Mark Cavendish put his nose into the wind with 300 metres to go in stage three of this year’s Giro d’Italia. This is a long way out from the finish to open up a sprint. When Cavendish won the world championship in 2011, he didn’t see the front until there were 150 metres of the 250km race remaining. It’s often the Manxman’s style, surfing the wheels until he pops out at the very last moment, taking the win in just a few pedal strokes: strong but efficient.
Recently, though, as Cavendish has shown his resurgent form following his return to “The Wolfpack”, we’ve seen glimpses of a different type of sprinter. When he won stage two of the Tour of Oman a few months ago, the Manx Missile produced an eye-wateringly long sprint, spending more than 300 metres in the wind before crossing the line over a bike length ahead of his rivals. In stage three of the Giro d’Italia this year, Mark Cavendish’s finish line gallop told a similar story.
With one kilometre to go, Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl hit the front with leadout man extraordinaire Michael Mørkøv. Our protagonist, the fast-legged Manx sprinter, was glued to his back wheel. Cleverly well-prepared for what was to come, the Belgian squad nailed the run-in to the finish: the road into Balatonfüred was slightly downhill for the final 800 metres, meaning Mørkøv could afford to do a long lead-out. He dropped Mark Cavendish off with 300 metres to go, and it was down to the 16-time Giro stage winner to finish off the job.
The sprint that Cavendish then produced was one of domination, power and sustained effort. There’s an admirable skill in sprinting in the wheels, leaving it as late as possible and shooting out in the last second, but it’s even more impressive when a fast man goes for a long one and holds off his rivals. Cavendish’s sprint was confident, cool and collected. His post-race interview was similar, a harsh contrast to the tears shed after he won his first Tour de France stage last year. “I had to go early. But I had the legs to do that,” he said, shrugging.
And that’s exactly it. Nine years since he last raced at la corsa rosa, Mark Cavendish still has the legs to dominate. In terms of bunch sprinters, no one is going longer than Cavendish. Headlines are made about the young talents emerging into the WorldTour, but Cavendish is still up there with the very best. It’s not all down to experience or race craft either, as his sprint showed in stage three: he still has the physical strength to be the best sprinter in the peloton, mano a mano against the young guns.
“You went really early, was there a point where you could feel them coming back?” another interviewer asked after the stage. Cavendish gave a wry smile, shook his head and scoffed. “No,” he replied, before walking away.
This coolness, some might say verging on arrogance, and laser focus when it comes to his sprinting ability is something that his wins in the Tour last year have given Mark Cavendish back, and it’s showing both on the bike and off it. Gone is the fragile sprinter who entered 2021 with uncertainty over his form, and here is a man who has the cojones to open up his sprint with 300 metres remaining, with the conviction he can hold on to the line.
At 36 years old, Mark Cavendish is sprinting as well as, if not better than ever. His sixteenth Giro d’Italia stage win proved that enough. We all know that Cavendish, such a prolific winner, has the race craft and experience to be the best of the best, but he’s proven at the Giro that he’s at the top of his game when it comes to his leg speed and physical strength too.
For everyone else, it’s back to the drawing board. Even the riders who everybody expected would eclipse him are left scratching their heads at how to beat this seemingly ageless sprinter.