Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere has confirmed that signing Mark Cavendish for the 2021 season was only finalized on Friday after the British rider helped bring in the financial resources to help pay for his contract.
The return of Cavendish to QuickStep after a five-year break provides the 35-year-old with another chance to get his career back on track after several low seasons at Dimension Data and Bahrain-McLaren this year.
"My heart said yes and my brain said no. It’s a risk but he brings a lot to the team. He’s still very famous and we’ve only had positive reactions on Twitter. I’m happy everyone is happy and I’m glad that he has this chance. I don't think that he deserved to stop cycling in the way he did his last races," Lefevere told Cyclingnews.
"I’ve always maintained a good relationship with Mark. It’s been special but he was telling me that he wanted to come back, already when he was at Dimension Data, and then Bahrain. But this year you saw what I saw. The Mark Cavendish who was going in the breakaway from kilometre zero in the Tour of Flanders, who cried after Gent-Wevelgem.
"After the last race in De Panne he was at the hotel in Kortrijk and I invited him to my office and he said: 'I don’t want to stop like this. I want to come back.' I told him, 'Mark I really don’t have one Euro. My budget is already done.'
"He said that if he could find someone to pay his contract then he could ride. I maybe believed that he could join us but that it would be difficult to find someone, but a week later someone called and said that they’d spoken to Mark and that they were interested. We started talking and in the end, it happened."
Cavendish raced for Lefevere’s team between 2013 and 2015, winning 48 races in a golden period of his career. However, a case of the Epstein Barr virus severely disrupted his career and, despite having a clean bill of health, the 30-time Tour de France stage winner has not won a race since the start of 2018.
The biggest question facing Cavendish is whether a change of scene and an improved sprinting environment at Lefevere’s squad can kick-start his slumber. It’s early days, but Lefevere is cautious as to whether his returning rider can rediscover his mojo.
"I don’t know. We have to see what kind of condition he’s in. He will come to Spain and we’ll do some tests and see where his level is. We still have the numbers from when he left us. We’ll see what we can do to make him better," Lefevere said.
"He has a long and sad story about Epstein Barr and all those different complaints. He has a chance now that nobody else wanted to give him but, for me, he starts at zero. We’ll take him for his experience but, to be clear, he’s not a trainer. He’s not a performance manager or a directeur sportif but he can bring some experience to the guys.
"He’s the best sprinter of his generation so he can give some tips to the young guys like Alvaro Hodeg, Fabio Jakobson, who was almost the best sprinters in the world, and Sam Bennett, who is strong and fast but sometimes has doubts about himself. In this sort of situation, Mark can be helpful and if he can win a race again that would be great."
It’s also far too early for Lefevere to start dreaming about Cavendish potentially closing in on Eddy Merckx Tour de France stage winning record of 34 stages. Cavendish has no guarantee that he will even race the Tour next year and he has been left out of teams for the last two seasons running.
With Sam Bennett in the team and the Irishman the defending champion in the green jersey competition, Cavendish’s chances look slim at this point but both rider and squad will take baby steps over the winter as they try and find a path that suits their capabilities.
"I’m too old to dream," said Lefevere.
"We’ve not promised him anything. He comes a bit late and some early races like the Tour Down Under have gone, so we have to see where we can put him. We’ll make a good programme and first off bring him to an acceptable level but the best riders will ride the best races."
Lefevere has turned careers around before. Most recently he helped Philippe Gilbert win Monuments like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, while he also turned around the fortunes of Marcel Kittel, the rider who replaced Cavendish at QuickStep back in 2016.
"If I can do this then I’m Wonderboy," Lefevere said. "I’ve brought back so many riders. I remember Kittel. He did nothing with his former team and we brought him back. We brought back Richard Virenque, and Gilbert. He was a different case because he was strong but he didn’t find that motivation before he came here.
"There’s still a big difference, though, between selling yourself and performing. I still think that he can do some good things. But don’t ask me today if he can win this or this or this. Call me back in three months and I’ll tell you."
Almeida is staying
One rider who will remain on Lefevere’s books next year is João Almeida.
The Giro d’Italia sensation was linked with a shock move to UAE Team Emirates last week, despite having a contract with Lefevere for the next 12 months. The Belgian was bullish when talking about respecting contracts.
"First of all, I have to read this bullshit, like you guys wrote it. But he has a contract and there’s no fucking way I’ll let him go," Lefevere said.
"I spoke to his manager and he didn’t want to speak about next year or the future. He didn’t want bonuses, he didn’t want anything and then a few months later they say UAE wants him.
"They deserve a penalty because you can’t speak with riders under contract. If, as a rider, you make a deal for 2022, then it’s unfair because how can you perform when you know you’re already going to leave the team. He stays for sure, but maybe if they pay me two million we can speak."
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