‘I was in shock’: Mark Cavendish focused on Tour de France after surprise call-up

Mark Cavendish’s relationship with the Tour de France, 30 stage wins and all, has been a “long, long love story and also a hate story,” his team manager Patrick Lefevere said on Wednesday. The latest chapter will begin on Saturday, when the Manx sprinter begins his 14th Tour after a last-minute call-up to the Deceuninck-Quickstep team. He is a replacement for last year’s top Tour sprinter and points jersey winner Sam Bennett, who has a knee injury, and he said on Wednesday the call had left him in shock.

“It was a little bit strange, surprise is the wrong word, I was in a bit of shock I guess. I was a bit quiet. The first time [I rode the Tour] I was a neo-pro, I was riding for Telekom, the biggest team at the time, I put myself forward, it started in London, I was starting to win WorldTour races, so I was excited then, but I didn’t know what I was in for. Since then it’s always been a kind of a given that I’d go, I’d plan the whole year around it, and teams based the year around me.

“This year I was a training reserve rider, I didn’t expect to go. I thought Sam would be OK, but you never know, maybe at the last minute he’d come here and his knee wouldn’t get better, so I just had to be prepared to get the call.”

Cavendish has felt the weight of expectation in previous years, but with the world champion Julian Alaphilippe in his team, and widely predicted to win Saturday’s opening stage, the stress should be felt elsewhere.

“It’s the least pressure I’ve felt for a long time. It’s not on my shoulders. I know where I am.” He acknowledged that some will be looking for him to stumble, but said – in a reference to his depression and his recovery from the Epstein-Barr virus – “I’ve dealt with too much to really give a shit about that. I don’t think people are expecting too much from me so I can’t fall from such a great height.

“It’s already a dream to be at the Tour de France. If I’d sat here a year ago and thought I’d be in this spot … I have some self-belief but even that I probably wouldn’t have believed. I haven’t specifically prepared for the Tour de France but I know I’ve got good condition. I’ve beaten the majority of the sprinters who are here, a week ago, so that gives me confidence.”

Although he is now 36, a relatively advanced age for a sprinter, Cavendish scored a fine win recently on the final stage of the Baloise Belgium Tour, and landed a quartet of stages – albeit against a weaker field – at the Tour of Turkey. Deceuninck-Quickstep have the most formidable sprint lead-out train in the Tour, marshalled by the Dane Michael Mørkøv, with whom Cavendish raced as an under-16, so he is entitled to hope for at least one more victory.

Cavendish’s tally of 30 Tour stages is spectacularly high for a sprinter in any Grand Tour – the Italian Mario Cipollini managed 42 at the Giro d’Italia – and it is only four shy of Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour record. The Manxman gives short shrift to the idea that he dreams of matching the “Cannibal”. “I never give it any thought. It’s the same answer as long as I’m riding a bike. I’ve won 30 stages, but I know how hard it is to win one stage of the Tour de France. One stage of the Tour makes a rider’s career. So if I’m only ever good enough to be here and not win again, so be it. If I’m good enough to win 50 stages more, so be it. I’ll try as hard as I can and that’s it.”

With Euro 2020 on all minds, Lefevere came up with a football metaphor for his sprinter, now on his second stint with the Belgian team. “He has had a turbulent year, we called him in at the last minute to the Tour of Belgium in the place of Sam Bennett, and here we called him in again. He’s like a fantastic football player who is always on the bench but has to contribute the winning goal,” Lefevere said.