He’s been accused of brashness, tantrums and hysterics but yesterday Mark Cavendish demonstrated that he’s come of age as both a rider and a professional athlete, displaying speed and class in equal amounts in Brive-la-Gaillarde.
While it seemed that Nicolas Roche could take his first Tour de France stage win, 25 years after his father Stephen won the event, Cavendish unleashed an amazing turn of speed and flew over the final 500 metres to record an incredible victory – already dubbed by some as his best ever at the Tour.
"I knew I’d be able to go long and no one would be able to pass me, but with 500 or 600 metres to go I started and ramped up. I just knew I’d get it and I felt really good today."
It wasn’t only Cavendish’s panache in the final sprint that may have won him more fans but his class afterwards, profusely thanking his teammates after working for Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome over the past week. Yesterday the tables were turned, however.
"We spoke on the bus before the start and I stuck my hand up and said ‘Please give me a chance’,” said Cavendish. “Bradley (Wiggins), Froomey (Chris Froome) and Mick (Rogers) committed straight in and the guys said we were going to make a sprint today.
“I’m so happy, those lads who I’ve been riding with these last three weeks helped me out," he added. "I just haven’t been able to show anything in this Tour with us going for the yellow jersey and there’s been no sprints.”
Think back two years when Cavendish was widely criticized for his lack of wins and subsequent behaviour during the Tour’s opening two weeks whilst riding for HTC-Highroad. There was helmet-throwing after stages, accusations and verbals barbs. It wasn’t pretty.
Two seasons and a change of squad later, the road through France hasn’t been easy at this year’s event either, with crashes and a rampaging Peter Sagan spoiling the party of many occasions. Unlike previous seasons, however, Cavendish maintained his poise and yesterday demonstrated why he’s regarded as the world’s best sprinter… And now maybe a member of the cycling’s ‘statesmen class’.
A suggestion reinforced by the fact that he’s now achieved the same amount of stage wins as prolific Frenchman Andre Darrigade, with 22. Darrigade, a former world champion himself, is generally credited with holding the record for the most stage wins by a sprint specialist, with Cavendish’s achievement today, further writing the Manxman into the pantheon of Tour greats.
Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford paid tribute to Cavendish’s class, pointing out that it was a waiting game for the Manxman, after which he took his chance with aplomb.
"We were determined to repay Mark for his loyalty, his teamwork and his contribution to this team over the last few weeks,” Brailsford said. “I know Bradley and the guys were very motivated this morning to try and say thanks to him. When you lead Mark Cavendish out like that the result is never in doubt.
"When you look at the Tour he has only sprinted four times. He has crashed once, and then when you look at the three other times he was beaten once and then won the other two - which in anybody’s book is a fantastic return,” he continued.
“He’s demonstrated once again why he’s such an amazing rider and a genuine world champion.”