Last autumn, it looked as though Mark Cavendish’s WorldTour career was all but over. The British rider had failed to secure a second year at Bahrain McLaren, and with few opportunities to race after the COVID-19 lockdown, a once-feared but now tearful sprinter appeared on television at the end of Gent-Wevelgem to admit that his future was in serious doubt.
Step forward Patrick Lefevere, with the Deceuninck-QuickStep team boss offering his former rider a rescue package that involved a one-year deal and the chance to bow out of the sport as a 30-time Tour de France stage winner.
It took a few months but after a promising start, Cavendish is back on the top step of the podium and celebrating his first win since 2018 after he rolled back the years to deliver a textbook finish at the Tour of Turkey on Monday.
“I’m very proud and happy,” an emotional Lefevere told Cyclingnews from his home in Belgium.
“When I look back at the images we all saw last year at Gent-Wevelgem, it really hurt me. I couldn’t believe that it could be the end of Mark Cavendish, and the day after De Panne he came to my office and I said I didn’t have a budget but we tried to do something.”
That something involved Specialized founder Mike Sinyard, who not only supported Lefevere’s team but was also a long-time admirer of Cavendish after his American brand supplied bikes to Cavendish’s HTC Highroad team over a decade ago. Cavendish has always been a huge fan of Specialized’s bikes, and Lefevere and Sinyard agreed to make the financials work and give Cavendish one last shot.
“We figured out a solution and Mike Sinyard told me that if we could get Mark on the team then he would help pay the bonuses if he won. Mike will have a bit less money this evening but he and I both loved to do this. Everyone wanted Mark on their team but they didn’t do it, but I really wanted him,” said Lefevere.
Monday’s win has been coming. Cavendish has been his familiar self in recent weeks, and has been close to wins on a couple of occasions. When he ran fourth on Sunday’s opening stage, it was clear that a win within Turkey was well within his grasp but Lefevere has seen a reinvigorated racer within his team since the end of 2020.
“When I saw him back in December, he was like a kid racing his first bike again. He told me all the stories about what went wrong over the last few years. But Mark and I, without much words, have an emotional connection. I believed in him. I wasn’t sure if he could totally come back, but people that know me will understand that he’s made me really happy today. I love people who can talk but what I love most of all are riders who let their pedals do their talking, and today Mark let his pedals do the talking. That’s the best answer ever.”
Cavendish will have more chances to add to his win tally over the coming days, but his race programme for the coming weeks and months has yet to be decided. A slot in the Giro d’Italia looks unlikely at this point, but as Lefevere says the year is long, and there will be plenty more chances for the 35-year-old veteran to let his pedals talk once more.
“He’s had to wait for his chance. It’s hard to integrate 30 riders with the races and maybe he had a B-programme at times and deserved better but the season isn’t over in April. It runs until October and I told him if he could find a higher level we would see, but don’t ask me today if he can beat Caleb Ewan. But what I saw in the last 50 metres today showed us that he still has it," Lefevere added.
“The Giro, it’s maybe too close. I think we go with [João] Almeida as the leader and Remco [Evenepoel] as the underdog. Then we promised the Giro to [Alvaro] Hodeg, who did the lead out today so I’m not sure. But there are enough races where he can perform.”
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