all right, Mark – please, do carry on. You could tell that Piquet felt the same way – and when the Frenchman mentioned the inevitable, Cavendish was quick to stop him in his tracks before he managed to mention Merckx.
'Don't say the name!' - Mark Cavendish relishes stage win and refuses to mention Eddy Merckx record
“Don’t say the name. I’m not thinking about anything. I just won a stage on the Tour de France. If that was my first stage or my 32nd stage, I’ve still won a stage of the Tour. That’s what people work their whole lives for. I’m very, very happy, that’s all. If I’m good enough to win 50 more, I’m good enough to win 50. If I never win again, so be it – I’m not good enough to win again. It’s the Tour de France.”
It is indeed the Tour de France – and it’s a much better Tour de France for Cavendish’s winning presence. With a potential five more sprints on the cards, it should not be the last time we hear from the man in green. Unless Groupama-FDK and Arkea-Samsic sort out their tactics...