It seems like a distant memory now, but just a couple of years ago it appeared almost a foregone conclusion that Mark Cavendish would beat Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins and become the most successful Tour stage hunter of all time.
Such was the momentum set by the British sprinter that it seemed nearly inevitable that his run of successes would carry him across that particular finish line. His stage gathering was like a runaway train; he picked up four wins in the 2008 Tour, six in 2009, five in both 2010 and 2011 and three in 2012.
He might well have done better in the latter edition, but his-then Sky team was focussed almost totally on helping Bradley Wiggins win the race. As a result Cavendish didn’t get the support he felt he deserved in the flat stages.
Still, despite that, his speed and drive saw him clock up 23 wins in just five seasons. With Merckx’s all time career record sitting at 34 stage wins, it seemed to be not a matter of if, but when, Cavendish would surpass the Belgian.
And it wasn’t just about the rate by which he took his victories. There was also the manner of his sprint successes. Cavendish didn’t just win, he crushed his opponents. He regularly finished two or three bike lengths clear of his rivals, winning almost at ease.
Time has faded those memories somewhat, but think back several months before that 2009 Tour as an example of his superiority. Towards the end of the Milan Sanremo Classic Heinrich Haussler jumped hard and opened up an early gap in the sprint.
Those behind were completely caught out by the opportunistic move and lost their chance. Well, all but one of them. Cavendish put head down, backside up and blitzed across the gap between him and Haussler, blowing the other sprinters off his wheel.
Closing down on the Cervélo Test Team rider like a heat-seeking missile, he lunged past at the line and took the win by half a wheel.
The display was utterly dominant and underlined just how far he was ahead of his rivals. There was, genuinely, nobody close to him.
As the Tour stage victories continued to stack up, it was little wonder that the Merckx record seemed like a very attainable target.
The cannonball slows:
Things changed in 2013. Cavendish did clock up two stage wins in the Tour, bringing his tally to 25, but the superiority of previous years was absent. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider was repeatedly outpaced by Marcel Kittel, the much larger German sprinter, and his momentum waivered.
Kittel took four stages and became the first rider to defeat Cavendish on the Champs Élysées. His successes saw him take over the mantle of fastest man in the world, and prompted Cavendish to make changes in order to try to get back on top.
He modified his programme, deciding not to ride the Giro d’Italia this year in order to avoid the fatigue he felt after finishing the 2013 edition. He also added specific sprint training to his workouts, accepting that he had to work harder in order to regain the edge.
Whether or not those modifications were enough to beat Kittel remain uncertain, though. Cavendish crashed out on stage one of this year’s Tour, tangling with Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge) when he tried to shunt him out of the way during the final sprint into Harrogate.
The Briton suffered a number of injuries including a badly separated shoulder; as a result his Tour ended almost as soon as it began, and he exited the race without adding to his run of victories. It was the first time since his Tour debut in 2007 that he hadn’t won a stage.
Cavendish is now 29 years of age. He’s still a young rider, even if sprinters can sometimes start to fade earlier than other types of competitors in the peloton. However he needs nine victories to equal Merckx’s haul, and ten to surpass it. With other sprinters having caught up with him, can he take enough Tour wins to get the record?
Opinions are mixed.
CyclingTips spoke to a range of people at the Tour de France. Several have worked alongside Cavendish in the past, with two of those still doing so now. Unsurprisingly, the latter duo feel he can match or beat the all time record.
Omega Pharma Quick Step team-mate Mark Renshaw is Cavendish’s right hand man when it comes to the bunch sprints. The Manx rider said in the past that he trusted Renshaw completely in his leadout role, believing that his bunch positioning and timing are second to none.
Renshaw has an equal amount of faith in Cavendish. “I think that within two years he will surpass that record,” he said. “He is just a pure leader and the team here will continue to build a team around him. I think he is not going to get slower. He is certainly smart enough to win more stages.
“I would be pretty proud to be part of that record, if it was possible.”
Brian Holm guided Cavendish when he was part of the T-Mobile/Colombia/HTC setup between 2006 and 2011 and was reunited with the rider when he joined the Omega Pharma Quick Step team last year.
He said that he believed he would have had a successful Tour this year had he not crashed.
“I would love to say that yes, he was in better shape,” he told CyclingTips. “What he did the Giro last year, finishing in that kind of weather and winning five stages, after starting early winning in Argentina and in Qatar…it was too much.
“He was new in the team. Maybe we overdid it a little bit. Cav said no, it wasn’t the case, but I got the feeling that we were squeezing the lemon a little bit too hard with him.
“This year we said we were going to start a little bit slower and get into the Tour completely fresh, with filled up batteries. Of course I can say he was more fresh than last year, but we will never find out.”
Holm acknowledged that riders such as Kittel and Gripel are now in the same ballpark as Cavendish. He said that the fact they are on a similar level make their positioning in the final kilometres plus their leadouts of very considerable importance, with those factors making the difference between winning and losing.
As regards the Merckx record, Holm said that Cavendish never confirmed it was a specific goal. “To be honest about it, Cav was never, every talking about it. I don’t know why he wouldn’t talk about it…maybe it was out of pure respect of Eddy Merckx, or something else. He never said that it was really a target.
“When I asked it of him, saying ‘maybe we will go for that one,’ he said nothing. He really never mentioned it. But I think it is doable. I think it is doable, but extremely difficult.
“I think there are always new guys coming. But I also think Cav is as he has always been. It will probably take a few more years for him to slow down.”
‘Difficult, but not impossible':
Allan Peiper is another who was part of the Columbia/HTC setup in the past and who knows Cavendish well. He current works with the BMC Racing Team and is regarded as a very good analyst of the sport.
The Australian also gave his thoughts.
“I think at this point it will be difficult. But I don’t say it is impossible,” he said. “Knowing Mark, he is capable of anything with the right team around him, the right circumstances. He is the only sprinter that I have every seen that gets better in a stage race.
“He usually hits cruise speed in the last week. I don’t think that is going to change.”
Like Holm, Peiper points out that his programme was tweaked this year in order to ensure the British sprinter would be fresher in the Tour. He feels the change would have paid off with stage wins had he not crashed out.
The 2014 race is a missed opportunity, but Peiper believes there will be more chances ahead. “Mark is still at a young age. He is not 35 years old yet, and Petacchi is still riding around a few years older than that. So I think there enough opportunity for Mark to pick up nine stages.
“He does have big competition with Kittel, but everything ebbs and flows, and also riders. Those circumstances change as well. I personally don’t know if it is important for him to break that record but, knowing Mark, he is always out for a new challenge.”
Someone who has never worked with Cavendish and who has always regarded him as a rival to his riders is the Lotto Belisol general manager Marc Sergeant.
He and the rest of the team do what they can to ensure that Andre Greipel finishes ahead of the Briton, but he was able to step back from the situation, regard it with an objective eye and to declare the target attainable.
“It should be possible. If he was in this Tour – he was, but he was out straight away – he would have been higher already,” he said, referring to Cavendish’s current tally of 25 wins.
“But you never know. Kittel was very strong in the beginning, but guys like Cavendish always win one or two. So I don’t think the record is impossible.
“Does he have enough time left in his career? It should be no problem. Andre is turning 32 now, it is only his fourth participation and he won six stages, which is not bad. But he [Cavendish] started younger. We’ll see.”
No longer Mr 80 percent:
Just as the dominance shown in the 2009 Milan Sanremo seems like a fading memory, so too does the psychological edge Cavendish had on his opponents. There was a time when his rivals were almost powerless when it came to bunch sprints, when their winning depended on him losing or, rather, on he or his team making a mistake.
An example of this comes from a November 2010 interview with Cycling Weekly. In that, he claimed to have gone at 100 percent during just two of his six stage victories during the 2009 Tour de France.
He confirmed that the final sprint on the Champs Elysees was one of those two occasions. The other?
“First sprint of the Tour,” he explained. “[Tyler] Farrar was on my wheel and I dropped him from it. At the Tour, you go into it and you don’t know the form of the others, so the first time, you go 100 per cent.”
“But every single sprint after that is about conserving energy.” He suggested that he was at just 80 percent in the other gallops; despite that, he still comprehensively beat all of his rivals.
That clearly is no longer the case. When Cavendish wins nowadays, he often does so by much smaller margins than in the past. He also digs deep to take those victories. The ease of 2009 is gone.
One who knows Cavendish better than most is Rod Ellingworth. He acted as his coach for many years, even maintaining that relationship when he was part of Team Sky and Cavendish was with the HTC team.
Although he too sees how things have changed, he believes that the Merckx record remains attainable.
“I think he can do it,” he told CyclingTips “Kittel is quick, Cav knows that. But I think Cav would have won stage one of the Tour. He is great at what he does and I think if anybody can get the record, he can. He has got so many stages in the bag already and I think if he can just keep chipping away in the next couple of years, he’ll get there.”
He dismisses any suggestion that Cavendish has become more settled since he got married and became a father. Ellingworth believes he’s still got the same aggression and desire to win.
“I think we saw that in the Tour, didn’t we? That is why he crashed,” he said. “Okay, when you have a family you change as a person, and of course as you get older you just naturally get a little less…but he fell on that first day, because it was a case of, ‘I am going to win or I am going to fall, if anyone boxes me in.’
“It wasn’t good to see him fall, but it is good to see him fight.”
The question remains as to how good Cavendish will be when he returns from that injury. It was the biggest accident of his career, in terms of the outcome, and while the Omega Pharma-Quick Step doctor Helge Riepenhof said he believed that the rider will cope with the physical legacy of that accident, there may also be other repercussions.
Laurent Jalabert is one example. He was known as one of the quickest sprinters in cycling but moved away from that area of the sport after a devastating crash in Armentières during the 1994 Tour. He reinvented himself as a general classification rider due to a wariness to take the same risks again.
Four time green jersey winner Sean Kelly told CyclingTips that big falls can linger on long after the physical recovery is complete. “Cavendish has had a lot of big spills, but he never broke anything, never did damage before,” he said. “So it will be interesting with this one.
“Will it take his confidence away? Will he be a bit more scared? Sometimes when you break something it can be a difficult one for the rest of your career.
“You back off a bit because you are bit more fearful in the sprint. That could be a problem for Cavendish. If it is a problem, then it could be difficult to beat Merckx’s record.”
How does Cavendish himself feel about the possibility of his confidence being affected? “We will have to see when I get racing,” he told CyclingTips when he returned to the Tour de France during his recovery. “It does take a bit of time, even with my other crashes.
“I haven’t had the injuries that I have got now, but it definitely does knock your confidence for a little while.”
However he believes he will be able to get back to where he was before. “It is part and parcel of being not just a sprinter but a bike rider,” he reasoned. “You crash, you get injuries. That is all part of the job, so you have to try to get on with it.”
Asked straight out if he believed if Cavendish would ultimately get the record, Kelly said it was possible, but not probable. “I wouldn’t be putting a lot of money on it,” he said, smiling.
Ultimately, it may be down to the Manx rider’s desire. If he can achieve three stage wins a year, it will take him three years to draw level with Merckx. If he takes an average of two victories per edition, then it would take five years to surpass the Belgian’s total.
Can he remain sufficiently focussed to get to that point?
During that 2010 Cycling Weekly interview, he admitted he wasn’t sure if he could keep his drive long term.
“I might be able to do it for 10 or 15 years, but I really don’t know,” he said then, six years ago. “I’m not lying if I say the pressure’s incredible. Not just to train, but the extra curricular stuff, little details I’m known for, the team, the videos, studying opponents, studying my team, studying races.
“It’s not pressure to win — it’s pressure to stop failing, and all the things you have to do to stop failure. I train and it’s tiring. But mentally it’s exhausting.”
The consensus above seems to be that he could – potentially – beat the Merckx record if he really wants to.
He undoubtedly has the ability. But what about the desire? The seasons to come will show if he can remain focussed long enough to do that.
If so, history might yet be made.
Tour de France stage wins:
1, Eddy Merckx (Belgium) 34
2, Bernard Hinault (France) 28
3, Mark Cavendish (United Kingdom) 25
= André Leducq (France) 25
5, André Darrigade (France) 22
6, Nicolas Frantz (Luxembourg) 20