Mark Cavendish will ride only his second race with Deceuninck-QuickStep at Le Samyn on Tuesday, but he already seems happy to be back with the Belgian team despite revealing little of his own ambitions in what could be his final season as a professional.
Cavendish will turn 36 in May and is starting his 15th season at WorldTour level after several years decimated by recurring mononucleosis during his time at Dimension Data, while his 2020 season with Bahrain-McLaren was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
His last victory dates back to the 2018 Dubai Tour, but despite all the obstacles of recent times, Cavendish’s love for the sport still burns through.
It helped him return from mononucleosis and made him determined to ride on beyond 2020. He wasn’t interested in a big salary, he just wanted to race with Deceuninck-QuickStep, where he had so much success between 2013 and 2015.
“I love the sport, I love it. I think like everyone, I love to do it. I’m fortunate to do it and still have an ambition to do it,” Cavendish said during a video conference call on the eve of Le Samyn.
“I think enjoying riding your bike is important for anyone wanting a long career. The racing style has changed a lot but fundamentally the stakes are still the same. We go out to try to win bike races and provide publicity for our sponsors.
“There’s no better place to do it than at Deceuninck-QuickStep. They don’t try to reinvent cycling, they just race, adjusting to the times, but by going out and racing as a team and having fun doing it. There’s an incredible team ethos there, it’s special. I felt that last time and it hasn’t wavered."
Cavendish is still coy about his personal ambitions, careful not to create too much expectation or pressure. But ambition still burns inside him and still sparks a direct response to some questions.
When asked if racing had ever felt just like a job during his problems, Cavendish pushed back firmly, even if perhaps having misinterpreted the tone of the question.
“It’s everybody’s job when you're a professional, racing is your job,” he pointed out.
“I think my boss [team manager Patrick Lefevere] on this call wouldn’t be happy if I said it’s not my job. I’m a professional but I just love riding my bike and happy to say that too.”
Cavendish knows he attracts controversy. These days he is better at deflecting it but is still not afraid to express his opinion.
So what does he think of the UCI banning the so-called ‘super-tuck’ aero position?
“Did you ask Florian too?” he said, questioning if his French teammate Florian Sénéchal, who was also on the video call, had faced the same questions in French.
“It is what it is, the rules are the rules. If you agree or not, if you agree stuff happens because of what is getting banned,” said answering the question.
“I think, whether or not something has happened in the position, a pro active approach means you can’t retroactively let it go.
“It is what it is. I don’t do any of them, so it doesn’t really bother me…”
We’re a collective
Cavendish made his debut with Deceuninck-Quickstep at the one-day Clàsica de Almeria in Spain, with a late puncture taking him out of the race and ending any chance of him contesting the sprint finish won by Giacomo Nizzolo.
The numerous race cancellations and postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic have left Cavendish and many others short of racing. It is perhaps another reason for him to keep his personal expectations low.
“Obviously everyone feels mostly fresh coming into the season, I didn’t feel different from that,” he explained. “But I don’t know what I can take from that race. What I know is that I felt like a bike rider again and part of this team.”
Deceuninck-QuickStep will be expected to control the peloton and use their collective strength to win Le Samyn.
Their rivals for the race packed with short climbs and sections of cobbles in southwestern Belgium include Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and John Degenkolb (Lotto Soudal). Cavendish refused to reveal any of their race tactics in advance.
“We have a very strong team, we all raced together in Almeria. Florian won it two years ago and was aggressive last year,” he said.
“We’re a collective and between the seven of us, we know that we can put on a good show, that we can do our race and not look at other people.”
Cavendish will share any sprinting responsibility with Alvaro Hodeg but shrugged off any expectations. Sénéchal and Germany’s Jannik Steimle are perhaps other options.
“I’m just happy to be here, happy to try to add something, whatever that is, to enjoy myself with the lads,” Cavendish said.
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