It is not so much the quantity of Mark Cavendish's victories that impresses, but the quality of them, both in terms of when and how he claimed so many of them. Since he notched his first pro win at the Tour of Berlin when riding for Sparkasse in May 2005, Cavendish has a won a staggering 39 stages in Grand Tours. While this still leaves him a good distance behind Mario Cipollini's career total of 57, Cavendish's latest success at Treviso, the 100th of his pro career, came five days before his 28th birthday. If he continues winning at his current rate, he will equal the Grand Tour haul of the "The Lion King" towards the end of the 2015 season, when he will still only be 30.
More than the numbers, though, it's the sprinting brilliance of Cavendish that stands out. For a long time he had an unjust reputation as a sprinter who could only win when he had a fully-committed lead-out train. This stemmed from the successes he enjoyed at Highroad, who were more than happy to put almost everything they had behind the Manxman. Yet, Cavendish has consistently shown he can prevail when he's got to find his own way.
The best example of this is his victory in the 2011 Worlds. The great work his British teammates had done in keeping the race together seemed to have come to naught when Cavendish ended up 20 riders back swinging onto the final drag up to the line. Watching the coverage from the helicopter above, it's staggering to see how many riders Cavendish picks his way past. He knows which wheel to follow for an instant and which ones to avoid, like a human pinball whose target is a narrow gap most won't even see. Somehow, he ends up shooting out of the pack to lead out the sprint, his initial burst catching his rivals unawares and carrying him so far clear victory is assured.
Is he the best of all time? He's certainly the best sprinter the Tour has ever seen, not only because of his number of wins but also his consistency - he averages just below five stage wins per Tour over the last five years on the biggest stage of all. Other sprinters, including the likes of Freddy Maertens, Walter Godefroot and even Cavendish's current teammate Tom Boonen, have had more all-round ability than the Briton. But who would you back in a straight head-to-head? It would be Cavendish every time.