I See You, Mark Cavendish

Unless it’s a once-in-a-lifetime transcendent talent we’re talking about, nobody loves the guy who can’t be beaten. In my lifetime, I can think of only one such unstoppable force who nevertheless managed to garner near-universal love / respect — pre-Thanksgiving Tiger Woods. For whatever reason, it’s just hard to root for the biggest, nastiest, toughest dude on the block. There’s a reason why there are precisely YouTube compilations of bullies winning the day; search for “bullies getting owned,” though, and settle in for a feast.

This says something, I suppose, about our collective thirst for drama in sport. What could be more compelling, more dramatically satisfying, than a result that defies a seemingly preordained outcome? This, I think, explains the continued appeal of MMA, despite the staggeringly awful experience of viewing it live or on TV. How could you not be sucked into a sport in which no one is safe from upset, ever? What could be worse than an individual who routinely dispatches his competition, apparently yawning and paring his nails as he’s doing it?

So it goes with Mark Cavendish, for years road cycling’s preeminent sprinter. From 2008–2011 in the Tour de France, dude was practically unbeatable in sprint stages, wracking up 19 stage victories, an absurd number. To date, he has 28 stage victories, putting him T-2 all time. To put this into context, the by-all-accounts strongest sprinter currently in the field, Marcel Kittel, has won 8 Tour stages. The man who has won two of the last three Tours, Chris Froome, has 5 stage victories. Peter Sagan, the undisputed best cyclist in the world, also has five wins. Alberto Contador, one of the greatest cyclists of all time, has won only 3 TDF stages. There are many, many ways to define success in cycling, but if winning stages in the world’s most famous grand tour is your benchmark, Cav is basically pissing on two or three generations of cyclists from a great height.

The thing is, I always found watching him achieve these amazing things a little dispiriting. In those 2008–2011 years, he and his team (repeat after me: cycling is a team sport) sucked all of the air out of the sprint finish, which is basically the only major drama in a bike race, save a horrifying crash. Thinking back to watching the Tour those years, this is the sort of thing that I remember:

I remember watching guys like George Hincapie and Bernie Eisel and Mark Renshaw absolutely red-lining it so that by the time Cavendish swings out to sprint to the finish there’s really no one there to beat. Those guys just crushed the competition. Everytime. Watching them do their thing was sort of awesome, but it was awesome in the way that watching a tiger chase down an antelope in one of those nature videos is awesome. Like, you just can’t root for the tiger, can you?

But then something changed, and Cav’s output began to decline. The downward trend began when he went to Team Sky in 2012. On Team Sky, Cav found himself in a vastly different situation as a cyclist. This wasn’t a team specially engineered to get Cav 200 meters to the finish line so he could do his thing. No, Team Sky was studded with a shitload of workhorses racing in the service of the Great One, Sir Bradley Wiggins. A shitload of workhorses … and one lonely sprinter — Mark Cavendish.

Cav won “only” won three stages in 2012, the best of which was the finale on the Champs-Elysee. That’s the final clip in the montage above, and it’s interesting to see what Team Sky could do with the singular objective of leading out the world’s preeminent sprinter. I mean, shit: Sir Bradley Wiggins (that’s the guy in the yellow jersey, the guy 30 seconds away from winning the whole race) is a hell of a lead out man, if that’s what you need. But, aside from that one stage, that wasn’t what Team Sky was about. Instead, if Cav wanted to go for stage victories, he was basically on his own that year, having to be a bit craftier, a bit more opportunistic. And it really didn’t work. Cav was still great at closing out victories, but he didn’t seem able to manufacture them on his own.

Cav’s tenure with Team Sky was brief and acrimonious, it seemed. The next year, 2013, he raced for Etixx-Quickstep and was back to being the man. But by then, he was no longer unbeatable. In fact, that year, despite being surrounded by a team looking out for him, he was routinely beaten to the line by other riders. That year, he won two stages.

The less we say about his 2014 and 2015 TDFs the better. 2014 was disastrous — he wiped out in the sprint to the finish on Stage 1, in England, in his mother’s freaking hometown, broke his collarbone, and had to abandon the Tour. Watching that horrific spectacle, it was clear to me that he had zero chance of making the top 5 that day, much less win the stage. He had no lead out to speak of, he was in a terrible position, and, well, there were plenty other guys who looked faster.

2015 confirmed as much: He finished that Tour but managed to win only one stage. And the truth was unmistakable — Cav was no longer the baddest sprinter in the peloton. Not even close.

I used to actively root against Cavendish just like I root against Lebron and Jimmie Johnson and other guys that seem like they can’t be beaten. But by the end of the 2015 Tour, I wasn’t rooting against Cav anymore. I felt bad for the guy. He was clearly, demonstrably washed up.

And then this happened at the end of this year’s Stage 1:

Holy shit. Holy shit. That was Mark Cavendish, minus a not-to-be-fucked-with lead-out train, craftily biding his time, sitting on the wheel of Peter Sagan, waiting for Marcel Kittel to break, and then flat out-muscling him to the line. I watched this live and (a) couldn’t believe what I was seeing and (b) found myself cheering when Cavendish won. And just so no one mistook what was happening, Cav out-sprinted Andre Greipel to eek out a narrow victory on Stage 3.

One of the theories behind Cav’s resurgence this year is that, like all the greats, he wants to extend a special middle figure to all the critics and doubters. I don’t find this a very compelling explanation. In the real world, ego-driven motives don’t replace horsepower. A washed up Michael Jordan simply couldn’t hang with Kobe and Lebron, no matter how motivated he might have been.

There are others theories, but maybe we don’t need to worry too much about why. I mean, Cavendish might not win any more stages this year, or ever, for that matter, but his performance this year has been a complete surprise. Rather than analyze why, I’d prefer to just to watch and appreciate. Because for me, the significance of all this is much simpler and more human. I see you, Mark Cavendish. No one roots for the bully, but everyone loves a comeback.