As French sportsmen like to say, the truth of today is not that of tomorrow. In August 2012 Mark Cavendish had landed 23 stage wins in five Tours, a rate more prolific than any sprinter’s in the race’s history.
The all-time stage-victory record of 34, held by Eddy Merckx, looked mathematically within his reach if he kept it up but that was before the rise of Marcel Kittel, the only sprinter who has truly troubled the Manxman since he hit his stride in 2008.
A brace of stage wins for Cavendish in 2013 could not hide the fact that on a straight road, side by side, Kittel was faster time after time. In 2014 worse occurred: having hit his best form for the Tour de France start in Yorkshire, Cavendish’s Tour was over almost before it had begun thanks to his finish-line crash in Harrogate, a double disaster because it meant the question of whether Kittel was truly the fastest in 2014 was not answered.
Roll forward 12 months and Kittel is on the sidelines after a season where he has been plagued by illness, unable to hold the pace when he competes, and has notched up one abandon after another. The German powerhouse is out of the Tour, unhappy with his Giant-Alpecin team’s decision not to select him, and his future is in question. Cavendish, on the other hand, was in flying form en route to the silver medal at the British road championships on Sunday, looking lean and hungry and devouring the one-in-four climb of Lincoln’s Michaelgate time after time.
If Cavendish is in form now, it is the fruit of a campaign that began last July when the collarbone he broke in Harrogate was operated on; he returned rapidly to racing and took a minimal break in the winter, electing to hone his speed in six-day track racing at Gent and Zurich before racing on the road in January.
More recently he has followed training at his base in Tuscany with the Tour of Switzerland – the toughest stage race he could remember riding for several years in terms of workload – and more big days training on his native island.
“What people forget when they compare Cav and other riders is that Mark has been at the top for so long,” said his long-standing confidant Brian Holm in Lincoln. “It takes something very special to win so much over so many years. He has been on his game since 2007, always hungry, always winning. Not many manage to do that. They are good for a while, they fade, they come back.”
“Kittel not being there has opened the door for Cavendish but Cav is riding really well anyway,” says the three-times green jersey and 12-times stage winner, Robbie McEwen of Australia. “His form this year is so good, the way he’s been riding in general, the way he looked on Sunday, that he could take on Kittel anyway but Kittel was the one rider he really had to fear.”
Given there are bonus seconds on offer in the early stages, a decent time trial on Saturday could put Cavendish in contention for the yellow jersey. But the points winner’s maillot vert may prove a bridge too far given the number of hillier stages that will favour better climbers such as the double points champion Peter Sagan, Australia’s Michael Matthews and the Norwegian Alexander Kristoff.
Kittel’s absence alters the balance of the entire sprint battle; the dominant force in the last two Tours is absent and Giant’s No2, John Degenkolb, is not the equal of his fellow German. That sets up a generational battle. On the one side are the 30-year-old Cavendish and his former HTC-Colombia team-mate André Greipel – now 32 but as consistent a force as the Manxman in recent years – and on the other an emerging generation spearheaded by the Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni, a former boxer who was deprived of the chance to ride in 2014 because of a dispute with his then-team manager, Marc Madiot.
Greipel, in McEwen’s view, is Cavendish’s biggest worry, mainly because his team look to have fractionally more horsepower. “[Cavendish’s] Etixx aren’t the strongest sprint team. They aren’t completely built around Cav,” – the Manxman has described them as a stage-winning team rather than a pure sprint team – “and, if Greipel’s team, Lotto-Soudal, can get their sprint train over Etixx, he’ll threaten. They might just have the edge when it comes to controlling the sprint.”
Bouhanni’s form is in question after his heavy crash on Sunday in the French national championship and his Cofidis team is untested at this level. France can look to two other decent sprinters although neither Arnaud Démare nor Bryan Coquard has Bouhanni’s record, and they have yet to prove themselves in the Tour. “Démare hasn’t made big progress in the last two years and Coquard lacks the horsepower in a flat sprint,” says McEwen. “All things being equal Cav should be untouchable.”
Contenders for green jersey
Mark Cavendish The Manxman is set to hit the Tour in his best form, having looked light and sharp at the British national championship on Sunday. He has had a trouble-free season, apart from a crash at Tirreno-Adriatico, and has notched up 13 wins already. He has a team built around him and eight years of experience to call on, meaning he can target stages which arenot pure sprint days. Prediction Three stage wins.
André Greipel Cavendish’s former team-mate is now 32 but keeps rolling out the wins, this year adding a stage in the Giro; he has taken at least one stage in all the four Tours he has ridden and should add to the list. Whereas Cavendish relies on pure speed and technical skill, the German is a straight-road sprinter who works off wattage. His poor climbing means the green jersey is unlikely. Prediction Two stage wins.
Peter Sagan The 25-year-old Slovak will be in the mix from day one as the 20-odd corners in the time trial will suit his technical skill and speed. An all-rounder rather than a pure sprinter he will be an outsider in the flat stages, but can target the win on a dozen days and should take a third points title. The only worry is how Tinkoff-Saxo will aligning his needs with their leader’s, Alberto Contador; most likely he will get a free rein but minimal support. Prediction Two stage wins and green jersey.
Alexander Kristoff The most successful rider this year with 15 victories, the Norwegian is the world’s best at races which marry climbing, sprinting and tactical nous. Like Sagan he lacks the pure speed to outgun Cavendish or Greipel but he will fight hard for the green jersey and will shine on hilly stages such as Rodez, Valence and Gap. He will enjoy better team support than Sagan,but that may not be enough. Prediction Two stage wins.
Nacer Bouhanni France’s biggest hope for a pure sprint stage win after his victories last year at the Giro and Vuelta, Bouhanni is strong, fast and brave – and can get over the hills - but his team is his Achilles heel: Cofidis are inexperienced compared to Greipel and Cavendish’s “trains”. His good form in June – two stage wins at the Dauphin√© – was marred by a crash last weekend, but a single victory in his second Tour will suffice for him and his team. Prediction One stage win.
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