‘It’s a difficult sport’ - How will Mark Cavendish fare in the ‘Sprinters' World Championships’ at the UAE Tour?

The Manxman will come up against some stiff competition next week, but has confidence in his new team and lead out train

If there’s one thing followers of this sport should have learnt by now, it’s to never count out Mark Cavendish. When the Manxman pulled off one of cycling’s greatest comebacks at the 2021 Tour de France, after years of illness and bad fortune, the words he repeated throughout that race were ‘always believe.’ It’s a testament to his plucky character that Cavendish himself has never lost the bolshy confidence that has made him a 34-time Tour stage winner – it was just the rest of the cycling world who made the error of doubting him. Now, as he heads into his final season and is aiming for that elusive 35th stage win, no one will make that mistake again.

After a winter spent at altitude in Colombia, Cavendish has already proved that riding in the thin air has proved fruitful when it comes to his performance on the bike. A stage win at the Tour of Colombia is already under the belt for the Astana-Qazaqstan rider – a race in which he outsprinted the likes of Fernando Gaviria for a classic Cav win off the back of a textbook lead out from the team’s not-so-secret weapon, lead-out man extraordinaire Michael Mørkøv. But, as the Manx rider openly admits, the calibre of the sprinting field at the Tour of Colombia wasn’t at the standard of races like the Tour de France.

The UAE Tour, however, where Cavendish will line-up over the next seven days, is a different story. With riders like Fabio Jakobsen, Tim Merlier, Sam Bennett and Dylan Groenewegen present at the race in the Middle East, it has been described as a ‘sprinter’s World Championships.’ The only notable admission from the start list is six-time Tour de France stage winner Jasper Philipsen, who is focusing on Opening Weekend, but the UAE Tour still boasts an all-star line-up. Can Cavendish make his mark on this race too?

“Any bike rider gets confidence from winning, it doesn't matter if it is at the beginning of the year or later on, as soon as you get it, you know you’ve put in a good winter and have got a good team around you and you’re in the mix,” Cavendish explained at a press conference ahead of the UAE Tour when asked about how his recent victory in Colombia has set him up for the upcoming week. "The nature of racing, [it] doesn’t matter what you’ve done until you see what everyone else has done and then you can kind of see where you’re at. It’s nice to do that.”

Despite the upcoming season being the sprinter’s 18th year in the professional, Cavendish is insistent that he still has the same desire to win as a neo-pro. His results indicate this too – despite the common trend in today’s peloton being towards younger riders performing at a higher level, the 38-year-old rider has repeatedly proven he is still very much competitive. 

“I never lose motivation. I love this sport and love riding my bike. All of us do. It's a difficult sport but if you get to say you do what you love as a job, then you can count yourself amongst the luckiest people in the world,” Cavendish said. “To get to do it for at least another year, I’m happy.”

As he spoke to the media, Cavendish exuded his usual swagger and confidence. It seems that Astana is a team which is giving the Manx sprinter all of the tools he needs to succeed this season – with his trusted colleague Mørkøv as his lead out man and a team completely built around him (with no inter-team sprinter rivalry to worry about), Cavendish only has to worry about winning bike races. This, combined with the maturity and experience of almost two decades in the peloton, could well be the winning combination this season. There might always another young new sprinter coming through, but Cavendish still remains constant. The UAE Tour is the perfect opening stage for him to show that prolonging his retirement for another year was every bit the right decision. If he can beat the line-up of sprinters here, there’s a high chance he can do the same on the roads of France in a few months’ time.

“On a personal level, this race provides the most opportunities for sprinters. I’m biased, but sprints are the most exciting part of cycling,” Cavendish said. “You need to think, not just look at computers. It’s real racing, they’re going from cycling a bit. Especially with one week races, your opportunities are very limited. To have an opportunity to win stages is very important to me and the guys.”

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