Whenever a sporting star begins to fade, the question is always asked: who is the next version of them going to be? Sport is a cyclical process, with each generation of protagonists succeeded by a new one, who measure themselves by the achievements of their predecessors by repeating the same feats and winning the same races. Just look at the history of the Tour de France — since Jacques Anquetil became the first ever rider to win a fourth (and then a fifth) yellow jersey in the 1960s, the achievement has been repeated by a new rider in each decade since.
In the late-2010s, as health problems persisted and his form of old continued to elude him, the cycling world was wondering who the next Mark Cavendish would be. There were many candidates: Fernando Gaviria had made an explosive start to his career and seemed to have real star quality; Caleb Ewan resembled Cav with his small stature and low sprinting position, not to mention explosive speed; and Cavendish’s rival Marcel Kittel looked poised to fully emerge from his shadow and start to similarly dominate. But nobody was amassing huge hauls at Grand Tours of multiple stage wins the way Cavendish regularly did in his pomp.
The 2021 Tour de France was the scene of his rejuvenation (Photo: James Startt)
Little did we expect that the closest thing we’ve seen to a new Cavendish has turned out to be…well, Cavendish himself. In 2021 he returned to the Tour de France for the first time in three years, and managed to instantly reestablish himself as the fastest man in the peloton over all of the young pretenders, looking every bit his old self as he stormed his way to four stage wins and the green jersey. Having seemed down and out and set for a reluctant retirement mere months before, this was instantly recognised as one of the great sporting comebacks.
Merely winning the one stage at this comeback Tour would alone have been miraculous. Even during his peak years, Cavendish was always at pains to insist that he would be content so long as he won at least once, and never was that more evidently the case when, in 2021, he collapsed in tears over the finish line in Fougères having just claimed his first stage victory for five years. But he wasn’t done yet, and went on to win a second, third, then fourth, in just as dominant a manner as he used to.
These multiple-stage win Tours were what made Cavendish so special, and precisely what the Manxman’s potential successors weren’t managing to do. In the years between his last big haul of four stage wins at the 2016 edition (the fifth occasion in his career he had won at least that many in a single Tour), the only sprinter to win more than three stages at a single Tour was Marcel Kittel in 2017 (and he settled into an early retirement just a couple of years later). Others had managed quadruples at the Giro d’Italia (Fernando Gaviria, Elia Viviani and Arnaud Démare in 2017, 2019 and 2020 respectively) and the Vuelta a España (Matteo Trentin in 2017), but each have so far been one-offs in their career in contrast to the relentless, consistent success Cavendish enjoyed, and none on the biggest scale and against the toughest opposition of the Tour de France.
By returning to win four stages that year, Cavendish transcended the theories that had been devised to explain why Grand Tours weren’t seeing massive sprinter hauls anymore. It’s been said that the nature of contemporary cycling is making it more difficult for a single sprinter to dominate as Cav had once done. The sprinting field is more evenly-matched, and, with so many different talented fastmen vying for success, no single team like Cavendish’s Colombia-HTC and Quick-Step line-ups are capable of maintaining a strangle-hold in the lead-outs. Racing is more aggressive these days, too, with puncheurs and attackers less content to simply let stages drift into mass bunch sprints. And Grand Tour organisers are no longer catering for pure sprinters like Cavendish, including fewer straightforwardly flat stages in favour of added difficulties to thwart them.
All of these theories do sound convincing, yet Cavendish was still able to buck the trend. His 2021 Tour has proven to be an outlier, too, as the spoils in recent sprints have continued to be shared around, with no rider managing to win more than three in any Grand Tour since. And just look at the ongoing Giro d’Italia — there have been five sprint finishes so far, and five different winners.
Cavendish equalled Merckx's record of stage wins at the Tour with his fourth win in 2021 (Photo: James Startt)
All this is to say that, for all the speculation as to who the next Mark Cavendish will be, it’s plausible that cycling will never see his like again. Whether or not he succeeds this July in breaking the much-talked about record he currently shares with Eddy Merckx for the highest number of career Tour de France stage wins, his legacy looks set to be similar to the great Belgian, in the sense that many will be compared to him, but nobody will equal him.
There’s so much else to be said about Cavendish, from his other achievements elsewhere on the road and track, and his towering personality as a man who both wore his heart on his sleeve, and an intellect who could deconstruct a sprint finish like no other, that we’ve barely scratched the surface into everything that has made him such a giant of the sport. But as an athlete, the facet that he may best be remembered for is for his all-conquering, unstoppable sprint victories over so many years at the Tour de France right up until that stunning 2021 comeback, a reign of dominance that was both unprecedented, and, as the nature of cycling and sprinting continue to change, unlikely to be ever repeated in the future.
Cover photo by Zac Williams/SWPix