Mark Cavendish’s points win at the Vuelta a España came twenty-one years after the last British victory in the competition. But Malcolm Elliott, the winner of the blue jersey in 1989, admitted to being slightly bemused by the attention associated with being the last British winner of a jersey in a Grand Tour.
Elliott was on last week’s Tour of Britain with his Motorpoint Pro Cycling team - driving a team car rather than riding, for a change - and, as Cavendish homed in on the points win, he reflected on his success at the 1989 Vuelta.
“It wasn’t something I particularly targeted,” said Elliott. “Nor was it made a big deal of at the time; it’s only in the intervening years that it’s become something that people talk about.
“I don’t even remember when I took the jersey,” he continued. “I know that I had it for a large part of the race, and that it was me and [Dutch sprinter] Mathieu Hermans battling for it. He won more stages than me [three to Elliott’s two] but I had greater consistency.”
In a neat bit of symmetry Elliott claimed a stage victory in the Catalan city of Lleida. It took twenty-one years for the Vuelta to return to Lleida and, you guessed it - Cavendish also claimed his first stage win there, to take what is now a green jersey for points leader. “To do at the Vuelta what Malcolm Elliott did before is special,” said Cavendish. “He still races when I race back at home. I'm not quite
as good looking as him, but I try to be as good on a bike as he was at these kind of races.”
Elliott, while no doubt flattered, wouldn’t be drawn on any comparison with Cavendish in the looks department, but he does make a distinction in terms of what type of rider they are.
“We are very different riders,” he said. “I was a leaner build, and I could get over the medium mountains. In 1988, I won a stage, but at the end, on one of the last stages, it went over the Puerto de Navacerrada, a first category climb, and I got over it pretty much in the front group.
“That was a fantastic climb for me. One or two got away in the last 10km so I was third on stage. The point I’m making is, on my day, even at the end of three weeks, I could get over a first cat climb with the leaders. Mark hasn’t been able to do that. But he’s a lot more fearless than I ever was.”
Another ex-rider on the Tour of Britain was Cervelo directeur sportif Jean-Paul van Poppel. The Dutchman was the fastest sprinter when Elliott was in the midst of his first career (before his comeback in 2003), and the first to benefit from a properly organised lead-out ‘train’, courtesy of the Superconfex team.
“I was speaking to van Poppel the other day about sprinting,” said Elliott, “The trains were very much in their infancy back then, whereas now Mark’s whole team is based around that; that’s their speciality. It’s a big change.
“I’ve spoken to Mark quite a bit,” he added. “I like him. He hasn’t asked for any advice, but I’m still racing, so we’ve raced together and we relate on that level [as competitors] too. But I have a picture on my wall in my study. I have a ‘wall of fame,’ with some of the best pictures from my career, and there’s one from the [FBD Milk] Ras from 2004. It’s me winning the last stage, but Cav is in there too, in about fourth place. You can see his face is contorted. He was riding for GB, and only about 18, but you can see the anger in his face at not winning.”