Pressure and expectations are two terms that have followed Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) ever since he burst onto the pro scene over a decade ago. Since then the sprinter of his generation has won world titles, 30 stages in the Tour de France, multiple other races and broken record after record.
On the eve of the 2017 Tour de France, the former road world champion finds himself in a relatively new position – that of an underdog but one with little to prove. That Cavendish is even at the Tour de France is somewhat of a victory in itself, given the medical prognosis he was handed back in March when a blood test revealed that he was suffering from glandular fever.
In the time since, Cavendish has regained his health, made a tentative return to racing and announced that he is at the Tour de France with the aim of adding to his tally of 30 stage wins. As he has stressed every year since first rocking up to the Tour, one stage win would qualify as a success. Stage 2 of the Tour will determine how he stacks up against his sprint rivals and whether he has the necessary top-end speed.
"Obviously I'm not in ideal condition, but the good thing about being a sprinter is that sometimes you can win on luck," he said, rather underplaying the skill, speed, guile and hard work that have underpinned much of his success both on the track and road.
"If you get on the right wheels and you get on the right one, then there's a chance that you can win. It's worth coming here with that chance as a sprinter because there are a lot of sprint stages."
The consensus at the Tour is that there are nine stages suited to the sprinters – a design feature of the route that has not been seen since Cavendish's early dominance in 2008. Last year, Cavendish picked his way to four stages and a stint in the yellow jersey. It's far too early to talk about a repeat performance – especially as the race starts with a time trial, a yellow is almost certainly out of reach – but Cavendish's relaxed and easy-going demeanour is an indication of how he is approaching this year's race.
"A few weeks ago, I really thought that I had zero per cent chance [of being at the Tour, ed.]. I had to race to see if I could even put myself forward. Throughout the Tour of Slovenia, I felt better each day, even if I did not set the world alight. The Tour de France is such a massive race, it's so important to me and it's what's made this team grow as well.
"If I didn't think that I was over the worst then I wouldn't have put myself forward for selection, and I think that the team would have been alright with that as well."
Cavendish isn't the only potential stage winner at Dimension Data. The team won five stages last year, with Steve Cummings also sharing in the glory. Like Cavendish, the newly crowned British road and time trial champion has had health issues in the lead up to the Tour, but he has found his form in time. According to Cavendish, Cummings will lead the team over the three weeks. With Edvald Boasson Hagen – a two-time stage winner in the race – also in their ranks, Dimension Data have reason to be optimistic on the eve of their third Tour.
"I'll see how it goes. As a sprinter you can get lucky, there a lot of opportunities for that," Cavendish added.
"We've got a very diverse team that can go well over the 21 days, and then the team will support Steve with his ambitions as well. I'm the most relaxed I've ever been coming into the Tour de France. There was always going to be external pressure on my shoulders for results, but I know exactly where I'm at. This year I know I haven't done what I have to do to be bullish to go for multiple stages. I'm quite realistic but there's an opportunity that I can win a stage at least. But let me stress that there's the same opportunity for 200 bike riders to win a stage. That's why I'm here. I don't ever bow to external pressure. The pressure I have is what I've put on myself."