I’m going to go against the grain here, but my nomination for the outstanding sporting achievement of 2013 goes to Mark Cavendish for his performance in the Giro. It was easy to overlook, because British eyes tend to focus on the Tour de France, where he won only two stages, more than once being beaten for speed by Marcus Kittel. (The fact that this seems like under-performance says something of the stellar standards that Cavendish has set for himself, and for us. Before Cavendish, the only British rider to win two stages in a Tour de France was Barry Hoban.)
In the Giro, though, he won all of the five stages that were designated as sprint stages, also collecting the points jersey for the most consistent rider of the race.
It’s hard to convey the scale of this as a sporting achievement: maybe it’s a bit like taking all 10 wickets in a cricket innings, or scoring a double hat-trick in a football (soccer) match – except that to do it in a Grand Tour means bringing your best game on five different days, on different stages, in different racing situations, in different weather conditions. And it means staying in the race in the mountains, dragging yourself over the climbs even in snow.
Take for example his 100th career win, during the Giro in pouring rain in the stage to Treviso. (See the video highlights – with Italian commentary – at the top of the post). He’d used his team to keep the race together as they approached the final kilometres, but they’d run out of energy by the time they got to the final kilometre, so he used the slipstream of the other teams to launch his attack. (He won the World Championship title in the same way, using the Australian sprint train as a springboard.)
When he won again the following day, his Omega Pharma Lotto team set him up perfectly, with the kind of leadout train that his former team, HTC, had perfected.
His emphatic victory in this year’s Giro’s points competition – missed by a single point last year – made him a member of a club of only five riders who have won the points competition in all three Grand Tours: the others are Abdoujaporov, Eddy Merckx, Petacchi, and Laurent Jalabert.) Cipollini is missing because he rarely finished Grand Tours, being famously allergic to going uphill.) In the Tour de France, Cavendish is, similarly a member of an elite group of five riders who have won stages in five successive Tours.
43 stage wins in the Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro, Vuelta), means he’s now third in the all-time sprinters list for Grand Tour wins, behind the Italians Petacchi (48) and Cipollini (57). His tally of 25 Tour de France wins puts him third equal, with Andre Leducq, behind only the five times winners Bernard Hinault (28) and Eddy Merckx (34). The other three all had time trial Tour wins to their name, so Cavendish has already won more road stages than any other Tour rider. Ever. He is the most successful sprinter in Tour history, in terms of stage wins and also in the opinion of the French sports paper L’Equipe. The milestones keep ticking past.
Road sprinting isn’t just about speed. There’s a lot a more involved: technique, craft, and guile. Like good comedy, it’s also about timing. His second stage win in this year’s Tour de France was a case in point. A day after being outpaced by Kittel, he used his team to split the race in a crosswind and leave Kittel in the trailing group on the road. When another team, Saxo Tnkoff, repeated the trick later in the stage, Cavendish made sure that he and two teammates went with them, memorably explaining afterwards that “When echelons form [in crosswinds] it’s similar to falling through ice… you’ve got five seconds to save yourself or it’s all over.”
Cavendish, as Rod Ellingworth explains in his book The Rainbow Project, is a rider who lives for winning.
In a memorable passage, Ellingworth brings a coach’s eye to Cavendish’s technique:
He doesn’t sit right behind the the rider who is in front of him. He’s not straight behind their back wheel; he sits slightly to one side. It’s as if he was riding an elimination race on the track, so he’s got room to move out. That means he creates space for himself all the time; he’s got room to come back and get onto the wheel if he knows it’s his teammates and he wants to get it; he can latch onto the wheel of a rival if he’s coming past, or he can just bluff by constantly moving from one side of the wheel to another. [p.160]
Cavendish was awarded an MBE in 2011 – in the same year he won the World Championship and became BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He explained with a touch of Manx humour to a Norwegian journalist trying to understand the British honours system, “You can call me Sir Cav.” Cavendish is a world class sprinter at the top of his game, making cycling history in front of our eyes, as Richard Williams reminded us in a review recently. We’re lucky to be around to watch him.