Hat-tricks are rare in professional cycling. Before Mark Cavendish sprinted into the finish in the Turkish resort of Kemer on Wednesday afternoon to win for the third day in a row, it was 18 months since any professional cyclist had done anything similar. To pull off such a thing at the age of 35, after being within an ace of a tearful retirement a few months earlier, gave this a special twist.
The feat concluded a painful three-year comeback that now looks as remarkable in its way as any in cycling, coming as it does after the stellar success of Cavendish’s bumper years when he plucked stage wins and points prizes in Grand Tours by the hatload, and added a world road title to boot. There will now be speculation the Manxman should head for the Tour de France to tilt one last time at Eddy Merckx’s all-time stage victory record – he is four short of the Cannibal’s 34 – but at present a ride in the season-ending Tour of Spain looks more likely.
The sprint victory at Konya on Monday marked the end of four years in which Cavendish had struggled for form, sustained one fracture after another, illness, depression, and on occasion tensions with team management. “It’s irrelevant how many wins in a row, it’s just nice to win again,” he said. “At the beginning of the year all I wanted to do is win a race, and now I have done it three times.”
Cavendish’s nightmare began after an annus mirabilis in 2016, when he won four stages in the Tour de France and finally achieved two long-term goals when he wore the yellow jersey, and won a medal at the Rio Olympics. The following spring he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus and, having recovered enough to ride the Tour, he broke a shoulder in a terrifying sprint-finish crash.
By spring 2018 Cavendish was free of the virus, and he managed a stage win at the Dubai Tour, but he then endured a rapid-fire series of debilitating crashes, damaging his previously broken shoulder at the Abu Dhabi Tour, breaking a rib at Tirreno-Adriatico, then fracturing another a few days later after piling into a bollard at high speed in the Milan-San Remo Classic. He also suffered a relapse of the virus. The following year was marked by yet more pile-ups, and a dispute within the Dimension Data team over his non-selection for the Tour.
Last year Cavendish reunited with the coach of his formative years, Rod Ellingworth, at the Bahrain-McLaren team, but he struggled to find form and opportunities when the racing season was curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. He did not look at ease in the few finish sprints he tried to contest, and ended the autumn as a bit-part player in one-day Classics rescheduled from spring, figuring in doomed breakaways in what seemed to be repeated attempts merely to register his presence.
After one such race, Gent-Wevelgem, Cavendish suggested in a tearful interview that he might not be racing again, and when the season ended he appeared to be struggling to find a team.
He was thrown an unlikely, and late, lifeline by the most prolific winners in the sport, Deceuninck-Quickstep of Belgium, but only after he agreed to take a personal sponsor with him. There were upsides, however: his previous spell at the team from 2013-15 had netted him 44 wins, and Deceuninck are legendary for their ability to back a rider the instant he looks like a winner.
At the start of the season Cavendish said 2021 would not be about trying to win what he had previously, and that if anyone expected him to win six stages of the Tour de France that was “fairytale land”.
But he had a different look about him compared to 2020, twice coming second, at the GP José Samyn, and in a stage of the Coppi e Bartali, where he briefly led overall, the first time he had pulled on a race leader’s jersey in four years.
Last week he was close to a massive comeback victory at the Scheldeprijs race in Belgium; his third place came after more than 130km of fighting to get into the front group of 30 and then staying there. Scheldeprijs underlined what may be the next issue facing Cavendish and his team, however.
Deceuninck were unable to get their tactics right in the finish, although they had both the Manxman and the Irishman Sam Bennett – probably the fastest sprinter on the road today – in the select front group.
The conundrum the team now face is how to balance a resurgent Cavendish alongside the obvious needs of Bennett, who is five years younger, and last year won two stages at the Tour de France as well as the green points jersey.
But given the dark place that Cavendish has come from, it’s a dilemma he and his team manager Patrick Lefevere can face with relative equanimity.