It’s just not happening for Mark Cavendish at Astana-Qazaqstan. Four months into his journey with the Kazakh team, the greatest sprinter in the history of cycling looks as miserable and as out-of-form as he perhaps ever has before.
On stage five of the Giro d’Italia, a wet, horrible day that the entire peloton will want to wash from their memory - including probably even the leader Andreas Leknessund - Cavendish reached a new nadir, spectacularly, acrobatically, perplexedly crashing 30 metres from the finish, crossing the line with his back scraping across the soaked asphalt at over 50kph.
It says everything you need to know about Cavendish’s time at Astana that fourth place in Salerno is his third-best result in 36 race days for them – and he achieved that by sliding on his backside with his legs in the air like an upside down tortoise gasping for air.
Thirty-six days of racing. Just let that sink in a moment. It is May 10. Most riders now don’t ride more than 65 race days in a season, but Cavendish, who turns 38 in less than a fortnight’s time, has almost raced two-third of a season’s calendar. Only nine riders in the entire world have raced more than the Manx Missile since the turn of the year.
So just what is going wrong? When he joined the team in January, he only did so following the demise of the team that was supposed to take the licence of B&B Hotels. If Astana felt like a very weird fit at the time – this is a team, remember, who have built their entire 18-year career around GC riders and climbers – then it’s looking incompatible right now.
He began his year at the Tour of Oman and UAE Tour. In front of the press he was tetchy, grumpy. Nothing new there. He rode to third on the opening stage of the latter. Since coming back to Europe, the best he’s managed is a very respectful and admirable third-place at Scheldeprijs, effectively the sprinter’s classic. But there were withdrawals at other Classics, abandonment on stage one of the Tour de Romandie after failing to keep up with the peloton, and a very frustrating start to the Giro.
On stage two the British champion was caught in a late crash but survived without injury; stage three proved too hilly for him; and then to the latest outing, stage five. Well-positioned heading into the final 500m after a chaotic, crash-marred stage, Cavendish looked certain to challenge for the win, perhaps even triumph.
But in the final 100 metres he first stopped accelerating when he lost control of his rear wheel apparently on the road’s white line, then reaccelerated before wobbling and crashing into a rider next to him. Within seconds he was on the floor, looking despondent, angry and probably wondering what on earth he needs to do to turn the tide. It was almost forgotten in the melee of crashes that Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) finally got the win he’s been chasing.
How Cavendish would like another win. His last victory, outside the national championships, was over a year ago, on stage three of the Giro. Stage win number 35 at the Tour looks improbable right now, with the verdict from his time at Astana so far reading quite clear: the gamble’s not paying off.
Yet, and yet.
This is Mark Cavendish. Should he read that assessment, he’d thrive off it, for he functions on silencing his doubters. We’ve all learned on multiple occasions over the past decade-and-a-half that writing Cavendish off is a fool’s game. So after all the trauma, Cav to win stage six, anyone? Remarkably, you wouldn’t bet against it.