Humans seek out narratives and patterns; the comeback story is a favourite, a veteran reinventing and backing himself to compete against a new generation of stars, a great of the sport building a career that spans decade. All elements are present in the improbable return of Cavendish to the Tour de France.
It was an interesting off-season move that grabbed the headlines and was phrased in various ways, but the gist was that Mark Cavendish took a bet on himself, getting a personal sponsor to cover his contract on the high-level Belgian squad. There were few promises in return, no guaranteed races from team boss Patrick Lefevre and on the whole it looked like a deal with little to risk and a lot to gain for Deceuninck-Quickstep if the Manx Missile could regain any semblance of the sprinting ability that saw him dominate the sprinting world for the best part of a decade.
Probably the only double-edged sword present in the choice was the speculation and expectation that comes with the move, selection decisions that will prompt questions from media and fans. It's not the worst problem to have, as they say 'any press is good press', particularly when your business model is based on selling exposure.
On the sporting stage, early promising performances at Coppi e Bartali and Scheldeprijs were followed by four stage wins at the Tour of Turkey and it was clear that Cavendish was 'back' to a competitive level in that second tier of sprinters, taking his first wins in three years. It certainly helped that he had one of the best leadouts in the business and while the likes of Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and fellow great Andre Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation) have been respectable competition to beat, they were not the cream of the crop.
That changed at the Baloise Belgium Tour, where Cavendish beat out the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), Pascal Ackerman (BORA-hansgrohe), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic) and Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels) in the dash to the line. This wasn't entirely a product of his leadout either, though they'd done a good job with Morkov dropping him off on the more sheltered side of the road in the last 200 metres.
It was a wide, flat final straight and there were quality sprinters on his wheel and Alpecin-Fenix leading a competing train on the other side of the road, essentially level with the British rider as they started the sprint. Everyone looked to have a chance, including many people's pick for the fastest man in the world at present in Ewan, but it was UCI win number 151 for an ecstatic Cavendish.
"It’s my first time in the Belgium Tour and to win here, against so many sprinters who will be at the Tour de France in two weeks, makes this victory even more beautiful," said Cavendish. "I’m incredibly happy! When you have these guys in front of you – Styby, Remco, Iljo, Lampy, Davide, Michael – that’s a team that any kid would dream of being in, and I’m a 36-year-old that’s been around for a lot of years."
Cavendish was a late inclusion for Sam Bennett at the Belgium Tour, who pulled out of the race with a knee injury. With just 11 days to the Tour de France, the question now facing Deceuninck-QuickStep boss, the colourful Patrick Lefevre is who to take to be the top sprinter.
"We have to see," said Cavendish after his win. "We have the current green-jersey winner in Sam Bennett. I think it’s right to see how he’s going before we think of anything else."
"Belgium was always on my program and Sam wanted to do it, so I got kicked out of it, so it’s serendipity that I’m back in it with Mørkøv and the rest of the guys; Ballerini, Stybar, Remco, Yves and Iijo. That’s a hit team."
In his weekly column in Het Niewsblad, Lefevere wrote that he spoke with Cavendish about competing in another Grand Tour earlier in the year, but Cavendish said, "not at this salary, no."
Lefevere also pointed to the level of hype and pressure that would be heaped on Cavendish over breaking Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins. Cavendish has won 30, a tally that he hasn't added to since 2016.
“It's not fair to have a rider with a minimum contract as a Deceuninck-QuickStep lead sprinter, with all the pressure and expectations that come with it," Lefevere wrote, adding that there was "no real plan B as a sprinter" for the Tour de France and that the team would allow Bennett, who won the green points jersey last year, time to rest until Monday (Europe time) before making any further decisions. No word on any decision yet.
So where to go from here? A dual Bennett-Cavendish sprinter system at Scheldeprijs didn't show much promise and the question may be exactly how banged up Sam Bennett is at present and if he can feasibly defend his green jersey.
Cavendish meanwhile was hitting back at the media for drumming up expectation ahead of the selection announcment, let alone the Tour itself.
"I don’t know. At the end of the day, it’s all talk," said Cavendish. "The reason the whole Tour de France came up - I didn’t mention it and Patrick didn’t mention it - I won in Tour of Turkey and all of a sudden the media started talking about it.
"This is a thing that happens a lot. The thing with Eddy Merckx record? I never started that, it was the media that started that, and all of a sudden, it’s like, I’m going for it. It’s the same with this. It’s you guys [the media] that started whether or not I should go to the Tour de France."
Cavendish has never been shy in airing his opinions but this one seems needlessly antagonistic. In the media we look for facts and compelling narratives and in the Cavendish story, it's the story of a legend of the sport, a great of the Tour de France potentially making his return to the pinnacle of the sport with his best chance of adding to his already imposing palmares in five years.
If that's not a mouth-watering proposition on the biggest stage cycling has to offer I'm not sure what is.
Every moment of the 2021 Tour de France will be live on SBS, with the ŠKODA Tour Tracker app, SBS TV and the SBS Cycling Central the place to be to catch all the pulsating action from France from June 26 to July 18.